“There are so many aspects to telling a great story, but it’s about making people feel something, it’s about making people feel empathetic to your character. It’s about evoking that emotion.”
Matthew Luhn is a storyboard artist, keynote speaker, and story consultant with more than 20 years of experience making films at Pixar Animation Studios. Luhn has not limited himself to film and animation — he also teaches business professionals how effective storytelling can improve a company’s brand and foster connections with customers. Luhn’s love for telling stories has compelled him to share his talent and knowledge with others and build communities of storytellers around the world.
Luhn grew up in San Francisco, where his parents own a chain of toy stores called Jeffrey’s Toys. Toy stores are the family business, going back several generations. His father had dreamed of becoming an artist for Walt Disney Studios, but decided to carry on the family tradition, managing the stores. However, when he realized his son liked to draw, he began encouraging the young artist. Luhn’s father took him to art museums, watched movies with him, bought him comics, and fostered in him a love for art and storytelling.
While in high school, Luhn heard about the California Institute of the Arts through his art teacher. Cal Arts had an animation department, but admission was very competitive, so Luhn knew he would need a good portfolio. He borrowed his art teacher’s camera and used it to shoot flip books, to do claymation, and to do stop motion animation. This impressive portfolio won him admission to Cal Arts. As the school’s animation program has long been considered one of the best in the country, such an institution was a direct route to success in the animation business.
In his first year at Cal Arts, Luhn made a short film that won him a job offer as an animator on the third season of The Simpsons. Luhn accepted, postponing his education for a year to work on the show. While at The Simpsons, he witnessed a story team at work for the first time. It was this experience that sparked Luhn’s interest in story boarding. After a year, he returned to Cal Arts, at which time he made another short film. To his surprise, Pixar saw the film and offered him a job working on what would become the first computer-animated movie, Toy Story. At Pixar, Luhn worked as an animator, but spent his free time in the story room helping the team and learning about the writing process. The story supervisor Joe Ranft recognized Luhn’s curiosity and began giving him story writing exercises to do in his free time. With Ranft’s guidance, Luhn began building the foundation of what would become the next stage in his career.
After working at Pixar for a year, the studio decided that the film should be rewritten, so the entire animation department was laid off. Luhn took it in stride, and became an animator for Industrial Light & Magic, a division of Lucasfilm. He also worked as a freelance artist for several commercial animation studios. It was from these experiences, which featured a lot of trial and error, that he got the hang of story boarding.
After a few months, Luhn got a call from Pixar and was offered his old job back. But he wanted to work as a storyboard artist, so he declined. For the next two years, Luhn worked freelance, taught drawing classes, and worked as a temp. At the end of that duration, he received a call from Pixar and was offered a job as a storyboard artist on Toy Story 2. Over the next 20 years, he helped write numerous Pixar movies, including Finding Nemo, Cars, UP, and Monsters, Inc. Beginning in 2015, Luhn has worked as a story boarding teacher at Cal Arts. He has also been a story masterclass presenter and story workshop instructor at Vancouver Institute of Media Arts since 2009.
In 2016, after a long career at Pixar, Luhn decided to leave in order to spread his passion for storytelling with a new audience. He admits that, “I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit in me.” Luhn recognized the necessity of good storytelling in areas outside of the arts, and began working as a speaker, hosting workshops, and working as a story consultant. He runs story seminars and story for business workshops in major cities worldwide. As a keynote speaker, he helps business leaders learn to use storytelling to develop their branding and advertising strategies. Luhn has worked as a story consultant with Adidas, Sony, Facebook, Disney, and many other companies. He continues to encourage others to tell their own stories and create relationships through great storytelling.