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November 15, 2018

From the School of Cinematic Arts to Pixar Animation Studios

By Phenia Hovsepyan

Mahyar Abousaeedi, who received his MFA from the School of Cinematic Arts John C. Hench Division of Animation & Digital Arts in 2004, has been working at Pixar Animation for 15 years. Most recently he was the director of photography on the Incredibles and has been an integral part at the revolutionary animation studio for much of their groundbreaking work over the past decade. 

Abousaeedi could not have envisioned making animated films in California as a child. Abousaeedi was always painting and drawing, and although he was a fan of movies from an early age, “Growing up in Colorado, you don’t think filmmaking is something you will do; it was something someone else was going to do.” Abousaeedi recalls seeing the original Jurassic Park movie in theaters, and how even though he knew the dinosaurs were not really running towards him, “I was so full of suspense and jumping out of my seat! I was fascinated by the emotional manipulation that was possible with film.”

 With a talent for drawing, Abousaeedi studied architectural design during his undergraduate schooling in Boulder, Colorado, and was set for a career after graduation. He recalls the moment he realized the power of animated film, when he came home from college and his sister made him watch Toy Story. “I realized that animation was a medium that can appeal to a larger age group with more mature stories, that it was not just entertainment for children,” he says. Little did Abousaeedi know that from those first seeds of inspiration would grow a career at the very studio that made Toy Story.

At the age of 22, Abousaeedi completely altered the course of his life. At that point, he had only just begun experimenting with animation and collecting his own portfolio work, completely unaware of where it would all take him. “I think I always knew deep down that I wanted to be an artist, I just didn’t know that I could make a career out of it,” Abousaeedi says. He was lucky to have been working in architecture when the analog to digital revolution was underway, and as Abousaeedi witnessed the technological changes in design, he felt he could no longer deny his calling. “I had this hunch that I wanted to be in California,” he says. “Although my parents supported my dreams, my mom was crying and my dad was telling her not to worry because I would be broke and back in three months.” 

Abousaeedi got in his car and drove from Colorado to California to stay with his friend in Santa Barbra and “figure it out.” “I had not really animated a lot, and I was afraid,” he says. “But I left my career and I left architecture all on a hunch that I wanted to tell stories.” Upon arriving in Santa Barbara, Abousaeedi quickly realized that his father was right: He was broke and needed to get a plan. His friend mentioned that USC had an amazing cinema school, and Abousaeedi applied with no idea of what would happen next. “I was waitlisted and then rejected from the program,” he recalls. “I got a call eight days before the start of classes saying a spot had opened up, and eight days later I was absolutely terrified in class.”

Taking that monumental leap of faith catapulted Abousaeedi into a world completely outside of his comfort zone. “I was surrounded by painters and artists my first semester,” he says. “I was a blank slate and did not know what my perspective as an animator was, and that made me double down on wanting to learn absolutely everything I could.” Abousaeedi took on the challenges of that first year by asking questions and engaging with as many different perspectives as possible. “I got a TA-ship that exposed me to different professors, and my teachers always promoted me to experiment,” he says. “I never felt like I had to fit into a box.” Abousaeedi was studying animation when things were becoming very experimental, and being exposed to the classical elements of storytelling along with the new digital wave was a very timely combination. “Now, I end up in a room with directors who may be much older than me, but film history is the common language we all share, and I learned it at USC.” 

Looking back at his time at USC, Abousaeedi says one of the most valuable things he got was exposure to all the different elements of filmmaking as an art form. “It was like bootcamp,” he says. “It was like covering 100 years of animation in two years, and having that big picture perspective has helped me so much in my career.” For Abousaeedi, being open-minded, willing to take risks, and pushing himself to finish projects was a big part of finding himself as an artist at USC. “Even if you experiment and fail, when you eventually finish, there is something very cathartic about that,” Abousaeedi says. “People kept telling me to ‘find my voice,’ but I did not know what my voice was, and I found it through failure.” 

In retrospect, Abousaeedi sees that not knowing exactly where he fit in or what he wanted to do in animation when he started at SCA was an advantage: “Experimentation is something you should completely embrace in your youth,” he says. “Pixar was not my goal in the beginning, and that was a huge benefit for me. Being willing, ready, and open minded really helped me figure out what I wanted to do.”

Having experienced the technological advancements in animation during his time at Pixar, Abousaeedi has witnessed filmmaking becoming an even more collaborative process. “There is an immediate response, and the way we tell stories is much more accessible now,” he says. As he thinks about the future, Abousaeedi has one over-arching piece of advice for young filmmakers looking for a career in animation: “Finish your projects!”