[9 November 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Because of their high profile in the entertainment business and a talent track record of near mythic proportions, it’s easy to forget what Pixar meant to the technological end of the artform. Granted, they are the leading light when it comes to pushing the creative boundaries of CGI, using invention and aesthetic depth to deliver definitive examples of the post-modern genre. From Toy Story to Ratatouille, Finding Nemo to the upcoming Wall-E, they’ve provided a platform for some of the most wonderful, most awe-inspiring cinematic spectacles since pen and ink hit paper. Yet it’s the tools with which such visions are realized that will remain the company’s strongest legacy, a selection of software and applications that allowed everyone else to explore this infinitely fanciful environment of expression.
More than the inherent charm of seeing the medium in its infancy, or the overwhelming value of tracing it’s growth into the juggernaut it is today, the 13 wondrous works offered as part of the Pixar Short Films Collection: Volume 1 (new to DVD from Disney) are perhaps one of the most amusing and insightful history lessons ever offered. Utilizing the added capacity of the digital format, John Lasseter and his merry band of pranksters are on hand to guide us - via commentary and added content – how a purchase by Apple’s Steve Jobs in the early ‘80s transformed a small tech concern into one of the biggest cartoon conglomerates ever. Along the way, we see how each new mini-movie illustrated and expanded some significant corporate progress, and how a string of industry eyes only promo reels became the cutting edge of a whole new way of bringing manmade movement into the 21st Century.
But it was the story of an unwanted unicycle that made Red’s Dream (1987) the first legitimate animated film for the company. Hoping to combine semi-realistic character modeling (a rather freakish clown) with a true emphasis on story and emotion, the amazingly effective piece became a rallying cry for taking the company into the realm of full length feature moviemaking. Of course, there were obstacles along the way, and Tiny Toy (1988) would be used to address many of them. Winning an Oscar for its clever combination of design (the company’s initial foray into dealing with anthropomorphized playthings) and detail (for its time, the rather monstrous baby was a technical marvel), it proved that the untried novices could definitely play with their most established peers.
Knick Knack (1989) and Geri’s Game (1997) would confirm said status. Both were narrative based, utilizing software advances and new programming paradigms to realize their goals, not visa versa. Similarly, both advanced the concept of the media’s seemingly inexhaustible creative elements. While the former film dealt with a group of souvenirs, and one particularly perplexed snowman, the latter was a single character tour de force that indicated the medium’s malleability as a traditional means of storytelling. Many of the problems solved and trials survived helped the company make the leap, resulting in the first real masterpiece of the fledgling medium, Toy Story (1995).
What followed then was a series of tie-in efforts, films made to accompany the next big screen release from the sudden producer of blockbuster popcorn fare. For the Birds (2000) followed the adventures of some snotty little fowl, while Mike’s New Car (2002) took character’s from the hit movie Monsters, Inc. (2001) and gave them a small showcase all their own. Jack-Jack Attack (2005) did the same with The Incredibles 2004), while Mater and the Ghost Light (2006) expanded on the Route 66 mythology that Lasseter used to make the 2006 masterwork Cars. The remaining efforts – Boundin’ (2003), One Man Band (2005), Lifted (2006) – were all commissioned to complement a theatrical title, offering audiences a chance to experience the ‘short film before the feature’ novelty, just like their grandparents did decades before.
Along the way, Pixar also produced four Luxo-based pieces for Sesame Street. Dealing with simple concepts like “Surprise”, “Up and Down”, “Light and Heavy”, and “Front and Back”, the kid-friendly facets argued for the company’s overall approach. And when viewed all at once on this amazing DVD, you get the real impression of craftsmanship being channeled and challenged in a way that few formats have been capable of balancing. It may have been a 50/50 split in technology and talent at the beginning, but over the years, the outside the box thinking used by the brains behind the scenes have meant that Pixar established the benchmarks used within a burgeoning artform, instead of trying to live up to them.
Indeed, everything that’s right – and wrong – about CGI today is encompassed in this baker’s dozen of definitive films. While Pixar could never be accused of pandering, watching the crazy critter musical extravaganza of Boundin’ belies what most misguided mimics believe defines the production company’s most successful facets. Similarly, the recycling of favored characters matches the constant sequelizing of the entire Shrek/Ice Aging of the genre. Of course, the lushness of the backdrops, the Autumnal feeling behind Geri’s chess match (it practically reeks of fallen leaves and far off campfires) is also indicative of Pixar’s presence. In fact, in an effort to best the big boys, some overdo the detail. A film like Fox’s Robots may seem like a perfect amalgamation of everything innately good inside the format until you see how far out of whack the minutia vs. amusement ratio really is.
Throughout the commentary tracks offered (only Jack-Jack Attack is missing said conversation, and Mike’s New Car has a couple of company kids – grade schoolers – mindlessly riffing away), the members of the Pixar staff, the old stalwarts and the acknowledged new guard, ascertain the sense of freedom and creative license given by the company and the decision to go digital. For them, CG was not all cold, sterile passionless processors (though the 25 minute behind the scenes documentary The Pixar Shorts: A Short History, will flabbergast you with how horribly old fashioned the first company supercomputers were) – it was a means to a much more magnificent ends. In light of the current overabundance of substandard 3D animation, it’s clear that many wannabes missed this part of the presentation. Now, thanks to The Pixar Short Films Collection: Volume 1, everyone has access to the instructions. The ability to utilize them properly? Luckily, that remains a trade secret.