VUHS grad Jeff Pidgeon gets an Oscar for his work on 'Toy Story 4'

JEFF PIDGEON, FAR left, holds his 25th anniversary award with a couple of his colleagues, Mark VanDewettering and Mark Adams, at Pixar Animation Studios in California._ Courtesy of Jeff Pidgeon

JEFF PIDGEON'S SELF-portrait. Pidegon was recognized last month for his work on Pixar’s “Toy Story 4.” Pidgeon, a Vergennes native, has worked with Pixar since the early ’90s._ Courtesy of Jeff Pidgeon

THIS IS HAPPY Beaver. He came from a doodle Pidgeon did years ago that he turned into his own toy. He’s since made Happy Beaver in a variety of sizes and colors. The question Pidgeon gets asked the most is, “Where’s he from?” So Pidgeon is now working on a book starring Hap and his friends who live in Stump Hollow. Courtesy of Jeff Pidgeon

ONE OF JEFF Pidgeon’s drawings that he did as a gift for a co-worker in 1989 when he worked on Tiny Toon Adventures at Warner Brothers._ Courtesy of Jeff Pidgeon

For as long as Jeff Pidgeon can remember he drew. Constantly.

“My goal was to be able to make a living doing it,” said the 1983 Vergennes Union High School graduate in a recent interview.

Um, check. This animation artist now lives in California’s San Francisco Bay area, close to the Pixar studio in Emeryville — where he’s worked since the early ’90s. His work has been recognized in Academy Award-winning films such as “WALL-E,” “Up,” “Toy Story 3,” and, at the Oscars just last month, for “Toy Story 4.”

“It’s always a huge thrill to have your work recognized in such a prominent way,” Pidgeon said. “Pixar’s a very generous company — I didn’t go to the award ceremony, but the team makes a point to bring the statues into work the next day so we can all share the success and take photos… It’s great to have the sense of recognition and accomplishment an Oscar brings. I worked hard on the film (Toy Story 4) for three years (others still more), so that’s very satisfying.”

Pidgeon got his start after graduating from the California Institute of the Arts in 1988.  He was able to start working in the industry before he left school, and had several animation jobs before going to work for Pixar.

“I was lucky to be walking into an industry that was undergoing a renaissance, with hit films like ‘The Little Mermaid’ and ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’ finding an audience with adults and children,” Pidgeon said.

In 1987, Pidgeon had a summer job at Bakshi Animation Studios, working on “The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse” television show. He also worked on the second season in ’88.

“There were a lot of people in the crew who became prominent in the industry later — talented folks like Vicky Jensen (“Shrek”), Bruce Timm (“Batman: The Animated Series”), Andrew Stanton (“Finding Nemo”), and Rich Moore and Jim Reardon (“Wreck-It Ralph”). It was great hotbed of talent for a first job!”

After “Mighty Mouse,” Pidgeon worked at Warner Brothers TV Animation on shows like “Tiny Toon Adventures” and “Taz-Mania.” While he was working there, he saw “The Simpsons Christmas Special.”

“It was hilarious,” Pidgeon said, “and a perfect fit for my smart-alecky sensibilities.” So he started working at Klasky-Csupo, the production company that made “The Simpsons,” on the second season of the show and part of the third.

By about 1991, Pidgeon got a call from Andrew Stanton — a friend he had roomed with in college — who was working at Pixar. This opened the door for Pidgeon to come into the Pixar fold.

“I went to visit the studio, and loved the team, their sense of humor and their ambition,” Pidgeon said. “The technology was interesting, but I was really interested in the storytellers.”

And Pidgeon’s been there ever since.

Over the decades, Pidgeon says that the essential principals of animation haven’t changed that much, but the technology has.

“We’re all still trying to make characters come to life and make the audience care about them,” he explained. “Initially, animation was more hand-crafted — Windsor McKay’s short films were, I think, entirely drawn by him. Each drawing that went under the camera had everything on it — the characters, the backgrounds, everything. It was all traced over and over, which was very unwieldy.

“Later, Earl Hurd and John Bray sped things up by developing the ‘classic’ hand-drawn process that most people know — animators figured out the movement on paper first, the drawings were inked/painted onto sheets of acetate (‘cels’), mounted on peg bars and shot under an Oxberry camera. You didn’t have to trace the backgrounds anymore, and multiple artists were hired to speed up all the steps. That process stayed essentially the same for roughly 80 years.”

When computers and digital technology came along, that’s when the animation process changed quickly.

“Editing went digital early,” Pidgeon said, continuing the explanation. “Ink and paint changed next, as it soon became easier to scan/color the drawings rather than use cels at all. Once tablets and styluses became affordable, storyboarding went digital, with easily rearranged computer files rather than scanning small bits of paper for editing. Digital models that could be animated, lit and rendered was the biggest challenge. Computers had to become powerful enough to handle the job, and while people had been developing digital imagery since the mid-’70s, the processing power needed to catch up.”

Ultimately, the process is still “similar to hand-drawn animation, even if the tools are not,” Pidgeon reflected. “You still develop a story with drawings, even if they’re digital. You still create a character with drawings and paintings, even if they’re digital. You still cut sequences together to see how the story works as a whole, even if that’s done on an AVID instead of a moviola.”

What is it about animation that draws Pidgeon in?

“I’ve always been fascinated with hand-drawn characters that have been realized in three-dimensions,” he said, remembering summers when he was a kid going around to flea markets with his family. “There was always loads of great stuff there,” he said. “My parents bought boxes of comic books for me, back when you could get old back issues for a nickel apiece. My grandparents would go to a lot of local garage sales and buy things to fix up and resell, so there were lots of neat things at their house, too. I think my collecting started with comics, then spread out to other things.”

Pidgeon continues to collect toys.

“I’ve always loved toys,” he added, “and for the most part I took very good care of them. I’m sure some of the collecting came from nostalgia, but I think a little of it came from loneliness or unhappiness. I had friends, but I struggled to fit in at school, so maybe some of it was building a world where I could belong and be happier.”

And that’s just what Pidgeon did. He drew his own success story, first in an animated world and then in reality.

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