The film school that launched ‘Lightyear’ director Angus MacLane’s career — and other famous alumni

Angus MacLane and Chris Evans at the premiere of "Lightyear" at El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood. Source: Alberto E. Rodriguez/AFP

As summertime arrives in full swing, so do a new range of blockbuster films — including the Toy Story spin-off, “Lightyear”. Described as the film that inspired the creation of the Buzz Lightyear action figure, it’s being praised for its animation, voice acting, score, and entertainment value, all whilst maintaining a heartwarming level of nostalgia for older fans of the series. 

“Lightyear” is heralded by familiar names in Hollywood, most notably Marvel veterans Chris Evans and Taika Waititi. However, it’s also thrusting a new figure into the spotlight: Pixar director Angus MacLane. 

While “Lightyear” marks his directorial debut, MacLane is far from a newcomer to the world of animated film. He’s a familiar name in the company, having worked on almost all Pixar films that have been released over the past two decades as a storyboard artist, animator, voice actor and screenwriter. These include award-winning films such as “The Incredibles”, “Inside Out”, “Toy Story 4” and “Soul”. 

Poetically, it was the original “Toy Story” that prompted MacLane to realise his ambition to work in animated films. “It hit me like a lightning bolt,” he told A.frame. “So much so that I got on a payphone to my parents afterwards and I was like, ‘I know what I want to do. I want to work at Pixar.’”

To make his dreams a reality, MacLane chose to pursue his studies at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). As a private art and design school in Providence, Rhode Island, RISD is known for being one of the best institutions in the US to pursue design, art, animation and architecture, regularly placing among the top three in national ranking lists. 

RISD is additionally famed for producing and launching the careers of many notable public figures in the film industry and beyond. This includes recognisable names like James Franco and Seth MacFarlane, as well as influential architects, writers, and more.

Here are four notable Rhode Island School of Design alumni and what they studied. 

Director/screenwriter of “Lightyear” Angus MacLane graduated from RISD in 1997. Source: Valerie Macon/AFP

Angus MacLane, director of “Lightyear”

MacLane was part of the ‘97 graduating class of RISD’s film school, earning himself a Bachelor of Fine Arts. There, he gained his first stages of exposure to the film industry, working in live action, animation or a hybrid of the two, and was encouraged to produce films across a variety of different genres. 

Students have access to a professional studio, where they make documentaries, experimental and narrative films or animated work, utilising CGI, hand-drawn techniques, stop-motion animation and more. 

What makes a film education at RISD stand out, though, is the many opportunities for critical review, film festivals and attending workshops held by visiting artists and specialists. 

MacLane himself benefited from this perk. “There was a representative from Pixar,” he said in an interview recalling a moment when “Toy Story” showed in the school’s auditorium. “And from that, Pixar partnered with RISD to hire some interns.”

MacLane landed the internship the following year — marking the moment his career really took off. He credits RISD for granting him that life-changing opportunity. “Because of that screening, indirectly, that’s why we’re having this conversation today,” he said.

RISD was one of the many schools attended by actor James Franco. Source: Gary Gershoff/AFP

James Franco, actor

James Franco is a familiar name in the entertainment industry. He’s starred in major films such as Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” trilogy, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and “127 Hours”, with his performance often garnering critical acclaim, even amidst several controversies.

Franco is one of few actors who has actively pursued higher education after reaching astounding levels of success. RISD was one of the many institutions that Franco chose to attend, where he pursued a master’s in Digital + Media.

Students in the Digital + Media programme have a wealth of information and experience to tap into. They use a wide range of research methods and forms to explore art, technology and emergent practices, particularly how technology is used as a creative medium and cultural-historical phenomenon. 

Aside from RISD, Franco has graduated with many other degrees from a variety of well-respected institutions in the US. This includes UCLA, where he studied for an undergraduate degree in English; a Master of Fine Arts in writing from Columbia University; filmmaking at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts; fiction writing at Brooklyn College; and a PhD in English at Yale University. 

Oscar-nominated director Gus Van Sant pursued painting at RISD. Source: Mario Armas/AFP

Gus Van Sant, Oscar-nominated director

Film director, producer, photographer, musician, painter — these are just some of the titles held by Gus Van Sant. Having directed critically acclaimed and award-winning films such as “Good Will Hunting”, “Elephant” and “Finding Forrester”, Van Sant is often praised for his avant garde, art-house style and particularly in how they deal with queer themes in cinema. 

Despite this, Van Sant has always been a painter at heart. He originally studied art at RISD, benefiting from a painting department that helped shape his vision and passion for the subject. There, he learned to develop strong visual skills, keen critical reasoning abilities and an understanding of broad historical and social contexts. 

The department offers two degrees — a Bachelor and Master of Fine Arts. Aside from Van Sant, the department has produced a number of well-respected artists that have appeared in the New York Times and the Daily Beast, and many go on to work as studio artists, curators, performance artists, and more. 

Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia credits his time at RISD as foundational to his career. Source: Daniel Leal/AFP

Joe Gebbia, co-founder of Airbnb

There are few people in the world who have not heard of Airbnb. The groundbreaking initiative has changed the landscape of the travel industry for good, creating more accessible and affordable ways for backpackers to find accommodation — or at least, that was Joe Gebbia’s vision when he co-founded the company. 

Despite his move into entrepreneurship, Gebbia started out with a passion for the arts. “I had this idea in my mind of being a painter and having my work exhibited in New York City,” he told Artsy. With this in mind, he enrolled in RISD to make his dreams a reality. 

While at RISD, Gebbia had many moments where he pivoted in his aspirations, dabbling in design and furniture making, and graduated with a double degree in industrial and graphic design. On top of that, RISD was where he was first exposed to entrepreneurship in the form of creating, raising money for, recruiting players and operating the school’s basketball team. It was also where he met fellow Airbnb co-founder — fellow RISD graduate — Brian Chesky. 

Gebbia said his time at RISD was instrumental in shaping his career and outlook. “There are so many things that happened in the [first] foundation year that still influence me today,” he explained. “Lessons learned and situations that you were put into where you had to create a new level of self-reliance.”