Q&A: Mike Altman, Technical Director for Pixar

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.

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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. 

What is working at Pixar day in and day out like? Is there still a sense of magic to it, or has it become just a job yet?

Of course it is still a job, and jobs can be stressful, but the magical feeling has not gone away yet. The view out of my office window includes a rose garden, soccer field, brand new building, infinity swimming pool, and sand-beach vollyball court. A couple of weeks ago, I was triple-booked for Friday afternoon parties, one of which included a mobile reptile petting zoo. Random celebrities walk the halls with no fanfare. One big event or another is constantly being set up or broken down, be it book sales, local chocolate vendors in the atrium, the annual Motorama car show. We now have two amazing restaurants on campus. Some TDs set up a temporary indoor tennis court in one of the buildings in a wide open space between offices and we started a Nerf tennis tournament. Pixar feels like something between a corporation and Internet start-up... it's as much play as it is work.

You worked on the short Day & Night. In comparison to working on a full-length feature like Cars 2, do you feel one is more gratifying than the other? So many people come together to work on the features, so do you feel you maybe have more "hand" or influence in the shorts since you're working with a smaller team?

I like working on both shorts and features for different reasons. With the shorts, you are working with a much smaller group, maybe fifty total, and that means much more face time with the director. I did feel a lot of ownership of my work, but in some ways it's harder because you have to expand and do more things than you may be comfortable with, since there are fewer TDs working on the show. With

Day & Night

, I was really thrown in without much training, and I had to think fast and ask lots of questions. I had to do lots of rigging and adapting of previously built characters. It was a huge challenge, but rewarding in the end when I saw my big credit at the end. With features, you spend more time doing one narrow thing, like for me it was building sets on

Cars 2

. Many more people are involved so it feels like a bigger scale and higher profile, and that is exciting. The features are what get all the marketing and excitement from our viewers.

Can Pixar stop winning the Best Animated Film Oscar every year and finally give someone else a chance for once? Sheesh!

I do believe Shrek won once, right? We're not infallible, but we will not let a bad product out of the studio. There was a short film done a number of years ago which was very costly and time-consuming, and it never saw the light of day. It just wasn't up to the standard we have set for ourselves. In a director-driven studio you end up with a clearer, more singular voice in filmmaking and that is one of our greatest strengths. Oftentimes other studios direct by committee, and you end up with a muddled story that's more about merchandising and getting stuff out as soon as possible before the pop culture jokes are meaningless.

What do you hope audiences walk away with after viewing Cars 2?

I hope they are as blown away by the sets and environments as I was. This movie takes you all over the world, and some of the locations are just breathtaking. The climactic scenes in London have some of the coolest panoramic and street-level chase scenes I've seen in an animated film before. The scale is just epic, and though it was so difficult to do, looks effortless.

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