Pixar Animator Matthew Luhn teaches lessons on drawing and life at Charles M. Schulz museum
While he may be best known as an animator, after working on “The Simpsons” and spending two decades at Pixar, Matthew Luhn is also a highly engaging lecturer.
“What shape is Bart’s head?” he asked a standing-room only audience of 70 or so animation aficionados on Saturday afternoon at the Charles M. Schulz Museum, where he presided over a two-hour learn-to-draw workshop.
Ages in the crowd ranged from 7 to 70-something. The question about Bart Simpson’s cranium was fielded was by an 11-year-old who stated, confidently and correctly, “A rectangle.”
Luhn, who is also a story consultant, creative writing instructor and author of the book “The Best Story Wins,” kicked off his talk by filling in some of his own backstory: His father, Mike, longed to be a Disney animator. But when Mike shared that ambition with his father, upon returning from the Vietnam war, the old man all but forbade him, fearing he’d become a starving artist.
When young Matthew showed a flash of artistic talent as a precocious 3-year-old — by drawing a picture of Mike — his path was set. “Pretty much from that point on, my Dad was like, ‘You will live my dream!’ ”
And so it came to pass: After a year in the prestigious CalArts animation program, Luhn left, after being offered a job as an animator for a new cartoon called “The Simpsons.” He was 19.
Luhn worked on that series’ third season — “the best season,” he opined, to laughter — which included his favorite all-time episode, “Flaming Moe’s.”
Throughout Luhn’s career, he’s relied on a simple lesson from his father, who reminded him that “every cartoon character you can possibly draw is going to be made up of these three shapes.”
He drew a circle, square and triangle on a whiteboard. Circle-shaped characters, he explained, are generally happy, funny, on the screen to provide comic relief. As an example, he drew the one-eyed Mike Wazowski, the decidedly un-scary monster from “Monsters Inc.”
Square and rectangular characters tend to be sturdy and dependable, Luhn went on: think of Wazowski’s sidekick, Sully. Characters with triangular shapes or features — “sharp, pointy chins, things like that, they’re kind of villains,” he said.
“For those of you with triangular features,” he said, “well, I don’t know what to tell you.”
Another round character Luhn had the classroom draw was a three-eyed green alien from “Toy Story.” Those aliens were voiced by, among others, Luhn’s friend, Jeff Pidgeon, who would huff helium from balloons to achieve a sufficiently high pitch. After a day of doing that, said Luhn, “he’d be ready to pass out.”
His first-ever animation assignment for Pixar involved bringing to life the little plastic Army men in “Toy Story.” To get a feel for how they might move, he screwed his shoes to a plank the size of snowboard, then “ran” and hopped and crawled around the Pixar studio. He then studied video of those contortions to better understand how to animate the Army men.
As a bonus toward the end of Saturday’s workshop, he engaged in an exercise called “The Story Spine” with a volunteer from the audience, Leah Lozano, who studies art at San Francisco State University.
In a three-minute collaboration, they concocted the story of a lovelorn alley cat who spied — while dumpster diving for morsels of tuna — a beautiful white Persian in the window of a nearby building. After overcoming obstacles, the cats finally got together.
“And the moral of the story?” Luhn asked Lozano.
“Love wins,” she replied, and the room broke into applause.
Asked during the question and answer period if his father is still alive, and proud of him, Luhn said, “Yes he is, and he’s driving me crazy.” He smiled, to let the audience was know he was kidding.
“And I can still do a funny cartoon of him, to make him smile.”
You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or firstname.lastname@example.org