Salute Your Shorts: Pixar, Part 1 - The Early Years
Read part two of this column.
Up was the big movie a couple weekends ago, opening at number one in the box office with an impressive $68.2 million dollar haul. Another movie did equally well, though. Kind of. Pixar’s less-heralded release of the weekend was “Partly Cloudy,” a six minute short that played before the feature. Its story of a cloud that makes baby animals and its dutiful stork friend was a typically funny, sad and beautiful work for the studio that’s been unfortunately overshadowed by its larger companion. Almost as impressive, though, is that this short was given a theatrical release at all.
Pixar began creating short films nearly a decade before its feature debut, Toy Story, ushered in the age of CGI as the first entirely computer-generated
film. At the time, John Lasseter was an “interface designer” for the
new computer company. And at the time, Pixar basically just sold specially
designed computers for animation. The company’s sales were flagging,
though, so it needed a way to show off what Pixar’s computers were
capable of doing. In stepped Lasseter, who’d been trained by Disney
Animation Studio before transitioning into 3D animation. He provided
their first true short (previous works had been interesting but still
ultimately tech demos), which premiered at the SIGGRAPH computer
industry conference to a standing ovation. That short, “Luxo Jr.,” was
a turning point for Pixar, and ultimately, a turning point for the
animation industry as a whole.
No doubt much of the applause for “Luxo Jr.” was due to sheer technical brilliance. Unlike almost any other computer imagery from the time, including some by Pixar, the short still looks good today. Its physics seem at times a little off by today’s standards, but the way it rendered light was astounding and its design is immaculate. It’s a simple short that takes advantage of its few elements by getting each of them precisely correct.
More important today, though, is the film’s wonderful storytelling. Somehow both of the lights become characters, moving anthropomorphically regardless of their overall blandness. The little light, Luxo Jr., somehow becomes cute and spritely, and for an inanimate object, that’s an impressive feat. But it’s the relationship between the lamps that really takes the short to the next level, infusing the two with an extremely human relationship. There’s something oddly genuine about the way Luxo looks at the camera, a communication between it and the audience that seems like it shouldn’t be possible, but through fluid and perfectly directed animation, happens nonetheless. This set the ground for how Pixar’s technology would be an important part of its storytelling—it takes rendering the lamps perfectly to make you forget that they are, ultimately, just computer generated lamps.
Another important precedent “Luxo Jr.” set was that, aside from sound effects, it’s essentially silent. This was true with all of Pixar’s shorts until 2002’s “Mike’s New Car,” when Pixar began creating shorts that used the same characters as its features. Still, this emphasis on the visuals had a huge influence on the direction that Pixar’s features would take, with a focus on storytelling through imagery that’s unrivaled by other 3D animators. It’s an important component of the studio's artistic mission, showing a mature grasp on filmmaking from the beginning. This can be most obviously seen during the first 30 minutes of Wall-E, but it remains consistent throughout the studio’s works, where their features are littered with silent moments in contrast to the bombastic, pop culture-infused noise of competitors. It’s part of why the studio’s movies are admired not just for their technological advancement but also their filmmaking and storytelling craft, since this is what helps create their movies’ density and pacing. The essence of film is in the images, and Pixar has understood this from the beginning regardless of how little it once had to work with.
Lasseter’s next short would be built for a similar purpose, this time in order for Pixar to show off a new rendering system. While Pixar’s business was still based on selling computers, which it would be for years to come, Lasseter was now a full-blown animator able to be 100% focused on showing his next short a year after “Luxo Jr.”’s premiere. Compared with the earlier short, “Red’s Dream” is wildly ambitious, attempting to emulate a noir-ish tone with its comedy and featuring full backgrounds and water effects. This was unintentional, the result of several Pixar members having ideas that they shoved together, but is pretty seamless nonetheless due to the short’s tight directing. Their efforts paid off, creating the studio’s single dark film, in which a unicycle named Red dreams of upstaging a clown who rides on him while juggling.
“Luxo, Jr.” offered up the sense of whimsy that can be found in all of Pixar’s films, reaching Miyazakian heights with Up, but “Red’s Dream” was equally valuable in the studio’s fundamentals. There’s something actually at stake here, and while in its features Pixar is market-savvy enough to end on a happier note, there’s a tinge of this in all of its features that separates their works from their competitors. For a studio that has only released comedies, there’s always this sense of potential loss that creeps into their works and helps keep their films feel real as much as any of their fancy graphics do.
Pixar’s first movie to win an Academy Award was Lasseter’s next yearly effort, inspired by his nephew’s destructive efforts against his toys. Again imbuing an object with personality, “Tin Toy” is about a one-man band toy trying to escape the wrath of an infant on a rampage. The catch is that the toy is designed so that he can’t move without making noise, which, of course, attracts the baby. One of the most dated elements of any Pixar shorts is “Tin Toy”’s baby, who looks a little grotesque and doll-like (though after seeing footage of the actual baby it’s clear that some of this is simply verisimilitude), but everything else in it looks almost at the level of Toy Story.
What ends up most stunning about “Tin Toy” is its comic timing. Both of Pixar’s earlier shorts were funny, but ultimately pretty one-joke in nature. “Tin Toy” had a central concept, but this was merely a small part. Lasseter set up a playing field full of gags for the toy to interact with, making the short feel like a CGI Looney Tunes segment with its pursuit-based plot and snappy timing. The idea was strong enough so that in the original treatment of Toy Story, Tinny was the star.
Lasseter took what he learned in “Tin Toy” and brought it up a notch further the next year with 1989’s “Knick Knack.” This short is their first to drop all semblance of a tech demo to feel like every part a fully-formed film. In it, a snowman stuck in a snowglobe tries to escape his cell to join a bikini-wearing Floridian from a nearby knick knack. Here, Lasseter is in full-blown Chuck Jones mode, showing a series of jokes as his various escape methods fail. The snowman’s ability to pull various tools out of nothing acts as an homage to Warner Bros., but the design is all Pixar. Lasseter’s timing is never more spot on than here, and though it doesn’t reach the level of depth Pixar’s features would later, its character’s Wile E. Coyotean plight is still given humanity.
With all of these shorts, Pixar developed a definite voice that could be seen throughout its features, commercials and the rest of what the studio has made. Much of the credit for this can be attributed to Lasseter, whose commitment to animation history combined with an interest in pushing the technological envelope helped make their shorts some of the few early CGI works that hold up today. Conversely, though, despite its auteur-driven nature, Pixar is a collaborative studio, and it was at this point that Lasseter began letting others take over directing while he took over a sort of oversight position for the studio. Next week we’ll take a look at Pixar’s works post-Toy Story and the directions they’ve pushed the studio in.
Addendum: Before Pixar was bought up by Apple, Lasseter and company worked on their first short together as part of Lucasfilm. “The Adventures of André and Wally B.” was an extremely brief short starring a character of some sort (?) being awakened by a bee, who then distracts the bee so he can run away. Like all of what became Pixar’s shorts, it does a good job hiding its extreme technical limitations and is fluidly animated, though in a more cartoonish manner than anything they’d do later. What’s important about it is the emphasis on character, which drew from Lasseter’s days as an animator rather than from the more typically abstract works that computer companies of the time often developed. It’s no longer groundbreaking, or as funny as people at the time seemed to think it was, but is still an interesting enough film within the context of the studio’s history.