An Academy Award Winning Character Developer for Pixar, Brother Mark Piretti Tells Us How Lambda Chi Helped Him Get There

Photo courtesy of Jason Cho
Mark Piretti, second from left, was part of the production crew that won two Academy Awards for their work on Pixar’s Coco.

Mark Piretti was part of the production crew that won two Academy Awards for last year’s hit animated film Coco.

It wasn’t the first time he had worked on an Oscar-winning film at Pixar, but this time, the work meant more to him.

“I was very proud of Pixar for making that kind of movie, and very proud of how it turned out,” Piretti said from his home in San Francisco.

Coco tells the story of a 12-year-old boy chasing his dreams of becoming a musician despite his family’s ban on music.

Piretti is responsible for bringing characters to life — facial computer animation. He is a character modeler, which means he takes a set of drawings and creates 3D computer models out of them. Once his team and the film’s director is happy with the way the characters look, he takes it a step further, setting up more than 1,000 controls for each character. How do they want the character’s mouth to look when it talks or laughs? How about its lips, eyelids, brows?

He’s been at it for more than two decades now. And he’s worked on other major Disney / Pixar films including Ice Age, Wall-E, Toy Story 3, Brave, Monsters University and Finding Dory. He just wrapped up work on the soon-to-be released Incredibles 2, which he took the lead on for the first time in his career.

But Piretta’s journey to filmmaking began a long time ago, back in the early 1990s when he was a student at Cornell University.

Admittedly, he was a B-student in high school.

“It frustrated my parents to no end because they just couldn’t get me to work any harder,” he said. “I always did just enough.”

Piretti tested well and had a decent art portfolio, but he didn’t want to go to art school.

“I didn’t think I had enough passion to do that,” he said.

He chose Cornell because, though it is an Ivy League school, he could get a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. His parents wanted him to study there because they knew with just one extra year of school, he could get two degrees — one in art and another from any college on campus. But that was a no go, too.

“I did not like school enough to relish the idea of getting a second degree,” Piretti said.

His sophomore year, Cornell started offering computer art. He didn’t change his major, but he did try his hand at it. When another student on campus made a short animated film using a Mac computer, it sparked an interest in Piretti.

“Wow, that is cool,” he remembers thinking. “It was just a minute- or two-minute video about a robot, but I thought, ‘This is something I could do,'” he said.

So he did. He built a portfolio from scratch with no formal education. He spent his days studying and his nights in a lab working on facial computer animation projects. In fact, he did an independent study in a biotech lab so he could have access to the most powerful computer on campus. He animated molecules during the day and worked on his portfolio at night.

He credits that work ethic to his brothers in Lambda Chi.

“I had this fraternity brother, Chris Durell, and there’s something he said that has always stuck with me: If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well,'” Peretti remembers him saying.

And a switch went off in his head.

“If my brothers can spend all night in the engineering lab, I can spend all night in the art lab,” he recalls thinking.

But as college came to a close and he neared the end of his senior year, he realized he did not have the portfolio he wanted. So he stayed.

“I remember at one point I was a research assistant living on weight room bunk beds at the fraternity house,” Piretti said. “Eventually I had to rent a room in the house, but everybody was so cool about it. I was broke at that point, but I wanted to keep working on facial expressions.”

A year-and-a-half later, he finally relented and moved home. He found a mailing list for production studio executives and sent out six portfolios. Within an hour or two, Blue Sky Studios called to offer him a full-time job.

He owes a lot of his success to the guys in his chapter, he said.

“It wasn’t all about having fun. People worked hard … people really worked hard, and that was really inspirational,” Piretti said. “That, to me, was a good example of what fraternity is all about.”

Not a day goes by that he doesn’t remember his time in the Omicron chapter.

“That was my college experience. That was five-and-a-half very formative years of my life,” he said. “I transitioned from an awkward high school kid into somebody who had a career they were passionate and now gets a lot of reward from. I needed this, and my brothers knew that. I would have had a hard time just having any old career. I could never just have a job to make money. So that is how Lambda Chi helped me. Those five-and-a-half years set me up.”

Photo courtesy of Mark Piretti

The filmmaking climate has changed, but Piretti said he still loves going to work every day.

“It’s much more a factory process now,” he said. “Not necessarily in a bad way … but everyone has more specific roles. It’s more organized. Production pipelines are more set in stone, and in some ways, that can carry over into the storytelling.”

But film budgets are also bigger, and the equipment, better, so there are pros and cons.

Incredibles 2 has been the toughest project he’s ever worked on because it’s a different dynamic. It’s not so much about his work anymore. In fact, Piretti didn’t work on any particular character for the film. Now, it’s about the work of the entire team.

“Frankly, this is also very rewarding because now I’m learning again,” he said. “I’m learning from them (his team).”

But even once you reach the point where you’re the teacher, Peretti said, it is important to take a step back from time to time and learn a thing or two. That’s one piece of advice he has.

“Focus and work hard. Find something that you feel rewarded by, and please, find a career that isn’t just about making money,” he said. “I find that the happiest people are the ones who do find a creative way to inject their career, whatever their job may be.”

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Favorite Disney / Pixar Character: Hades from Hercules

Favorite Character He Developed: Hank the Octopus from Finding Dory

First Professional Project: Making a VHS cassette dance and sing “I’ll Be There” by the Jackson 5 for a Blockbuster commercial


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