Ask Benjamin Su, an animator at Pixar what it takes to succeed in his highly competitive field and he’ll tell you there’s much more to the equation than talent alone.
Su was in Toronto this summer to present a Masterclass session at TAAFI – the Toronto Animation Arts Festival International. I took the chance to catch up with this double grad from Sheridan and picked his brain about his path to Pixar.
After graduating from Sheridan’s classical animation program in 2002 and its post graduate certificate in computer animation in 2003, Su spent the next five years working at a number of studios in Toronto and Vancouver on films such as The Wild, Everyone’s Hero, Space Chimps and Nine.
“A lot of work is done on a contract basis, so when you finish one movie, you look for the next – and those jobs come from your peers” – Benjamin Su
“By that point, I had worked on just about every major Canadian CG animated feature that had ever come out,” says Su. Following an “itch to try Hollywood,” Su moved to California and worked on Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs at Sony Pictures Animation in Culver City. He knew he eventually wanted to work at Pixar because of the outstanding calibre of films they produce and the talented directors and animators they hire. Since arriving in 2009, Su has worked on Cars 2, Toy Story 3, Brave, and Monsters University. “It took me three tries to get in,” he admits. “And I actually work with someone who sent in a demo reel every year for ten years before he got in.”
Su’s not joking when he suggests that people need to get used to rejection letters. “It’s just part of the deal working in this industry. It’s not necessarily that your demo reel lacks something – sometimes it just comes down to timing. So never give up if this is something that you really want. Do your due diligence and just keep on applying.”
Su also stresses the importance of connections. His first three summer jobs, working at professional studios during the course of his studies came about by talking to classmates who were going for interviews and invited him to tag along. “You’d be surprised – that is still the way this industry works,” he says. “A lot of work is done on a contract basis, so when you finish one movie, you look for the next – and those jobs come from your peers.” Su suggests that a good attitude is critical. “You need to be nice to people in general and be likeable. That’s what makes other people willing to help you.”
“Just being able to wake up every morning and draw was an absolute dream come true” – Benjamin Su
“My first love was comic books. I grew up in Taiwan so my influence was anime and manga. I moved to Canada when I was 10 so from there I got influenced by North American comics, cartoons and Disney movies. I went to an arts high school in Ottawa. No one was taking art to get an easy credit. We all took it seriously. Being surrounded by my peers was very inspirational.”
Su applied to six universities for business and accounting and to Sheridan for animation. “My dad was a VP at a bank and my mom worked in accounting. They were pushing me in that direction. When I got accepted into a really good program at UofT for economics and co-op, I had to convince them that you really could make a living in animation by looking for statistics of Disney salaries on line. I told them if I wasn’t toward the top of my class after one year, I’d quit myself and go into business. I worked my butt off that first year and have never looked back. From there, they saw my passion toward art and animation. Just being able to wake up every morning and draw was an absolute dream come true.”
Pictured above: Sheridan alumnus Benjamin Su
Written by: Christine Szustaczek, Director of Corporate Communications & External Relations at Sheridan College.