Peter Kelly Brings 'Magic' to SMC Dine with Alums Event

Rango, Star Wars Animator Captivates SMC Audience

Peter Kelly talked with SMC students at the Dine with Alums event.If you were at Saint Mary’s during the late 1990s, you might have noticed a lanky, young man with sandy brown hair sitting in Ferroggiaro Quad day after day, filling his sketchbook with drawings of the people around him. Or maybe you were one of his subjects, without ever knowing.

Today, that young man is an animator at Industrial Light & Magic, the fabled home of such movie classics as E.T., Jurassic Park, and the Star Wars series. The stuff that dreams are made of.

So it was fitting that Peter Kelly, a 1998 graduate of Saint Mary’s College, was the guest speaker at the Alumni Engagement Office event known as Dine with Alums, which gives students a chance to try out their dreams at a networking dinner with alumni who have followed their dreams into “the real world.”

At the annual event, about 160 students hopped from table to table, networking with about 65 SMC alumni in fields that interested them, from Accounting and Communications to Performing Arts and Real Estate. It was a bit like speed dating, but for careers.

Students eagerly waited for their alumni volunteer mentors.“It’s a great opportunity to meet with people who were in my exact same shoes not long ago,” said Gaby Fernandez, a junior business major who’s focusing on marketing and international studies. Olivia Call, a senior communication major who hopes to get a production job with Pixar once she graduates, was particularly excited to hear Kelly’s talk.

Kelly captivated the crowd with a presentation that tracked the evolution of his work, from his fascination with the Beast in Beauty and the Beast to those early sketches in the quad and on to his latest work on films like Rango and Pirates of the Caribbean. And he cracked up the crowd when he showed footage of him acting out a gorilla’s running gait so he could get the animation just right. “I’m a method animator,” he joked.

At the end of his presentation, Kelly offered three tips for students pursuing their career dreams:

-Be flexible. He said that if he hadn’t been open to new technologies like computer animation, his career would have ended long ago.

-Draw on your network. Starting with Saint Mary’s alumni.

-Show some enthusiasm. As for himself, he said: “I love my job. I’m so excited to get into work every day that I literally can’t sleep.”

What he didn’t mention but could have was: Put in the hours. Work hard to make your dream a reality.

Kelly with a statue of Yoda from the Star Wars movies. A page from one of Peter Kelly's SMC sketchbooks. From the time in his junior year at Saint Mary’s when Kelly began to seriously focus on being an animator until he graduated, he filled 48 large sketchbooks with his work – enough to win entry into the prestigious California Institute of the Arts. There, he worked for six months on 1,100 drawings that became a 2½-minute film about a boy who tries to hypnotize his sister so he can get her to do his chores, with hilarious results.

Out of all the films by his fellow students, his short feature won the top prize—and caught the eye of one of the contest judges, from Industrial Light & Magic. After a brief internship there, he was hired as an animator in 2001, working on Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones.

Since then, he has helped bring to life characters like the nightmare-inducing Davey Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean and the adorable Yoda of Star Wars fame. He was lead animator on The Avengers and the Academy Award-winning Rango. And he’ll soon begin work on Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Recently, an interviewer from the Walt Disney Museum asked him what his favorite Walt Disney quote was. His reply: "All of our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them." 

By Teresa Castle
Office of College Communications

Photos by Andrew Nguyen '14

View more photos from the Dine with Alums event.