Stephanie Soong hadn't even finished her 3D modeling course when she found out she got a coveted position in the Pixar Undergraduate Program (PUP): a 12-week Pixar internship that prepares you for a Technical Director job. She'd taken a big risk leaving a steady career in healthcare to pursue her creative interests, and in true Disney style, the leap of faith paid off!
Stephanie tells what inspired her to change careers, how she prepared her Pixar internship portfolio, and how her CG Spectrum mentors supported her throughout the application and interview process with Pixar Animation Studios.
3D art by CG Spectrum student Stephanie Soong (Original concept: Disegnata)
Stephanie, you had already established a very successful career in healthcare, how did your career change to 3D modeling come about?
I re-watched Brave at a pivotal moment in my life. At the time, I was 27 years old and had achieved every career goal in healthcare that my Asian mother set out for me.
I was working at one of the top 10 hospitals in the United States building quality improvement projects. I had a high salary, great health insurance, and a pension plan. This is what dreams are made of, right?
However, I still found myself wondering why I was deeply unhappy and if I was meant to do something else.
When Merida said, “Our fate lives within us, you only have to be brave enough to see it”, I broke down and realized I too needed to find my own path.
Thus began my own version of fighting for my own hand in marriage and taking control of my destiny.
Stephanie resonated with Brave's Merida (Image: Disney Pixar)
For the next three years, I embarked on a journey to explore other opportunities. I methodically tested nine artistic career paths including: children’s book illustration, comic book writing, photography, concept art, UX/UI, canvas painting, graphic design, and 3D modeling.
I discovered 3D modeling is the ‘Ellie’ to my Carl from UP; it’s the dream fit. The technical side of me enjoys manipulating shapes to build precise, accurate depictions of the third dimension. At the same time, the creativity involved in bringing the magic, sass, quirk, and/or whimsy to a static character fills me with the utmost joy.
Your bravery paid off when you were chosen as one of only 9 PUP interns out of thousands of applicants - congratulations! Can you walk us through the Pixar internship application process?
Maxine Schnepf [CG Spectrum's Career Development Manager] played a huge role in building my application. She helped convert my healthcare resume into a 3D modeling one.
Her best advice on how to get an internship at Pixar was to include a personal objective statement, list of 3D skills that included keywords mentioned in the Pixar internship application, and emphasize that I have professional experience working remotely (which I do) since Pixar’s 2021 internship is virtual after all.
In tandem, my mentor, Alex Lori, wrote an excellent recommendation letter depicting what I’m like as a curious learner and how he sees me uniquely contributing to the art industry.
When I was fortunate enough to get an interview with Pixar, Spectra, a CG Spectrum mentor who previously was a Pixar intern, gave me detailed pointers specific to Pixar’s interview process.
Additionally, Maxine conducted a mock interview and gave me direct feedback on how to improve each answer I provided. It was valuable practice that helped me nail the interview with a large panel of Pixar employees.
What went through your mind when you found out you were successful?
When I found out I got the Pixar internship, I squealed and immediately started crying. In my cover letter, I was honest about my tumultuous journey navigating my career. I went from studying nursing, to doing quality improvement, then founding and running an ecommerce business & living abroad, to finally dabbling in art.
I was shocked and so humbled that Pixar saw me for who I was and still wanted me despite my non-linear path.
I felt undeserving and suffered from imposter syndrome for a while before I came around to being thrilled about the internship. I legitimately cannot comprehend how I went from being depressed working in healthcare to landing a position with Pixar.
It’s unbelievable and an absolute DREAM. COME. TRUE. I never imagined I’d be here!
I’m incredibly grateful for my significant other, mentors, friends, family, and fellow supportive students who helped get me to where I am today. It truly takes a village.
You hadn't even finished your 3D modeling course before getting the Pixar internship! Can you tell us about your experience at CG Spectrum?
I was having difficulty plucking up the courage to make a career transition into 3D modeling. Prior to starting at CG Spectrum (CGS), I messaged Jeremy Chinn, COO of CGS, on LinkedIn with a list of anxious questions ranging from, “What is 3D modeling?” to “What are the post-grad, job prospects in getting a modeling position with a high salary?”; you know, questions a typical, overbearing, Asian parent would have.
I was surprised he responded and impressed that he answered every question thoroughly and honestly. Not once did he try to sell me on the school. Instead, he helped manage my expectations about the industry and mentally prepared me for the hard work ahead should I choose this path.
This theme of honesty, deep caring, and actionable feedback carried on throughout my experience as a student here at CG Spectrum.
They helped teach me how to achieve good design, clean silhouettes, cohesive color stories, balanced composition, and aesthetic appeal.
In addition, they shared an incredible amount of knowledge about the animation pipeline, how to build a strong modeling portfolio, career advice, mandatory soft skills, and important life lessons learned in the film and gaming industries. They have shaped me into the artist I am today.
If my mentors are reading this, thanks for letting me bug you with my incessant, aggressively curious questions about the industry!
I hope I’ve been a decent sponge absorbing everything you’ve thrown my way!
One of the projects you included in your Pixar internship portfolio was a warrior you created in your 3D modeling class. What's the story behind this Disney-style character?
Designing the Warrior was certainly a memorable learning experience. I wanted to challenge myself to create a stylized, "Pixar/Disney" version of Brandon Reimchen's warrior concept (below).
My inspiration came from Storm and Loish. I initially struggled with how to blend these styles in an aesthetically pleasing way, while staying true to the concept art.
My goal was to create a “fairy-like” warrior, but with a feisty, headstrong side.
I started out sculpting typical strong thighs and buff arms, but soon thinned out her silhouette. I wanted to demonstrate that despite her “fairy-like”, slender body shape, her internal ferocity is the real force to be reckoned with.
At one point, I gave up on my initial idea of white hair fading into aqua because nothing seemed to work with it. I even had a version where she was bald, had a bullring piercing, black clothing, and latex boots; I was losing sight of my goal.
After researching and looking through fashion blogs, I eventually found Nyane and loved her style. I decided to change her hair back to the original white & aqua and use the same color scheme for her clothing.
Then, I added a colorful, warm-toned tattoo sleeve to contrast her cool tones, round out her warrior qualities, and add that unique "pop". The iterative design process helped to create a cohesive look.
Where else do you get inspiration? Where do you look for reference?
Aside from being a humongous fan of all Pixar and Disney movies, I don’t really follow any particular artists religiously. When I reach a point in my project where I’m seeking reference images, I’ll usually do my research on Pinterest and select random pieces of art that I think would resonate strongly with that specific project.
I generally try to avoid spending too much time on social media platforms. I have discovered that the more time I spend scrolling, the more time I spend either 1) comparing myself to others and feeling down or 2) trying to mimic art that gets the most ‘likes’.
By avoiding social media, I’m able to protect that small, authentic piece of me and preserve that creative, childlike wonder.
What are your favorite Pixar movies and why?
There’s way too many. My kid side loves The Incredibles. My Chinese side is beautifully represented in Bao. My wanderlust, gourmand side wants to be Remy from Ratatouille. My artistic side is in awe of Toy Story 4. And my heart belongs to Soul.
Final project creating during the 2017 Pixar summer internship
The Pixar Undergraduate Program starts this summer, what are you most looking forward to?
I’m excited to collaborate with and learn from other talented artists who love stylized animation as much as I do!
I fantasize about having full-blown discussions with fellow interns on how to make characters and environments more cute, fun, and magical. I’m excited to let that imaginative, “kid-at-heart” come out to play.
A good way to get a job at Pixar is to start with an internship. What would your dream career be someday?
I love seeing the vulnerable, psychological, complex, inner workings of a character displayed on screen. Currently, as a character modeler, I don’t get to animate these emotions, but I like giving birth to characters that one day may have a multi-dimensional personality.
My dream is to be a lead character modeler in the animation industry, with adjacent masteries in character design, rigging, and animation.
Thank you for sharing your story with us Stephanie, and all the very best for your Pixar Undergraduate Program!
Dreaming of getting a job or internship at Pixar, but need stronger portfolio pieces and professional guidance? CG Spectrum is the place to get career training and support from industry mentors who have been in your shoes. Whether you're pursuing 3D modeling, animation or digital painting, explore our online courses and start your journey!