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THE CARPETBAGGER Animation Advocacy, Pixar Style

Published on : February 10, 2011
THE CARPETBAGGER Animation Advocacy, Pixar Style

EMERYVILLE, Calif. — Sheriff Woody was doing some unnatural things. Of course, he’s a cartoon character, an invention of the wizzes at Pixar, but on the screen in front of me, Woody — voiced by Tom Hanks in the  “Toy Story” franchise — was spinning his neck uncontrollably, torquing it to “Exorcist” angles and grinning while he did it. I moved the mouse and watched him convulse. Oh, man, animation is fun.


“A character in the film is kind of like a puppet,” Bobby Podesta, a supervising animator at Pixar, explained. “Imagine having Pinocchio in the computer that you move around frame by frame, but instead of having a dozen strings, you’ve got hundreds and hundreds and hundreds. It gets very nuanced.” No kidding: just the commands to control Woody’s mouth ran for pages, with each lip curl or quiver adjustable by tenths of a degree.


On a visit to the Pixar campus here, in an old canningfactory a short drive from San Francisco, I got a brief lesson in the laborious art of animation. The three-second moment Mr. Podesta showed me, in which Woody is looking at a photo of his owner, Andy, took about a week and a half to do, part of the four-year process that produced the blockbuster  “Toy Story 3.”


Since 2001, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences added animated feature as an Oscar category, Pixar has dominated, winning five times, with dozens of other nominations and trophies in technical categories. When the best picture field was expanded to 10 last year, “Up,” the adventure story about a crotchety old man and his young, balloon-toting charge, became a best picture contender. This season, “Toy Story 3” — the top-grossing film of the year and  arguably the best-reviewed — took that spot, along with one of the three nominations for best animated feature. But the filmmakers behind it, and animators at large, often complain that the rest of the movie industry doesn’t understand or appreciate what they do.


“They think maybe we push a button on a computer, and a movie pops out,” said Lee Unkrich, the director of “Toy Story 3” and a Pixar veteran.
Computers are a necessity, but the acting — the voice-over work — comes before the animation. The animators themselves are cast like performers, with some specializing in comedy and others in emotional moments, Mr. Podesta said. And animated moviemaking uses many of the same tools as live action, including costuming, production design and cinematography. As part of their substantial awards push this year, the marketers at Pixar (another category the company excels at) decided to pull back the curtain on the magic factory a bit.


For “Toy Story 3,” the conclusion to the series about the toys that never grow up, Pixar decided that Andy, the little boy who owned them, would — a departure from cartoon convention, where most characters are frozen in time. They enlisted  Michael Arndt, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of“Little Miss Sunshine,” to write the script — which earned him another Oscar nomination — and set about designing the characters.


Eleven years have passed since “Toy Story 2,” an eternity in technological terms. Many of the programs the animators used on that film are obsolete now; the supervising technical director, Guido Quaroni, kept old computers around as reference points, but in some ways the animators were starting from scratch, Mr. Podesta said.


The toys — Woody, Buzz Lightyear, the Potato Heads — looked the same, save for a bit of aging to account for wear and tear. But Pixar’s artists went through many drafts of what adolescent Andy, on the cusp of college, would look like. The images are in a gallery on the second floor of the building; a bangs-forward skate-punk haircut looked cool but was deemed too insecure.


Read the full article by Melena Ryzk here
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