Friday, February 15, 2013

Local artist, Steve Pilcher, in line to win an Academy Award with Pixar & Disney team of fellow artists & animators

Animated Feature in line to win an Academy Award (aka an Oscar).
At 57, Steve Pilcher, a former MM Robinson High School grad from Burlington, now lives in San Francisco with his wife, Donna, and their 10 year old twins, a boy and a girl.  He works as a Production Designer for famed Pixar Animation Studios.  BRAVE, a co-production between Pixar & Disney, just won a Golden Globe for 'Best Animated Feature ' and is now in the running for an  Academy Award for 'Best Animated Feature Film'.  Pilcher personally won an 'Annie Award'  on this production for 'Outstanding Achievement in Production Design for an Animated Feature Film',  and, with three of his colleagues, won the 'Visual Effects Society' award for 'Outstanding Created Environment in an Animated Feature Motion Picture'. 

 Taking aim with their best shot, Pixar & Disney's fiery red-headed 
 creation, Merida, could win an Academy Award.

BRAVE, the coming-of-age story of a head-strong Scottish Highland teen-princess, Merida of Clan Dunbroch, became an instant hit when released in the summer of 2012. As of early January of this year, this 93 minute animated movie, created with a budget of $185 million, has grossed over $520 million worldwide.

The animated characters are voiced-over by such film and television luminaries as Emma Thompson, (Queen Elinor), Billy Connolly, (King Fergus), Craig Ferguson (Lord MacIntosh) and Kelly Macdonald (Merida).  

When discussing the development of BRAVE during an interview last June with the Burlington Post, Pilcher makes clear that what the audience sees on the screen is the mere "tip of the iceberg." Many many hours go into pre-production, in this case, seven years. As an example, artists have to create numerous paintings to show the Lighting Department how to light each shot.

Illuminated animated head shots. Lighting matters.

For more on the intricacies of developing an animated feature film, consider this article about the ‘production pipeline.

Coming back to MM Robinson, it was evident to the entire school, even way back then, that Steve had extraordinary artistic talent. A quiet and rather unassuming teen, his tender brilliance revealed itself in his consistently confident sketches of the natural world fused with his sensitive and poignant portrait caricatures. To this day, he confirms that his greatest inspiration comes from his love of nature fused with his love of fantasy. 

Steve Pilcher, in his 20's. © Napoleon Publishing

While at M.M.Robinson in the mid 1970’s, he developed under two teachers, Jim Boyle and Paul Hryskiw, who helped guide his maturing talent. Pilcher has, in turn, inspired other aspiring artists.

Soon after high school graduation, Steve began a career in design and illustration. One of his earliest efforts was Elfabit, (Hayes Publishing, 1982) an inventive and well-loved illustrated children’s book that again fused Steve’s two passions, nature and fantasy.

A slew of illustrations for children’s books followed. He was the winner of a silver award in 1991 for his work on Norbert Nipkin and the Magic Riddle Stone (Napoleon Publishing, (1990), re-issued by Dundurn Press, and now available via 

His other children’s books, now out-of-print, include Toni and the Dandelions (Grassroots Publishing, 1994), Norbert Nipkin (Napoleon Publishing, 1989), and The Bus Ride (Gage Publishing, 1986). 

In the late 1990’s he went to work for Warner Bros in Los Angeles as a visual stylist on ‘Quest for Camelot’. He eventually went on to become the Art Director for Dreamworks’ box-office smash, Shrek 2, (2004). He later worked on Shrek 3, before he moved to San Francisco to work on BRAVE, an animated feature for Pixar.

Shrek 2, Pilcher’s handiwork is evident throughout 

Seven years later, he and his team of artists & animators stand to win the film industry’s standard for excellence in one’s craft, an Academy Award (also known as an Oscar).

For animation enthusiasts, a book, The Art of BRAVE, documents the detailed animation process for this long film production. Many of Steve’s wonderful ‘behind-the-scenes’ illustrations are included. 

Clan Dunbroch family portrait, conceived by Steve Pilcher.

My questions & his answers follow: 

1. Nature and fantasy are two of your passions. When growing up as a teen in Burlington, were there any ‘local’  natural locations that inspired you? Anywhere special?

Yes, there was a field and a patch of forest behind my home in Burlington near Upper Middle Road, it was the source of many drawings, paintings and story ideas. I also used to drive 2 hours or more north of Burlington, to even more remote forest areas.

2. When at MM Robinson, your artistic talent was guided by Jim Boyle and Paul Hryskiw. How did they respectively shape your IDEAS about art & illustration? 

Jim Boyle wasn't that artistic, but very pragmatic, which I really liked, he was the main teacher I had. Paul was definitely more introspective and artistic. I wouldn't say they really shaped my ideas, truth be told, I was a very determined, self reliant and somewhat introverted young person.

3. You and Robert Bateman became friends. What was the BEST advice he ever gave you?

‘Stay open-minded.’  He was and is very much an objective, self-aware intelligent thinker. I really enjoyed our time together discussing art and methods.  I was in my early 20's then.

4.. After graduating from MM Robinson, did you have any further academic art training?

I went to Sheridan College for a couple weeks to try out animation, but left when I figured that I didn't want to animate. I was more interested in art direction, painting and illustration, it felt too specific for what I wanted to express.

5. Elfabit, your first book, is a wonderful fusion of nature and fantasy. Did anywhere in Burlington act as the basis for those illustrations?

Actually my first illustrated book, was a book called "Norbert Nipkin". "Elfabit" was mostly an imaginative book inspired by fantasy and nature. There was one image I painted down by a creek. That's the brownies-floating-on-acorns image. I wasn't in the best of financial circumstances at the time, and as a result the work in that book wasn't my best.

6. You (and crew) travelled to Scotland to scout locations for BRAVE. Did any one location or aspect impress you?  

All of Scotland did, the Isle of Skye, The Dark Mile, the Callanish Stones on the Isle of Lewis, Glen Affric, the two castles we visited, Eilean Donan and Dunnottar. The power of nature out there was awesome.

7. Define Scotland in one word.  -  Mythic.

8. You are a deft hand at caricature. How did you learn this skill? What most influenced this development in you as a youngster – t.v., or comics or ___ ?

I don't think I'm that great at caricature. I love to create my own characters though, comics and great art always influenced, and more importantly, inspired me.

9. Do you produce other art outside of work? If so, what is your focus ?  

Yes, all the time. It's my personal work in the form of paintings, drawings and some sculpture, usually taking form as a book.  I'm trying to finish one this year, my publisher has been patiently waiting for. Working on these animated features take up a lot of one's time. 

10. MM Robinson is having a 50 year Anniversary Gala Celebration Weekend in May. Will you and your spouse be there ?    ( More info here:

 It would be fun to go, but work and time restraints may make it very difficult for me to get there, as I live in California, so, I don't know yet.

11. Any parting word you’d like to send to your admirers and fans in Burlington, Ontario, Canada?

If I do indeed have any fans or admirers, I would like to say thanks for thinking kindly of me, I will always use my skills to hopefully inspire and touch whoever you may be. I  love and cherish my memories of living in Burlington, especially those late teen years in Moss Glen Court with my Mom, Dad, brother Chris, my sister Kathy and our little dog named "Mighty". I will always have a part of Burlington with me because that is also where I met my wife Donna.

Kudos to Steve Pilcher - Brockville born, Hamilton and Burlington bred.
Proof positive of that old adage: ‘Where there is a will, there is a way …

UPDATE, February 25th, YES!! - BRAVE wins Best Animated Feature at 85th Academy Awards!

The Burlington Public Library has 10 copies of BRAVE, but you’ll have to wait to see it. As of last Friday, there were 273 ‘holds’ on those DVDs. Tangentially, a gaming app, Temple Run:BRAVE, is free to download. There’s also a dedicated Facebook page for die-hard BRAVE fans. And, you never know, Steve may just turn up in Burlington in May … 

Pure fantasy, Angus, the horse, and Merida, the red-headed princess, naturally done ... 

Update: Yup, he came!  Great to see and chat. What a guy! 
 Steve Pilcher - 2013

For more local artist news/books, link HERE


Anonymous said...

Steve always had a drive and spark from within... I worked with him before he left for the U.S. and went to OCADU with his wife Donna. Both stellar talents.

Congrats Steve
Kathleen Parle

Ruth Rodgers said...

Hi Steve! I have fond memories of being in art class with you back at M.M. So good to see you have done so very well. LOVED Brave and have included it in an online course I teach on fairytale princesses. Have also done a painting of my version of her character in a series of princess paintings of my own. Merida wins the "best princess" contest hands-down!

Anonymous said...

Hey Steve. You knew me as "Evlyn Windross" back in the day; I was an Editor at Addison-Wesley and I actually remember "Norbert Nipkin" (Was Bob McConnell somehow involved?). You gave me an autographed copy of "Elphabits" and an original illustration - I think it's the acorn scene you've deprecated! - but I always admired your incredible talent, and treasured and saved them. And today, I am waiting to gift to my own daughter (in whose nursery I hung the illustration) , should she EVER start a family.

And congratulations on your success; no surprise to anyone who encountered you at some stage of your career.

Brad Elford said...

Have your Elfabit book from my childhood in the early 80's. Looking forward to sharing it with my own kids as it was a great source of imagination and inspiration for me. Thank you!