Carnegie Mellon University
July 11, 2016

Alumni Dive Into Pixar Storytelling

Finding Dory promotional shot

When a fish swims on the big screen, it usually takes a school to get it there.

"Finding Dory," which opened June 17, is the latest Pixar Animation Studios film to have Carnegie Mellon University alumni working behind the scenes. In this instance, it's Freddie Sulit and Aaron Lo, graduates of CMU's Entertainment Technology Center (ETC), which is part of CMU's Integrative Design, Arts & Technology (IDeATe) Network.

The story focuses on Dory, a blue tang fish that suffers memory loss and voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, but recalls that she was separated from her parents as a child.

Her friends, Nemo and Marlin — voiced by CMU alumnus Albert Brooks — aid her in an adventure to reunite her family.

"I ended up working in animation by following my various passions. I was fortunate to grow up during the Disney Renaissance. Animated films like 'The Lion King' and 'Aladdin' were very influential," said Sulit, who dove at the chance to work at Pixar.

Sulit received an undergraduate degree in design media arts at UCLA, where he discovered a passion for improvisational theatre and storytelling by working with Lapu the Coyote That Cares Asian American Theatre Company. He moved to Chicago where he honed his skills.

"I watched Randy Pausch's Last Lecture in 2008 and learned about Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center," he said. "The program combined my passions for art, technology and storytelling. One of the big draws for me to go to the ETC at CMU was seeing improv as part of the core curriculum."

ETC Director Drew Davidson said during the first semester students go through improvisation acting together but the goal isn't to be funny or to improve their acting.

"It's more about learning how to share, share space, ideas, credit," Davidson said. "The 'yes, and' of improv is such a supportive way to learn how best to collaborate with others. It's a fruitful brainstorming paradigm that translates into creative work on projects, as teams focus on what's important together."

As the animation fix coordinator on "Finding Dory," Sulit's role was to help ensure all animation met the supervising animators' and directing animators' standards.

Lo, who said he grew up a Disney fan, is a technical director for Pixar and has worked all but one of the studio's features since "Up." For "Finding Dory," he handled crowd scenes, both fish and humans.

"Computer graphics and simulation has always been my field of study since college, so naturally animation/vfx/gaming industry became my goal after school," he said. While at CMU he took courses in computer graphics, computation photography, technical animation and simulation of natural phenomenon.

Dozens of CMU alumni have worked at Pixar during their careers, in part, Davidson said to the quality of its movies and the creative atmosphere of the studio.

Both Lo and Sulit credited internships during their time at the ETC for helping them to succeed at Pixar.

Davidson said the ETC strongly encourages students to obtain internships.

"We find that students who do an internship not only have a valuable learning experience, but also have improved chances for success after they graduate," he said.