Elyse Klaidman ’82

I loved Wesleyan—absolutely loved Wesleyan—and I’d be happy to do it all over again. Many of my closest friends are from Wesleyan, and they are doing amazing things. Many of them have careers in filmmaking or art, and I feel unbelievably lucky that I went to school at a place that encourages creativity, outside-the-box thinking, taking action, and collaborating with amazing people.

A lot of what I experienced at Wesleyan is similar to what I now experience at Pixar. At Pixar I work with an incredible group of talented, creative, and fascinating people who I learn from every day. I felt that way at Wesleyan, too. Pixar is a hotbed of creative thinking and collaboration, and I know that my experiences with great teachers and amazing students at Wesleyan contributed greatly to who I am today and, therefore, to Pixar’s culture.

When I graduated from Wesleyan, I was primarily focused on working as a painter and, like most artists, I needed to find ways to support myself. From a very young age I had gravitated towards teaching: I worked at The Lab School of Washington, an amazing school for learning-disabled children, for many years; I taught preschool, grade school, high school, and college-level art classes; and I also worked with Betty Edwards, author of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, as a member of her small team of instructors who traveled around the world teaching drawing.

When I first moved to California, I taught drawing classes at my painting studio. One day a woman who worked at Pixar enrolled in my class. I remember her saying, “I work at this place called Pixar. I’m an artist and I have a job and health insurance. It’s really cool.” This was before Toy Story came out and I had never heard of Pixar, but it sounded good to me.

About six months later the same woman called and asked me to speak with a geeky engineer guy who turned out to be Ed Catmull, the founder and president of Pixar. Ed was interested in offering drawing classes to a broader group at Pixar—not just the artists, but anyone who was interested. Learning to see is essential to telling visual stories, like we do at Pixar, but it is also a key to thinking differently. Ed understood that drawing is about observation. He hired me to teach a drawing class, and that’s how I started my career at Pixar and how I met Ed, who has been one of my greatest mentors.

Pixar really had a wonderful startup atmosphere in the early days. When I first started there, very few people had heard of the company. I remember being surprised as that changed, and people began responding with excitement when I said I worked at Pixar. These days, when I give talks at colleges or high schools and I’m asked how I got to where I am in my career today, I respond that for me it was always about doing things that I found interesting and that I learned from. If you follow your heart and do what you love you will eventually get there. I realize that we also need to make a living. But if you can do things that you’re excited about, somehow it all comes together.

I am now the Director of Pixar University and our Archives and Exhibitions Program. Pixar University includes technical training, art and film education, a leadership program, our internal educational website (which I like to refer to as a mash up of YouTube and TED Talks), special guest programming, and a live-action filmmaking program. We also work specifically with studio departments to fulfill their educational needs. The archives team is responsible for two collections: production-related assets and the historical collection. Our mission is to support the goals of the studio and preserve the creative heritage of Pixar. We gather, organize, preserve, and provide access to materials that help Pixar employees make movies. The exhibitions team serves Pixar by presenting the collections of the studio at the highest possible museum and scholarly standards. By engaging and educating a diverse audience, we hope to foster an understanding of Pixar’s creative and technical processes, inspiring interest in the field of animation.

When people think of Pixar, they think about our storytelling, films, and technology, but they generally don’t really realize how essential traditional old-fashioned design, drawing, and painting are to our process. Pixar: 25 Years of Animation (originally Pixar: 20 Years of Animation), focusing on celebrating the art and artists of Pixar, opened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2005. I re-curated the exhibit in 2010, and it has been traveling around the world ever since. In June 2015 we’ll be opening The Science behind Pixar—an exciting new interactive exhibit that focuses on the math and science content intrinsic to the process of our filmmaking pipeline. The nationally traveling exhibit will debut at the Museum of Science in Boston.

These are just a few of the projects I’m privileged to work on at Pixar these days.  I am so lucky that there always seems to be a new project and a new challenge waiting for me and our teams to tackle. I am deeply thankful to Wesleyan for the great start I got in a creative and intellectual world. And I’m thankful for the amazing people I met there who enrich my life daily still.