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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Pixar: animation, judgment, and joy

Despite the best efforts of my family and friends to foil my plans, we finally made it to the exhibit Pixar: 25 years of animation. I am already well versed on computer animation, but the exhibit was still a revelation. In the first room we got to see Pixar characters with their clothes, er, skin, off. The museum had set up an animation (of course!) that transitioned between the finished characters and the underpinning structures for lighting, movement, etc. It gave you a strong sense for how complicated these computer models are, and was a fun way to begin a fascinating albeit overwhelming exhibit.

Although the company's technological advances are impressive, what really inspired me was Pixar's singular focus on story-telling and the sheer magnitude of artistry that goes into creating the characters. Critics often complain that CGI is killing artistry in movies, and for live-action films I tend to agree. I like my CGI subtle in that arena. But Pixar's brilliant work refutes the arguments against CGI itself. Don’t get me wrong, I like hand drawn animation and was first in line to see Disney's Princess and the Frog. But Pixar proves that computers don't have to kill the artistic spirit. If more companies followed Pixar's rigorous standards and approach, the world of movies would be better off.

The exhibit also illuminated how important traditional artistic disciplines like drawing and sculpture are to computer-animated films. The volume of art that goes into the character and story creation is amazing. Even subtle aspects of story development like color choices require intense artistic efforts. As movie blogger Peter Sciretta explains, "For every Pixar movie, a color script is created, which is essentially an at a glance look at the color keys and tones for the entire film. A color script gives you a good look at how the color arcs in a film relate to the story." (To read his whole article and see the color script boards artist Lou Romano did for Pixar's Up, see /FILM)

The exhibit also did a great job of showing the character development process. I loved seeing the nearly endless iterations of different characters and contemplating all the paths not chosen. You always think of the end product as the "right" design because that's what's out in the world, but a lot of great ideas never make it to the final cut. It would be fun to be part of the process of winnowing down all the different artists' interpretations.

One of the funnier aspects of our visit was eavesdropping on the conversations of strangers. I know I shouldn't do it, but I admit that I judge people by the quality of their observations--and I can get annoyed when they're stupid. I just can't help it. I've actually had to move away from people because I couldn't block out the inanity of their comments.

An older couple drove me insane with their debate about the eyes of the characters in the movie Cars. The man just couldn't understand why the eyes were in the windshield. He felt they should be in the headlights because "that's what you think of when you see a car. I mean, I just can't see it this way." They discussed this at length and it took all I had not to grab the man and shake him and shout, "Because they are referencing cartoon history you fool! Don't you know that's how old Disney car characters are drawn? What's wrong with you?!"

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(video credit: Liketelevision.com. Disney's 1952 Susie the little blue coupe)

The Hub pointed out other very logical reasons for not using headlight eyes: if you can see an empty cabin or a driver in the car, it makes the cars less anthropomorphic. Also, since the eyes are the center of facial expression, the bigger the better. I have no idea if anything he said is true, but it sounds good to me. The Hub, by the way, is a completely unrepentant eavesdropper. He loves it and is not ashamed.

Anyways, we didn't quite make it through the whole exhibit. By the end we were over-stimulated and tired as hell. We didn't even have the usual enraged search to find our lost minions (I'm looking at you, Aunt MacGuff) because the exhaustion drove everyone to congregate quickly. We'll definitely be back to finish the exhibit before in closes January 9. I recommend everyone go!

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