After graduating from the Kansas City Art Institute with a B.F.A. degree in photo/new media in 2000, Nathan Fariss worked on sports and corporate animation projects in Kansas City before moving into feature film and visual effects. For five years he was with The Orphanage in San Francisco, and in 2008, he joined Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif. Today his title at Pixar is Set Dressing Lead.
His illustrations have appeared in magazines such as Popular Mechanics and Discovery Channel Magazine. His feature film credits include “Live Free or Die Hard,” Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man’s Chest,” “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” “Monsters University” and “Toy Story 3,” which won an Academy award. Below he answered a few questions about his career and the education that prepared him for success:
Q: What’s it like to be working at Pixar?
In a way, it’s very much like any other office job. I work nine to six, go to meetings, have my work calendar on my phone and sit in front of a computer for most of the day. In another way, it is very different from most office jobs. For example, I’ve been regularly involved in discussions about how “monster-y” something needs to be.
The culture of the work place is open and relaxed, with no dress code and flexible work hours. There are people working at Pixar who have been at the company their entire working career. It’s not hard to find someone who may have worked on “Toy Story” or “Bugs Life,” the first two Pixar features. If you’ve ever watched the extra features on a Pixar DVD, you’ve probably seen people riding around on scooters and skateboards, eating free cereal and making themselves lattes on the espresso machines. There are also a swimming pool, basketball and volleyball courts and a full gym, all on campus.
There are regularly scheduled educational talks and classes, so that people can learn new tools and techniques. There is always a steady stream of visitors on campus. Sometimes those visitors include celebrities, small marching bands, a singing theater troupe or trapeze artists.
Along with all the perks, the work itself is challenging, engaging and rewarding. With each film, Pixar strives to push creative and technical boundaries. Being part of that is a great experience.
Q: What’s the most exciting project you’ve worked on so far?
Working on “Monsters University” was very exciting, since I was in a leadership role. I got to see the project from very early on, all the way through to the end. It was the longest I’ve ever worked on a single project — two and one-half years — and it was incredible to see it go from sketches and storyboards to a finished feature animation.
Q: How did your years at KCAI prepare you for your career?
When I was in the photo and new media department at KCAI, the junior and senior years were structured such that we were allowed to work on whatever we pleased. This freedom came with the requirement that you presented your progress at mid-semester and the completed work at the end of the semester. This really helped me learn how (and how not) to structure my own projects in a realistic, deadline-oriented way. It also helped me learn to collaborate with others on projects, all while working on subject matter and in media that interested us.
Q: What advice do you have for high-school students who might be thinking of studying art and design in college?
Remember: You get out of your education (and later, your career), only as much as you are willing to put in. If you have a passion for your work and are willing to put real effort and time into your studies and projects, then you will find that you will receive passionate instruction that expands your mind and pushes your work to new levels. There are few experiences that can compare to spending every day on a small campus with a few hundred extremely talented artists.
Q: What advice do you have for high-school students who might aspire to a career in animation?
There are a few tricky things about the modern animation industry. These days, it’s not just about drawings and motion. Computers are thoroughly integrated into everything from 3-D animation to what the public thinks of as “hand-drawn” animation. Fine art study is a huge help, but it also doesn’t hurt to learn a few of the fundamentals of computer programming, as well as a bit of calculus, as they can come in handy later on. Also, much of the animation work that you see on a regular basis is now being done in other countries. While creative leadership is often done in the United States, the actual frame-by-frame drawings (for traditional animation) or the3-D modeling and animation are often being done in India, Singapore or Vancouver, in Canada. There is still a strong base of operations in the U.S. Most of the big companies, such as Disney, Dreamworks, Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network, among others, have offices around Los Angeles, but an interest in world travel would definitely be advised, as many people who learned in the U.S., end up being sent to other countries to provide leadership.