Serving as Head of Story at Pixar Animation Studios, Kristen Lester recently got to write and direct her first animated short with Purl, a timely and topical short inspired by Lester’s challenging journey in animation.
The short centers on a hardworking and open-hearted ball of yarn who takes a job at a fast-paced, male-centric company, aptly named B.R.O. Capital. The first ball of yarn to work at the company, Purl finds herself excluded and discriminated against by her coworkers. Considering changing her personality and appearance to fit in with the guys, Purl ultimately realizes that doing so would be doing a disservice to herself, and all other employees who stand out as different from the established norm.
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While animation is an area of entertainment with a historic reputation of excluding or marginalizing women in the workplace, Lester has been excited to see the tide begin to change. “It’s weird to be part of an industry that is changing so rapidly, and so drastically. I went from being in a situation where, if I was on a story team, I would be the only woman. I would be sitting in a room, and we would be talking about a female character or something, and they’d be doing something that I didn’t feel was authentic and true to my experience. And I was the only one in there ranting like, ‘They should not be kissing. This movie is not about kissing,’” the director explains. “I went from that in my career to now, I’ve been on movies with a female director. I’ve been on movies with a female head of story. I’ve led a story team that had four women on it. It’s so inspiring and exciting, and I feel so lucky that all of this has happened and come along, and that I’ve been part of it.”
At the same time, with Purl, Lester wanted to tap into the earlier days of her career, when change within the industry had yet to come. The first Pixar short made as part of the SparkShorts program—a series of independent animated shorts, made on a limited budget over the course of six months, created with the intention of spotlighting new storytellers—Purl was a challenge for Lester to make, largely due to the limitations she had faced with career growth in the past, and the way in which she’d been conditioned to think.
“I think my biggest challenge making Purl was to have faith in my own [voice]. I know that everybody says this, but I felt for me it was really true. I had this muscle called my voice, and I had never used it. Obviously, you use your voice to contribute to films, and come up with ideas, but it’s not the same as, ‘Okay, here you go, you’re steering the ship,’” Lester says. “So that was sort of the thing that I was most surprised by, and it was challenging. I definitely had a few times where I was like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing. This is a terrible idea.’ Or, ‘Why did they pick me?’ I was really lucky that everybody, from my family, to my coworkers, to my boyfriend, didn’t let me fall into that.”
DEADLINE: What was the inspiration behind Purl?
LESTER: The short was actually inspired by my long journey getting to Pixar. In school, my class was pretty gender balanced. We were about 50% men, 50% women, and when I graduated, I thought that that’s what my industry looked like. Then, when I graduated and got my first jobs, I was like, that’s not what my industry looks like at all. I was often the only woman on the team I was working with, and it was very isolating, and I found it really hard to fit in. I just wanted to be one of the guys, so I could have friends and colleagues—and also, so I could do the thing that I loved, because I just wanted to work in animation so badly.
I didn’t even realize it as it was happening, but as I was going through working in all these different jobs, I put the feminine part of myself away. I felt like I hid it, I buried it. I wouldn’t talk about certain films that I liked; I wouldn’t make certain references, and I didn’t realize how much of that part of myself I had given away in order to get acceptance, until I actually came to Pixar and started to work with women for the first time.
Nothing makes you reflect on who you are more than looking at [the] people [who surround you]. At Pixar, I was working with women who were younger than I was, who were coming up in the industry, and they so unabashedly embraced their femininity. They suggested ideas like, “I like this movie, and I want to do this with this character,” and when they first started doing that, I felt very embarrassed, because I felt like by suggesting this stuff, we were making everybody uncomfortable, and who would want to talk about bras in a movie?
I went to this talk with a woman who had been in the animation industry for a long time, longer than I had. She showed up at this talk and was wearing a suit, and her behavior and her attitude was exactly like mine. She was like, “It’s 9:00 AM. What are we doing talking? We should be at the bar, drinking and hanging out,” and I had this realization that I felt like we were all sort of turning ourselves into men to be accepted, to do the things that we wanted to do. If I turned to women who were younger than me, or any woman, or anybody of any difference, and said, “That’s embarrassing, don’t do that. We just want to fit in,” I would be be falling in line and creating like a copy of people, just for the rest of our lives. Like, we would all sort of conform to the same thing forever.
When I realized that, I went back to these women that I worked with and was like, “Tell me more about the bras you would like to put into this movie.” It was very awkward, and I was really bad at it. But I felt like when I did that, a whole new world opened up for me. It was acceptance of myself, and the fact that I was a woman and I work in this business. Also, I felt like I opened the door for other people to be themselves around me, and around the people that I work with. It wasn’t just women. It was people of all different genders, people of all different sexual orientations. I sort of had this epiphany, right as Pixar asked me to make a short. I felt like, all right, that’s what I want to make a short about. So, that was sort of the genesis of Purl. I feel like Purl was a long time coming.
DEADLINE: How did you arrive at a pink ball of yarn, as the main character you’d filter your experience through? Obviously, there are a set of associations attached to yarn that the short touches on—that it’s soft, perhaps feminine, and can easily unravel.
LESTER: On the side, I’ve always really been interested in fabric art— knitting or sewing or crochet or quilting, all sorts of stuff like that. At the time, I was really inspired also by knit bombing. It’s kind of all over the city in San Francisco. You’re walking down the street, and then there’s a bicycle, just covered with yarn. I just was like, “Wow, yarn can really be anything. It can be a sweater, it can be a piece of artwork, it can be made to look like food.” Because of the story, I was really interested in this idea of transformation, and the wish fulfillment of being able to knit yourself another identity, and another persona.
That’s kind of where it came from. Then, it was funny. I was working on the short and pitched the idea to somebody who worked here, and they were like, “Oh, my sister is doing her whole PhD thesis about knitting.” It was called “Knitting and the Feminist Ephemera,” or something like that. She gave me this book and was like, “There’s all these associations between knitting and feminism, and just the feminine.” I was like, “Wow.” I wasn’t consciously thinking about it, but somehow I have kind of tapped into this thing that we associate with the feminine, and associate with the ability to transform, and be other things. So, it was just a weird coincidence. I was like, “Was this in my brain somewhere?” [Laughs]
Then, I pitched it to people, and I’ve also really always loved stuff that’s kind of bizarre and strange. I really enjoyed it when I would pitch to people and say, “It’s about a ball of yarn that comes to life, and gets a job in an office full of guys.” People would be like, “Whoa, that’s really weird,” and I’d be like, “All right, I want to make that then.”
DEADLINE: What were some of the fundamental visual choices you made in putting this short together? The world of B.R.O Capital you created is very tactile and interesting, with its implementation of yarn into the design.
LESTER: I love working at Pixar, and I love the community here, and one of the things that I had as a story artist is that we often don’t get to go outside of our department and meet people, and work with people. So, I felt like I had this idea, and I was really excited to do something that was very tactile. The fact that [Purl] was yarn was really important. I wanted it to look fuzzy, and I wanted the world to be hard and steel and concrete, because that would make her feel more alien, and more out of place.
I was really excited to do that here, because there’s so many people who can help bring that idea to life and are so good at it, so it was this awesome cross-pollination, [and] I really wanted to focus on the material. Like, what does yarn look like? What does concrete feel like? It was so great that everybody who worked here knew exactly what that was, and had the same level of curiosity to explore what that looked like, and how we could do that.
DEADLINE: Could you describe the technical process you went through to arrive at the aesthetic you had in mind?
LESTER: I feel like the way that I described it was like, I had this idea, and to make one of these shorts with the SparkShorts program, we had six months to make it from conception to finish. So, the technique that we used was every part of the buffalo, all hands on deck. Whatever works, do it.
When I said, “I want to make a ball of yarn,” that was an incredibly complex thing to try to model, so we did all sorts of stuff. We tried to 3D scan a ball of yarn. We tried to make a ball of yarn in CG, but the geometry was too heavy, because we had thousands and thousands of tubes wrapped around each other. So, it was just this crazy back and forth, even just to try to get what a ball of yarn looks like.
One of the things about a ball of yarn is that you could hold it up to a light and you can see all the little fuzzy hairs along the edge of the ball, and we were like, “How are we going to get that? What are we going to do?” Somebody found this program that we wrote at Pixar called Wonder Moss, [which] was [used] to make moss in Brave, so they could just procedurally make a bunch of moss, and not have to place everything. So, we put Wonder Moss on Purl, and it made her fuzzy. That’s where her fuzz comes from.
Because she was so geometry heavy, I really wanted to make her feel more like a stop-motion character than a 3D modeled character. I was looking for, “I just want a pair of eyes, glued on top of a ball, and a mouth glued on top of the ball,” and we looked forever. We were trying all sorts of different things, and we couldn’t think of anything. Then, somebody went searching through all of our characters and found the 2D mouth that is from Abstract Bing Bong in Inside Out. I was like, “Yes, that’s it.” [Laughs] So, we just took it and stuck it on her face, and her eyes are like eyes from Mr. Potato Head. Because of the time pressure we were under, and because we had to be innovative, we did a lot of borrowing from other films and repurposing things, and I actually loved it.
DEADLINE: Purl is the first Pixar short I’ve seen that features overt commentary on important real-world issues. What did it mean for you for Pixar to support the discussion of inclusion, diversity and tolerance in the workplace in one of their shorts?
LESTER: It meant so much to me, especially as the person who’s telling this story. It’s not an easy story to tell, especially if you’re the person telling it. I was sort of coming to terms with it myself, as I was seeing it, and the fact that Pixar stood behind me, and encouraged me, and supported me, was such a huge deal for me. I could not be more grateful. I’m so proud of us for making it.
I kind of also was a little naive about it, like, “Yeah, this is what we’re going to make, and this is important to me.” It wasn’t really until the end that I looked back on all the things that we had done, and all the things that we had said, and everything that was going on in the world at the time that we made it, and I was just so touched and grateful that Pixar was like, “Absolutely you have to tell the story.” And anytime I faltered or felt like I wasn’t confident, somebody from here was there to be like, “No, you should keep going. This is a story worth telling.” I’m so grateful to work here.
DEADLINE: The SparkShorts series is quite new, having just been announced to the world last year. What did you most enjoy about being a part of it?
LESTER: Being a part of the SparkShorts program was amazing. I enjoyed actually having the shorter time schedule, because it meant that I didn’t have time to really second-guess myself. Considering that that was one of the challenges I faced, I actually felt like that was really helpful. I just had to kind of go on gut instinct, because of that pace.
One of the things that I enjoyed about it also was that the SparkShorts program was intended to be a different flavor from what our normal theatrical shorts are. So, I appreciated the ability to be like, “Okay, what does having some racy language in there look like? What does having some adult material in that look like?” I enjoyed being able to put that in there, because that was also part of the truth of my experience. It was not rated G. So, I was really fortunate that I felt like the program suited the subject matter.
DEADLINE: What’s next for you? Are you working toward getting a feature project together?
LESTER: So, I just wrapped a couple of months ago…I was working for Pete Docter [as] the head of his next film. Then, I’m talking to you from my own room in development, trying to figure out some cool ideas. Pixar has given me the chance to develop a feature, which I think is really cool.
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