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From Brazil to California: One Animator's Path to Pixar

In Pixar Animation Studios’ 2017 blockbuster Coco, one of the characters sums up his path to musical stardom: “No one was going to hand me my future. It was up to me to reach for my dream, grab it tight, and make it come true.”

Animation major André Alves may not be a sombrero-clad, guitar-slinging crooner, but his life is nonetheless an inspiring lesson in the rewards of pursuing ambition. This summer, after years of dreaming and dogged persistence, Alves landed the internship of his dreams—a mentored training program at Pixar.

During his childhood on the Brazilian island of Florianópolis, Alves fostered a love for stories at an early age. Alves’s family did not have much money, so they often watched Pixar movies together to forget the challenges of daily life. Sometimes Alves’s parents themselves became storytellers, acting out tales with hand shadows and candlelight when the power went out.

“These happy moments influenced my desire to work with stories, fantasy, and the magic of animation,” Alves said. “I decided that one day I would be a part of those movies [I watched] so I could also help other kids to forget their problems, forget how hard life can be.”

From his childhood on, Alves fantasized about joining Pixar’s magic-making staff as an animator. However, as Alves pondered his future and his current circumstances, he eventually decided that moving to the United States and entering the film industry was a pipe dream at best. Alves turned to what he considered a more realistic and responsible goal: learning a trade and supporting his family in Brazil.

Alves entered college and studied electrical engineering for four years. Already stressed from working full-time on top of his studies, Alves became disheartened as he realized that he had abandoned his dream for a profession that clearly did not suit him.

“I had no hopes of happiness working in that field,” Alves said. “I was desperate [to know] what to do with my life.”

As time passed, Alves’s life took an unexpected turn. Alves discovered his faith in God and became a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Acting on a strong impression from God, Alves left engineering a semester before graduation to serve a two-year mission. After his missionary service, Alves returned home with a new life plan lined up: he would leave engineering for good and, with the help of a sponsor, move to the US, learn English, and shoot for BYU’s animation program.

Now a second-year animation student, Alves is in awe of the real-world opportunities he’s had to engage with the field of his dreams. After his first year in the animation major, Alves was selected as one of nine interns for the prestigious Pixar Undergraduate Program, a rigorous twelve-week training course in which aspiring animators learn the tricks of the trade right from Pixar staff.

“That was literally a dream come true for me,” Alves said.

Every week, the interns worked on a new technical skill along the movie-making pipeline, rotating between tasks such as lighting, shading, and modeling. Though Alves loves all areas of the pipeline, he discovered he had a special knack for modeling, which is the art of transforming a 2-D reference (usually a sketch) into a computerized 3-D image.

“Working at Pixar. . . you need to find something that you’re passionate about so you can work hours after hours without tiring and still get excited the next day to keep being creative. And modeling is this for me,” Alves said.

Throughout his internship, Alves appreciated how much the Pixar staff cared for both his professional and personal life. His colleagues often stopped by to offer a helping hand when he got stuck on a project, and they even outfitted him with a new keyboard, computer, mouse, wrist brace, and medication when he had issues with his wrist. Other times, his mentors would invite him to take a walk and chat when he was struggling.

“They literally treat you as part of the family. Even if you’re just an intern, you have a voice there,” Alves said.

Ultimately, working at Pixar taught Alves to trust himself and to embrace learning from failure.

“Don’t think that you need to be perfect. . . because they’re not looking for perfection. Be real, be you,” he said. “If you don’t know something, just say, I don’t know. If you know something, be proud of that something.”

Alves doesn’t have an exact plan for his life from here, but he is confident in his choice to make animation his profession.

“I’m so grateful that now, more than ever, I believe in my skills and I believe in myself. I’m not going to give up until I achieve the rest of my dreams,” he said.

And who knows, maybe the next generation of films will feature Alves himself—or rather his animated incarnation--inspiring us to reach for the stars.