[Today’s Christian, July-August 2003]
He doesn’t have a hookup to the Internet in his home. He doesn’t have cable TV. "That’s just inviting problems," he explains. He loves his parents and they’re welcome to visit, but "we can’t really have our son stay at my parents’ house" because occasionally they don’t watch their language. "Not in front of my child," he says. By the way, Christopher is three years old. "I pray my son will go the right way," says his gentle, worried dad.
Sound like a cave-dwelling Christian, hiding from the evil world? No, Matthew Luhn is a computer-whiz Christian, and goes out daily into the entertainment world to make films that will reach millions of children. Probably yours. If you know someone who laughed at the Barbie tour guide in "Toy Story 2," or marveled at toys sneaking across a freeway under traffic cones, Luhn is the guy to thank. He contributed to the first "Toy Story" and "Monsters, Inc" as well, and soon we’ll be seeing more of his ingenuity in "Finding Nemo." This film concerns a young clownfish who is abducted and bound for an aquarium shop, and Luhn gets credit for coming up with the exciting ending, though he isn’t allowed to tell us what it is. Plot puzzlers are his specialty, and he finds this work gratifying. "I get assigned those problems a lot," he says. "At least there’s one thing I can do that not a lot of people can do."
But ten years ago Luhn was sitting on a curb in Burbank wondering what life was all about. He was 19 years old and already attracting professional attention; his home-made animation shorts had won him admission to the prestigious California Institute for the Arts, and his work in a school competition had brought him to the attention of Disney, Spielberg, and George Lucas. After his freshman year he was hired to work on "The Simpsons," which doesn’t happen to many college kids.
But something funny was happening with his girlfriend. They had been dating since high school, but recently she had become much more serious about her Christian faith. Luhn was Jewish, and had always kept the Holy Days, and made a trip to Israel after his bar mitzvah. His family treated the faith with respect, but not as an absolute priority. His girlfriend’s deepening commitment to Christ was straining their relationship. "I was upset," Luhn says. "How could she love some invisible being more than me?"
At last the girl’s pastor asked to meet with him. It was an hour that shook Luhn’s life. "He showed me all the Old Testament prophecies of who the Messiah would be, lined up next to the New Testament fulfillments. It just hit me. If this is true, will I be wandering in the dark all my life?"
Luhn took a year to read the Bible and research Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism and other faiths. ("Some of them are really like make-believe. They have gods that look like elephants!") Though drawn to Christianity, he feared that it violated the principle of monotheism instilled by his Jewish upbringing. On a long hike one day he wrestled with these questions. "Am I dooming myself forever? Will I be rejecting God by believing in Jesus?" He said to God, "Talk to me. Am I going to be turning against you?" At last he "broke down" and declared, "I have to trust you and believe in Jesus."
"That was the turning point of my life," Luhn says. "I couldn’t be who I was before. I used to use cuss words to get an easy laugh, but not anymore. I was going to have to learn to pray."
Luhn sought out help for the next steps. He visited a nearby church and found a dwindling congregation, and spoke with the pastor after the service. They agreed to meet the following Sunday after church.
"I went to church the next Sunday and the place was packed, and there were flowers everywhere," Luhn says. "I was new to Christianity and I didn’t know if maybe it was one of the holidays." Then he realized that it was the funeral of the pastor he was planning to meet. The pastor’s widow stood up and told the congregation that her husband had been feeling discouraged, but in the past week he’d found renewed joy in his calling. "He was excited because he’d met a young man who had just come to know the Lord, and wanted to start a life with God."
Luhn returned to his home town in the Bay area and joined Redwood Chapel, a large evangelical church where a friend’s dad is pastor. He began an enthusiastic, long-term involvement in children’s ministries, orchestrating sound-and-light spectacles for Vacation Bible School, and organizing "Kids’ Praise" worship services. "I do a lot of sermons, visiting other churches and presenting talks for kids," Luhn says. "I use a board and draw, because kids pay attention when you draw."
Drawing was how Luhn initially made his name. After a year with "The Simpsons" and then a second year at CalArts, Luhn was hired by Pixar as one of the first twelve computer animators on "Toy Story." With "Toy Story 2" he stepped up to the position of "Story Artist." Luhn explains that when a director has an idea for a film, he selects five or six people to help him "create the story." (Though Pixar has 600 employees, there are only four directors and thirty story artists; Luhn is not aware of any other evangelical story artists.) The team spends a full year brainstorming ideas, breaking the story into three acts and each act into a dozen scenes. They develop characters’ personalities and work out plot details.
The next two years are spent trying ideas out on "storyboards." For example, Luhn might sketch his idea of how little Nemo could be rescued onto a series of a hundred small cards. When these are pinned up on a giant corkboard the director can glance over them and see whether the idea works, and pinpoint where he wants changes-for example, bigger eyes on a character, or a messier splash. When the film is complete in storyboard, it’s ready to go to the animators. "I can spend an eight-hour day coming up with an idea, but it will take an animator two weeks to animate it."
The powers of computer animation continue to grow. Sullivan, the lead character of "Monsters, Inc." is an enormous shaggy beast whose long fur moves so realistically that the likeliest explanation seems they cast a real monster in the role. How do they do that? "I have no idea," Luhn says. "The guys who do that-some of them used to work at NASA. Sullivan ends up having a million hairs over his whole body, and they’re all programmed to move in a certain way, but not to do so evenly-it’s bizarre."
No matter how showy the technical fireworks, "Our motto is, ‘The story is king,’" Luhn says. "You can have the best computer-animated fur in the world, but if the story’s no good, nobody cares." "Toy Story 2" had a challenging theme, that of a cowboy doll realizing that he will one day be forgotten by the boy who loves him, but choosing that future heartbreak over sterile adulation in a toy museum. Long-suffering love which endures despite rejection is a pretty serious theme in comparison with most kids’ fluffy fare. "There’s a way to communicate deep things to kids," Luhn says. "In our meetings, we very much get into the psyche of the characters."
By the same token, he is vigilant against offering kids harmful material, which he says would be like hanging a millstone around his neck and jumping off a bridge. "I can’t believe some people do that!" he exclaims. "What are they thinking?!" Many of his colleagues, Luhn says, are young and childless, and don’t have much regular exposure to children. They naturally create material that is entertaining to themselves, but sometimes that’s "where the crudity comes from." Luhn, Christopher’s watchful dad, can lasso the project back to the world real kids inhabit.
"I’m vocal, but I try to be friendly," Luhn says. "I don’t want to come across as ‘Please fire me,’ but I make my views known." Ten years ago he was more brash in his convictions and evangelism, and laid the Gospel on friends and family with unrelenting fervor: "I felt like I’d had a dream that my house was on fire with everyone in it, and I was telling them how to get out!" But he found out many people had heard it all before, and didn’t want to hear it again. "When I became a Christian it puzzled my parents," he says. "It put me in the category of every Christian weirdo they’d ever seen in a movie."
Now he works making movies, helping craft stories that harmonize with his convictions, getting toys safely across the freeway, getting kids safely through a theater. The story is king, and kids who recognize a good story are prepared one day to hear an even better story, about an even more important rescue, about a King who knows them, loves them, and would seek them through all the seven seas.