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Former Urban Knight Boosts Animation Career at Pixar with Student Passion Project

Rosana Sullivan has been plenty creative since moving on from Academy of Art University’s School of Animation & Visual Effects. Since 2011, she’s been a storyboard artist at Pixar, with credits like Monsters University and Incredibles 2.

rosana sullivan portrait
Rosana Sullivan. Photo by Deborah Coleman.

Sullivan sits in a conference room in the Steve Jobs building at Pixar’s Emeryville, Calif., campus. Morning sunshine streams through the windows.

The space overlooks the spacious art-adorned lobby below. There, a fleet of Oscar statuettes gleam in a case. The awards guard beloved characters from Pixar movies. The Incredibles pose to greet visitors. So do the vehicles from Cars, parked across the way.

The surroundings are ideal for artistic creativity, and with the blockbuster titles under her belt, it is clear that Sullivan is making the most out of this conducive ambiance for all its worth.

Exploring New Opportunities

Last February saw the release of Sullivan’s Kitbull, a short film in Pixar’s SparkShorts program. SparkShorts grants employees six months and limited budgets to develop their own films.

Sullivan conceived, wrote and directed Kitbull. It tells the story of a scrappy stray kitten and an abused but affectionate pit bull in San Francisco’s Mission District.

In April, Disney Publishing released Sullivan’s Mommy Sayang, a children’s book. It’s part of the Pixar Animation Studios Artist Showcase series. Mommy Sayang is about a heartwarming mother-daughter bond. The characters are Southeast Asian Muslims, and the book is drawing attention and praise for its diverse subject matter.

From Student Passion Projects to Pixar Productions

Sullivan began the projects as a student at the Academy. When she joined Pixar, Kitbull became part of Pixar’s SparkShorts. Fellow artists jumped on board. Sullivan described it as an invigorating experience—also full of pressure.

“You’re working with the best people in the industry who were, in my case, way more experienced and extremely knowledgeable about their specific fields,” Sullivan says.

“It was very humbling to be working with people who were so intelligent and talented at what they do. At the same time it was awesome to have [these] people…bring my vision to the screen.” She adds that the project evolved in ways far beyond what she could have done solo.

Kitbull is entirely hand-drawn and 2D animated. (2D is a rarity for Pixar, a company built on CGI animation.) To bring Kitbull to life, Sullivan and her producer had to modify the Pixar process to fit a 2D production.

But guiding her were the same core principles as in any storytelling effort.

“How do I make people care about these characters?” she recalls asking herself. “Once I make these characters charming or interesting, how do I make the story make sense with these characters?”

She says her editors helped her hone the story. “Our goal was, whatever we do, [we] don’t break the spell.”

The inspiration for Kitbull was Sullivan’s enthusiasm for internet cat videos. An animal lover, she was on track to become a veterinarian until an elective class woke her up to her love for art. “It hit me like a ton of bricks. I was like, ‘I love this,’” she says.

Inspired by Emotions

Her two passions are united in Kitbull, with its themes of animal welfare. For a Pixar film, it dips surprisingly into dark territory. “The story evolved from something much more lighthearted and fun to something more grounded,” she recalls.

Her children’s book Mommy Sayang also deals with emotional material. Sullivan says the book is based on her relationship with her own mother, who is from Malaysia.

The main character’s mother suffers from a serious illness, as Sullivan’s mother did.

rosana sullivan mommy sayang book cover

Sullivan’s annual childhood trips to Malaysia influenced the art and folklore elements. She describes the art as “simple colors and simple drawings” born from necessity. She did the book at the same time as Kitbull, and while becoming a new mom. It forced her to be efficient.

She tells Academy students, “If I were to go back in time and tell my college student self, [I’d say] don’t waste energy worrying so much about how others are doing or how I’m doing in relation to them. I’d instead focus my energy on how to improve myself.”

Original article by Christina Schreil published in Academy Art U News

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