Pixar's 'Purl,' Inspired by Being a Woman in Animation, Brings Contemporary Message to Siggraph

PURL-Publicity still-H 2019
Courtesy of Pixar Animation Studios

Siggraph, the annual confab dedicated to computer graphics, is knitting together a playful animated character and potent contemporary message by awarding the top prize in its Electronic Theater animation competition to writer-director Kristen Lester's Purl. The new Pixar animated short tells the whimsical tale of a pink ball of yarn who struggles for acceptance in her male-dominated work environment.

Director roles in the animation community still are largely dominated by men. Lester, who is head of story on Pixar chief creative Pete Docter's next movie, Soul, says Purl was inspired by her own experience of being a female in animation. "Over the period of my career, I really wanted to fit in and be accepted to do the thing that I loved doing," she says.

Lester also drew on the relationships she forged with several females artists at Pixar, including Domee Shi, the writer-director behind the company's 2019 Oscar-winning short, Bao. "There's a whole bunch of women here who have been incredible," Lester says, citing Valerie LaPointe, head of story on Toy Story 4, and Rosanna Sullivan, who wrote and directed 2019 Pixar animated short Kitbull. "I had just started working at Pixar, and I was meeting with a group of women in the story department. We would talk about our experiences in the industry and as storytellers. I realized their stories were kind of my own story."

Purl follows a soft, textured, pink ball of yarn in a world that is “angular and made with concrete and glass and steel. For the guys, we tried to make them very clean, angular, and we gave them suits that are similar.”

More subtly, she changed up the animation of her lead character. Lester explains that typical CG animated movies give a character a new pose in each frame, whereas here she held Purl's poses for two or four frames, a technique more often used in stop motion. “To help cement the idea that she’s different, she moved through the world physically different.”

Since the Electronic Theater is an Oscar-qualifying competition, Purl's win puts it in the 2020 Academy Awards race. Awards recognition aside, Lester says she's inspired by the sense of community among her fellow females in animation: "The most awesome thing is we are all supporting each other and cheering one another on."

A version of this story appears in the July 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.