Salute Your Shorts: Pixar, Part 2 - The Other Years
Salute Your Shorts is a weekly column that looks at short films, music videos, commercials or any other short form visual media that generally gets ignored.
Read part one of this column.
Pixar wouldn’t create another short film until 1997 due to its focus on developing economic solvency through commercials and, ultimately, Toy Story. But in a move that’s completely unique in the industry today, after its success with a full-length feature, the studio went back to producing shorts, which have appeared before every one of their features since then, even when they didn’t have a new short to show off (not to mention a large number being produced with no theatrical distribution whatsoever). Lasseter and the rest of Pixar recognized the importance directing these films had on their own artistic and technological development and continued using them as a training ground for staff. Incidentally, this method also allows the studio to work on ideas that simply aren’t suited to feature length but are nonetheless worth making.
Their first theatrically released short film was "Geri’s Game," which played before A Bug’s Life in 1997. The film had a couple of technical purposes, most of which were related to the difficulties of 3D-animated people. Anyone who watched "Tin Toy" can attest that its baby looks incredibly strange, almost alien, and while the infrequently seen people of Toy Story aren’t quite as bad, there’s a reason why they’re off-screen so much. With "Geri’s Game," the studio hoped to solve some of its problems articulating skin (especially wrinkled skin), hair and cloth.
Of course, Geri himself isn’t realistic; he’s still a cartoon version of a character. In order for this comic stylization to work, though, the details still have to be in place. For instance, his jacket needs to look good enough to not call attention to itself as a CGI jacket. This line has been drawn regardless of whether the studio has made monsters, automobiles or people. Geri’s hands look a little odd and his skin textures aren’t rendered as well as they would be today, but everything else looks perfect in the context of its slightly exaggerated world. Gravity functions correctly, cloth moves on him the way it should and the fidelity of shadows implies an absolutely obsessive group of animators. In all, the short looks an entire generation better than Toy Story.
As for its actual content, "Geri’s Game" follows Pixar’s tradition as a silent short, telling the story of a senile (or perhaps simply schizophrenic) old man playing a game of chess with himself. As his alter ego begins to get the better of him, Geri has to trick himself in order to win the game. Not the most complex of Pixar’s shorts, it’s impressive because of Geri's "performance." He goes through such a wide range of emotions between his two sides that the joke becomes less about the silly gag than about how the two Geri’s will react to each other. The tennis match (chess game, even, as it were) between their faces is a blast to watch and what makes the short so timeless. “Knick Knack” showed the studio doing an impressive homage to Warner Bros, but “Geri’s Game” is something that Chaplin or Keaton would be proud of.
Toy Story 2 also featured a short film for its theatrical presentation, but likely due to the crunch of there being merely one year between TS2 and A Bug’s Life, the studio paired it with "Luxo, Jr." instead of something new. It wasn’t until Monsters Inc. in 2000 that they released another short theatrically, but once again it was a big success. "For the Birds" is less of a tech demo than "Geri’s Game," though it still helped the studio through research into how to make so many feathers work together realistically. Really it’s much more of a simple gag film, with the premise that birds act as cliquey as middle schoolers.
Very reminiscent of old animated shorts, "For the Birds" has a lush visual style that’s typical for the studio while its editing, much quicker in Ralph Eggleston’s hands than it ever is in Pixar’s feature films, seems a bit jumpy. Most importantly, despite a cast consisting entirely of wordless birds, the flock is instantly characterized. Each identical bird has its own personality, making the absurd situation more normal since all of its characters act as perfectly anthropomorphic as possible. It continues the overarching theme of the studio, that of an outsider learning to accept him or herself, and does so in as much a slapstick style as possible. Not the most sophisticated of the studio’s shorts and far and away its most predictable, there’s still something to its charming distillation of the Pixar formula.
For the DVD release of Monsters, Inc., Pixar began producing shorts that tied in with their previous movies. This marked a change for the studio, not just because of a change in tactics for the shorts. "Mike’s New Car" was Pixar’s first short to feature voices, which meant both a branching out and a change in tradition. Co-directed by Monsters, Inc. director Pete Doctor (who also helmed Up), the short is really just a continuation of the feature and doesn’t stand alone particularly well, despite its simple gag and perfect comedic timing. Not a bad short, it just isn’t quite the individually impressive work the studio had put out previously. The Incredibles was also linked with “Jack-Jack Attack,” which works in a similar matter, perfectly capturing the feeling of its sister film without particularly adding anything. They’re both fun enough, but have a little less vitality than the one-off shorts. “Mater and the Ghostlight” (2006) for the Cars DVD is one of the only works by Pixar that’s in fact a bit disappointing. Extremely reliant upon knowledge of the Cars characters, it’s one of the few instances where it feels like Pixar’s really phoning it in.
The up side of these tie-in shorts is that after they began, Pixar seemed less relunctant to attempt strange ideas. "Burn-E," released in 2008 with the Wall-E DVD, is a creative way of retelling the feature’s later half through another point of view. Although not quite a success, it still shows the studio stepping into new ground. Far and away the greatest of these tie-in shorts, and arguably the greatest short Pixar’s done at all, is Jim Capobianco’s "Your Friend the Rat." It indulges in the anything-goes mentality of these tie-ins and then takes things to their logical extreme. A compilation of live action, 3D CGI animation and two-dimensional hand drawn animation, it’s a stylistic tour de force that blows away the studio’s normally subdued style, creating a pyrotechnic amalgamation of filmmaking that’s never been done before or since.
Directed by longtime writer and story artist Capobianco, the short features Remy and Emile from Ratatouille giving an educational lecture on why rats should be tolerated by humans. Their story soon loses control, as the two digress and in many ways contradict their central thesis while breaking the fourth wall repeatedly. The short is Pixar’s "Duck Amuck," a mature work that has such confidence in its own material that it can take for granted pretty much everything it shows. Its gag-a-second format is littered with homages and subtle jokes, and while it helps to have seen Ratatouille to understand its rats’ personalities, it isn’t really necessary. “Your Friend the Rat” deserves more recognition than being just a DVD extra feature; in its own way it’s a milestone in animation history while lacking any such pretentious designs.
Opening up sound as an option also led to one of the studio’s finest one-off shorts, the whimsical and musical "Boundin’." I’m not really sure what Pixar was thinking when they gave "Boundin’" the green light. The story of a lone sheep who for some reason does Scottish clog dances that are popular in the area is odd, even for Pixar, but writer/director/voice actor/musician Bud Luckey somehow turns this into an uplifting story nonetheless. "Boundin’" plays like an old Disney short, but with a far more confusing lesson to be learned. (Wait, if life sucks, I should jump?) The winning design of its animals, in particular the autobiographical-seeming jackalope and the hole-dwelling owl, pulls off a work that steps beyond Pixar’s comfort zone of silent slapstick with its raucous music and rhythmic editing.
It’s also a great example of how Pixar manages to be both auteur-driven and yet have a definite studio voice. Character designs in "Boundin’" are as Pixar as they come, and its obsessively fluid animation reads like a trademark of their work. Everything else about the short, though, is Luckey. Stanton and Bird, as brilliant as they are, don’t work in the sort of storybook children’s world that Luckey does, leading it to feel unique within the studio despite cosmetic similarities.
"One Man Band" isn’t disappointing, but it is a return to form, bringing back the type of silent film the studio first began with. It does feel more like a student display of animation skills than the rest of their works, though, despite the obvious quality of the actual animation. The execution is still there, but the simple plot device doesn’t work as well as their earlier ones and the short seems a little bit nasty at moments, an oddity for the normally genial studio. Its follow-up, "Lifted," is definitely a stronger work, taking the pantomime form and using it in a fashion that leads to more opportunities. Its strengths point to the weaknesses of the preceding short by offering highly differentiated characters and a series of jokes rather than the same one repeated with slight variation. Directed by a sound editor, its vitriol against mixing boards is hilarious, but the joke about driver’s education and student-teacher interactions is what makes it work so well.
"Presto" was briefly mentioned in my Oscar Nominee Rundown column, and is closer to "One Man Band" than to Pixar’s more successful shorts. It’s also at heart a one-joke premise, though its execution is better than "One Man Band" because its magician and rabbit are both much stronger characters than the musicians. It still suffers somewhat from Road Runner syndrome, but is almost polished enough to become a classic nonetheless. There’s an obvious repetition in this problem with late Pixar shorts, which is partially responsible for claims that they’re not as great as they used to be. Their most recent short, "Partly Cloudy," is also in this same vein. It’s the best of this series, though, because unlike the others, it in fact recognizes the repetition and riffs on the audience’s expectations. Focused on a cloud who makes unfortunately violent baby animals for its stork friend to deliver, “Partly Cloudy” offers the slapstick chuckles of the expected pain, but both its characters also know this is coming and so they react accordingly. It doesn’t reach the heights of some of their other works, but it’s nonetheless a solid piece of entertainment.