As soon as I heard John Lasseter, creative head of Pixar Animation Studios, speak these words, “I want someone who has this burning desire to tell a story that they want to tell”, I knew he was talking directly to me. I spent countless hours learning from the heads of Pixar. I took notes on all the Pixar movie commentaries and looked up countless interviews online. I bought books on Pixar and have religiously gone to every one of their movies. The studio sounded like a dream land where artists could ride around on scooters, play volley ball and ping pong, and were given a free breakfast with every brand of cereal imaginable. I had created an image of a studio without flaws. A studio who treated everyone fairly and would do anything for the sake of creating a great story.
Then the ideal image I had of Pixar began to crumble. It’s what every child goes through when they create an idol out of flawed human beings. Little by little I began to realize the studio I came to love was not the great haven I had dreamed of. In 2006 Pixar was bought by Disney, a company who had shown numerous times they cared about profit more then anything else. The studio who had always claimed to be “director driven” began to replace more and more of their directors. The people who had birthed ideas such as “A rat who wants to cooks” or “A young girl who isn’t interested in conforming to the typical princess mold” were taken off of their projects and replaced with other artists. The main reason given for making these changes was because Pixar was not willing to settle for the mediocre. But then they produced Cars 2 which I and almost every critic out there believed was a full buffet of mediocrity. Key artists began to leave Pixar. Jan Pinkava, Brenda Champman, and Doug Sweetland are a few of the big name artists to go other places with their award winning talents.
Lasseter’s quote keeps flashing in my head, “I want someone who has this burning desire to tell a story that they want to tell”. See, I have a burning desire to tell stories. They are my most valuable possessions. With this quote Lasseter is saying he wants me to share my greatest desires with him. However, in order for me to share these desires with Lasseter, Pixar’s president Ed Catmull, and the rest of the leadership at Pixar I must first trust them.
I know Lasseter understands the power of trust. See, Pixar would not be Pixar if it weren’t for a group of rebellious artists who were willing to go all in with each other. For the first ten years of owning Pixar Steve Jobs lost money, yet he trusted Lasseter and his storytelling abilities to consistently write checks to him so he could continue to make animated shorts, which eventually lead to Lasseter directing Pixar’s first full length feature, Toy Story. John Lasseter trusted two artists with no directing experience, Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter, to helm the first Pixar movies not directed by him, Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo. And at the pinnacle of their success the heads of Pixar trusted a director who had just come off of a box office flop, Brad Bird, to completely shake up the studio’s routine and make the first Pixar movie to star humans and earn a PG rating, The Incredibles. Yet, in recent years trust seems to be hard thing for Lasseter to find. The last three Pixar movies had different directors at the beginning of their production. The movies ended up keeping their usual quality look but suffering from unoriginal storytelling.
Though Lasseter and the other creative heads are struggling to trust their artists it’s clear they still want their artists to trust them. The two main leaders of Pixar, John Lasseter and Ed Catmull, have continued to claim the most important thing about their studio is the artists. However, one of the greatest lessons I have learned from Pixar is words are cheap. In his most recent book, Creative Inc., Ed Catmull talked about the illusion of value that comes with curtain sayings. When Pixar began to create numerous successes one of their greatest sayings was, “Story is king”. However, Catmull found Pixar was not the only one saying story was the most important thing. Everyone was saying it. Catmull realized words were cheap when it came to talking about what creates success. What would separate Pixar was the walking out of the things they said.
A few weeks ago a story by the site PandoDaily came out detailing Ed Catmull’s involvement in the illegal activity of trying to fix employees’ wages. People whose net worth are in the hundreds of millions, such as Ed Catmull, John Lasseter, and Steve Jobs, were working to make deals with other studios in order to keep their employees’ wages at a minimum while assuring artists would not jump ship in pursuit of better deals. In a more recent development PandoDaily showed how Ed Catmull was actually a ring leader for this illegal wage-fixing activity. This evidence shown in the article spits in the face of Catmull’s claims to be a studio for the artists. Instead of paying his artists what they were worth he adamantly tried to get as many studios in the region to agree to not pursue each others employees. And when Sony Animation refused to follow the guidelines Catmull was enraged. As soon as Sony began going through a hard time and was selling part of their special effects division Catmull advocated for “aggressively going after Sony people”.
The studio has officially fallen from the great pedestal on which it once comfortably sat. The artist seems to only be as useful as his ideas. The quote that once inspired me, “I want someone who has a burning desire to tell a story they want to tell”, now feels more sinister then encouraging. In the last two weeks there has been no response from Pixar to the PondoDaily articles. All the fan sites who claim to be news sources for the Pixar Studio, such as Pixar Times, Upcoming Pixar, and Pixar Post, have neglected to even mention the controversy; most likely out of fear of repercussions from the company. The truth is this story probably will just go away. The majority of the world will never know about Pixar management’s involvement in these illegal wage-fixing activities.
I am writing this post however to tell Pixar I know. And I am ashamed of you. You were my teachers. You gave me a passion to tell stories and created the foundations of my views on filmmaking. My dream was to tell my stories at Pixar. I didn’t want to tell these stories for the sake of fame, acclaim, or money. What drove me and what drives me still is the same thing that drove Ed Catmull to want to make the first full length computer animated feature 20 years before anyone else thought it was possible. It’s the same thing that drove Lasseter to stay at work and sleep under his desk in order to finish animation for the first full length animated short The Adventures of Andre and Wally B. It’s the same thing that drove the artists working at the studio to create an unbelievable streak of eleven box office and critically acclaimed films in a row. What drives me is this burning desire to tell the stories I want to tell. And I will tell them with or without Pixar. Everything depends on if the studio can regain the thing that drives creative collaboration the most, our trust.
Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) is a dark and complex tale which had a hard time connecting with a broad audience. I however found the film to be full of interesting dynamics. The film was also beautifully shot. I especially appreciate director/writer Jane Campion’s unwillingness to simplify the narrative in order to be more politically correct. In essence we are given a love story without a prince charming. There are two men who fight for the main character Ada’s affection and both characters are full of flaws and bring to the for front the kind of sexism woman have struggled with since the beginning of humanity.
The Piano was chock full of wonderful scenes where the visuals were constantly used communicate narrative and emotional points. I wanted to concentrate on one of the scenes I believe best expresses just how much meaning Campion was able to imbue into each one of her shots.
This scene takes place during the transition from the first act of the movie to the second. The main character Ada and her daughter are able to convince George Baines to go back to the beach so she can play her piano. George is falling in love with Ada despite her already being married. It’s here where we truly get a feel of George’s affection and begin to understand just how much the piano means to the story.
We first have this master shot with music playing in the background. The shot starts out with Ada and her daughter Flora walking from screen right to the piano. The emphasis is put on Ada’s need to play the piano. However, a second or two later George walks into frame connecting him to Ada and her piano. I think it would be easy to compare George to the rock on the horizon line; an object that is quite distant from the mind of Ada at the moment.
The second shot is a pan starting first on the piano and then quickly revealing Ada playing the music we have been hearing in the background. This of course directly links the piano to Ada. Also the close up of the hands is a key element; making a point that the hands are what is making such beautiful music. Ada’s hands become a crucial plot point in the third act of the movie and they already being set up here. By having this be the second shot after the master Campion is communicating Ada’s playing is the focus point of the scene.
This is part of the same pan shot. Campion is directly connects George to Ada and her piano playing. This is one of the first shots showing George’s obsession of Ada and the piano. It helps to set up the idea of him wanting her to play for him later in the movie.
The pan cuts to a close of Ada alone. It is key that the shot starts alone because it gives clarity to exactly what George is looking at. However, shortly after we see Ada’s daughter Flora run into frame and hug her mom. This moment represents Ada at her happiest. A long time goes by before we see her close to as fulfilled as we see her here.
This cut of the daughter dancing expresses the spiritual connection between Ada’s music to her daughter. Jane Campion holds the shot for a good amount of time, trying to show how in-sink the two are at this point in the story.
We have this cut to medium close up of George who in his own way is going with the music. The key is to show how Ada’s music is effecting George emotionally.
This is one of the most interesting shots of the scene. Campion breaks the rule of thirds and frames Ada so the head is in the middle of frame. This is a wonderful example of a closed frame; nothing is important but what we are seeing in frame. The shallow focus stops the background from interfering in the shot; Campion wants us to only be seeing how Ada is reacting to the music. The rest of the world and all other sounds have faded away.
I show two frames from this shot because the action inside the shot is what is really important. We first get this look from George as if he is entranced with the way Ada is being moved by her music. However, by turning his back George is in a sense denying that allure.
Yet, in the end he turns back, unable to resist his need to see Ada playing. This is a wonderful foreshadow of what is to come between Ada and George.
Here is another close up of Ada’s hands. Again, driving home the idea Ada’s hands are what are giving us this powerful music. The other important factor is seeing Flora playing with Ada. Right now in the story the two are working together, both are being physically and emotionally connected to each other with this shot.
This is from the same shot, Campion goes all the way from the close up of both Ada and Flora playing to this wide where we get a feeling of a sort of distance between the two characters. I feel like Campion is making a comment about things to come.
This last god’s eye point of view shot might be the most telling of the whole scene. It expresses the journey of the story. We first have Ada walking her own path. Flora quickly fallows and George contemplates for several long seconds before he chooses to follow suit. The shot is communicating whose story this is and the rout of some of the main characters who end up going on the journey with her.
As early as 1933 Walt Disney was looking into creating a full length animated feature. The story he was most interested in translating to the big screen was Snow White. One of Walt’s first encounters of the story came when he was in Kansas and watched the silent version in the Kansas City Convention Hall in 1917. To be honest the basic outline of Walt’s version of Snow White didn’t change much from this version. What separated his movie was not new plot twists or a heightening of the stakes. The Special ingredient Walt was able to sprinkle through all his movies, from 1937’s Snow White to when he died, was personality animation.
The scene above is a brilliant example of how Walt and his artists harnessed the personalities of their characters to drive the entertainment value of their story. The brilliance of this scene is its simplicity. Considered a throw away scene in most movies (put in only to communicate a narrative point) Walt uses this scene to drive home the dwarf’ personalities and their strong relationship to Snow White. The two narrative points we need to note are Snow White is being left alone and the dwarves are worried about the wicked queen. However, these points are communicated twenty seconds in. Walt makes the sequence memorable by having the essence of this moment be about developing character. Basically we see the same gag happen multiple times. The main entertainment comes from the dwarfs’ reactions after Snow White kisses them. To understand the genius of this scene one needs to understand why the gag doesn’t ever get old. The key is the different way each character reacts.
There were three Legends in the medium of animation assigned to animate the dwarfs. First was Fred Moore who did the animation for Doc, Sneezy, and Dopey. Moore specialized in appeal and you can see a huge amount of polish in the way Doc is animated. Doc communicates mainly through his hands and they are all over the place in this scene. Doc goes through several emotions here. He first shows his concern for Snow White. Staying with his character Doc’s train of thought takes a drastic turn when Snow White kisses him. He finds himself smitten by Snow White and needs to change his attitude once again so he can look like the tough leader of the dwarfs. Humor is sprinkled all the way through his performance and is directly drawn from the specific character of Doc. We find it funny Doc can’t complete a sentence because his mind is occupied by so many things. We also know deep down Doc is a softy even though he tries to act like the tough leader.
Moore has the comedy relief in the scene and he is able to highlight Doc, Sneezy, and Dopey’s personalities through their comedic action. Though the character of Dopey arguably has the most humorous reaction to Snow White’s kiss, he jumps through the window in order to come out and get another kiss from Snow White, I believe animators Frank Thomas and Bill Tytla show the most depth in the performances they pull out of their characters. Disney Legend Frank Thomas was considered a rookie in the realm of animation during the production of Snow White. He had just been promoted from being Fred Moore’s assistant to a full fledged animator and was given the task of bringing Bashful to life in this scene. Though it is a small performance it’s filled with what would become one of Frank Thomas’ signature traits, heart felt emotion. Frank was always looking for the extra little things that would elevate his character’s performances. When Bashful takes off his hat for Snow White he gently steps up to her while he says, “Be awful careful”, as if he is approaching his school sweetheart. And look at the way bashful handles his hat; it is as if he is trying to control all those strong emotions that come with someone who has just fallen in love. Then comes the Kiss and Bashful’s emotions seem to overflow and he lets out an endearing giggle.
After Bashful we get our first look at the tour de force performance of the scene, Grumpy. Walt gave one his best animators at the time, Bill Tytla, the job of animating Grumpy. Tytla was known for his ability to crawl inside his characters’s skin and capture the essence of who they were. Grumpy no doubt is the trickiest character to tackle in this scene because he goes through the greatest range of emotions. From the beginning I believe Walt and his team knew Grumpy would be the most difficult dwarf in Snow White to tackle because he could easily come across as just a mean hearted woman hater. However, because of Tytla’s superior supervision we were able to see the soft side of Grumpy show itself just enough to keep us rooting for him. Though Grumpy acts like he doesn’t care much for Snow White spread through out the film are moments where we see Grumpy’s true affection for this original Disney princess. By showing the little clip of Grumpy preparing his bald head for Snow White’s kiss we can tell he actually is looking forward to his short interaction with her before he goes. Grumpy’s walk away after he gets kissed is considered one of the best pieces of animation out there. He goes from a deep stubbornness to complete infatuation for Snow White within the span of a few seconds. Any aspiring animator should go over this scene frame by frame and see how Tytla communicates the inner emotions of Grumpy through the subtle eye movements and slow translation from the strong walking pose he carries at the beginning of the shot to the lovestruck dazed pose he has right before Snow White blows him a kiss. All the principles of animation Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas highlighted in their book The Illusion of Life are shown in this short clip. Tytla pulls off a stream of gags after Snow White blows Grumpy a kiss and all the gags are magnified by our understanding of the character of Grumpy and how undignified he feels after letting his guard down.
This small scene in Snow White is endearing because of the characters who inhabit it. This is one of the first times the Disney artists realized the simple power that could come from one character touching another. Snow White’s kisses communicated an evolution in the way audiences saw animation. No longer were we seeing cartoons inhabit the screen but rather living breathing characters who all acted uniquely and had engaging personalities. We see depth in the character of Grumpy. He is a man struggling with his built in prejudices and new found affection for someone who isn’t afraid to show him love. Walt never accepted the idea his artists were making a simple cartoon. Gags that would be forgotten as soon as the audience left the theater weren’t interesting to Walt. He wanted the audience to feel for his characters. In order for us to feel for the character we needed to buy into the ultimate illusion. We needed to believe the characters we were seeing on screen had feelings. They pulled the illusion off because the characters were alive to people like Fred Moore, Frank Thomas, and Bill Tytla. When Walt and his artists argued about a character’s action they were fighting for the integrity of someone they all saw as real and felt they knew personally.
We keep going back to a movie like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs because it holds characters we all have affection for. I find it interesting how many people love classics because of the actors who star in them. I hear comments like, “Any movie with John Wayne in it is a good movie” or, “Jimmy Stewart is always so relatable”. For animation few people know the artists behind characters like Jiminy Cricket from Pinocchio, Gus Gus from Cinderella, or Grumpy from Snow White. This makes these animators’ performances feel even more unique and special. You will never see a character who looks and acts just like Grumpy in any other movie then Snow White. The same can be said about the hundreds of other Disney animated characters who have inhabited the silver screen and visited our living rooms since 1937’s Snow White. Because of this ability for the animators to truly disappear into their characters the performances they create are timeless and always worth going back to.
Walt Disney’s 1941 masterpiece Pinocchio was the film where The Nine Old Men, who would be responsible for forty years Disney Animation success, first began to show their true colors. During the 1930’s and the beginning of the 40’s the main animators leading Disney animation were Bill Tytla, Fred Moore, Hamilton Luske and Norman Ferguson who were responsible for literally defining the foundations of hand drawn animation. Disney’s now legendary Nine Old Men were but young stewards trying to gleam as much as they possibly could from these veterans. In the movie Snow White Ward Kimball was the only one of the Nine Old Men put in charge of a sequence and it ended up being dropped from the final film.
During the production of Pinocchio many of Walt’s young artists saw it as an opportunity to shine. Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas did a tremendous amount of animation on the main character Pinocchio, including much of the sequence where Geppetto is controlling the lifeless Pinocchio on strings and the sequence where Pinocchio finds himself in Stromboli’s cage lying to the Blue Fairy. Since Walt understood Kimball’s devastation after having his sequence cut from Snow White he put him in charge of the character who would become the most memorable character in the movie, Jiminy Cricket. Another man who really shined during during the production of Pinocchio was Milt Kahl. Now considered maybe the greatest animator of all time, Kahl did many brilliant sequences of animation for the movie; including the little scene where Jiminy Cricket finds he is late on his first day of the job and ends up putting his cloths on while he runs past camera (I know this doesn’t sound like anything special but ask any animator about the shot and they will begin to look faint just thinking about it). However, Kahl’s greatest contribution to the movie was the final design of the title character Pinocchio.
The movie Pinocchio was actually in the works before Snow White was released in 1937. However, Walt and his artists were constantly running into a roadblock. The lead character Pinocchio was just not that likable. In fact, if you go back to the original Carlo Collodi short stories the character of Pinocchio is actually a cruel trouble maker who ends up killing the Cricket that Walt would appoint as Pinocchio’s conscious in his version of the story. Walt was also very put off by the original design of Pinocchio. The problem you ask? He looked too much like a puppet. The Disney artists more then anybody else at the time understood the power of having appealing designs for their main characters. The Seven Dwarfs in Snow White were filled with appealing designs. Even the never happy Grumpy was filled with appealing curved features. Walt understood his characters’ appeal was a huge part of the movie’s success and he was so frustrated about the lack of appeal in Pinocchio’s design he halted the project altogether.
The then nobody Milt Kahl thought he would have a go at the design of Pinocchio. He chose to treat Pinocchio not like a puppet but rather an average eight year old boy, someone would see at the local playground. Kahl came to Walt with the design you see here. The only real sign Pinocchio is a puppet comes with his nob of a nose. The round cheeks and playful looking hat gave the character of Pinocchio a relatable innocent look. This broke through the roadblock Walt and his artists were facing and made them see the character in a completely different light. Walt realized instead of having Pinocchio get in so much trouble because he was a cruel puppet who was drawn away from humanity, he would have Pinocchio’s great flaw be a childlike naivety. Pinocchio has just come to life and thus does not know the difference between right and wrong. He is actually very human in his curiosity and is extremely impressionable. Instead of the audience being repelled by his naughtiness we are attracted by his innocence.
As I said in a prior post on Milt Kahl, 80% of the final designs of Disney characters from Pinocchio (1941) to The Rescuers (1977) were done by Kahl. Kahl wasn’t just good at designing characters because of his knowledge of what makes for an appealing design and his fine draftsmanship. He was great because Walt and the rest of Kahl’s mentors installed the philosophy of creating designs where the true essence of the character could be expressed. Disney Animation has always been defined by character based animation. Through out their golden age (1937-42) and rough periods of animation (1966-82) the thing that always shined through were the memorable characters who occupied the great and not-so-great stories in the Disney films. And this is why the movies are almost all worth going back to. Little did we know at the time but with the movie Pinocchio we were watching some of the greatest actors to ever put pencil to paper come to center stage.
Center frame are two of my favorite characters in all of animation. I grew up with Bambi and Thumper. I watched Bambi (1942) dozens and dozens of times as a child and it moved me every time. This frame comes from near the beginning of the movie when Thumper and his sisters are showing the young prince around the Forrest. Not once during my childhood did I question whether or not the Forrest was real. Yet, if you really look at it the shapes making up most of the backgrounds in Bambi are but simple impressions of the real thing. As you can see in this frame the leaves, grass, and trees are void of much texture and lose almost all their detail at the edges of the frame. I personally consider Bambi to have some of the greatest backgrounds in all of animation because none of the background paintings detract from the characters and action but are able to completely transport you into the movie’s world.
Walt Disney spent a long time trying to figure out the look of the backgrounds in Bambi. With Snow White (1937) And Pinocchio (1940) Walt was much more interested in creating a look you would see in book illustration of the Brother Grimm tales. The movies were influenced by European painters from the 1800s. However, with Bambi Walt was shooting for a realism not seen before in animation. He wanted the animals in the movie to move like real animals you would see in the Forrest and so he had all kinds of Forrest animals brought into the studio to be studied by his artists in order to achieve this goal. Just look at the difference between 1937’s Snow White animals and the ones you see in Bambi, made in 1942. There is a strong attention to the anatomy of the animals in Bambi and there are only a few features exaggerated in order to have them relate more to the audience.
The animator Tyrus Wong said he never met Walt but it is clear Walt resonated with his painting style. Wong was an inbetweener animator responsible for doing the in-between drawings of finished animation in order to create the number of frames needed to have a scene move in a flawless way when played at regular speed. This was tireless and unrewarding work. Thankfully the research artist Maurice Day discovered Wong’s impressionistic paintings he had been doing on the side and brought his illustrations to Walt’s attention. Walt loved them. Not only did his impressionistic style not feel too busy, it seemed to transport Walt and the rest of the artist into the Forrest of Bambi. Wong captured the simplistic shapes within the environment of the Forrest. He also understood how light reflected off and filtered through it’s leaves and rocks. The hand drawn characters who move around in the environment had just enough detail to stick out from the backgrounds while also feeling at home in the frame.
If you look at this background painting without Bambi and the young rabbits inhabiting it, it would feel empty. The environment by itself is easy to overlook. It is made to be inhabited. I believe this should be a key philosophy for all animation backgrounds. Too often we see environments detract from the story taking place. Detail can easily become animation’s greatest enemy. The job of an animated film is not to reproduce reality but rather create just enough in order to make it feel emotionally genuine.
Tyrus Wong is still alive at age 103 and has been recognized by Walt’s daughter Diane Disney Miller and honored with a display of his work at The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Fransisco California in 2013. It is a true shame Tyrus Wong left Disney because of the 1941 strike.
This might be the most beautiful shot I have ever seen of Akira Kurosawa’s. And believe me there have been plenty of beautiful shots in this old legend’s career. Kagemusha (1980), which means “shadow warrior”, is chock full of great shots. The movie is Kurosawa’s third venture into filming with color and I believe his best. It is pretty amazing this is only his third film made in color since it was made in 1980 and Kurosawa had been making movies since the 1940’s. Those who don’t know Akira Kurosawa is a director from Japan and considered one of the greatest filmmakers to grace this earth. His movie Seven Samuri (1954) is hailed by many to be the greatest movie ever made.
With the movie Rashomon (1950) Kurosawa was able to put the cinema of Japan on the map after the movie won Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1951. The movie was one of the first time a filmmaker ever shot with the lens looking directly at the sun. Before this many thought film would burn up if you shot directly at the sun. However, after Rashoman the sun became a big theme in Akira Kurosawa’s work.
Getting Kagemusha made was extremely difficult. Kurosawa painted hundreds and hundreds of storyboards. He knew almost every shot of the movie before he even started shooting. He was just waiting to get backing for the project. Sadly at this time in his career the film industry in Japan was at a all time low and many considered Kurosawa to be passed his prime as a filmmaker. Thankfully however two successful young filmmakers from America, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, stepped in and helped finance the picture. This might have suggested to Akira Kurosawa there was some hope for the next generation. Though his industry might have given up on him, there was dedicated group of young filmmakers from the 60’s and 70’s who considered Kurosawa a legend in the realm of filmmaking.
In some ways I feel this shot is melancholy in nature. The troops in shadow look tired and defeated. Where during 1950’s Rushomon Kurosawa shot directly up into the sun that was in the middle of the sky, the sun now is setting representing and end of a way of life. Yet, the picture’s beauty is overpowering and the image of troops marching onto battle is quite inspiring. The deep oranges you see in the picture don’t feel like they represent doom as much as it represents a sort of beautiful momory Kurosawa wants us to keep a hold of.
Akira Kurosawa was a huge admirer of John Ford and Ford was known as the king of the master-shot. Ford told a very young Steven Spielberg that if he could learn why a shot is better when the horizon line is on the top of the screen or at the bottom of the screen instead of in the middle, you might just become a good filmmaker. As you can see Kurosawa places the horizon line at the top of the screen. There is no vast open space in this master shot. The world once full of possibilities is now coming to a close. This is an end of an age. In the movie it represents the ending of the Samurai. However, for Kurosawa I believe it means the moving on of an age in filmmaking. His light is about to go out, there are only a few more movies left in him.
Many call it the last great Pixar movie. I personally think Toy Story 3 is a fantastic completion of a wonderful trilogy. And, though you could make an argument Toy Story 3 is a little repetitive and less original then the first two movies, I think the film stands out as the most visually bold film of the trilogy. Simply put, Pixar was running on all cylinders when they made this film. From the refined Pixar storytelling skills to the huge advancements in technology Toy Story 3 was able to expand its universe while keeping a firm grasp on what made the first two films so loved by the first generation of Toy Story fans.
Let’s talk about the color pallet used to tell the story of Toy Story 3. Toy Story has had a distinct pallet from the beginning. The colors are usually extremely saturated and there are few scenes where you see the whole gambit of the color wheel. Instead, each scene usually consists of one to three key colors to establish an atmosphere. The goal isn’t to be subtle with the colors, but rather use color to drive the emotional arc of the movie. With Toy Story 3 the brilliant art director Dice Tsutsumi took the helms of this beloved franchise and gave us a pallet of colors unmatched in animation. He was in charge of creating the color script for the movie, which consists of dozens of impressionistic paintings plotting out the general emotional arc of the movie through the use of color and lighting (check out part of his color script here). Dice Tsutsumi said, “The color script sets the tone of the film: how color and atmosphere and lighting will carry the story and the characters throughout the film”. The color script is started towards the very beginning of pre-production and isn’t finished until lighting for the movie is finalized. I believe Toy Story 3 is the best example I have ever seen of the emotional impact color and lighting has on a film. The actual images you will see here comes from the final film. The director of photography for Toy Story 3 was Kim White and she and her team were responsible for bringing Dice’s paintings to life. Animation is the ultimate collaborative medium. The sad part is though most of the artists go unnoticed. So, though I will mostly reference Dice Tsutsumi and Kim White in this post the results you see are made possible by the whole Toy Story 3 team. I am using eleven images from the film. As Dice said in an interview, “One of the things Ralph (the original Toy Story art director) said was to pick ten or fifteen key moments and see if you can describe the color flow of the movie with just those images”. This is my attempt to describe the color flow of the movie with just a few handfuls of images.
Most will recognize this shot from the intro of the film. As you can see there is a complementary color scheme at work here, blue and deep orange/brown. Not only does this really make things stick out, it establishes Woody and his owner Andy’s relationship. Andy has always been represented with blue in the Toy Story movies. Woody is dressed in mostly worm colors and is a cowboy which makes this terrain fit perfectly with his character. He also has blue jeans which connects him visually to Andy. The shot here comes from a high stakes adventure taking place in Andy’s imagination. There is a tremendous amount of open space. The creators want to create a world here where you believe anything is possible (I mean come on, there is a huge Pig Ship taking up a chunk of the screen). We are at the height of Andy and Woody’s relationship reflected vividly through the deep saturated blues and oranges. Through out the film you see Art Director Dice Tsutsumi save deep colors for solid emotional connections.
This is defiantly Andy’s room, reflected by the overwhelming amounts of blue in the image. The moment takes place after Andy has grown up and is about to go to college. The colors are less rich then the last frame and Woody doesn’t seem to belong as much. Woody and the rest of the toys’ marginalization is seen in specific and broad strokes. The Buzz Lightyear poster is mostly covered up in the corner. Woody is the only toy in sight. And, the stars representing Andy’s childhood are almost completely covered by posters and other “grown up stuff”. One other thing I want to point out in this image is the outside colors. The bright green colors you see from the outside actually look much more inviting then anything we see inside. This green actually represents someone we will meet later on in the film.
Wow look at the difference here. This looks like a place where toys belong. Here is the first of several images I will post of the Nursery, where most of the movie takes place. The next few images will express just how much control the Pixar artist have over the power of lighting and creating atmosphere for a scene. Andy’s toys left Andy’s house and found themselves here in Sunnyside Daycare. This is the first time the toys are introduced to this nursery where in just a few minutes kids will come and play with them. Andy’s toys are excited because this will be the first time in years they are played with. You can’t get much more inviting then this. It’s clear the artists want to create an attractive environment for audience as well as the toys. Look at the designs of the objects you see in frame. I guarantee you the nice comfy chair and beanbag were strategically placed to help soften the imagery. Round designs are always more inviting then designs with sharp angles. We also see Director of Photography Kim White use soft lights to create an inviting environment. There are no harsh shadows and the nursery almost seems to glow. An analogous color scheme is at work here, ranging from light red to light green. There are no deep colors either, which might be a sign from the creators that though this is an inviting environment it has little depth to it. Unlike with Andy there are no owners in a nursery. As inviting as this might be within minutes the nursery seems to be transformed into a completely different environment.
Yes this is the very same place you saw in the last frame. Look, you can see the nice soft chair and beanbag at the top of the frame. However, they don’t look as inviting now for some reason. This moment in the film takes place after the toys have been brutally played with by toddlers who Andy’s toys quickly realize are not old enough to handle them properly. The environment goes from a paradise to a foreign wasteland. The feeling of uneasiness is only enhanced by the extreme angle director Lee Unkrich’s uses. He places the camera so it looks directly down at the setting. We are not used to seeing images from this kind of position and it helps to established the discomfort of the situation. The toys are meant to look pathetic from way up here; as if the environment has completely overpowered them. Also, check out the lighting. There are no more soft lights in this image. Harsh shadows stream across the frame making for a much more menacing composition. And finally, we get to the color. The shades of red do more then anything in terms of changing the environment to a uninviting place. Red has always been used to represent danger and destruction and we are only getting a taste of it compared to what we see at the climax of the film.
The nursery has gone from an unfriendly environment to an out-and-out prison. This shot is from the same environment as the last two yet looks like a completely different location. This is an example of the power animation has to push lighting to extremes in order to enhance the emotional impact of a scene. The character Andy’s toys once thought was good, Lotso, has shown his true colors and locked Andy’s toys up. Look at the light source here. The shadows are extremely defined and most of the color is actually sucked out of the picture. There are no round objects in sight and the picture is framed from a straight on angle which helps create a formal mood. It’s as if all the humanity has been sucked out of the Toy Story world and all we have left is a evil pink teddy bear who is determined to stay on top. So where is our hero? Where is WOODY?!
There he is! Woody was picked up by a girl from the nursery named Bonnie. Just like the original nursery image, this feels like a inviting environment. Again Kim White uses soft lights to take away the shadows. Here we see a pretty broad analogous color scheme at work with a good amount of green. Wait, didn’t I talk about the color green before? That’s right! This is the character I was talking about earlier. Through out the movie Bonnie is represented by the color green and her room reflects this. However, Woody can’t stay in a wonderful place like this when his friends are stuck in a daycare prison. He returns to the daycare and helps break Andy’s toys out of Sunnyside. The problem is he doesn’t find himself in any better of a place.
Well shoot! This takes place toward the climax of the film and art director Dice Tsutsumi begins to use monochromatic color schemes. Doing this he is able to overwhelm the image with a singular mood. Woody and the rest of Andy’s toys find themselves at the dump and director Lee Unkrich pushes the imagery to the max in this sequence. The lights shoot directly into the face of the audience. Unlike in Sunnyside we no longer have the claustrophobic feel of a prison, rather we get a wide angle shot of trash as far as the eye can see. It’s a different kind of hell we find ourselves in. The yellow green gives the environment a sickly look and we are deeply worried for Woody and the rest of the toy’s well-being.
Well, things haven’t seemed to get any better. Woody and the rest of the gang are looking into an inferno and there seems to be no way of escape. The screen is completely devoured by red. In fact, the red light source is so strong it has seemingly changed the toys colors to shads of red. This shot represents the most dyer situation in the movie. Director Unkrich doesn’t want anything to get in the way of our connection with the toys here. He uses a shallow focus and makes sure there are no distractions in the background. There is only one light source in this shot and it is completely overpowering. The creators want us to think this might be it for the toys. The sequence is sort of a rebirth for Woody and the rest of the toys. In this moment all of them embrace each other and are ready for the next chapter in their lives.
Lets just thank the gods the next step wasn’t incineration. Woody and the rest of Andy’s toys survive and are taken by Andy to Bonnie’s house. Here we see Andy giving Bonnie his toys. Andy is in his classic blue clothing and the rest of the frame is consumed by Bonnie’s green. We can see the storytellers are embracing Bonnie here by using deep green colors. We see just as vivid of greens as we did blue at the beginning of the movie. The visuals are supporting the idea of the passing of the torch. Andy’s story is done but we have new adventures to look forward to with Bonnie. This is beautiful imagery. It almost feels as if we have been transported into a wonderful memory. For the last time Andy plays with Bonnie and his toys before he leaves. His blue fits wonderfully with Bonnie’s green.
The movie ends with this shot. I think it is a wonderful salute to Andy’s story. A blue sky filled with clouds is what the very first Toy Story movie opens with and it’s only fitting we end with it as well.
Few companies can tell their stories better visually then Pixar. Specifically director Pete Docter puts a huge amount of time towards figuring out how to tell his stories in visually rich ways. Animation is a unique medium in terms of visuals because it is less bound by reality. In fact, it’s when trying to make an animated movie look like live action film when filmmakers get into a lot of trouble (just look up the term the uncanny valley or read about director Robert Zemeckis’ misfires in motion capture). Pete Docter maybe more then any other director I know has embraced the power of animation. Each one of the characters in his movies are designed not based on realism but emotion. He wants the audience to understand who his characters are just by looking at them. Docter then creates a world that supports the inner conflicts of his characters. He uses design, music, and color schemes to say something about the story he is telling.
Lets take a look at this shot from Pete Docter’s Up. This is the beginning of the first act of the film. We had a very touching prelude where we watch Carl and his wife Ellie grow old together. This moment is about life after Ellie, yet we can still very much feel her presence. Docter and the other Pixar artists used simple shapes to represent both Ellie and Carl. With Ellie the circular shapes were used and with Carl the shapes are rectangular. The creators also used violet purple to represent the presence of Ellie. In the scenes we see her in she is usually wearing some kind of violet clothing. The badge she gives Carl as a kid is also made from a bright purple bottle cap. The color lingers through out the film including in this shot. You can see light shines on half of the bed Ellie used to sleep on. There are just the smallest hints of violet in the light, cast on the bed and wall behind. Notice the table and lamp on Ellie’s side of the bed, they both have a circular design. There is also Ellie’s picture bordered by a round frame.
This is a wonderful introduction to the post-Ellie Carl. We are introduced to him in a very unglamorous way. I mean you usually are not shown characters just waking up from sleep. Docter wants to hit the audience with a hard dose of reality after the touching marriage montage we saw just before. We immediately feel restricted with this shot. If you watched the movie in 3D you would notice the extra dimension just added to the feeling of being confined. Notice how none of the light touches Carl. The little touch from the sunlight outside is not meant for Carl. Rather it’s a reminder of Ellie’s absence. It is kind of tough to have the marriage montage just before and then be introduced to an empty half of a bed. From here and through out most of the rest of the film Carl will wear very subdued clothing. However, what really adds to Carl’s closed-off demeanor is his shape. Quite literally everything about him is square. From his unrealistically large square head, to the rest of his body, and the objects surrounding his side of the bed, everything has a rectangular design to it representing Carl’s fatal flaw of being disconnected with the rest of the world. Heck, his bed cover even has a square design. The bottom line is Pixar’s Up will be studied for years to come because the creators made sure every composition spoke to the meaning of the story. This is the only time we see Carl’s bedroom in the movie, yet the artists took the time to deliberate over every detail you see. I guarantee you even the fact that the picture of Carl is slightly tilted was intentional and done to contribute to the story. Now that is what I call dedication.
Now this is how you frame a King!…. right?
Actually I would not say this shot is meant to be kingly or flattering. The direct opposite really. It is well composed but the intent is to dwarf Prince Albert and reflect his defeated emotional state. Director Tom Hooper said this wall we see behind Albert was the best set piece in the whole movie. During this production they spent millions on creating sets and were able to shoot in some fantastic locations like St. James’s Palace and the Hatfield House in Herfordshire, England. Yet, this wall seemed to give Hooper the most inspiration. Everything you need to know about the Duke of York is represented in this shot.
First lets focus on Prince Albert. He is dressed in very subdued clothing. Hooper is literally hiding Albert’s true colors. Heck, the king hasn’t even bothered to take off his coat. At this moment he is being interviewed by the speech therapist Lionel. It’s obvious Albert doesn’t feel comfortable. He takes up as little space as possible and he is sitting in a slouched position – a very improper posture for royalty. Albert has come to Lionel to see if he might help him with his speech impediment and inability to talk in public. The framing is a reflection of his speech problem. The prince seems to be engulfed by the wall. Hooper wants to communicate the idea that Albert is alone and dwarfed by his speech defect. The speech defect is represented by the wall. Talking in a position like this makes Albert’s words feel hollow. The wall is meant to be distracting, as if The Duke is hardly worth noticing. In this picture Hooper is setting up how much Prince Albert needs to grow in order to become the king so many of us remember from the History books.