Book Review: The Art of Pixar Short Films

Ricky Grove [gToon] - Staff Columnist

There is little doubt that Pixar Studios is the most influential and successful animation company in the universe. Now a part of Disney Studios, they retain an artistic autonomy that is unprecedented. From the remarkable Toy Story to the recent Wall-E, Pixar has not only entertained millions of people around the world, but the company has almost single-handedly raised the feature length animated film to a modern art form. Pixar is also the main contributor to the renaissance of animated film (and possibly video games as well) as viable commercial projects. Without Pixar, we most likely would not have films like Persepolis and The World of Jasper Morello.

But what is even more remarkable is that Pixar did not become this Mecca of the animation world without hard work and enormous creativity. By the time Toy Story was released to ecstatic audiences, Pixar had already produced 5 short films which by themselves represent the history of computer animated technology in the late 1980's to the mid-1990's. And although Pixar originally formed as a research/hard ware company (remember the Pixar Image computer?), the real goal for the core founders of Pixar was to create a feature length animated film.

In 1984, when their first short film was screened to an astonished audience at Siggraph, the Pixar crew, which included the brilliant Ed Catmull, John Lasseter (the director), Tom Duff and Alby Ray Smith, faced daunting technical challenges. They could imagine all kinds of effects, but since they had never been done before, they had to create them from scratch. From the beginning, the short film was a kind of laboratory for Pixar. They used the short film to create and perfect technological innovations which in turn allowed them to mature their skills as animated filmmakers to the point where a movie like Toy Story was possible.

 

 

And because of their huge success with the animated feature, Pixar's short films have been somewhat neglected. Amid Amidi, the founder of Animation Blast magazine and a well known blogger at the Cartoonbrew.com website, has stepped in to remedy that problem with this very enjoyable book, “The Art of Pixar Short Films”, published by Chronicle Books, a company that continually impresses with their progressive publishing line.

This is Amid's third book with Chronicle. His first book was the beautiful, but slight “The Art of Robots”. Then there was the really great book “Cartoon Modern”, which examines a major change in animation style from 1940 to 1960. And with the Pixar Shorts book, Amid has written what I consider to be his best book. His writing style is fluid and easy to read, but he doesn't dumb down the material. His focus is more on the people who made the films than the films themselves, although he smartly lays out what is so remarkable about each film.

The book, commissioned by Pixar to be a companion piece to their wonderful DVD, Pixar Short Films Collection, is an intelligent and fascinating look at the making of each of Pixar's 14 short films. Starting with The Adventures of Andre and Wally B. and ending with the feature-based short film Mater and the Ghostlight (from their feature film Cars), the book covers the 5 earlier films (pre-Toy Story), in slightly more detail than the 5 post-Toy Story shorts and I'm glad of it. The early films like Luxo Jr., while slightly creaky in style, are marvels of the earliest computer graphics technology like the first use of motion blur (Wally B.) to subdivision surfaces (Geri's Game).

 


Adventures of Andre and Wally B.

 

Amid writes compellingly of the development and work on each short film. And although I would have wished for a bit more technical information, I can understand that the book is geared towards the general reader who would have no idea what “rigging a model” means. The text takes up a fairly short 42 pages, but it is packed with excellent behind the scenes information not only on the films themselves, but on the great variety of individual artists who made the films happen. In fact, if I could identify a theme for the book, it would be the remarkable collaborations that happened in the making of these films.

 


Geri's Game

 

 


Sketches for Geri's Game

 

The second half of this book is a collection of stills, sketches and paintings that were part of the concept phase in making the short films. Full page reproductions with excellent color recreation makes the second half of the book almost as interesting as the first. I often found myself reading a chapter on one short film then turning to the second half to look through the concept art.

Sometime after the huge success of Toy Story, Pixar decided to go back to making short films again. By this time the technology was well advanced, but still Pixar felt they need to experiment and develop talent in their growing studio. They began to take pitch sessions with just about any employee who had a good idea. Out of this process came my two favorite Pixar shorts: Geri's Game and Boundin'. Both are remarkable examples of the poetry and power of the short animated film.

Jan Pinkava, who headed Pixar's commercials section (yes, Pixar did commercials), was offered the job of directing a short film for Pixar, but had no idea what story he wanted to tell. Reducing his concept to the bare bones, he came up with the idea of using a single character and making that character “as vivid and believable as possible”.

Jan faced daunting technical problems with level of realism he wanted for the main character of an elderly man who plays chess against himself. Pixar's technical director reworked an existing modeling technology (developed by Ed Catmull) called “subdivision surfaces,” extending its ability to add creases to an object's surface. Clothing was also a major challenge for the film. Technical director Michael Kass spent a year refining their cloth simulator program to create smooth and subtle movement in the lead character's jacket. The result is an animated film that has it's roots in the absurdist style of Eastern European animation tradition, but at the same time has that madcap energy and fun of a modern Buster Keaton film. Remarkable, truly remarkable, and a huge leap forward from the previous modeling technology evident in the baby character from Tin Toy.

Geri's Game won an Oscar for Best Animated Short in 1998. Jan Pinkava went on to co-direct the Oscar winning Ratattouille.

 


Boundin'

 

Boundin', on the other hand, is a completely different kettle of fish. Apparently, Bud Luckey, one of the older generation of animators at Pixar, walked into one of Pixar's open pitch sessions, sat down with his banjo and played/sang the song that became the theme song for a film he was proposing about a sad Montana sheep that gets shorn and is in despair of ever looking good again. They loved it and gave him the green light to direct. Luckey's background was primarily in 2D animation, so working in 3D was a challenge for him, one that brought out his best, in my opinion. Everything about Boundin' is a delight. From the primary color scheme, to the fluid and easy animation style, there is an unaffected charm about the film that is so true and delightful, that it immediately captures your imagination. That the story was based a good deal on Bud Luckey's childhood doesn't surprise me. His commentary on the Pixar Short Films DVD is very much worth a listen. (PS, rumor has it that Luckey is at work on a new feature length film for Pixar with a western theme similar to Boundin'. Yee-haw!)

The Art of Pixar Short Films is a book that every Pixar enthusiast must have. I'd also recommend picking up the Pixar Short Films Collection DVD as a companion piece. There is a short, 24-minute documentary on the DVD that covers some of the technical aspects that were left out of the book, and just seeing the excitement and passion in the faces of these brilliant artists is inspiring. There is a director's commentary for each film that is a delight to listen to. And I highly recommend the Blu Ray version of the DVD, as the color reproduction is mind blowing.

 

 

The Art of Pixar Short Films
by Amid Amidi
Published by Chronicle Books, 2009


Ricky Grove [gToon], Staff Columnist with the Renderosity Front Page News. Ricky Grove is a bookstore clerk at the best bookstore in Los Angeles, the Iliad Bookshop. He's also an actor and machinima filmmaker. He lives with author, Lisa Morton, and three very individual cats. Ricky is into Hong Kong films, FPS shooters, experimental anything and reading, reading, reading. You can catch his blog here.

March 23, 2009

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