Please tell us about yourself
This year’s Oscar for the best animated feature went to a Disney movie called Coco. It’s a Mexican tale, built around the country’s Day of the Dead celebrations, with a rich cast of characters and a great musical score.
One of the many animators on the film was former IB student Harsh Agrawal. Once a student in India, where he studied maths and science alongside visual arts, he now works in the USA for the Disney company Pixar. Right now he’s animating for the fourth movie in the Toy Story franchise.
Harsh Agrawal is currently working at Pixar Animation Studios as a look development artist for Toy Story 4, and his fantastic work can be seen most recently on Pixar’s Coco. His upbringing in India has given his art a great balance between technical and traditional.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
“It’s been an unusual journey, and a very long one,” says Harsh, originally from Rairangpur, in eastern India. “Born into a small village in India, with a conservative, poor family, it was not always easy for me to pursue art.”
Harsh was passionate, though, and he persevered. As a youngster he was bright, and his parents pushed him into studying maths and physics. They wanted him to prepare for the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) examination.
“That meant going to classes after school, and studying for around 12 to 14 hours a day in engineering,” Harsh remembers. “My parents forced me to prepare for IIT, so I had no other choice. I couldn’t see anything past it at the time. But I would still paint whenever I got a chance.”
Just as well since an art teacher at his school spotted his work and encouraged him to apply for the school’s IB Diploma Programme (DP).
“She said I could pursue art as my career,” Harsh remembers. “But, at the time, I had no idea about art being a possible career option.”
Fortunately, the school principal offered Harsh a full scholarship, allowing him to study visual arts alongside his maths and science.
What did you study?
Then came one of those life-changing strokes of good luck. One day, an educator from an American college called Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD, in Savannah, Georgia) happened to be visiting Harsh’s school and noticed his artwork. It was obvious the boy possessed real talent, and the visitor suggested he should apply to study art in Savannah.
“I couldn’t even think about applying, because I couldn’t afford a flight to the USA, let alone studying full-time in an American college,” Harsh remembers. “Education in the United States is expensive.”
Luckily there were scholarships available. Backed up by excellent grades in his Diploma studies, Harsh submitted his impressive art portfolio. It won him a full scholarship to study visual effects at Savannah.
“This was a big opportunity for me,” he says. “The idea of studying art full time really excited me. I was very motivated and worked hard. I would sleep only once every two days, and I focused all my energy on learning visual effects and developing aesthetics. It was not very healthy, I’ll admit.”
Tell us about your career path
Within a year he had notched up work experience with the likes of Microsoft and NASA. Then came an internship offer from Pixar.
After completing his studies with a degree from City University of Hong Kong, Harsh is now a full-time employee at Pixar, working as a shading technical director. He lives in Emeryville, California.
He is a 2017 graduate of the Bachelor of Science programme of the School of Creative Media (SCM). He currently works as Character Shading Technical Director at Pixar Animation Studio
How did you get into Pixar?
At Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), I was introduced to Maya and eventually RenderMan. I learned most of all from Professor Malcolm Kesson, who was a wonderful teacher. At the time I had only used Maya’s mental ray, so I was enchanted by RenderMan’s hybrid Reyes/raytracing engine and how quickly I could get desired looks. I read through all the RenderMan documentation and made some personal projects, which got me into a RenderMan internship, where I helped the team create libraries of shaders and other tasks which helped me learn RenderMan in-depth. This was my break into the industry while a sophomore in college
During my RenderMan internship, I found out about PUPs (Pixar Undergraduate Program). Since I was not sure what I wanted to specialize in, PUPs was a perfect opportunity to try different hats in the pipeline, and after finishing my RenderMan internship, I created a demo reel in order to apply. I was excited I got a call from Pixar for an interview! They asked me some general questions regarding my reel and why I wanted to join the PUPs program. Luckily, I got in and was able to learn each aspect of the Pixar production pipeline from modeling to rendering. This experience has led me to work as a Character Shading TD at Pixar on Toy Story 4. I still have a lot to learn and grow as an artist, but hopefully, my passion will continue to be the driving force.
Tell us about your work
The majority of his work involves creating the textures of characters and props within animated films. “It is part of the development process which decides how a character should look on screen,” he explains, “what colour it should be, and how the material should respond in different lighting conditions.”
Although he has animated many short films, Coco was his first feature-length movie.
“I was in the characters department. I did texturing and shading for a lot of different assets within the movie. I helped with all the background characters, the garments, and the skeleton shading for the Day of the Dead characters.”
Harsh says he loves the fact his job combines his art with his technological background in maths and science. “Shading and texturing is where I best fit as it is a perfect blend of painting and technology.”
He appreciates how his IB education enabled him to study art and science simultaneously.
“My IB education exposed me to the art world,” he says. “It allowed me to paint and to be more creative. It was a very experimental and practical approach compared to the traditional syllabus approach in India.”
He says his success with his IB education helped him secure scholarships to study at higher education.
“It also gave me a strong foundational knowledge to learn more specific skills later on,” he adds. “And, perhaps what’s most valuable of all, is that it has armed me with a research-based approach to learning which I still apply in my daily life.”
What are you working on?
I recently finished working on Coco and now I’ve shifted to working on character shading for an upcoming Pixar film. For personal work, I’m trying to make a collection of Plein-air watercolor paintings.
I recently co-wrote an article on RenderMan’s bumpRoughness and I’m currently working on writing a second part, which delves deeper into the technical details of bumpRoughness.