ME alum credits rise in Pixar ranks to arts and engineering background
Purdue alumnus Bob Peterson was the lead writer and co-director of "Up," which earned him a nomination for Best Screenplay and won Best Animated Feature honors on Hollywood's biggest night in 2009. (Photo courtesy of Pixar Animation Studios )
Editor's note: The following story originally appeared in Purdue Engineering Impact magazine.
From the infancy of computer-aided design (CAD) to the pinnacle of Hollywood moviemaking, Purdue alumnus Bob Peterson has, along the way, successfully merged engineering know-how with good old-fashioned storytelling. And he has an Oscar to show for it.
Peterson (MSME '86) was the lead writer and co-director of "Up," which earned him a nomination for Best Screenplay and won Best Animated Feature honors on Hollywood's biggest night in 2009. For Peterson, the Oscar was the culmination of 16 years at Pixar Animation Studios (though he has no plans to rest on that particular laurel). At Pixar, Peterson says, he's run the gamut from directing commercials, to working in animation on "Toy Story," to supervising the story on "Monsters, Inc.," and finally to writing the screenplays for "Finding Nemo" and "Up." He's also lent his voice to such notable characters as Roz in "Monsters, Inc.," Mr. Ray in "Finding Nemo," and Dug the dog in "Up."
It's the dream job for a kid who grew up loving Disney movies and Looney Tunes cartoons. "I was able to apply my vocation, which was engineering, to my avocation, which was drawing cartoons," says Peterson. "I've told students, 'If we could all combine what we do in our off hours with what we do at work, we'd all be happy people.'"
Peterson's big break didn't come being discovered in a Hollywood drugstore. In fact, he'll tell you that the opportunity to cut his teeth in Purdue's cutting-edge CAD lab helped pave his way to Pixar. As an undergraduate at Ohio Northern University, Peterson took a course taught by a Purdue graduate, Michael Rider, that showed him a confluence of art and science in the new field of computer graphics. Rider (PhD '80) also was instrumental in getting him into grad school at Purdue.
In the CAD lab, Peterson tailored his research to his artistic vision. He was looking to design a 3-D modeling environment that would better fit the needs of a sketch artist. His graduate thesis focused on a modeling package with "lots of sketching and curves," he says, "and building objects in the way that a designer might normally do with paper and pencil. The hopes were that this would lead to more of a rapid prototyping of objects."
The timing was right, too. "I got to go to a conference called SIGGRAPH and learn about computer graphics," he says. "It was an exciting time because it was a new industry. I was lucky to come along when I did as it was being invented. And Purdue's CAD lab was an exciting mix of grad students with different interests -- interests encouraged by our great faculty advisors."
Dave Anderson, professor of mechanical engineering, recalls hiring Peterson as one of eight or nine research assistants in the CAD lab, which took off in 1980 with a $3 million grant from Control Data Corp. Projects ranged from finite elements analysis, to intelligent design systems that would recognize shapes and interpret them according to need, to systems very much in between. In all, more than 50 graduate research assistants (about half master's students and half PhDs) were funded in the CAD lab from 1980 through 1995, Anderson says.
"The nice thing was that we weren't solving a small problem for a company," Anderson says. "We were literally trying to develop the next generation of ideas for systems that Control Data would sell to the manufacturing world."
The experimental freedom served several students well. Two received Presidential Young Investigator Awards as they left the CAD lab for university teaching jobs. Anderson says the master's and PhD students were a close-knit group, several of whom he's kept in touch over the years. Anderson still has a drawing where Peterson, a working cartoonist, characterized the whole CAD lab bunch.
The experience also helped Anderson achieve the teaching ideal -- to see his students soar beyond him. "It's exciting for me to see very talented students succeed," he says. "They helped me in my career because of their ingenuity and creativity. And I, vicariously, enjoy their successes."
As Peterson explored the new world of computer animation, he began developing his voice through a daily comic strip in the Purdue Exponent from 1984 through 1986. The strip's title, "Loco Motives," Peterson says, was a double entendre of Purdue's Boilermaker train heritage and the crazy life of college students.
Populated by characters reacting to the politics and social climate of Purdue in the mid-1980s, the strip now seems like a time capsule to Peterson. "When I look back and read those cartoon strips now, they read like a history of what went on during that era of Purdue," he says.
And the mid-80s were rife for campus satire. "There was a football game where people started lighting toilet paper on fire," Peterson recalls, "and Bobby Knight's chair-throwing incident when a Purdue basketball player was taking a foul shot. It ended up being like an editorial cartoon. President Steven Beering even became one of my characters.
"It was wonderful to have a chance to fail," says Peterson, an artist whose childhood hero was "Peanuts" creator Charles Schulz. "I got to try a lot of different things and see what worked and what didn't. I got instant feedback every day. Charlie Chaplin had the wonderful opportunity to fail and experiment with his comedy in Vaudeville with a live audience -- approving or disapproving -- long before he made his first movies. In the same way, I got to practice each day, and the feedback helped me define my voice, which I use in story and script decisions today."
Peterson spends most of his days now writing on a laptop, thinking about story beats, about the dialogue of characters. But he is perhaps proudest of an opening montage from "Up," where nearly the entire lives of two characters (eventual husband and wife) pass on the screen without dialogue. "There's not a word said, but you follow the entire life of Carl and his wife together," says Peterson. "At Pixar we strive to never talk down to kids or up to adults. We simply create a story that makes us, as people, laugh or get emotional. We're just following our own muses. We're adults, but we've really cultivated our childlike sides."
And even though now he's part of what the Pixar team calls the creative brain trust, guiding scripts and reviewing films in progress, Peterson's job in the director's chair keeps him in constant contact with the technical side of animation creation: modeling, lighting and research for topics that support animation, such as organic-object creations like clouds, animal fur, and water.
The creative clout Peterson has earned at Pixar and within the animation world has made him a spokesman for the industry. He's been invited back to Ohio Northern University, and he was part of Purdue's Old Masters program in November, where his message continued to be about combining vocations with avocations.
"I knew engineering was a great springboard into a lot of different professions. At one point I was thinking of designing toys for Mattel," says Peterson, who believes engineering, on any front, is a very creative endeavor. "It's taking science and applying it in creative ways. And whether that specifically means artistic creativity or creative problem solving, there's always some creative component in engineering."
By connecting the artistic and engineering sides, Peterson has become what Pixar colleagues like Jonas Rivera liken to a five-tool player in baseball. "Bob is one of the jewels of the studio," says Rivera, producer for "Up." "He's a great writer, great actor, great artist, great draftsman, and a great director. I can't help but think that Bob's background in engineering has helped him settle easily into the filmmaking process of computer graphics and animation, which contain many technical components. He has an understanding of the other side of the building so to speak."
He's funny, too. "One of the funniest guys I've ever known," Rivera contends, "effortlessly funny. I used to look forward to all the story meetings, or even the budget meetings, because Bob would just make them cool. He's good-natured and smart."
So maybe nice guys do get to finish first once in a while, and even get to take their wives to the red carpet at the Oscars, which Peterson describes as surreal. "To stand among the actors and filmmakers that inspired you be in film," he says, "you just wonder how you got there. It was all very magical."
Perhaps reminiscent of the Disney movie magic Peterson enjoyed in his youth. Maybe magic sprung from hard work, good timing, and a desperate desire to create something better for the world. Maybe something almost -- but not quite -- beyond an engineer's wildest dreams.