A Look with Chris Sasaki at Pixar's Latest Film Inside Out

Pixar character designer Chris Sasaki gives MCAD students tips on creating characters as well as a preview of the upcoming film Inside Out.

Chris Sasaki, a character designer at Pixar, recently gave MCAD students, staff, faculty, and visitors a presentation on his artistic career and the new Pixar film Inside Out.

Sasaki has been a character designer at Pixar for a little over five years, but he didn't start out as a wildly successful artist and animator. He was rejected from the prominent animation school CalArts multiple times, and his first out-of-college job was working on bonus features for a straight-to-DVD movie about the history of beer. Gradually, however, his smaller jobs led to bigger jobs, including an internship at Dreamworks, until finally he was recruited by Pixar to work as a character designer for Monster's University.

Chris Sasaki's character designs for Monster's University; Image source


Pixar's latest film, Inside Out, is directed by Minnesota-native Pete Docter (Monster's Inc., Up) and produced by Jonas Rivera (Up). It features a young girl and the emotions inside her head—joy, disgust, fear, sadness, and anger—who vie for control after she is uprooted from her home in Minnesota when her family moves to San Francisco. Featuring a cast of contemporary comedy luminaries, including Amy Poehler, Mindy Kaling, Bill Hader, Phyllis Smith, and Lewis Black, Inside Out certainly places an emphasis on humor, especially that which might appeal to young adult audiences.


Cast of characters in Inside Out; Image source

Inside Out voice actors; Image courtesy of Pixar; Image source


Riley Anderson, the main character of Inside Out; Image source

In his presentation, Sasaki made sure to emphasize the amount of sheer manpower that went into creating the elaborate environments of Inside Out. Working between the dual worlds of both inside and outside the mind, the artists working for Pixar were inspired by the physical appearance of the brain when creating Riley's mind. Production required the combined effort of several different teams, including character design, graphic design, lighting, background design, cloth, stage design, and many more. For all this effort, over two million pixels were created for each second of the movie. Two million, per second!

As a special insider's look into the new film, Sasaki showed the auditorium the first several minutes of Inside Out. I can't really discuss the content, lest I put myself in the legal pathway of Pixar, but you should trust me when I say that it was very funny and very cute.

Concept art for Inside Out; Image source

Following the presentation was a brief Q&A in which Sasaki gave a few tips for success and talked about his work at Pixar. For him, the most important thing he does to improve his work is research. Research pulls him from creative block and adds a knowledgeable background to his character design. He also talked about the importance of believability in designing characters; when Pixar recruited him for Monster's University, they said that his characters seemed very personalized, that they "knew" the types of characters he was creating.

And the most surprising thing about working at Pixar? "I felt like I never left college. I still do late nights, and I still have deadlines.” In a strange way, I find that almost comforting to hear.

After the Q&A, I got a chance to sit down privately with Sasaki and to talk to him about his artistic practice.

Work by Chris Sasaki; Image source

You talked earlier about how shapes and research inform a lot of your character designs. What other things inspire you? What do you look for when designing a character?

I think it depends on what story I'm doing. Let's see . . . if I'm doing a Greek story, I'm going to look up, you know, what are the visuals that make things look "Greek"? Like you could look at the architecture, theatrical masks—I explore the whole world and just am inspired by it. I like to see how I can incorporate those kinds of details into my design, because I feel like all those little things help influence that world.

So it's more dependent on the story itself?

Yeah, whatever story I'm doing I try to find the right things to be inspired by. So I do a lot of research, looking at colors, textures—anything, really. What makes an artist unique is that everyone has their own ways of working, and for me it's finding elements from books and magazines and staying specific to whatever I'm doing. I think that's what makes a character believable—those details.

That's really interesting, because—you know, I'm an animation student—and I find that a lot of the time I just want to go straight into designing the character without doing any research at all. But when you have a background and you have that context, it makes the character so much richer. So, would you say that it's more helpful to have a story first and then design the character?

Yeah, I think it works differently for everyone. I don't want to say it's my way or the highway—everyone has their own creative way of working—but that's just how I like to work. I need to know and figure out the story or the world or the setting, and I make caricatures based on that research. For me, if I can draw it from life, even better. But I need to be able to draw and figure out the world setting, and I learn from it, and I apply that to my designs. But I need to understand what I'm doing before I can actually begin a story. And when you get creative block, you have to go back to doing research, but I think that's okay. Sometimes you have to get your gut reactions out and have time to do that research and find that spark.

Work by Chris Sasaki; Image source

Were you always interested in working for Pixar? Is this where you wanted to be when you started getting into animation?

Definitely—I mean, Monster's Inc. was like that film that changed my life, so I saw that in high school and that's what made me want to go into art and animation school. And, of course, it was amazing when the first Pixar film I got to work on was Monster's University. I guess with that in mind Pixar was always the place I wanted to go. I appreciate how Pixar has a lot of heart when it comes to the story and it's not just gags all the time. Which isn't to say I don't like Cartoon Network—I watch those shows all the time and I definitely respect what they do. But I appreciate Pixar's emphasis on the story.

Will you be working on any other big projects after this movie comes out? 

I actually just finished up another project for Pixar that I can't talk about. But, well, I'm actually going to take a big vacation for a while, because I am pretty tired [laughs].

Work by Chris Sasaki; Image source

Visit Chris Sasaki's online portfolio for more of his awesome character designs and sketchbook work. And be sure to check out Inside Out in theaters June 19!