How one U of T alum changed the face of animation

In conversation with William Reeves: past at U of T, Toy Story 4, and entering animation

How one U of T alum changed  the face of animation

William Reeves is the very definition of success.

Since earning his PhD from U of T 40 years ago, Reeves has gone on to work with Lucasfilm and Pixar Animation Studios, where he is now a supervising technical director. He has worked on numerous award-winning movies, including Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, A Bug’s Life, Up, and Toy Story 4, and won the 1989 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film for his work on the short “Tin Toy.”

As a U of T alum, Reeves has a career that many students dream of, which begs the question: how does a U of T student go about becoming one of the top members of their field?

In an interview with The Varsity, Reeves spoke about his time at U of T, his career, and the work he’s been doing at Pixar.

Graduate studies at U of T

Reeves graduated with his PhD at U of T in 1980. He partially credits the Dynamic Graphics Project (DGP) lab associated with the Department of Computer Science for his education in the preceding year.

The lab is an interdisciplinary group consisting of faculty, graduate students, undergraduate research assistants, and more, with the goal of conducting research within the fields of computer graphics and human computer interaction, among others. The group dates back to 1967, and Reeves reminisced of being thrown into “a room where there were some eight — you know, at this point — ancient computers, and some very early computer graphics terminals and workstations.”

One of the key takeaways that Reeves learned from the DGP was how to be part of a team. “[The professors] said, ‘Each of you has your own little project, but they all interconnect,’ or ‘make them all interconnect,’ or ‘we encourage you to make them all interconnected.’”

Reeves remarked that, with this idea in mind, he and his fellow graduate students “learned from each other, experimented, tried different things, spent long nights hacking away at this and that and the other thing, working on projects that we shouldn’t have been working on because [they were] fun.”

However, as much as the group taught him to be part of a team, it also taught him about working independently.

The professors fostered an environment that allowed the students to branch off and complete their own work — with guidance, but only that which was needed. “Rather than having someone spoon-feed you, it’s like, ‘This is what we expect… but you’ve got to figure some stuff out yourself,” Reeves remarked.

“As an undergraduate, you don’t really learn that.”

Reeves also attributes his interest in animation back to his time at DGP. He recalled a line-drawing animation assistant that a peer was working on, and reflected fondly on a project he worked on around the same time, dealing with queuing theory — how people line up, board trains, and the like — and animating simulations to more clearly demonstrate their ideas.   

He also recognized that he was really lucky, as he graduated in a time when this was still a rising industry. “If it was five years earlier, wouldn’t have been possible, and if it was five years later, somebody else would have done it.”

Out in the real world — and killing it

Following his graduation, Reeves strived at his first industry-job at Lucasfilm, and now works as a supervising technical director at Pixar.

While working on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, he developed a technology known as ‘particle systems,’ which is used to model objects like fire, grass, and smoke. In his 1983 paper, Reeves defines a particle system as a “collection of many minute particles that together represent a fuzzy object. Over a period of time, particles are generated into a system, move and change from within the system, and die from the system.”

In addition to working on numerous movies like Finding Nemo and Ratatouille, he’s also worked as a producer — in addition to many other roles — on shorts like “Luxo Jr.” and “Tin Toy,” the latter winning him an Oscar alongside John Lasseter.

Creating Toy Story 4

Reeves elaborated further on the various projects that he undertook while working on Toy Story 4.

One of the key areas that Reeves highlighted was the work of adapting the Toy Story world to new technology. With nine years between the release of Toy Story 3 and that of Toy Story 4, technology in the studio had changed, and the pre-existing Toy Story world had to adapt in order to reflect that.

One key thing that Reeves highlighted was the process of automating practical lighting, such as lamps and traditional lights that would behave similar to real lights. He remarked that rather than manually adjusting each light, as had previously been done, “We rethought the whole process about how to do practical lighting and build the actual physics of the light into the light.”

Now, with the help of their project, practical lights in the film are “all set up for the lighting department in the end and then they can go and tweak them when they need to for dramatic effect.”

“They don’t have to worry about setting everything up.”

Another large project that Reeves worked on during production was the introduction of a process that he calls “dailies.” This process consisted of “[rendering] every shot that’s in production every night and [showing] it to people.”

Reeves explained that by getting everyone in the same room, they were able to open up all stages of the process and problem-solve together. Rather than every department working independently, “everybody could see what they were doing, what each other was doing, and then feed off each other.”

So you want to get into animation?

For those interested in the industry, Reeves stressed the importance of getting a diverse education — both inside and outside of computer science.

He encouraged students to resist “just studying hardcore computer graphics and focussing on grey tracing,” and instead to “learn all different aspects of computer graphics, compositing, bottling, shading, and then rendering as well.” He also stressed the importance of getting a good “breadth of life.”

However, Reeves also emphasized that when it comes to education in storytelling and filmmaking, “You specialize in the technical side of things and we’ll teach you film here.”

“You learn by doing and coming here and experiencing lots of different things. That’s what’s really important.”

Toy Story 4 was released on Blu Ray on October 8.

—With files from Adam A. Lam

All the world’s a stage: from campus theatre to New York, and now across the pond

U of T alumni direct and take their play, zounds!, to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival

All the world’s a stage: from campus theatre to New York, and now across the pond

Veronika Gribanova and Jacob Levitt are both U of T alumni, and were heavily involved in the theatre scene during their years on campus. Now, they are transferring their love of the arts and their directorial skills across the pond this summer to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival ⁠— the world’s largest festival for arts and culture. 

They sat down with The Varsity to discuss their show, zounds!, their directorial relationship, and the jump from campus theatre to New York. 

The Varsity: Firstly, what is zounds! about? 

Veronika Gribanova: zounds! is a comedy about the Greek gods during the Trojan War, set in the present. In the ninth year, when Aphrodite is injured in battle, Zeus puts the gods under house arrest on Mount Olympus.

Jacob Levitt: Think Big Brother: Greek Gods edition. It features 13 gods, Helen of Troy, and a Greek chorus, and is a political comedy about power, love, and (literal) sacrifices.

TV: That sounds brilliant. I bet it was fun to write. Can you expand on the creative process of how zounds! ended up at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival?

VG: I wrote it for my company in New York, Floor Five Theatre Company. We knew we wanted to put on a show with a large cast, because the company had 27 people at the time, so I wrote this 18 person play — which was a bit insane. I mean, everyone kept telling us this was a stupid thing to do. But our company is nothing if not strong-willed, so, against all odds, we premiered the show in the Atlantic Stage 2 and had a sold-out run. Then, because that wasn’t difficult enough, we said: “let’s take it abroad.”

TV: You are both co-directing zounds!. Did you know that you would be taking on this massive project when you first met on the U of T campus stage?

JL: We knew from the moment we first worked together that our dynamic was of a nature one might call “productively dysfunctional.” So we pushed that dynamic to its logical limit and did as many shows as we could together.

VG: With Jacob and I, it was hate at first sight. So we thought it would be funny to keep working together. I directed Jacob in Trojan Barbie for the Victoria College Drama Society, then we directed Jesse Eisenberg’s Asuncion for The St. Michael’s College Troubadours. 

JL: Then we took our talents to the Toronto Fringe Festival with Veronika’s own piece, Lover Lover.

VG: And now we’ve arrived at my play zounds!. I’ve since moved to New York and mostly work there, so I had to convince Jacob to not only come to Edinburgh but to come to New York for the rehearsal process.

TV: Other than U of T campus theatre, what else have you done to help get you ready for the Fringe?

VG: I’ve actually worked on a few shows for the Toronto Fringe. Those were a good warm-up for this… although I don’t know how much we can really be prepared. The Edinburgh Fringe has over 3,000 shows each day and is the largest arts festival in the world. That’s a bit daunting.

JL: It is truly massive, and trying to find our foothold in it all will probably be our biggest challenge, second only to the rehearsal process itself! But it is an occasion to which we are willing to rise. So yes, daunting, but also exciting.

TV: What has the transition from campus theatre to theatre in the big, real world been like?

VG: People don’t yell as much in the professional world. That’s something that surprised me when I left university. Campus theatre has a lot of stressed-out people yelling. At one point, I was one of them! My lovely stage manager Shashwat Sharma told me to stop freaking the actors out. Everyone is quite calm on professional productions and on shoots. The other big difference is that now I have to fund my own work. I miss that campus funding, yo!

JL: It’s also refreshing to work with a cast and crew that is almost if not entirely made up of people dedicated to establishing their own career in professional theatre. Also funding.

TV: Can you describe your directorial journey? What steps have you taken from directing campus shows at U of T to directing a show for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival?

VG: Well, besides our show Lover Lover in Toronto, I’ve been working on productions in New York for the past few years. I’ve mostly been writing, acting, and producing, but doing a bit of directing as well, primarily on film. 

I wrote and directed a web series called Art is Dead that’s now being released (also co-produced with Berenice Odriozola), and wrote and directed a short called November Burns Red that’s now in post. And I recently graduated from Atlantic Theater Company’s 2.5-year conservatory program ⁠— the training and teachers there were really spectacular. So I feel as prepared as I can be for something as big as this.

JL: For me, it started with a job at a summer camp as a creative and cultural director, where I had to help write, produce, and direct half a dozen shows over the course of a summer term. Throw in some directorial roles with Veronika, a few avant-garde performative murder mystery events, and one might call me a bit of a directorial journeyman.

TV: How did taking zounds! to the Fringe Festival come about?

VG: After I finished the Toronto Fringe in 2017 I said, “I’m never doing another Fringe Festival!” And I actually don’t remember how this happened. I know someone in my company suggested it sometime last year. Then, when we closed our production of the show in December, we felt it wasn’t the end and wanted the play to have another life. So our team of three producers ⁠— including myself, Berenice Odriozola, and Ana Guzmán Quintero ⁠— applied this winter, and were accepted by theSpaceUK to perform in one of their venues.

TV: Why is community in theatre so important? 

VG: In our individualistic and ego-driven culture, collaboration and connection are rare. I’ve been blessed with these challenges in my artistic life. And it is a challenge. Collaboration, connection. It is sitting in a room with the 25 other artists in your company and remembering why you decided to come together. It is remembering to meet each other again. It is listening. It is killing your ego. Every day is a new chance to fail at all of the above challenges, and I feel lucky to have this chance.

JL: The size of an ensemble production like this one can in a way form its own microcosmic theatre community. The characteristics of a successful production can then mirror the characteristics that one should want and expect in a theatre community as a whole. Trust and respect, while buzzwords, are at the heart of any good production. I know I like to see bravery in the decisions actors make, while in equal measure seeing their restraint and support of the cast and crew around them.   

TV: And what about the cast and crew? 

VG: As for our cast and crew ⁠— we have a talented pair of sisters in our cast! Ana Guzmán Quintero plays Athena and is also one of the producers, and Luisa Guzmán Quintero joins the cast as Helen. Ana studied alongside me at the Atlantic Acting School and Luisa studied at The Lee Strasberg Institute, which teach pretty much opposing acting techniques. I’ve always found it funny that they chose such vastly different schools. I’m so excited to have both of them on the team! I’m also especially grateful for Berenice Odriozola, who is acting as Demeter, for producing the show and acting as Head of Marketing for the whole company. She’s the busiest lady I know but wears all her hats so well. 

TV: Are you nervous for the Fringe? Excited? Awestruck? Tell me all of your feelings… but only in three words.

JL: Only three words. That’ll be tricky. Three words? Okay. Got it. First word: “Inspiring.” Second word: “Huge.” Third word: “Once-in-a-lifetime.”

VG: What he said.

TV: How can tickets for zounds! be bought? When is it being performed?

VG & JL: Tickets can be bought here! It’s being performed from August 2 to 10 (blackout August 4) in Edinburgh at theSpaceUK.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.