A Dreamer Walking

Pete Docter – Director – Up

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on May 20, 2014

Up #3

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 in the last sequence. 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.

Spline Cast Interviews!

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on August 28, 2011

Well I am in the middle of writing a few papers actually. But none of them are where I want them to be. However, through reviewing some notes I found two podcasts I listened to years ago that produced some excelent advice and insight. I thought I might as well share. Both are from the site Spline Doctors. I would recommend anyone interested in animation to check the Spline Doctors site out. Spline Doctors consists of a group of Pixar artists (mostly Andrew Gordon)  who take interviews of colleagues, give updates on animation events going on around them, and post advice on animation techniques. They don’t update the site as much as I would like, but you will find several hours of good material in their archives. I think it would be wise to take advantage of this free recourse. Now to the interviews.

Andrew Stanton Spline Cast (2006):
This podcast has been extremely helpful to me in the last week or so. It has inspired about a half a dozen blog ideas. Andrew talks about how he got facinated with animation and how he found out about Cal Arts. He explains the reason to why he gives John Lasseter and the Pixar 200% every time he comes to the studio. He also talks about what drives him to make good films. Andrew Stanton is a master storyteller and he will give you some great insight on the foundations of what makes a good film in this three part interview. (Here is the link to Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3).

Brad Bird Spline Cast (2007): Brad Bird talks briefly about how he got hooked onto animation.  He gives us insight into several of the Nine Old Men and what it was like being mentored by Milt Kahl. He also talks a little about the difference between 2D animation and 3D and the strengths and weaknesses of both. The most interesting part of the interview for me was when Bird talked about the weakness of our generation as filmmakers and how the business side of Hollywood tries to cripple creativity. He goes into some of the reasons he got interested in Pixar and how the movie Toy Story broke one mold only to create another one for the animation industry. His advice at the end is also some of the greatest advice you will ever get.

Also,

Pete Docter Spline Cast (2007): This I did not consider to be as good as the other two interviews but it is well worth listening to. Pete Docter is not as blunt about his philosophy as Andrew Stanton and Brad Bird are. However, in this interview you hear a lot of what filmmaking deep down is about for Docter. He explains his constant effort to find the emotion of a story. He explains what he likes about the medium of animation. For Docter the story is all about the relationship and he explains why very clearly in this interview.

Pete Docter – An Observation – The Relationship

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on August 22, 2011

The relationship is what really counts for Pete Docter. The movies he makes are all about exploring different aspects of what it means to have a relationship with someone. He goes from exploring what it means to become friends in the original Toy Story, to what it means to be committed in a relationship in the movie Monsters Inc, to what it means to move on from a relationship after it ends in the movie UP.

Docter knows relationship is a key longing for all of us. We all want to have friends and most of us want to fall in love some day. Docter knows how relationships can strengthen us and give us fulfillment. However, Docter also knows relationship can be a hard, frustrating, and painful thing at times. His films ask the question to whether or not relationship is worth the struggles. Docter’s movies all have relationships we see unfold in everyday life and he brilliantly uses the fantasy part of his films to dig farther into the very real and relevant question of, “what does it mean to be in a relationship?”.

The first feature length film for Pete Docter was Toy Story. He was a co-writer and one of the lead animators for the movie. Toy Story deals with mainly two characters, Woody and Buzz. These guys are exact opposites of each other.  The main point of the film was to bring two opposites together. Visually the toys are shown to be opposites through Woody being a old cowboy doll and Buzz being a state of the art space toy. At first the characters hate each other. Woody lets his selfish relationship with his owner Andy get in the way of being open to anyone else. Only when Woody is willing to let go of his jealousy for Andy is he able to start to understand Buzz and build a relationship with him. Docter was in the middle of making this relationship work on screen. He actually helped animate the pivotal scene where Woody lets go of his ego and expresses how good Buzz actually is for someone like Andy. Through talking to Buzz, Woody realizes his greed and and is able to let go of it allowing him and Buzz to open up to each other. If this scene did not express Woody’s change well enough the whole story would have been ruined. Yet Docter allowed us into Woody’s soul and found a way to redeem him so not only Buzz but the whole audience could relate to him.

In Monster Inc, a movie Pete Docter helped write and made his debut directing, Docter goes even farther into what it means to have a relationship with someone. In this movie we are introduced to the characters Sully and Mike. Both are monsters whose profession is scaring little kids. They are best buddies at the beginning of the film, seemingly in a relationship that can’t be broken. So what does Docter do? He throws in something that begins to tear the relationship apart. A human child Sully calls  Boo somehow gets into the monster world. Children are considered by most monsters to be extremely dangerous but Sully begins to warm up to Boo. Mike can’t understand it, for most of the film he wants to do anything in order to get rid of the child. The tension between Mike and Sully rises to the point of them fighting and seemingly breaking up.

Pete Docter deals with a lot of issues that come with relationship in Monsters Inc. We can easily feel jealous when a good friend of ours begins to hang out with someone we are not friends with. What if my best friend is a conservative Christian and he sees me begin to hang out with a Muslim, someone he has been taught his whole life was dangerous? The same kind of idea applies to Monsters Inc. Sully choose to care for someone who everyone, including Mike, has been taught is dangerous. Mike could have let the relationship Sully had with Boo break up his relationship with Sully. Instead however Docter gives us another lesson to what being in a true relationship means. Relationship requires trust and Mike expresses this trust by going back to Sully. Mike explains the reasons he got angry at him, yet tells Sully that he is more important then his frustrations and fears. After trusting Sully and letting go of his fears Mike begins to understand Sully’ change of heart on who children really are. Eventually Mike begins to embrace Boo. This creates a even stronger relationship between the two monsters. We as the audience are also able to see more value in Sully’ and Mike’s relationship because we have seen it get tested and still hold strong.

In Docter’s latest film UP, we go deeper into the joys and pains of relationship. We are shown a beautiful relationship between the main protagonist Carl and his wife Ellie. The two grow old together in a wonderful montage at the beginning of the film. And then Ellie dies. The relationship we all began to care about is broken. Ellie becomes only a memory, a memory that at the beginning of the film brings Carl Down. After Ellie’s death Carl becomes a hermit who is stuck in the past. We see a old cranky man who is open to no one. Then Pete Docter throws in another element that will change Carl’s life forever. A boy named Russell knocks Carl’s door. He is a boy scout who needs to help the elderly in order to earn his last wilderness badge.

Pete Docter shows us the pain that can come with a relationship. The hurt we see Carl go through after his wife dies is hard to bear. However, through the fantastical elements of the story Docter slowly brings “relationship” back into Carl’s life. Carl wants to leave society and go on the adventure to Paradise Falls he always promised his wife they would go on. So Carl ties a few thousand balloons to his house and flies away. The only problem is Russell accidentally comes along with him.  Carl rebukes any relationship with Russell because he is still holding onto his past relationship with Ellie. Carl’s remembrance of Ellie is expressed visually through the house and all it’s possessions. Through half of the film Carl needs to pull the house with a hose line through out the South American jungle. Visually the house (Carl’s past) becomes this burden that Carl can’t let go of. His only goal is to bring himself and his house to Paradise Falls. However Russell along with a few friends they meet on their adventure begin to slowly connect with Carl. In very subtle ways Carl begins to let go of his burden and concentrate on the characters around him.

At the end Carl is faced with two choices, keep the items that connect him to the relationship he had with Ellie or go save Russell from the villain of the movie Charles F. Muntz. Charles chooses to let go of his past and save Russell. One of the brilliant things about UP is Docter forces Carl to get rid of his past in a visual way. Carl needs the house to fly again so he gets rid of all the houses possesions to make the house lighter and free it up. The scene represents exactly what is happening inside Carl. He is no longer letting his past stop him from being open to the present. Carl ends up watching his whole house fly away through the clouds. At the end he relizes Ellie will always be with him and she does not need to stop him from connecting to Russell or any other relationship. Both Russell and Carl represent broken relationships that come together to create a fulfilling one.

In a Spline Cast interview Pete Docter talked about relationship being the thing that really matters for the Pixar movies. This especially is true about Docter’s films. He is dedicated to searching out all aspects of what makes a relationship work. Docter truly believes in the power of relationship and because of the strength of his conviction his characters can convincingly break through any obstacle that get in their way. For Pete Docter filmmaking is not about creating a complex story line, it is about simple stories where we are able to see the relationship unfold. Docter keeps finding new ways to explore relationship on screen. He uses the magic of animation to further his exploration. The fantasy parts of his films are used as tools to further his points. I do not even think Docter cares too much about narrative. His films are not the most polished movies. Everything does not make complete sense in his films. However he connects us to his stories because he connects us to his characters. We like Pete Docter’s movies because we believe and relate to the relationships we see unfold on screen.

Insight into Pixar

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on February 16, 2011

I have run across three interviews that give us a very insightful look into the Pixar Studio. They are three 30 minute interviews of three directors at the Pixar studio, Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, and Lee Unkrich. Listening to these guys is very encouraging because you are able to feel the actual enthusiasm all these directors have for the projects they worked on and the studio they work for. The interviews were conducted about a year apart. Andrew Stanton talks about his journey in creating Wall-E. He goes into detail about what first intrigued him about the story and how it developed into a full length movie. Pete talks about his movie UP and Lee talks about his movie Toy Story 3. More importantly they all talk about the freedom they had to persue their visions for the films and how they worked collaboratively to make the movies the best they could possibly be. These guys are really good filmmakers to study if you want to know how to go about constructing a story. They give you a personal look at what made their stories resonate with them and how they were able to fight the battles in order to bring the films to fruition.

All of the Directors were interviewed by the same person, David Poland. The video’s are on the website Movie City News. If you click on the DP/30 link, you will see dozens of 30 minute interviews on some of the biggest names in film. It is well worth taking a look.

Here are the links to the Pixar interviews:

Lee Unkrich (Director of Toy Story 3) Interview:

Pete Docter (Director of Up) Interview:

Andrew Stanton (Director of Wall-E) Interview:

Enjoy!

Joe Ranft: Part 3: A Friend and Mentor

Posted in Animation, Film and Filmaker Studies by Jacob on November 10, 2010

This third and final part of my Joe Ranft series is to explain why Joe is one of the greatest influences in the history of animation. As I have explained in my last two blogs about Joe (here is Part 1 and Part 2), he went through many struggles and was able to push through them to become a very good artist. His special touch is seen through all the films he has worked on. However, what inspires me the most about Joe is not all the struggles he was able to overcome. Nor was it the magnificent art he was able to produce. Joe’s true gift was in his ability to affect those around him. His influence on film was limited to his own skill with a pencil or even the time he had on this earth. Joe had a quality that lasts even through death. Joe Ranft was a friend and a mentor to all those he worked with and because of this he will never be forgotten and he will never stop influencing the world through the people who were influenced by him.

Joe was moved by the teachers he had in CalArts. He was not only influenced to create great art from them, but also to spread the ability to do art to others. The goel was always to find the best idea possible and to do that Joe would involve everyone around him. He was far from being a solo man like his idol Bill Pete. He liked working as a team and was always open to new ideas no matter who the idea came from. Joe thought if diverse artists could work together without killing each other they could accomplish great things.

In 1987 Joe returned to CalArts to teach storyboarding. Two students Joe influenced the most was Brenda Chapman and Pete Docter. Pete Docter is now a director at Pixar and was the visionary behind both Pixar’s Monsters Inc. and Up. Brenda is now known as one of the great storyboard artists of her generation and she helped co-direct Dreamworks The Prince of Egypt. In John Canemaker’s book Two Guys Named Joe, Brenda said, “I would not be who I am, what I am, if it were not for Joe,” (page. 50).

Joe seemed to be a natural teacher. He made his students study Chaplin and Keaton films, and really concentrated on how to communicate ideas and story points through body language and the physical expression of emotions. The “meaning of the pose” was always important to Joe so he taught his students how to stage their drawings and think deeply about the pose being created so they could communicate as much as they could with their drawings. Here are a few of Joe’s rules on storyboarding from the book Two Guys Named Joe (Page 50):

  • Show rather then tell.
  • Communicate one idea at a time.
  • Stage it so the audience can see it clearly.
  • Clarity In the shot composition.
  • Clarity in staging the acting or pantomime
  • The Story drawing’s idea is to communicate: an idea feeling/emotion, mood, an action
  • Imply animation in your drawings (through caricature, use of animation principles, I.e., stretch and squash exaggeration, etc.)
  • Imagine ourselves in our character’s shoes/place.
  • Leave an impression, an impact (Visual and emotional) That effects the viewer.

These were all rules Joe pounded into his students. He wanted each one of his students to be the best storyboard artist they could be. The students always had someone to talk to in Joe. He was always there to talk about an idea or way to go about telling their story. He was known for being able to deal with anyone. Unlike so many teachers today, Joe did not force his way of thinking onto his students. Rather, he helped them develop their own way of telling a story.

When Joe went to Pixar and became head of story for Toy Story and A Bugs Life he became a leader everyone looked up to, including the directors of the films he was working on. He was the first man to show up and the last person to leave. After A Bugs Life Joe took a step down from the leadership position to become more of a mentor to the Pixar studio. In their most desperate hours Joe was able to help guide first time directors like Pete Docter on Monster’s Inc and Andrew Stanton for Finding Nemo. Joe was able to crack the sequence at the end of Monsters Inc. where the main protagonist Sully is leaving his dear friend Boo for what he thinks will be the last time. Andrew Stanton, the director and screenwriter for both Finding Nemo and Wall-E said, “Everything I learned about storyboarding a film and rewriting scripts was with Joe Ranft on Toy Story” (Two Guys Named Joe, page 73).

The artist’s Joe took under his wing and helped mentor are now some of the most sought after people in the animation industry. Joe had a gift, a powerful gift. He was able to make others believe in themselves. Joe had a joy for life and his art form that could not help but rub off on others. However, this heart for helping others did not just stop in the field of animation.

Being successful while others suffered in the world was not comforting to Joe. He joined community outreach programs helping at prisons and in tough neighborhoods. He even helped convince Steve Jobs to donate computers to the Watts organization. Staying involved in the community was important to Joe and he stayed involved up to the day he died. He was killed in a traffic accident on his way to a retreat in Mendocino, California.

Andrew Stanton said this about Joe;

He was just a great listener. Probably the best. And he had a real sixth sense for when people needed it, even if you weren’t looking for it. And that I’ll miss more then anything else, is the random knock at the doorway and just going, ‘Ah. It’s Joe.’

Joe Ranft was a friend and mentor. He was there for others when they most needed him. Through the talent and the fame, it was Joe’s friendship everyone valued. And this is why Joe Ranft will never be forgotten. Friendship is his contribution that will never die.

 

(Here is a tribute to Joe Ranft, made by one of Joe’s good friends John Musker)

The Brain Trust

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Personal Philosophy by Jacob on May 18, 2010

Pixar has this small group called The Brain Trust. This group consists of the  Pixar directors and a few of their best artists. The Brain Trust is one of the greatest reasons why Pixar is on the top of the pedestal when it comes to animation and storytelling. The success of Pixar does not come from one man’s mind, it comes from the best of several master filmmaker minds, all of whom have their own unique qualities when it comes to making a movie.

Every 3 to 6 months each director at Pixar has to show the project he or she is working on to The Brain Trust. After showing the film (in its unfinished form) The Brain Trust tears the film apart in the form of critique. The Brain Trust is brutally honest on what they think of the film they are critiquing. The fact that the director might have been working on the projects for a few years now is irrelevant. The fact that the director showing the film might have already won several awards in the past is irrelevant. The fact that one of the suggestions might be (and has been in the past) to restart the project from stage one is a suggestion the director must be able to take seriously and be able to handle. “You need to leave your ego at the door”, says Pete Docter, the director of Monsters Inc. and the Academy’s best picture nominee UP.

Pete Docter talked about the power of The Brain Trust and how important it is to have fresh eyes look at your project every once in a while, especially when you are in the middle of a four or five year project. Usually the director gets so involved with his or her film that he or she loses perspective. Once you hear a joke for the hundredth time it stops being funny.  Because the director knows the story he is telling in such depth it is easy for him to assume the audience knows more then they do. The Brain Trust helps bring perspective to the people who are in the middle of a project. They see the film with new eyes, catching the things that either are not explained enough or over explained.

One of the keys to The Brain Trust’s success is the ability to openly criticize. The people critiquing the film must not feel that they will be punished if they say something wrong or say something too extreme. The Brain Trust needs to come to each other at a even playing field. No matter the kind of success one person might have had from another each director and artist needs to be open to what the other person is saying. Ego can very easily get in the way especially with the success Pixar seems to have had. The Brain Trust is a true test of humility.

Another key to The Brain Trust’s success is the control that the directors have for their films. Even though the director and his or her team must be open to The Brain Trusts comments, it is the director that has the final say to what stays and what goes out of his or her film. Brad Bird, director of The Incredibles and Ratatouille, has a much different style of filmmaking then someone like Pete Docter. Both directors can look at something from a very unique angle, both might have great ways to communicate a curtain idea, it is the job of the director who is in charge of the project being shown to figure out what works best for the story and what doesn’t. It is the directors personal vision that is the driving force for a Pixar movie. This is what makes Pixar a director driven studio.

The main key to The Brain Trust’s success is the ability to put story first. Both the director showing the project and the Brain Trust needs to have their first priority be answering the question, “what is best for the story?”. As popular and critically acclaimed as some of the members of The Brain Trust are they have not yet forgotten that they are servants to the story they are trying to tell.

It is amazing to see a group of people from completely different backgrounds and with completely different styles of film making, come together to help each other succeed. It is hard to look at a movie with unbiased eyes and criticize it. It is even harder to open yourself up to criticism. But, through the power of constructive criticism you can accomplish things that seem to be impossible, as Pixar has already proven.

(The Picture consists of five of the key people in the Brain Trust. They all have either directed or are in the process of directing Pixar films. From left to right, Brad Bird, Andrew Stanton, John Lasseter, Pete Docter, and Lee Ulrich)