Spotlight: Laying it on the Line at Pixar | Alex Curtis '01

Alex Curtis ’01 - Curtis has spent years working toward his dream job

 Curtis with movie characters Luigi (l.) and Guido after finishing layout on the Disney/Pixar animated film  Cars 3 .

Curtis with movie characters Luigi (l.) and Guido after finishing layout on the Disney/Pixar animated film Cars 3.

Sitting at his desk in the Layout Department at Pixar Animation Studios, where Alex Curtis ’01 feels so at home, it’s hard to fathom the meandering path that led him to his dream job.

On his way to Pixar, Curtis spent a year studying to be an engineer, dropped out of college, studied with renowned drawing teacher Myron Barnstone, returned full-time to animation school, moved to Los Angeles, and had to leave the U.S. temporarily for his native Bermuda. “It’s incredibly rewarding,” says Curtis of where he is now. “A dream come true.” Growing up, Curtis was under the impression that the word artist always had to be modified by another word – starving. Though he developed an early fascination with animation through cartoons and anime, a family tradition of more conventional careers steered Curtis toward math and science, and he found himself studying engineering at Lehigh University. Sometime during his freshman year, Curtis attended a screening of Hayao Miyazaki’s animated feature Spirited Away.

“I was blown away by that film,” Curtis recalls, “and realized that I was more excited about it than anything I had done that year in school.” Referring to the Spirited Away revelation as a wake-up call, Curtis also shares that the moment coincided with a proposed engineering internship. He instead worked construction that summer and contemplated his future.

“The idea that my life might be managing an AC system for a huge building, or designing compression pumps, was a blow to my adolescent imagination,” he says. “I decided I instead wanted to be an animator for Disney.” Determined to enter one of the most competitive fields in the industry, Curtis returned to Lehigh and took every art class available. Knowing that Curtis needed more intense study and an opportunity to build a portfolio, Lehigh Professor Berrisford Boothe put his student in touch with Myron Barnstone, whose highly specialized studio intensive promised to deliver just that. Curtis dropped out of Lehigh and moved into the cramped quarters above Barnstone’s Coplay, Pa., studio, which occupied the top two floors of an old cigar factory. In two years with Barnstone’s rigorous program, based in the philosophy of art as design – a language with rules, Curtis learned the nuances of shadows, geometric forms, figure drawing, and precise value control – all with the goal of becoming a 2D animator.

Four additional years, including a two-year master’s program, studying animation at Savannah College of Art and Design helped Curtis hone the skills sharpened under Barnstone. But, prior to his 2011 graduation from SCAD, Disney and counterpart DreamWorks Animation had all but abandoned 2D, as the studios entered the golden age of 3D computer animation. Curtis made the difficult transition to incorporating computer skills into his artistic repertoire, moved to Los Angeles in 2011, and got his first job with commercial studio Wolf & Crow. There he worked on trailers for a Marvel video game called “Battle for Earth,” animating Spider-Man and the Hulk and building his demo reel.

In 2012, Pixar’s first offer for Curtis to join its Layout Department proved to be poor timing, as Curtis was unable to sort out his work authorization status. Two years later, and engaged to be married, he was forced to return voluntarily to Bermuda for six months while still experiencing issues with his visa. It was 2015 when newlywed Curtis got a second call from Pixar – a friend had recommended him for an opening as a layout artist. Since joining Pixar in October 2015, Curtis has become an integral part of the team of layout artists, who serve as the bridge between storyboarding and animation. Layout artists create a “draft” of the final animation, including blocking the movements and sequences for each character and scene and bringing sets and props into the action. Members of the Layout Department are the cinematographers, working together to shoot an early version of the film and sharing it with the director before it moves on to full animation. 

“The best part about [my job] is that it’s not an end point,” says Curtis, who currently is working on Incredibles 2. “I get to keep learning and growing and evolving as an artist, with the luxury of spending time studying this craft.”