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Hometown hero: Ohio State alumna combines art and technology at Pixar

Headshot of Fran Kalal, Pixar Animation Studio’s tailoring lead and cloth and simulation technical director. Credit: Courtesy of Disney Pixar.

Editor’s note: “Incredibles 2” is available on digital now and on Blu-ray Nov. 6.

For some, mentorship can be pretty one-sided. But for Fran Kalal, Pixar Animation Studio’s tailoring lead and cloth and simulation technical director, it’s a two-way street that taught her she not only has something to offer, but always has something to learn.

“I see [mentorship] as an economy where you’re mentoring people and you can be mentored, and high tide floats all ships — we all benefit from it, and I learned that at Ohio State University,” Kalal said.

Kalal is originally from Columbus, where she received her bachelor’s degree in a personalized study program in animation and video for education and her master’s degree in digital animation and computer visualization from the Department of Design at Ohio State.

Kalal has been with Pixar since July 2007, when she originally signed on as a technical director. In 2011 she also took on the role as lead instructor of the Pixar Technical Undergraduate Program and in 2015, became a consultant for Pixar in a Box — a collaboration with Khan Academy that gives animation lessons and a behind-the-scenes look into how Pixar artists do their jobs.

Kalal’s duties at Pixar include creating garments for characters and simulating hair and clothing in shots for feature films such as “Up,” “Brave,” “Wall-E,” “Inside Out” and most recently, “Incredibles 2.” Kalal said she holds “Incredibles 2” near and dear to her heart because she resonated a lot with the story of Helen Parr, better known as Elastigirl.

“[When we were making it] I was a very new parent and Helen’s arc resonated with me because she also had to go do something very important to help her family by going and bringing ‘Supers’ back,” Kalal said. “So seeing a strong female role model was very inspiring to me because I would come to work every day and do something that was really exciting and that I thought would bring a positive message to the world.”

Kalal was finishing up her undergraduate degree when the original “Incredibles” came out. She said she remembered wanting to be a part of something like that, a dream that came to fruition when she got to work on the sequel — a joint effort of old and new talent.

Fran Kalal working on animation for Elastigirl for “Incredibles 2.” Credit: Courtesy of Disney/Pixar

Kalal said she learned a lot about the importance of mentorship from the Advanced Computing Center for Arts and Design at Ohio State.

“I mentored at a summer camp for getting young women interested in animation for several years,” Kalal said. “That experience really planted the seeds for my career in making mentorship a priority for me going forward, and that’s helped me both professionally and personally in finding mentorship highly rewarding.”

Kalal’s career has allowed her the opportunity to work on numerous animated films, but out of all of the 20 feature films Pixar has released, “Coco” is her favorite.

“‘Coco’ is always going to hold a special place in my heart [because] I was very pregnant with my son while I was working on that movie, and he is in the credits as a production baby,” Kalal said. “Also, the digital ofrenda at the end [of the movie], which is a very moving tribute of people that have inspired us, has my grandmother’s picture, who inspired me to learn how to sew and taught me about clothing … There’s three generations of our family in the credits of that movie, and that means so much to me.”

At Ohio State, Kalal never had doubts about what profession she wanted to pursue. She knew she wanted a career where she could balance art and technology. Dating back to high school, she said it was the most important thing to her because her father steered her in that direction.  

“Film looked like something I’d be interested in and he found this clip where this little alien was dancing underneath a disco ball and at the time that was very revolutionary [for animation],” Kalal said. “He showed it to me and said, ‘You can go to school for this.’”

The dancing alien clip was created by award-winning digital animator Victor Navone, who has worked on numerous Pixar movies, including “Finding Dory,” “Monsters University” and “Toy Story 3.” However, everything came full circle for Kalal when she got to work on “Inside Out” with the man who sparked her career.

“[Navone] works at Pixar and I got to work with him on ‘Inside Out,’” Kalal said. “So I got to meet the guy who made the piece of art that inspired me to pursue this field, which was really cool.”

Although Kalal treasured her time at Ohio State, she encourages students to take advantage of all opportunities, but keep their eye on the bigger picture.

“It showed me undergraduate and graduate school may not be as perfect as we’d like it to be,” Kalal said. “But Victor’s early work showed me we all start from somewhere and if you keep practicing and keep trying and keep looking for what you can do to make something better, you can achieve mastery — but we all have to start from somewhere.”   

 

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