Sky-High Talent. Peter Sohn has soared from production artist to short film director while at Pixar Animation Studios.

    CGSociety :: Artist Profile
    9 April 2009, by Barbara Robertson

    By the time audiences meet a grumpy old balloon salesman and watch his house float into the sky in the Disney/Pixar’s new feature 'Up,' they will have been primed for a big sky adventure thanks to Pixar story artist Peter Sohn’s first short film, 'Partly Cloudy.'


    In this film, clouds not only take on the familiar animal shapes we often see forming above, but cloud people actually create real babies. One cloud, Gus, has mastered the art of creating beautiful, but especially dangerous infants – crocodiles, porcupines, and others like that – and they make the delivery service increasingly difficult for Peck, the stork.

    When Sohn pitched that idea to Disney/Pixar chief creative officer John Lasseter, he moved from story artist to director.

    Sohn joined Pixar nine years ago as a production artist to work on Brad Bird’s 'The Incredibles.' Because that film was still in development at the time, though, he started in the art department for 'Finding Nemo.' He didn’t stay a production artist for long.

    “I was asked to draw designs for people in the dentist’s office,” he says. “But, I didn’t just want to draw default people, so I put them into a little scenario with kids looking into the fish tank and reacting to the dental equipment.”

    Peter Sohn at Pixar
    'The Incredibles' © Disney/Pixar
    'Finding Nemo' © Disney/Pixar
    Pencil sketch of two of the characters in Pixar's 'Partly Cloudy'. © Disney/Pixar

    Director Andrew Stanton and others saw the scenarios and moved him into the story department for the 'Finding Nemo’s' third act. When he joined the crew of the 'Incredibles,' he did so as a story artist and animator rather than production artist. He went on to become a storyboard artist and animator for 'Ratatouille,' and a voice artist, as well: He was the voice of Emile, Remy’s brother, in 'Ratatouille.'

    “That came from pitching storyboards,” Sohn says. “They asked me to do the scratch voice and then liked it enough to keep it in the movie. That’s just luck.”

    It wasn’t luck, though, that brought him to Pixar. It was hard work on his part and that of his parents, an intense love of animation, and focused determination.

    Sohn was born in the Bronx and raised in New York where his parents owned a grocery store.

    “My father got a job as a hot dog cart salesman when he came from Korea,” he says. “He had no money, but he saved enough to buy his own store.”

    Because both his parents worked from five in the morning until 10 at night, the grocery store aisles became the after-school playground for Sohn and his younger brother.

    “We didn’t have a guardian and there was no television at the store, so we’d build towers with Campbell soup cans and I’d always draw little drawings and make up stories,” he says.


    Each time his mother needed to deposit cash from the store in the bank, she took the boys with her on the elevated train into the city. “If it was a good time, we’d go to a movie,” Sohn says. “She loved movies. In Korea, in the town she grew up in, they didn’t have printed posters. Someone had to draw them. So she used to draw the movie posters for the neighborhood.”

    Because his mother didn’t understand much English, she chose Disney films. “They were told so well visually, there was no translating necessary,” Sohn says. “She could understand Dumbo and Peter Pan.”

    And then one day, Sohn met a man who showed him how artists created those films. “I was really young,” he says. “I don’t remember his face, but I remember the acetate sheet and understanding that the movie was made. It was made. It blew me away. Ever since, I wanted to find out more.”

    Linguini and Remy in Pixar's 'Ratatouille'. © Disney/Pixar
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    Linguini and Remy in Pixar's 'Ratatouille'. © Disney/Pixar

    By the time Sohn reached the eighth grade, his father was ready for a change. “It’s funny talking about it now,” Sohn says. “It’s really hitting me. It was a really hard time; my parents worked very hard. My father wanted a nine-to-five job.” So, he sold the grocery store and moved the family to White Plains where he bought an art supply and framing store.

    Although Sohn’s father bought the store more for the framing side than the art supplies, artists would stop in, and Sohn’s mother, who knew her son was interested in animation, asked the artists about animation schools. Eventually, she found a summer program in animation at a visual arts school in Manhattan with classes taught by “Sesame Street” animators.

    “Those guys were amazing,” Sohn says. “They did interstitials, numbers, little stories. But, while the guys next to me were animating with sand and markers, doing postcards and abstract animation, I was trying to figure out animals and doing motion studies. They said I had to go to California, that they don’t teach that stuff here.”

    Someone recommended the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). Sohn applied and was accepted. “My mother didn’t want me to go,” Sohn says. “I had also gotten into New York schools. But my father said, ‘If that’s what you want, you’re going.’ I argued with my mother. I said, ‘I’ve got to get out of here.’ But, once I got on the plane and the jet engine turned on, I bawled my eyes out.”

    Of course, it was the right thing to do. At CalArts, Sohn found animators who shared his passion.

    “I’d be working until three in the morning, flipping pages, figuring out timing, the spacing in the drawings, the rhythm, to get a little elf jumping out of a tree, and the guy next to me was making a monkey climb a tree. We’d just nerd out. I made great friends there that I work with to this day.”

    While he was in school, he and his classmates would call animators they admired and ask them to lunch.
    “We called all the living ‘Nine Old Men’ at Disney,” he says. “We were such huge fans. We were passionate about what they had learned and done and we had big dreams about pushing the form.”
    A signature shot from 'Wall•E'. © Disney/Pixar
    They also called an up and coming director they liked after watching the animated “Family Dog” episode of the TV series “Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories.” That director was Brad Bird. “He was working at Turner when we called,” Sohn says. He’s so famous now, but at the time, he was just one of the nerds we could totally connect to.”

    The following summer, Bird gave Sohn a job as an in-betweener for “Iron Giant,” and, toward the end of production, some scenes to work on. “It was one of my greatest fulfilling times,” Sohn says. “Brad was living there, working 90 hours a week. All animators are great observers, and Brad is one of the best.”

    After Sohn graduated, he found a job at Disney television, where he worked for a year before moving onto the crew for a Warner Bros. feature. And then Bird, who had joined Pixar to make “The Incredibles,” called. And, Sohn found his tribe.

    “It’s a total family thing here,” he says. “These are my people. Every lunch, we talk about the things we love.”

    But, even though he’s a story artist, director, and animator on Pixar projects, he still does little drawings and makes up his own little stories, just as he did when he was a child roaming the grocery store aisles. Sohn’s wife Anna Chambers, who he met at CalArts, is also an artist, and both create artwork at home.

    Pages from one of Peter Sohn's personal book projects.

    “I do a lot of art at home,” he says. “Little comic books and cartoons.” He included some of his cartoon stories in the “AfterWorks 2 GN” comic book created by a group of other Pixar artists and published by Image Comics, and is working with Pixar artists on another.

    Animated films are still his passion, though. In fact, one Disney film that he saw with his mother when he was a child influenced “Partly Cloudy.”

    “The idea came from ‘Dumbo,’” Sohn says. “I’ve seen that film so many times. There’s a scene in the beginning where a stork delivers animal babies and the last one he delivers is Dumbo. I always wondered where the birds get the babies. Then I realized that they come from clouds and that’s why they have to be delivered by birds. I just dine on those early films.”

    It’s a diet that has served him well.

    Pencil sketch of two of the characters in Pixar's 'Partly Cloudy'. © Disney/Pixar

    Related links:
    Peter Sohn
    Disney's Nine Old Men
    Anna Chambers' site
    Anna Chambers' blog

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