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Opening up new possibilities in online education.

Andy Warhol (1928-1987) | Quadrant Mickey Mouse signed and dated 'Andy Warhol 1981'

It was my lifelong passion to work at Pixar which first guided me to discover the innovative online education company, X in a Box. Searching for storytelling classes online, I stumbled upon their course Pixar in a Box, which is available free on Khan Academy. It was as if coming upon a treasure, a gift for all.

X in a Box was founded by Elyse Klaidman and Tony DeRose who are both former veterans of Pixar along with Brit Cruise of Khan Academy. Gratefully, I had the opportunity to interview Elyse and learn about her story.

Before co-founding X in a Box Elyse was a force of growth within Pixar. Starting in 1996 she held numerous roles, including the director of Pixar University where she led art and filmmaking programs along with leadership development.

Being involved in educational outreach programs led Elyse to the idea of putting all the pieces and many facets of a Pixar production into a single “box” or course that they could share with the world. And in 2015, with her passion to connect students to educational experiences, she co-founded and led the team that created Pixar in a Box.

“By highlighting the remarkable careers and real-world examples of where education can take you, we’re hoping to spark in the minds of young people that there is value to subjects like math and science beyond just passing a test,” Elyse said.

This vision behind the doors of ‘Oh, the places they could go’ could be the seed they need to pursue a long-term goal of working and creating awesome things like perhaps... Pixar movies, Disney theme parks, or groundbreaking video games. Yup. This isn’t the type of class you’d fall asleep in. (And even if you did, you could easily watch it again.) Either way, they’ve got my full attention.

Each course is built thoughtfully with both students and educators in mind. After watching their first course, Pixar in a Box, I couldn’t share it fast enough with my fellow creative friends and family. Though I’m not the target audience, the storytelling section is filled with heaps of golden wisdom for anyone working in the creative field. I also eagerly sent it to my nieces and nephews hoping to spark new ideas, and instill within their ripening minds important reasons to stick to creative endeavors, math, science and all the important skills, passions and subjects that can take you places. If they’re gonna stare at screens all day, this is what they should be watching!

Introspectively, I often wonder if I had known about different career paths when I was younger, would I have gone down a different path? Simply being exposed to what jobs exist opens up a whole new world of possibilities. I really didn't know what a Copywriter was (my job now) until I was in college. What if I could have outlined a clearer path earlier? Or sought out something that sparks the soul just a wee-bit more?

Elyse stressed that one of the keys to creating courses that connect with students is through diversity. She spelled out this simple but very important idea by saying, “We want students to be able to watch our courses and see the people working for these companies and think, they look like me, I could do that. That could be me someday.”

Not only are these lessons in-depth, but they are also extremely well-told and entertaining. In Pixar In A Box, you get to watch Pixar Story artists draw up rough storyboards and think through a scene, or experience how the lighting department communicates a particular emotion to the audience, or how the surface department turns a pattern of shapes into believable dinosaur skin. Even nitty-gritty details, like in the movie Brave, how they innovated to make Merida’s poofy red hair look curly and bounce about naturally. Or how they ensure every pixel in every Up balloon is the right color, or rig a big burly character like Sully to walk, run, scare and express all of his emotions in a digital world.

Furthermore, partnering with Disney Imagineering, X in a Box created Imagineering in a Box - a course dedicated to the storytelling, magic, and people that make Disney parks the dazzling experiences that they are. This course challenges participants to dream up and create a themed land of their own. Like a child and diligent student, I dove into the task, creating a concept for Cloud Land, a land where guests feel like they’re up in the clouds! I invented a character and a main attraction, even drawing up a rough sketch of the land, thinking up restaurants and what delights guests might discover while “up in the clouds.” For me, even as a 33-year-old man, it was a pure thrill and an enlightening peek behind the curtain of the Imagineers. What a great way to charge and challenge my creativity, spending spare time over the course of a couple of weeks — imagining myself in the bright yellow shoes of a Disney Imagineer.

During our interview, Elyse was also excited and generous enough to share what’s on the way. Partnerships with creative companies like Adobe, Epic Games (creators of Fortnite), and XQ Institute — an organization dedicated to rethinking and redesigning the high school experience. Side note: XQ is definitely worth learning about. It’s Co-founded by Laurene Powell-Jobs and has some really cool board members like Yo-Yo Ma! If you’re into the future of education, this feels like it.

Isn’t it incredible how the internet has allowed us to connect and learn? Experiencing what X in a Box has to offer and interviewing Elyse has left me highly optimistic. Because with thoughtful people putting so much gusto and steering their efforts towards free and accessible education, they are making leaps and bounds to move the world forward. Our current time has shown us the potential and brought to the surface many of the struggles of remote learning and an evolving school system. Yes, there have been many challenges, but in many ways, we have seen the possibilities open before our eyes.

I say, if X in a Box is a small taste and showcase of what the future of education is going to be like. I’m all for it. And I’m smitten with the profound feeling that the kids (and all of us) are going to be quite alright.


Johnny Michael began his writing journey at the age of 17, it was then he realized the potential power of writing his ideas down and found a love of telling stories with the written word. In 2018, Johnny won a scholarship for comedy writing with The Second City Training Center. He runs his blog and works with Razorfish, one of the world's largest interactive agencies. His solid creative portfolio includes world-famous brands such as Burger King, Chevrolet, Campbell Ewald, etc. 


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