Pixar Animator Steven Clay Hunter
Story by Michael Seguin
Photography by Max Sachar
Steven Clay Hunter has one pertinent piece of advice for young aspiring artists: You don’t have to be a teacher if you do not want to.
“I grew up in the sleepy little town of Chatham,” Steven explains. “Back then, I would just sit in my room and draw all the time. I really loved it. So, after surviving high school, I decided I wanted to do something with it. But I went through that period of doubt where I just sat around thinking, ‘Well, I guess I could become a teacher or something.’ Because that’s what us artists are used to! We’re told not to pursue our dreams and to settle into some kind of boring day job. And for some reason, it’s usually teaching.”
Fortunately, young Steven was undeterred by the promise of financial stability. After thumbing through a stack of college catalogs, he stumbled across an Animation program at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario.
“I thought, ‘Hey, that would be kind of cool,’” Steven recalls. “‘Animation! That’s like movies and drawing!’”
At the time, in 1988, the world of animation was a vastly different place. Everything was still traditionally hand-drawn, as computer generated imagery (CGI) was still in their infancy.
“There were no computers or computer courses at the time,” Steven states. “It was all about learning how to use film. It was all about learning how to cut your own sound. Everything was reel-to-reel.”
Steven spent three years at Sheridan College, learning all the basics from the ground up. However, he never ended up completing the program.
“Halfway through my third year, I kind of dropped out,” Steven explains. “I just got sick of cartoons.”
Then 22 and at a crossroads in his life, Steven spent nine months languishing away working at a Red Lobster. But before long, in 1994, a then newly released summer blockbuster rekindled his career goals.
“That year Jurassic Park came out,” Steven explains. “It blew my mind! Before that movie, I was like, ‘Screw computers!’ Then, after seeing Martin Ferrero get eaten by that computer generated Tyrannosaurus Rex on the toilet, I was like, ‘Oh my God! I love computers!’”
Inspired, Steven called some of his friends in the industry and managed to get a job in 2D animation in Toronto. After that, he moved out west to Vancouver to work on several different projects.
Then, in 1996, a promising new lead captured Steven’s attention.
“I found out that Industrial Light & Magic was hiring,” Steven recalls. “I thought, ‘Holy crap!’ So, I got all my stuff together, hopped on a train and travelled to San Francisco. Once I got there, I spent the night in the youth hostel and then hopped on a bus to San Rafael in Marin County, just on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge.”
Unfortunately, Steven hit a small snag in his journey. “I couldn’t find the place!” Steven admits. “I had the address, but I couldn’t find the building! I must’ve roamed around the city for hours!”
Luckily, a familiar landmark pointed Steven in the right direction.
“I peered into the window of this one building and saw an AT-AT,” Steven laughs. “One of those Imperial walkers from The Empire Strikes Back. Then, I immediately knew where I was. So, I walked up the steps and knocked on the door.”
Instead of getting the door slammed in his face, Steven got offered a job.
His first project was working as a Character Animator on the live-action Casper movie.
“I met a lot of great people working there,” Steven states. “Funnily enough,
I ran into some of my friends from Sheridan there. The ones who actually completed the Computer Animation program! So, despite my rambling path, we all ended up at the same place.”
After completing his project at Industrial Light & Magic, Steven went on to work at Disney. There, he helped to bring to life some spectacular animated sequences in films like Hercules and Fantasia 2000.
However, during this time, another surprise blockbuster sent Steven—and the industry—reeling.
“While I was working in Los Angeles, a little film called Toy Story came out,” Steve recalls. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘Oh man. Everything just changed. I have to get in at that studio.’”
Steven ended up getting a job at Pixar in 1997. He has been there ever since, lending his talents to a number of now classic animated features, such as Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles and more!
And now, after over two decades of working in animation departments, Steven has recently made his directorial debut with the animated short film Out.
“Everything at Pixar gets funneled through the Story Department,” Steven explains. “A few years ago, Pixar had launched the SparksShorts program to help find new directors within the studio. So, they started reaching out to different departments to find new storytellers.”
After working on a couple Sparks-Shorts short films, such as Purl (directed by fellow Ontario resident Kristen Lester) and Smash and Grab, Pixar asked Steven if he had any stories of his own he would like to tell. “When the studio asks you that question, you do what comes naturally,” Steven states. “You lie. You say, ‘Of course I do!’ Then, you go home and say to yourself, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do?’”
After racking his brains, Steven spent a weekend penning the initial outline for what would eventually become Out.
“I had this idea about a coming out story,” Steven explains. “It felt like something I was still processing. It was something from my own life that I hadn’t really dealt with in an artistic way. Previously, I would just work on movies and help other people tell their stories. It was hard turning that light on myself. So, I just sat down and started coming up with ideas. What kind of story did I want to tell? And how did I want to tell it?”
Out spins the tale about a young gay man who has not yet come out to his parents, who unexpectedly has his mind magically swapped with his dog’s. It is
the seventh short film in the SparkShorts series, and Pixar’s first ever short to
feature both a gay main character and an on-screen same-sex kiss.
“It felt pretty emotional when we were making it,” Steven states. “One of animators I’ve worked with for years and years, Wendell Lee—who also happens to be a gay animator!—animated the kiss. When he showed it to us, we all just said, ‘Wow.’ We all just sat in the emotion of it for a little bit. It really blew me away.”
Out was released on Disney+ last May. It quickly received widespread critical attention and was even recently shortlisted for an Academy Award for Best Animated Short.
“It was absolutely amazing,” Steven stresses. “It felt so great to have been shortlisted. It was a huge win for myself and my peers.”
It is all pretty good, Steven admits, for a guy who didn’t want to be a teacher.
“I feel very lucky,” Steven states. “I remember when I first started working at Industrial Light & Magic, I used to go hang out with these old guys in the Model Shop. They had all these old props from the old movies I grew up watching. But there was this cynical old guy in the shop who would say to me, ‘Kid, you’ll be lucky to work on one really good movie in your life.’ At the time, I thought he was right. Now, I look back and think, ‘Hey, man. I got to work on a whole bunch of great movies!’”
Out is streaming on Disney+.