To Pixar and beyond with Galyn Susman

Susman is a producer for Pixar Animation Studios – the studio that made such animated classics as the Toy Story, Cars and Incredibles franchises, – and has worked on every movie the company has made.

GALYN SUSMAN addresses the International Animation Festival-Jerusalem at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on Wednesday night. (Dan Yehuda) (photo credit: DAN YEHUDA)
GALYN SUSMAN addresses the International Animation Festival-Jerusalem at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on Wednesday night. (Dan Yehuda)
(photo credit: DAN YEHUDA)
Galyn Susman might come across like your best, funniest girlfriend, but she’s a rock star.
That’s because Susman is a producer for Pixar Animation Studios – the studio that made such animated classics as the Toy Story, Cars and Incredibles franchises, as well as Inside Out, Finding Nemo, Up, Coco and so many others – and has worked on every movie the company has made in one capacity or another.
She spoke at AniNation, the International Animation Festival-Jerusalem, at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on Wednesday night to an adoring audience of hipster film students and even younger superfans.
AniNation is a much-anticipated event for the Israeli independent and commercial animation industry, and the culmination of year-round activities by the Jerusalem Film and Television Fund (JFF) to promote the culture and creation of animated films in Israel in a four-day celebration with thousands of visitors and animation lovers.
Susman, a computer scientist and Shabbat-observing married mom, might not seem like the person you would expect to be at the top of a blockbuster animation company like Pixar, but it just goes to show that at Pixar movies nothing is predictable.
The studio, which spends about six years and $200 million on every film, has fiercely loyal fans and its movies touch hearts through their deeply felt emotions, clever stories and gorgeous graphics in a way that no other animated films do.
Talking about the “Pixar Production Pipeline,” she said the films worked because they were “original and usually personal,” and always character-driven. To explain how it all worked, she took the audience step-by-step through the process behind the making of two very different Oscar-winning Pixar films: Inside Out and Coco. With her down-to-earth delivery and ability to explain complex processes clearly, it was a fascinating hour and I have rarely seen an audience hang so closely on a speaker’s words.
Inside Out, Susman said, was inspired by director Pete Docter’s problems with his daughter and was an attempt to understand, “What happens inside the head of a girl going from childhood to adolescence.” Coco, on the other hand, was an homage to a country (Mexico) and a holiday (Day of the Dead). But the common denominator was that both required a great deal of research, which in the case of Inside Out was scrawled by the director on napkins: “He’s a napkin guy.”
Walking us through the full process (pre-production, production and post-production) it became clear that a great deal of the Pixar quality derives from the intensity of that process. The movies are developed out of hundreds of thousands of drawings and storyboards. Susman concentrated on the creation of two characters, Joy in Inside Out and Dante the dog in Coco, exploring the design elements but showing how every bit of the technical process was meant to explore and illuminate characters, rather than just to look cool.
In a particularly fun moment, she showed clips and photos the animators had made of real dogs to inspire their work on Dante.” I know they say no animals were hurt in the making of this movie, but boy, were they tormented,” she joked, showing clips of people playing – affectionately and gently – with their dogs’ tongues to get the loose-tongued Dante look.
SUSMAN ALSO touched on the mind-boggling challenges involved in computer-generated moviemaking – that nothing is just there in the background, but all must be created by the filmmaking team – using an extraordinarily detailed image of the City of the Dead from Coco. She also showed some of the realistic-looking logos for fictional products created by Pixar that are in the background in their movies.
“We even have our own electric company,” she said.
At the end, most of the questions turned on the subject of how to get a job at Pixar, but one audience member asked whether Susman ever got discouraged when a $200 million movie didn’t seem to be working.
“You do get discouraged,” she admitted, and said that when they got to a point she called “the gallstone of production,” they will look from department to department to try to pinpoint the problem.
She finished her presentation by exhorting her audience, “Do not get discouraged,” and then had to be whisked away from dozens of admirers who wanted photographs with her.
Although everyone in the audience seemed to have a story about how Pixar films had touched them personally – many said that their love for the movies was so strong it had inspired them to try to make animated films their profession – I was eager to share my own story with Susman in an interview following the talk.
My son, Danny, who is in his early 20s and has autism, fell in love with the first two Toy Story movies as a young child. For the past 18 years or so we have been watching Toy Story 2 every Friday afternoon – meaning we have seen it somewhere between 800 and 1,000 times and we both still love it.
Telling her that I feel the Toy Story movies touch him because they help him relate to his emotions in a way that no other film ever has, she was interested and moved. When I said that I assumed she had heard stories like this from many parents of children with autism – so many of whom connect intensely to Pixar movies – she told me she hadn’t.
As I talked to her about tiny details I have noticed over the years in Toy Story 2, she said, “You know more about it than I do,” a sweet compliment, but quite true.
Susman shared the story of how Toy Story 2 almost didn’t get made – through a technical screwup that sounds very 1999 today, the master copy of it was deleted and she had the most current copy on her computer at home.
It turns out that Susman has what sounds like the perfect background for a Pixar exec: her mother was a librarian and her father was a research scientist working in physics. She tried her hand at physics but switched to computer science instead and “fell in love with computer graphics.”
This led to a job with Apple in the 1980s, where she created a short film called Pencil Test, made entirely on Apple MacIntosh II computers, in which she is credited as “Whip Cracker” as well as animator, carpenter and storyteller. From there she moved to a fledgling company that had never made a movie, called Pixar.
The company gets its ideas from its directors, who are asked to come in with three pitches. One way in which the company is changing with the more culturally diverse times, Susman said, “is by working with a more diverse group of directors, and that naturally makes for more diverse stories.”
Asked how she was able to balance this kind of demanding career with Shabbat observance, she said her co-workers have just gotten used to the fact that she is not available by phone for 25 hours a week.
“I told them, even with me not being able to talk during those hours, they’re still getting their money’s worth,” she said.