Talking with: Pixar’s bug-phobic pioneering producer

Name: Galyn Susman
Age: 49
City: Piedmont
Who: Producer at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville

J.: Where are you from originally? What did you want to be when you grew up?
Galyn Susman: I grew up in Chicago, and I wanted to be a physicist or an astronaut. And then I went to Brown as a physics major and found that I actually wasn’t very good at physics. (Laughs) So I chose something it turned out I was good at: computer science, computer graphics.

Galyn Susman


J.: What brought you out West?
GS: I got a job in research and development at Apple, and it was when we were just putting out the first color Macintosh. I was working on the color capabilities for [Apple graphics system] QuickDraw when a group of us basically said, Hey, wouldn’t it be cool to put together a short film produced entirely on Macintosh computers? Writing the software and doing the animation was probably the hardest I’ve worked in my life.

J.: How did you wind up at Pixar 23 years ago?
GS: I realized that I enjoyed the filmmaking aspect of that project as much or more than I enjoyed the software and the other aspects. And one of the women I was working with was engaged to [Pixar co-founder] John Lasseter, who became sort of our animation coach. So in 1990 I joined them, thinking “I want to make pretty pictures instead of graphics.”

J.: Of all the movies you’ve worked on over the past two-plus decades, do you have a soft spot for any of them? Are any of the characters really dear to you?

GS: I’m very attached to “Toy Story.” “Toy Story 2” was a trial for me because it was my first as a supervising technical director, and it was a real labor of love. I think the storytelling was the most touching that we had done up until that point …  and I did get especially attached to [the cowgirl character] Jessie.

But I love our movies for different reasons. I think the first act of “Wall-E” is one of the greatest pieces of cinema we’ve ever made; it’s remarkable what’s conveyed without dialogue — this really visceral, tangible feeling about the devastation of the planet. And the first act of “Up” is incredibly heartfelt.

J.: Especially when you’re dealing with protagonists like rats (in “Ratatouille”) and fish (in “Finding Nemo”), how do you make characters so relatable and dynamic?
GS: It’s funny. On “A Bug’s Life,” I was the most bug-phobic person on the crew, and they kind of used me as a barometer — if I could sit through a scene, it wasn’t going to be too high on the creepy scale.
But in general, there are so many things that go into making a character appealing. It’s design, it’s the voice acting that you come to associate with the character, there’s writing, and then things like how they move. And the order that you release information in — when you have two hours to tell a story, and you’re trying to tell the story of a lifetime, you have to be very selective in crafting a character.

J.: Animated films take a lot longer to create than most people probably realize. What’s about average for a Pixar feature these days?
GS: On average, it’s about a four-year process. The first two years are all about crafting a story, and the next two are about execution and animation.

J.: Your family is fairly observant (they belong to Oakland’s Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation, and the eldest of Susman’s three children is off to yeshiva in Israel next week). Do you have any secrets for keeping kosher in the Bay Area?
GS: Well, in addition to being a kosher winemaker, my husband [Dan Levin] is also an amazing chef, which simplifies it! We actually have a community of amazingly talented cooks, so we all eat in each other’s homes, and we eat well. That’s the secret: Marry or have good friends who cook really well.

“Talking with …” is a j. feature that focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting.

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.