Drawn to the world of make believe
Name: Alex Woo Chi-hang
Job: story artist for Pixar Animation Studios
What does your job entail?
My job is to visualise scenes that have been written by the director. We're like miniature sequence directors: we take written words and translate them into artwork, and we piece the artwork together to make it cinematically compelling. The director then looks at it, gives us notes and opinions, and we revise. It takes many, many revisions to get to the final product.
What did you study to get the job?
I studied film at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. During my time there, I wrote and directed an animated short film, Rex Steele: Nazi Smasher, which won a Student Academy Award. That award really opened the doors for me and led to a meeting with Lucasfilm. I pitched them a few ideas, they liked them and hired me for storyboard development. I went to Pixar about a year and half later.
Did you also study in Hong Kong?
Yes, I was born in Minnesota but I attended the Chinese International School for my sophomore, junior and senior years of high school. My father was based here for his work, so it made sense to do that.
When did you decide you wanted to be in this field? Was it something that you had always wanted to do?
I've always loved drawing and animation, going back to when I was a child. What I didn't know then was you could make a living making films. Drawing was only a hobby for me until one summer when I took a summer drawing class, and my professor pulled me aside and told me I was good at it and suggested I pursue the field. That course made me decide I wanted to study film.
Why take a general major instead of something more specific? Did you ever think of just studying drawing?
I believe that if you really want to make it in the film industry you have to approach it academically. There are structures to films and how a story is told. Just being able to draw wouldn't have been enough.
At Pixar, you've worked on some big hits, including Wall-E and Ratatouille. How much time does it take to make a film like that?
To make a good film takes a lot of time and work. I'm one of eight story artists, and it takes us anywhere from a year to three years to complete a film. At Pixar we have a motto: the story is king. That means we believe the story is the most important aspect of all. We will rework a scene many times - even if the drawing is fine - to ensure the scenes tell the best story possible.
What's your job like on a day-to-day basis?
Being a story artist, I have to be a jack of all trades because I have to do a variety of things. Every day is a little different depending on the stage the project is in. The one constant is meeting with directors and other artists to discuss where the story is going.
What's your favourite part of the job?
After the director has written the scene and we've done the sketches and storyboard for it, we all get together in a screening room and watch a rough animation of it. It's sort of like a cheap, home-made version of a film. After the screening, we sit together and discuss if what we have so far is working or not. If it works, we go ahead with further artwork, such as adding lighting and texture. If not, we scrap the whole thing and start from scratch.
What obstacles have you faced over the course of your career?
I've been very fortunate with my career because I got into the business rather smoothly. But even so, I had to overcome a lot of self-doubt early on. The projects I pitched to Lucasfilm never got a green light, and that was disappointing. But I learned not to take it personally. That's just how the business works.
What advice do you have for people who want to follow this career path?
You need to draw a lot, watch a lot of films and pay attention to how images tell a story. Regarding schools in the US, New York University has a great film programme. In terms of a specific college, California Institute of the Arts has bred many Pixar artists.
Bachelor degrees in film are offered at the University of Hong Kong (tel: 2859 2111) and City University (tel: 3442 7654). Animation courses are also offered at City University's school of creative media