Pixar's Kristen Lester talks coffee and creative must-haves

Kristen Lester
Director and Storyboard Artist, Pixar

Kristen Lester’s directorial debut, the animated short Purl, tells the story of an animated pink ball of yarn who learns what aspects of her personality she’s willing to sacrifice in order to fit in with a group of new co-workers.

Purl, created as part of Pixar’s innovative SparkShorts program, was a window into Lester’s own experiences as a young female artist trying to find her voice in the male-dominated animation industry. It was experimental in tone, style, and message – a reflection on Lester’s evolution in storytelling style since graduating from Sheridan’s Animation program in 2004.

READ: Kristen Lester tackles the knitty gritty of animation in Pixar’s “Purl”

Last week, Lester returned to campus to share her insights with a group of Animation students – budding animators in the midst of finding their own storytelling voices, looking for their place in the industry.

Along with imparting advice and critiquing portfolios, Lester, who is developing her own Pixar feature, gave students a behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like working at the company. Here, we chat with Lester about her work process and success since Purl:

How do you take your coffee?
Cream and sugar. Actually, I don’t drink coffee anymore…do you want to hear the sad story?

Of course.
I had just finished supervising a movie and during that supervision time, I carried a lot of stress and was working very hard. It was tough being a supervisor. During that time, I developed acid reflux, and one of the things that triggers that is coffee. So I had to say goodbye to coffee, and man oh man, was it hard. Other people were drinking it, and I’d literally just try to smell it. Just a sniff! It’s such a comfort thing. When it’s morning, sometimes you just need a warm hug and a bit of a boost at the beginning of the day, and I was so sad to think my body was too weak to handle it.

You didn’t switch to tea?
It got so bad that even hot water was too uncomfortable to drink, so I just avoided all of it. I felt like I was in prison – just bland toast and water for breakfast every day. I definitely felt, coming out of it, that you forget that making stuff takes a toll on you physically. It taught me how to manage myself a bit better.

What’s the first thing you do when you get to the Pixar office every day?
My fiancé and I drive into work together. The way the campus is designed, there’s a long walk to the main building and it’s lined with trees. Every day, I swear every day, I say to myself, “This is the most beautiful place on earth.” It’s the most beautiful place to work. Every day I just feel so lucky to work at Pixar. It gets me every single time. I think they designed it that way. Everything is always so magical…the light always seems to fall perfectly, and the wind blows through the trees and it’s like, I work here? What? It’s amazing. And then I can’t have coffee and I’m grumpy again.

What are your “must haves” when getting into a creative headspace?
I sometimes avoid stuff. I’ll sit down and look at the internet for a while until a looming sense of dread takes over and I’m forced to be creative. When I really get into the zone, I like to listen to music. I’m a person who’s super affected by music, and sometimes when I’m storyboarding a scene, if I’m listening to the wrong music, I can bring that into the scene. If I’m boarding an emotional scene, I like to listen to emotional music. If I’m boarding a funny scene, I won’t listen to anything at all because I’m trying to generate ideas, and music can get in the way of that. If I’m cleaning up rough drafts, I like to listen to music that makes me feel like a machine.

Music that makes you feel productive?
Yeah, like techno or stuff with a really rhythmic beat so I can be like, “I am a machine, I am cleaning these panels.”

Any animators you’re taking inspiration from at the moment?
I’ve switched a bit. I don’t follow animation as much anymore…I’ve been following more live action. Parasite just came out, and I’m obsessed with that director. I’ve really gotten into the work of Ari Aster, who directed [horror films] Midsommar and Hereditary. I’m looking more to those movies as sources of inspiration. I’ve always found a lot of inspiration in TV – the ladies from PEN15 are awesome.

It’s hard, because at Pixar, the people you admire aren’t outside the building…I can just look to the person next to me and I’m inspired. When I think about who inspires me, I don’t think about [Monsters Inc. and Inside Out director] Pete Docter or Ronnie del Carmen, because they’re right there, working alongside me. It probably means I’m taking them for granted.

Given Purl caters to more of an adult audience, maybe that connects with the inspiration you take from more mature content?
I think the adult part of it is just who I am as a person and as a storyteller. It’s an interesting thing to wrestle with. Am I more of a South Park-style animator? I don’t think I’m as bold or as brave as those people. But I don’t think I’m a completely G-rated person either. I’m still in the process of figuring out what I’m about. With Purl, I was kind of unconsciously making choices. Now, I’m looking back at those choices and asking myself if that was part of my self-expression, or was it just the right fit for that particular story? I’m in a weird self-analysis place about that stuff. I think it means I’m looking too hard.

It’s been a little over a year since Purl first premiered. Looking back, are there any screenings of the short that stand out?
So many for so many reasons. It played at El Capitan [in Hollywood] which was a huge deal – not necessarily because of the theatre, but because it was playing in front of The Little Mermaid, which was the thing that made me want to get into animation. It was a really great, meta, full-circle moment.

The first time we screened it for [Pixar] was really memorable because we announced it at this company meeting, so I was standing on a platform facing towards the company, telling them I made a thing. It was a surreal experience to see 1,200 people all walk towards you, going into a theatre to watch your short. I was in the back of the theatre, and I couldn’t stay for the reaction. I had so much anxiety that I ran out. So funnily enough, the thing I missed was that it had a good reaction.

I had the good fortune to screen it for Amy Poehler, which was really cool – to screen it for someone who you admire and respect and know that they liked it.

Is there any advice you were given as a student that you still keep in mind today?
I think it was Dave Quenelle – I was doing a short as a student, and it had narration in it. I think he was my third-year teacher at that point, so I showed him my short, and he told me that narration shouldn’t narrate what the viewer is already seeing. Narration should run in contrast to what we’re seeing. So, if I’m saying a character is great at skiing, the viewer shouldn’t be seeing a character that’s great at skiing. It completely changed my short and I had to redo it.

Before that point, I had already showed the short to a bunch of different people, and someone suggested I should show it to Dave as well. It’s the kind of thing where you never know where good feedback will come from, so it’s good to go outside your circle.

What are you working on now?
I just wrapped up being the head of story on Pete Doctor’s next movie, Soul. I did that at the same time as making Purl, which was also part of my stomach dissolving. Now, I’m developing another movie, and if all goes well, I’ll get to make another thing, which is always cool.