Masha Ellsworth, a Ukrainian-born artist at Pixar, talks about Brave behind the scenes and her path from a Chernihiv college to one of the world’s leaders of animated cartoons
You need to be brave to send your CV and portfolio to Pixar. Ukrainian-born Maria Martynenko, now Masha Ellsworth, did just that. On 21 June, Pixar released its new feature cartoon Brave, whose team included Masha. The Ukrainian Week talked to her in Sacramento, California.
U.W.: The only Masha Ellsworth Google finds is a wedding photographer. Imdb.com says just a few words about you. Could you please tell us more about yourself? How did you end up in the artistic paradise of Pixar?
I grew up in Chernihiv, Northern Ukraine. I went to the local technical university and moved to a Utah college after my second year there. I graduated with a degree in computer programming and fine arts. Then I sent my portfolio to Pixar just like thousands of other applicants and they chose me for an internship. I worked as an intern for four months and they continue the training if they like you, and then they hire you if you continue to work well. That’s what happened to me.
U.W.: Your bio says that you used to be a technical intern on Ratatouille, a cartoon all Ukrainian kids are in love with. How did you get to work on the project?
It’s very simple. I sent them my student video portfolio. When I was still in college I worked on many short cartoons, including Pajama Gladiator. Released in 2008, it was directed by Glenn Harmon and won several festival awards. It tells the story of a little boy fighting the monsters from his dreams…
U.W.: Two years later, you worked on Up as a character colorist, and worked as a costume supervisor on the short film Play by Play after that. How did you manage to combine all these different tasks?
Pixar has a studio university: all employees can take part in different projects in their free time. Play by Play was one of them. It’s a real short film, not an animated cartoon. I had a chance to work as a costume designer and I took the opportunity. It had nothing to do with my main job. But there is nothing strange about it. I’m a costume designer at Pixar, too, only I design computer costumes, color characters and their clothes, and give them texture. Logically, I wanted to work with real costumes, and every day turns out different even though I deal with clothes every day. Everything depends on what I’m working on. When I worked on Brave I made Princess Merida’s hair, and hair in an animated cartoon is always a technical challenge.
U.W.: Cartoons are teamwork. What individual trace do you add to it? Is it even possible to add a personal touch?
Of course, it is! When artists give us sketched characters or the main design of the setting on paper to make them into 2D or 3D images on the computer, we have to make sure that we comply with the cartoon style. But the hand-drawn sketch does not have as many details as the cartoon requires and that’s where you start being creative. Everyone wants to bring their ideas to life. I have so many ideas! But I’d like to deal with the company’s technical progress. I mean, I’m more interested in the speed of 3D graphics and finding solutions to make our work quicker and stop doing what computers can do for us. All this will make it much easier for the artists to create their designs. The technical aspect is also creative and artistic for me.
U.W.: There are a lot of Ukrainian-born artists at Hollywood companies. Do you keep in touch with each other?
Yes, there is one Ukrainian-born guy at Pixar and sometimes we talk. But studio employees don’t have much time to talk. There is a large Ukrainian community both in San Francisco and in Sacramento, so there are many opportunities to stay in contact with our national, cultural and language community, if only you have time. I have a lot of Ukrainian friends in the US and we often talk on Skype. Since I’m done with all my work on Brave, with the costumes completed and all the hair done, I can spend more time with them. But I’ve already started working on the new Pixar cartoon scheduled for 2014, The Good Dinosaur by Bob Peterson.
Masha Ellsworth was the computer hair stylist on Brave, a recent animated feature by Pixar