Justin Wright passed away on March 18, 2008, at the age of 27 from a massive heart attack. He passed away doing what he loved - creating at Pixar. Justin was a phenomenal person and artist. The world was made a better place because of Justin. You can view some of his work at Justin's Blog
Not everyone can use John Lasseter as an excuse for why they’re late. As in, “Sorry, I’m late, but I had to pitch an idea to John Lasseter.” But Lasseter, the creative genius behind films like Ratatouille
, The Incredibles
, Finding Nemo
, and Monster’s Inc
. just happens to be PUC-alum Justin Wright’s boss (okay, more like his boss’s boss) because Justin works as a storyboard artist at Pixar, the Emeryville, CA-based animation studio that doesn’t seem to know how to produce anything but a beloved blockbuster.
Justin, who has worked at Pixar for a little over a year, is one of those types who loves his job so much he’s afraid to talk about it too much, scared of touting his good fortune too loudly. “People might get mad at me if they knew how good we have it here,” he says. “Massages, a gym—all that is true.”
Justin’s job in the story department involves listening to a director’s vision and trying to tell the story back to the director visually with images. “We say it’s all story and no glory here. We’re here to support the director.”
All these visuals take time and talent, a talent Justin began to develop while he attended PUC from 1999-2000 as a fine arts major. He recalls his year at PUC—particularly his time spent in Fisher Hall—fondly. “I loved the art department, especially my classes with Thomas Morphis and Bob Seyle,” he says. “I learned so much in those classes about composition and technique. Now as a storyboard artist, it’s all about composition.” Justin later finished a degree in character animation at CalArts, a school he calls “the school for animation,” and the alma mater of Lasseter. He humbly points out that it took him two tries to get accepted. “But I didn’t give up,” he says with just a hint in his voice of the determination and belief in his dream that he has continually needed in his career.
Justin’s journey to Pixar has another plot twist. He got introduced to the famous studio because of a heart transplant. When Justin was born, his heart had all sorts of complications: cardiomyopathy, a complete block, a hole between the upper two chambers, a hole in the mitral valve —the list goes on. Finally, when Justin was 12, his heart had been through too many surgeries and procedures to be of much use, not to mention that it was the size of a deflated soccer ball inside his slight 70-pound body. It was time for a transplant.
With a lot of time spent in hospital beds recovering, Justin drew pictures (a hobby he says he started as a kid when he got bored in church). His doctor at Stanford’s Lucile Packard Children's Hospital noticed Justin’s interest, and one day, after Justin was fully recovered, took him on a tour at Pixar, where he had some connections. Justin was enthralled—this was what he wanted to do.
Justin thinks his glimpse at mortality as a child helped him pursue his dream of becoming a storyboard artist at Pixar. The road to a job at Pixar is a competitive one. All of Justin’s classmates wanted the same job too. But Justin has always been a planner, so he just went to work, even doing what many of his friends thought was unthinkable, quitting a job as a production assistant at Pixar because he didn’t want to be thought of as “the PA guy.” “When my friends heard I’d quit a job, any job, at Pixar, they thought I was crazy—I mean, people do work their way up from being a production assistant,” he says. “But I knew that I wanted to be seen as a storyboard artist. So I quit.”
He credits his heart transplant with giving him the courage to make risky decisions like that. “I knew I’d been allowed to stay on this earth, and that I was lucky. I do think that influenced my decision.”
The risk paid off. He found himself in an internship that turned into a job, the job. Of course, he can’t tell anyone much about what he’s working on these days (Pixar guards its upcoming story projects more closely than an NSA-secret). However, he can say that he worked on the 2D drawings at the end of Ratatouille
and on the new short coming out with WALL-E
His heart continues to keep him aware of time more contemplatively than most new grads. There’s a maturity beneath the good humor, an awareness that he isn’t invincible, that life is fleeting, ephemeral. Justin’s heart was already 30 years old when it made its new home inside his 12-year-old body, and that was 14 years ago. He knows one day that age difference might become an issue. “I get check-ups and we watch it,” he says. “I try to watch what I eat and live healthy.” And then the smile in his voice is impossible to miss even over the phone. “But right now I’m very happy,” he says. “Right now my heart is doing great.”