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Adventures at Pixar Animation Studios

Katherine Sarafian, producer of the Academy Award-winning film Brave, reflects on her 20 years in film production

For those of us far from the glint of the entertainment industry, producers may seem to live in the shadows of filmmaking. From the outside, the actor, director, screenwriter, and even the craft service person, all have obvious roles to play in the making of a movie, while the producer remains the behind-the-scenes mastermind whose importance to the process few will ever realize. 

Katherine Sarafian, a producer at Pixar Animation Studios, initially had little idea of what the career would entail. “I knew from an early age that I wanted to be part of entertainment, but I didn’t necessarily know if I wanted to be directly involved in film.  When I was a child, my mom would take us to go see shows. I remember the first production I saw was Annie. In high school, in San Leandro, California, I was very involved in theater and I always wanted to be a part of the productions.”

For the past 20 years, Sarafian has been a part of almost every aspect of production at Pixar Animation Studios, the film company known for CGI-animated hits like Monsters, Inc. (2001), The Incredibles (2004) and Ratatouille (2007). Over the course of her career, Sarafian has had a hand in many of the company’s most iconic films and has been an integral part of its growth, holding a variety of leadership positions that led her to her role as producer on the Academy Award®-winning feature Brave in 2012.

A readhead girl with an arrow from an animation movie.
Sarafian has worked in production and marketing for Pixar since 1994. Brave, 2012. Photo by Pixar

Sarafian joined Pixar in 1994 as a production coordinator for the studio’s first full-length film, Toy Story. Before joining Pixar, Sarafian earned a master’s degree in film and television critical studies and a bachelor’s degree in communication studies, both from the University of California, Los Angeles. Once at Pixar, she continued to develop her film production expertise as a production manager in Pixar’s short film department and as the art department manager on the studio’s second feature film, A Bug’s Life, in 1998. After completing work on A Bug’s Life, Sarafian shifted gears and moved on to positions in the creative services and consumer products departments, eventually becoming director of marketing for the studio. “I am still struck by how closely the company’s values are aligned with my own values and ethics. There is usually high turnover at other studios, but at Pixar, people are so committed and passionate about what they do, and most really want to be here and grow with the company,” she said.

In 2000, Sarafian transitioned back into production at Pixar, first as a production supervisor on Monsters, Inc. and then as a production manager on the Academy Award®-winning film The Incredibles. “Every person here has such a profound commitment to telling truly great stories. Pixar has never veered away from its original mission and I greatly respect and appreciate that.”

In her more than 20 years in film production, Sarafian has learned a few tricks of the trade that have helped her achieve success in her career. Of all the skills she has honed, Sarafian considers trusting her instincts to be the most critical: “So much of a film is about the feelings of the characters and of the audience. Listening to your own instincts and what you believe to be true and reacting to the feelings that are being emoted around you is huge. If you have a funny feeling about something, trust that feeling and make your decision based on your gut. Try to harmonize that feeling with what others are telling you. It will help guide your decision-making. I would have been much more confident early in my career had I listened to my inner voice.”

Early in her career, Sarafian and her Bay Area-based AGBU friends took the initiative to establish an AGBU Young Professionals (YP) group in Northern California, creating a network of ambitious Armenians who not only relied on one other professionally, but also put on events like the annual AGBU San Francisco Winter Gala. The Young Professionals of Northern California was not Sarafian’s first foray into AGBU life. It was AGBU that showed Sarafian New York City and Broadway for the first time in 1991. From then on, she was hooked on the idea that she could go anywhere in the world and find friendship, generosity and a common thread through AGBU.

As a high school and college student, Sarafian would compete in volleyball tournaments at the AGBU World Games in Sydney, Los Angeles and Buenos Aires, memories that she continues to hold dear today: “My closest friends and happiest memories come from my time with AGBU. The organization provided some of my first travel experiences with the AGBU World Games. I remain good friends with my teammates and I’m proud to count fellow AGBU members and participants among my trusted colleagues and collaborators.”

As she has reached new heights in her career, Sarafian has not turned away from the Armenian community, but has drawn on her expertise to enrich it. In 2006, AGBU led her to Sam Simonian and the Tumo Center for Creative Technologies, a blend of art, technology and education in Yerevan. With her guidance, Tumo embarked on a project to digitally preserve the Monastery of Geghard with CyArk, an initiative that creates a three-dimensional online library of cultural heritage sites around the world. The project, which began with Geghard, has since expanded into Armenian Heritage: A Virtual Pilgrimage, a project with plans to document more sites in Armenia. 

When Sarafian looks at the intersection of her Armenian heritage and her career, she notes that her father, a priest in the Armenian Apostolic Church, instilled in her a certain approach to living: “His strength was in leading based on empathy and understanding. He was a compassionate leader—one who led with his heart and looked for the best in each individual. He taught me to have faith that a person’s nature is inherently good and true. I try to emulate his leadership style in my life at Pixar and beyond.” 

Banner photo by Pixar

Originally published in the September 2015 ​issue of AGBU Insider. end character

About the AGBU Insider

AGBU Insider profiles extraordinary AGBU program alumni across a diverse set of industries and passions. With exclusive interviews and photography, each issue reveals the Armenian impact on society, community, and industry.