Nerd Guru

Because technical people need good soft skills to get ahead.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Watch This DVD: Pixar Short Films Collection

My favorite thing to do in software is build prototypes. Gone is the laborious rigor required of a full production release, absent is the pressure of having to meet a deadline. Instead, you get to learn, try stuff, and have fun. In that same vein for computer animation, this past holiday season, Pixar released a collection of its past short films on DVD complete with a fascinating featurette on the history of the company called Pixar Short Films Collection.

Starting out as an arm of George Lucas’ ILM, the Pixar technical team was at the forefront of computer graphics processing in the early 1980s. As they began to increase their abilities, though, they found the demos they produced were missing a flair for storytelling that, as techies, nobody on the team possessed.

Enter John Lasseter. Famous now for being the director of the Toy Story films, among others, Lasseter came to Pixar from Disney and helped produce the first short on the disc, Andre and Wally B.:


Pixar-Adventures of Andre and Wally B. - Click here for another funny movie.

Cutting edge for the time, the characters exhibited emotion and were made of more sophisticated polygons than the normal spheres and cubes. What emerged in that film was a method of working that continued throughout the graphics revolution that Pixar led that also highlights the synergy that can be achieved by incorporating a perspective (in this case, a trained artist) very different from the one the technical staff producing the software had.

The cone shape of humanoid character in Andre and Wally B., so the featurette tells us, was a result of Lasseter asking for more artistic freedom. “Can you give me a. . . “ became a common way for him to start a conversation with his software developer teammates. Because Lasseter was trying to optimize the power of the storytelling, as opposed to the complexity of the processing, he and the team were able to make functionality leaps that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible.

While some of the shorts on the disc were created as extra content for selling two disc sets of theatrical releases of movies like Cars and Monsters, Inc. most of the content is a result of cutting edge prototyping. After leaving the shorts for several years, the studio realized that they provided younger staff members an ideal environment to unlock creativity and gain experience in a relatively risk-free environment.

My favorite short on the disc is Knick Knack, which I saw at a cartoon film festival at the La Jolla Museum of Art in 1989 at the end of my freshman year of college. It is based on a habit that Lasetter’s wife has of collecting knick knacks from every place they go on vacation and features an original song by the then very hot Bobby McFerrin. Also worth noting, I happened to see Wallace and Gromit creator Nick Park’s Creature Comforts at the same festival. In hindsight, to see two sets of work that would later become prominent was very, very cool.


Pixar-Knick Knack - A funny movie is a click away

To put the available technology in perspective, I had my trusty 286 IBM PC clone with it’s 20 megabyte hard drive back at my on campus apartment when I saw this for the first time. I wrote term papers on it and played a lot of Larry Bird and Dr. J Go 1 on 1. the breakthrough for this film was the buoyancy of the floating snowflakes, which must have been a major undertaking. A “PG” version of this (one in which the breasts of the female characters no longer abnormally large) appeared as a bonus on the Finding Nemo two disc set a few years ago, so it may be familiar to you if you are a fan of that film.

And, if you now have Bobby McFerrin songs stuck in your head after watching that video, you’re welcome. Don’t worry, be happy.

Building prototypes is among the funnest things to do in my job and it was very satisfying to see the progression of the combination of technology and artistry, with a heavy dose of commentary, from the people who made it all happen. Together and using the lessons they learned from these short films, they changed the way animation is done.

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