Q&A: Mike Altman, Technical Director for Pixar

Categories: Dishney
A little over a decade ago, Mike Altman and I were both attending the Columbus College of Art & Design (CCAD) in Columbus, Ohio. Today, Mike works at Pixar as a Technical Director, and I'm interviewing him for "OC Weekly." He wins!

Mike worked for animation houses DNA Productions in Dallas and LAIKA in Portland before making the move to Pixar in Emeryville in 2009. Since then, he's worked on the short Day & Night and the full-length feature that followed it, Toy Story 3; his contributions can also be seen in Pixar's 12th feature film, Cars 2, which premieres in theaters all across the country today.

I chatted with Mike about Cars 2, his life at Pixar, and when they're finally going to let another company win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. Read it all after the jump.

What is your official title at Pixar, and how would you describe what you do to a layman?

My title is Technical Director (TD); that means I am a technical artist at the studio. Most TDs spend their time in one area, like sets modeling or character shading. I'm lucky in that I get the chance to split my time between art, characters and sets, depending on the show's needs. My daily workday would be getting design packets from the art department and creating 3D digital sculptures based on that artwork. I could be working on setpieces, environments, character facial expressions, anything that particular show needs.

Cars 2 is the first non-Toy Story Pixar sequel. Having that back catalog of characters from the first film to pull from, does that make your job easier or harder?
Having access to a catalog of models from previous shows makes things a lot easier and faster from a modeling standpoint. If someone on a previous show built a complicated model that I needed to modify for the current show, taking that model and revising it or dismantling it into component parts and reusing certain elements is a great way to save time and budget. In certain cases like Cars 2, certain environments were reused as is, like some parts of Radiator Springs, while other new sets were built to dovetail neatly into what was already available. But I will also access the model catalog if I am building something that I know has definitely been built before, like roots, tree branches, room accessories, etc. No need to reinvent the wheel continuously.

What new hurdles did you have to face on Cars 2 that maybe you hadn't encountered on past projects?

Part of my job on Cars 2 was sets rigging, meaning I would build sets models and then articulate them in such a way that the animators had simple and easy controls over how to move and manipulate the objects. In the Tokyo bathroom interior where Mater gets trapped inside the stall, every element needed special rigging that allowed for lots of fun things to go wrong for Mater. Different scrubbers, polishers, soap sprayers and sponges needed to be controllable by the animators for comic effect, and there are many technical challenges with rigging set pieces like this. Most of our rigging tools are built and specialized for characters, so sets folks need to really be creative.

What was coming to Pixar like, and how did your previous work at both Laika and DNA Productions prepare you to work there?

Coming to Pixar was a long-time dream come true. I had been working towards this place for ten years, and it finally happened. Definitely a life goal achieved. But working at the previous studios has been invaluable to me, and I'm so glad I did not come here directly out of school. My approach to modeling, certain techniques I have picked up along the way, and my speed of working has been built up over the years working at DNA and LAIKA. Because of the techniques I learned there I have been very versatile in my work here, which is what gives me the luxury of moving in and out of different departments. That keeps things fresh for me.

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