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.

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.

Film Mediums: CG Animation!

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on July 3, 2010

Computer Graphics (CG) animation is a limitless medium for film making. I think CG animation relies more on teamwork then any other medium of film. There are two very different aspects to CG animation, there is the artistic side of and the mathematical side. Great CG animation is the result of the artistic and mathematical sides working together for the purpose of the story.

With CG animation you have more freedom to use lighting, camera, texture, and effects to enhance the story. The more the technology of CG animation develops the more freedom you have to tell the story you want to tell. John Lasseter (president of Disney and Pixar animation) said it this way when talking about CG animation, “The art challenges technology and the technology inspires the art”. With a good CG animation studio every project is a opportunity to do more sophisticated and detailed animation.

It is usually the simple things that cause the most problems in CG animation. For instance, a character touching another character is very difficult. Trying to render long hair poses problems, making something look transparent often creates many difficulties,  and creating realistic clothing that interacts with the body and the world around it creates many problem that all take many highly trained people working hundreds of hours to fix.

Unlike a 2D animator, a CG animator starts with something on the screen.  The model has been created and the controls set by the time it gets to the animator. Every small detail can be controlled by the animator, you often have hundreds of individual controls for the face of a character alone. Before a animator starts on a character it is like a empty shell, lifeless with  nothing expressing who the character is except for the basic outside look (as you can see on the left with the character Mike from Pixar’s  Monsters Inc).

It is the animator who breaths life into the model. The principles of animating in 2D very much apply in CG animation. You have to have a thorough understanding of anatomy and acting. Pacing, overlapping, and squash and stretch are all principles that are shared between 2D and CG animation.

CG animation can lone itself to subtle action better then traditional 2D animation. You are able to read little things like the movement of the eyes and see how it expresses the characters feelings. With CG animation you have a better ability to create texture so we can tell the difference between something like leather and silk. 2D animation tries to simplify things to their basic shapes, the animator needs to be able to express his or her character through only a few lines and colors. CG animation is not limited like 2D animation, it is allowed to be as detailed as it wants. However, in animated films of all kind you often see that things have been simplified. The artists want you to pay attention to the important parts and they are allowed to throw away the unneeded detail.

It takes many people to finish just one shot in CG animation. You certainly need to have a combination of talent who are able to work well with each other. It all starts with the story and group of artist who create a storyboard showing the key points of the scene. Then there are the people who create the model, the people who create the background, the animator, the lighting artist, the people who are in charge of the cloths on the character, the people who write a program for the elements like water and dust, the shading artist, the editor, and then there is the director who has the vision of the whole film.  The director needs make sure everything blends into and works with each other so it looks like one artist created the whole story.

Click image to see step process

The picture of Carl from Pixar’s Up, is a great example of just a few of the things that go into making one frame of animation come to life. CG animation truly is the combination of math and art creating life on screen. Creating a program that simulates a simple thing like water is a very difficult task that has taken hundreds talented of workers many years to perfect.

There is so much that we can do in CG animation that was considered impossible just a few years ago. If you look at Pixar’s Toy Story franchise you will find that the original Toy Story (1995)  is extremely primitive compared to Toy Story 3 (2010) technology wise. The extent of detail that can go into lighting and movement  is so much greater then 1995 when the first Toy Story movie was made. However, what makes CG animation great is the thing that makes both of the other mediums great. You need to have a story worth telling.

With CG animation you need to have a good story in order to make a good movie. There are stories that very much lends themselves to CG animation. A good example would be Pixar’s UP which was about a old man who chose to go on a grand adventure by tying thousands of balloons to his house and flying away.  In a live action film a audience would most likely not buy into the idea of a house flying away on balloons. With 2D animation you would not be able to create as believable of imagery through texture, lighting, and the ability to move the camera. UP was a story that seemed perfect for CG animation. You were allowed the freedom to let go of what was reality and buy into the feeling of reality. UP created it’s own laws and stayed true to them, we were introduced to characters that registered with us and felt real.

Russell

We see artists trying to walk a fine line between the imagination and reality in CG animation. Most CG animated movies are not created for the purpose of making things look completely realistic, they want to create the feeling of reality. Russell from Pixar’s UP is a very good example of getting away from reality to create a more relatable character. On the left you can see that Russell’s basic shape is a oval. He has very rounded features. The  creators were going for a open and pleasing look. There is almost no neck on Russell, the length of Russell’s legs are completely unrealistic. But again, that is not what they were going for. The filmmakers tried to represent who Russell was on the inside through his outward appearance. Unlike Russell’s friend Carl, Russell is a much more open person who is curious (as you could see based on his shape and all the different things he takes with him) and interested in adventure (based on his expression and the kinds of things he has with him).

With CG animation every detail can be used to enhance the story. The filmmakers need to know the principles of both 2D animation and live action. It takes a animator working hundreds of hours moving thousands of controls to create just a few seconds of life. Anything is possible when it comes to how to use the camera, the director needs to have a thorough understanding on camera placement and what framing and movement creates the best effect. You are allowed to exaggerate shapes like you can do in 2D animation and you are allowed to work with sophisticated cinematography like only live action used to be able to do. The CG medium calls for constant advancement in technology, more things are becoming possible every day.

My ambition for CG animation is to create stories that push the medium forward. But, even more important then that, I want to make films that touch on core human values. Even though Toy Story 3 highlights the extent of how much CG animation has grown from the first two Toy Story’s, it is the story that will make a movie timeless. Technology will always be advancing but we all have our own individual stories to tell. The original Toy Story is still very entertaining to watch 15 years after it was created because the characters and story hit on core values that have stayed with human nature for hundreds of years, such as the value of friendship.

I look forward working with the possibilities CG animation brings us.  Buzz Lightyear, from Pixar’s Toy Story franchise, has a interesting saying that I think applies very well to the medium of CG animation.  With CG animation we can go “To Infinity and beyond”.

(With CG animation the key is still about the feelings the audience has for the characters and story. In the beginning of this clip Doug Sweetland expresses this point excellently)

(Here are the links to the rest of the posts for this series, Film Mediums, 2D Animation, and Live Action)