The beginning of a career
Matthew’s career began at 19 years old, as the youngest animator to work on
The Simpsons TV series. His TV credits on The Simpsons include Kamp Krusty (1992), Lisa’s Pony (1992), Homer Alone (1992), Colonel Homer (1992), Homer Defined (1992), and Burns Verkaufen der Kraftwerk (1992).
I come from a long line of toy store owners. My parents owned toy stores, my grandparents owned toy stores, my great-grandparents owned toy stores, and my great-great-grandparents owned a cigar shop, but that’s a different story.
The toy stores were called Jeffrey’s Toys, and quickly became the largest chain of toy stores in the San Francisco Bay Area.
They sold everything from trains, models, stuffed animals, puppets, action figures, and games.
But working at the toy stores was not my dad’s dream. Although he was a visionary in the toy business, his dream, ever since he was a kid, was to be an artist for the Walt Disney Studios. Unfortunately, due to the Vietnam War, and a lot of pressure to run the toy stores, his dream was put on hold.
On Father’s Day 1972, I became the newest addition to the Jeffrey’s Toys dynasty. By 2 years old, I started working at the toy stores, and of course, I was paid in toys. On my first day at work, I earned a Smurf. Most of my family agreed I was overpaid.
One day while trying to cheer up my dad, who was sick in bed with a stomachache, I drew him a picture. I was only about 3 years old but managed to draw a likeness of my dad with scribbly lines indicating how he felt. My dad believed my drawing was amazing. He showed it to everyone, including total strangers! The sketch was framed and displayed on our dining room wall.
Without knowing it, that drawing would change the course of my life. My dad believed I was to become an artist, and more importantly, one day work at the Walt Disney Studios. His dream was reborn.
In preparation for my future career, my dad drew with me all the time, took me to art museums, fed me a healthy dose of comic books, and yes, removed me from school at least twice a month to go to the movies. I owe my appreciation for movies, art, animation, and cartoons, to my dad.
As a kid, it seemed to me that everyone worked with toys when they grew up. Even my uncle Jeff, who did not work in the toy stores, owned a commercial photography studio where he took photos of me and my friends for toy catalogs.
By the time I was in high school I was determined to get accepted into the California Institute of the Arts. This was the school that Walt Disney created in order to train the next generation of animators.
While attending CalArts I made a short film that landed me an animation job on the TV show The Simpsons. I was 19 years old.
After animating on the 3rd season of The Simpsons, I went back to CalArts one more year to create my second short film. My film was then spotted by a small animation studio in the San Francisco Bay Area called Pixar Animation Studios. I was offered the job as one of the first twelve animators on the movie Toy Story. I took the job!
While animating on Toy Story I stumbled across a room where a group of people were arguing, laughing, writing, and drawing pictures. Without knowing it, I had discovered the room where the story team was developing and creating Toy Story. I had always thought that a script for a movie was created and written by one person, but instead I saw a group of people coming up with ideas like it was an improv class. The leader of the story team was Story Supervisor, Joe Ranft.
I began stopping by “The Story Room” every day, wanting to learn more. Seeing my interest, Joe began giving me story assignments. I quickly realized that I loved the art of storytelling.
After a year of working at Pixar, I was laid off along with the rest of the animation department. The Disney company had decided that Toy Story was not working and needed to be rewritten. Everyone was heartbroken, but I was secretly happy because I could dedicate my time to learning about storytelling.
A year later, Toy Story was rewritten and ready to be made. Pixar called me up and offered me my old job back as an animator, but I declined explaining that I really wanted to work in the story department. Unfortunately, I was under-qualified. I spent the next two years working story freelance jobs, teaching kids how to draw, and working temp jobs to pay the bills. At times, I felt I had made the biggest mistake of my life not taking back my job as an animator.
But two years later I received a call from Pixar offering me a job as a story artist on Toy Story 2.
I would go on to help create the characters and stories for numerous Pixar films including, Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, Cars, Ratatouille, UP, Toy Story 3, Monsters University, and many more.
I later moved into the role of Story Supervisor, like my mentor Joe Ranft, creating the stories and characters for many Pixar shorts and specials including, Toy Story of Terror and Toy Story That Time Forgot.
Along with creating stories in Hollywood, I also love to teach others how they too can become better storytellers in the world of entertainment and business.
Matthew Luhn is not only a master of story himself, but a brilliant educator. In an enjoyable and understandable way, he helps his students understand the links between story and business, and how story is invaluable in making smart, mission-driven, business decisions.
Ericka Lutz, Faculty, Haas School of Business, UC Berkeley