Colin Levy is an award-winning independent filmmaker based in San Francisco, and currently working in Amsterdam on an animated proof-of-concept based on a Dutch comic property, Agent 327.
He worked as a Layout Artist at Pixar Animation Studios, where he designed shots for seven projects including Inside Out and Finding Dory, and served as Director of Photography for the short film Lava.
He directed the animated short film Sintel for the Blender Foundation in Amsterdam, which has over 6M views online, as well as several other award-winning short films in live-action.
In this interview, Colin talk more about your career and principaly your most new ambitious project, sci fi short film, Skywatch. 🙂
Interview #06 – Colin Levy (Skywatch, Sintel & Pixar)
CaféCG: Hello Colin, first of all, thank you for agreeing to participate in an interview with us. Well, to begin with: tell us a little more about yourself, where you were born, where you studied. Who’s Colin Levy?
Colin Levy: Thank you for the opportunity! It is an honor to speak with you.
So, I was born in the Midwest of the United States, in Chicago, but grew up on the East Coast, in the state of Maryland. I was really interested in art and photography as a kid and started making movies a young age. By the time I graduated from high school I knew I wanted to pursue something in the world of animation, visual effects, and film – but I wasn’t exactly sure what. I decided to go to the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) to pursue all three interests, and by the time I graduated I found that I wanted to direct! Now I am trying to figure out how to make a directing career happen – and hopefully find a way to support myself doing what I love…
CaféCG: When did you decide to enter the world of computer graphics? Was it something natural or you was influenced by an artist or friend?
Colin Levy: I think I was naturally drawn to photography, and when my grandma gave me her old film SLR camera for my 10th birthday, I was hooked. It took me a couple years before I started shooting my family’s home videos too, and when we got our family computer I discovered – and fell in love with – editing.
I had no idea about the world of computer graphics until I discovered an online forum for Star Wars fan films. It was a community of fans and aspiring filmmakers; they made little lightsaber battles and X-Wing dogfights in space – with After Effects and Blender – and I wanted to learn how to do that too!
CaféCG: You’ve been worked for a few years at one of the world’s biggest animation studios, Pixar. How did you get there? Worked in what area? How was your experience?
Colin Levy: I was really lucky to get the chance to work at Pixar! My dreams as a high school student, my short films in both animation and live-action, my experiences in film school and focus on cinematography – and persistent applications (I was rejected twice before I was accepted!) – all led me to a Residency opportunity in Pixar’s Layout department. The particular job opening is only available to folks right out of school – so I was lucky that in a sense, I was not competing with the entire industry.
I really broke in not due my directing work, but because of the layout / previs work I had done for my own short films. Which showed that I was interested in – and had the chops for – layout for animation – which at Pixar is also called Camera & Staging.
In that department, the focus is on how to “shoot” a scene – how to orchestrate the motion of the virtual camera and characters to cinematically convey a moment or idea. Layout artists start with storyboards and translate them to 3D, working closely with the editorial department to figure out how shots flow from one to the other, how the scene unfolds.
My experience at Pixar was phenomenal – I learned so much, made so many great friends, and had the honor of working on some amazing projects.
CCG: Are you still in Pixar?
CL: I left Pixar about a year ago – to pursue my goal of directing! Probably one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever made in my life. In many ways, Pixar was my dream job.
CCG: Before Pixar, did you work on which studios?
CL: I interned for a summer at a small design / motion graphics studio in Minneapolis, Minnesota called MAKE, and worked for a year at the Blender Institute in Amsterdam. But I had never worked in a big studio before Pixar!
CCG: When did you start to get interested in the open-source world, more specifically, for 3D software, Blender?
CL: I first discovered Blender online and it was very intimidating! I think I downloaded it, played around for 15 minutes, got frustrated and deleted it from my computer. It took me another six months to get around to giving it a second chance, but I am glad I did. Once I got over the steep learning curve, I really fell in love with Blender – and 3D animation in general!
CCG: How was your experience as a director of one of the Blender Foundation’s best-known short films, Sintel? Was it the first time you had the opportunity to direct a project?
CL: The opportunity to direct since I was probably the most important, formative, and lucky experiences I’ve had. Before this, I had directed some smaller projects – but only at a students level. This was a huge opportunity and it was a stressful, magical time for me. I am very proud of the work that we did on it!
CCG: Currently you are producing the live action sci fi short-film, Skywatch. Tell us a little more about the project.
CL: I’ve been making short films for a while now and each one has been self-contained. A story meant to be experienced in the short film format.
Skywatch, however, is a “proof of concept” short – the goal is to introduce the world, the characters, and the thrust of a narrative that has the potential to be developed into a larger project. That’s what makes this one different for me, and I hope that the project has a bigger future than just the short film.
I’ve been lucky to attract a bunch of talented artists and collaborators to work on this project – and I’m very excited about how it’s turning out so far!
CCG: What stage of production are you in?
CL: We are deep in post production, mostly focusing on the 150 visual effects shots that we still need to complete.
CCG: Recently, you’ve launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to finish the short-film, at least the part of VFX. Have you achieved your goal? How can people help?
CL: I have been blown away by the outpouring of support online, and fortunately this week we did cross our initial fundraising goal! However, we are still trying to push towards our stretch goal, which will allow us to produce an ambitious opening for the film that was in the original script.
Anything people can chip in would help a lot – even five dollars is appreciated!
CCG: You are an independent producer and have won several awards. What was it like to have your works recognized around the world?
CL: The most gratifying thing is reaching an audience. I’m just really excited when people can see the work and react to it. A quick email or comment from a stranger on YouTube might mean more to me then some festival award. It’s extremely rewarding when people connect to something you’ve made!
CCG: What’s the foreseen release date of the short-fim, Skywatch?
CL: My producer doesn’t want me to get specific about a release date! But I think we can get it done in 2017. 🙂
CCG: Do you intend to make it into a feature film in the future?
CL: I hope so! I’m currently working with a cowriter on the feature screenplay. But it’s an expensive movie– I would need to support of a major studio to actually make this a reality. Here’s hoping!
CCG: For you what’s more important in a story? What it’s the difference of a good story to a great story? (Question from blender artist, Edgard Caliman)
CL: Story is one of the hardest things to do. Writing is so painful for me– And yet it’s the most important step! There’s so much that has to work together – character and plot, theme and structure. I think the greatest stories can reach an audience in some fundamental, pure emotional way, and make them think or reflect on their own life. Difficult to do, and usually when it happens it’s unexpected. This is a great question, I need to think more about it because I don’t really know!
CCG: Colin, for artists who are starting their careers now, do you have any advice for them?
CL: There are a lot of things in life and in your career at that you don’t have control over. It can be very frustrating or intimidating to realize just how little control you have. But the one thing you do have control over is yourself, your work, and how you spend your time. If you focus on creating work, improving your skills, and showing what you’ve made to the world – that’s all you can do. But it is enough.
CCG: Colin, we would like to thank you for the interview, it was really fantastic this opportunity. How can the people meet you and keep up with your work? Email, Personal Website, Artstation?
CCG: Do you would like to say something for brazilian artists?
CL: I’m from the states, and “the industry” might feel pretty far away – but it really doesn’t matter where you come from if you do good work. So many of my friends from Pixar, and now at the Blender Institute, come from all over the world.
Also, I want to visit Brazil sometime! I hear amazing things. 🙂 Feel free to reach out if you have any questions!
CCG: Once again, thanks for the interview and we of CaféCG would like to wish you every success to you and your team! =)
What do you think about the Colin Levy professional experience? Do you have any question what would like to do for him? Leave your comment below! =)