I finally received my personal review copy this past Friday and I can tell you that not only does The Art of Pixar Short Films make a great companion to the Pixar Short Films Collection: Volume 1 (it covers the thirteen shorts included on the DVD), it also stands exceptionally well on its own. Honestly, your coffee table will thank you.
Over the past few weeks, and right up until today, I've been corresponding via email with the author, Amid Amidi, to bring readers an original, in-depth discussion with him about the book, likely his first of many for the studio. (Amid has been chosen to write The Art of Toy Story 3, to be published next year.) As many of you know, Amid is also the co-founder and co-writer of the very popular Cartoon Brew, so I really appreciate him taking time out of his busy schedule to talk to me.
Concept Art: The Adventures of André & Wally B., John Lasseter, Pastel, 1984Q: Let’s start at the beginning: How did you get the gig? Who did you hear from? What did you say? 'Cause this is your first time working with Pixar, right?
A. I hadn't worked with Pixar prior to this, but I'd done two books for Chronicle and we've established a successful working relationship. In late-January 2008, Matt Robinson, an editor from Chronicle, called me up and said that Pixar wanted me to write a book that tied in with the Pixar Short Films Collection: Volume 1 DVD. It took me by surprise because I don't actively seek these type of projects out and have actually turned down at least a few similar projects in recent years.
The opportunity to work with Pixar was something I couldn't pass up though. In recent years Chronicle and Pixar have been the standard-bearers for 'art of' books. I look forward to those identical horizontal-shaped books just like everybody else. Not to mention that the whole idea sounded like a lot of fun because it's about animated shorts which is a format that I really love.
I really can't think of any other studio that would give this sort of deluxe treatment to their animated shorts and publish an entire book of shorts-related artwork. So it was a bit of a no-brainer when they asked me to contribute to the series.
Q: When did you get started on the book, and where did you work on it?
A: These type of books are typically done on very short schedules. By mid-February 2008, after we'd reached a deal, I was reading everything I could find about the studio's shorts, especially a lot about the early Lucasfilm years, and watching every Pixar shorts dozens of times trying to pick up on their nuances and understand what made each of them unique. Then I spent a week running around Pixar in early-March and interviewed something like twenty people up there.
During that trip, I also spent a couple days going through box after box of artwork from the shorts and doing preliminary art selections for the book. After the week at Pixar, I returned back east and spent a month-and-a-half writing the book. I had to order food in a lot because there was literally no time to leave the house. The final manuscript was turned in on April 21.
Working on a tight deadline is a challenge that I actually enjoy because on personal projects I tend to fiddle around and waste a lot of time; with these books you have to hunker down and bust out lots of solid material in a short span. You can't even begin to think about procrastinating.
Though the format for these types of book is set, this one offered some particularly unique challenges because we were telling the stories of thirteen different productions created over the span of twenty-plus years. At some point during the early stages of writing, my editor Matt and I decided that to truly do justice to all these films, we needed to have more text than the average book in the series. So, in spite of the already stressful deadline, I actually ended up writing twice as much as I was originally contracted to write. The result is a book that, I think, offers a rich context for the artwork while still fitting nicely in with the rest of the series.
Q: What'd you order to eat? (laughing)
A: Let's just say a lot of burritos were harmed in the making of this book.
Storyboard (detail): Tin Toy, John Lasseter, Pencil, 1987
A: Who didn't I interview? I spoke with the director of every short, including directors who were no longer at the studio such as Alvy Ray Smith, Jan Pinkava and Bud Luckey.
John Lasseter contributed a great deal. I was impressed that, despite his incredibly busy schedule, he found the time for an interview while I was at the studio, subsequently arranged for multiple phone calls to make sure I had all the material I needed, and also provided follow-up notes on the text. It would have been easy to just brush off a book project like this, but John's dedication to getting things right speaks a great deal about the man and his passion for everything that carries the Pixar name.
I also spoke to various production personnel including production designers Mark Holmes and Ronnie del Carmen, story artist Teddy Newton, animator Doug Sweetland, film editor Steve Bloom, and quite a few others.
I must admit I was a bit awed to interview Bill Reeves and Eben Ostby. These guys aren't the names who immediately pop to mind when somebody says the name Pixar but they should be. Reeves and Ostby are among a core group of computer scientists who have been there from the earliest days and who deserve a lot of credit for the company's achievements. They've not only created the technical foundation for the Pixar films but for a lot of computer animation in general. Particle systems, for example, which is part of the basic language of computer graphics, were developed by Reeves in the early-1980s. It was humbling to be in the presence of the people who've helped develop an art form from scratch.
Q: Since you mention Jan Pinkava, did you get a sense of how he feels about Pixar now? He hasn't really addressed his relationship with the studio since leaving.
(Note: Pinkava left shortly after being replaced as director of Ratatouille. There were reports of some hard feelings.)
Q: I know about Alvy Ray Smith; what about Bud Luckey? Did he retire? Boundin' is one of my favorite shorts.
A: Bud is retired now from Pixar. He drove into the studio for an interview. From the moment he walked in, he was mobbed by former co-workers asking what he'd been up to and how he was doing. I definitely saw first-hand the affection and admiration that everybody at the company still has for Bud.
Storyboard (detail): Tin Toy, John Lasseter, Pencil, 1987
Q: How cool was it getting access to the archives?
A: It was as much fun as you'd expect. Everything I needed was provided by studio archivist Peggy Tran-Le. I did pre-selection of the art that eventually appeared in the book and that meant poring through box after box of artwork.
It was interesting to see what art existed from each of their different shorts, as well as to see the things that never made it to screen. For example, Jan Pinkava had created a storyboard for a short with an old man, who eventually turned out to be Geri, sitting on a park bench and trying to keep a pigeon from eating his lunch. There was also a hilarious series of Teddy Newton storyboards from Jack-Jack Attack, in which Jack-Jack sees a bunch of raccoons trying to eat hard-boiled eggs out of the backyard trash. His superhero instincts kick in because the raccoons have masks around their eyes and he runs outside and starts brawling with them. I was laughing out loud when I saw these.
It was also surprising to see how much artwork existed for some of the projects. Gary Rydstrom's Lifted had a couple boxes of character designs by numerous designers, whereas a film like Geri's Game had almost no character design work and was basically Pinkava's original vision translated to film.
Q: Tell me, What is the single biggest thing you learned putting together this book that you really didn’t know before?
A: One thing that really became clear to me while I did this book was how humble the studio's beginnings were. Today everybody looks up at Pixar as the 800-pound gorilla of computer animation and assumes it's always been that way. In fact, in the early years when they were making these shorts, they were primarily a hardware company, and animation was a side endeavor done by a very small group of people within the company.
The early shorts played a critical role in the transition of Pixar from a tech hardware firm into an entertainment producer. Those early shorts, like Tin Toy and Knick-Knack weren't easy to make either. They cost money to produce and didn't bring direct income back into the company. At times, the animation division didn't even have proper offices; during Red's Dream some of the team members were working out of a hallway.
In other words, Pixar in the Eighties wasn't anything like the Pixar of today. The studio is what it is only because of the hard work and vision of Lasseter and Catmull and the various computer scientists who developed the hardware tools and software.
Articulation Study: For The Birds, Ralph Eggleston, Pencil, 2000
Q: One thing I learned within only like five minutes of looking over the book was that For The Birds actually had roots in the '80s over at CalArts. I didn't know that before. Sometimes it's these projects that got shelved way back that get to be gems, don't you think?
A: True. There's no expiration date on a good idea. If anything, Ralph's accumulated experience as an artist helped make For the Birds a better film when he made it in 2000 than if he had made it as a student film.
Q: The last short film covered in the book is Lifted, which was released with Ratatouille. Where do you think Pixar is headed when it comes to shorts?
A: I think it would be presumptuous to make any broad claims about what direction their shorts program is headed simply because I don't think the people running Pixar harbor such grandiose thoughts about it either. I think they're just having fun with the possibilities right now. Jim Capobianco's Your Friend the Rat was a very amusing short. I made an effort to have that included in the book because so much cool artwork was created for it, but the book is directly tied into the shorts DVD.
I wrote in the book that, internally at the studio, the shorts program is not just about the final product, but it also fulfills other goals at Pixar such as developing artistic talent (both directorially and in other departments) and serves as a playground for trying out new technical developments. They also help complete the moviegoing experience for audiences at the theater and DVD purchasers who get a nice bonus with their feature.
Pixar's shorts program is that rare idea which benefits both the studio and the audience, and as long as that continues to happen, I think we're going to see more shorts from the studio. The goal is obviously not to hit a homerun out of the park every time (even the classic shorts directors like Tex Avery and Chuck Jones didn't aim for that), but to try and create fun films in a looser and less-stressful setting than feature production.
Q: Okay, and now a couple of questions not related to the book: First, I just heard that you got hired for The Art of Toy Story 3. Are you excited?
A: The two Toy Story films (along with The Incredibles) rank as my favorite Pixar films, so YES!
Q: My final question is, Why isn't The Pixar Blog on your "Sites We Like" list on Cartoon Brew? Do you not like my site? I'm really putting you on the spot here. (laughing)
Seriously, we don't try to make a complete list of every worthy animation-related blog out there. That would be a very long list if we did because there are so many quality blogs nowadays. That section of Cartoon Brew is more of a "desert island" list —sites that one or both Brewmasters can't live without and that we want to share with our readers.