A GeekDad Visits Pixar

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Recently I was given the rare privilege of visiting Pixar as part of the promotional campaign for their new film Brave, which opens June 22. In addition to preview screenings of the Oscar-nominated short film La Luna and DisneyNature’s Chimpanzee (opening April 20), I got to see the first 30 minutes of Brave, take part in interview and background sessions with several of the animators and designers as well as Producer Katherine Sarafian and Director Mark Andrews. I had the opportunity to ask several of the questions submitted in the comments section of my previous post. Other questions were answered for me by Disney’s Marshall Weinbaum, our tour guide and scoutmaster for this adventure.

The author practicing archery with MeridaThe author practicing archery with Merida

Merida is a better archer than I am.

I say “our” and “we” because this was a group trip, comprised of myself and about two dozen other writers and bloggers; predominantly women, we were labeled “the Mommy Bloggers,” regardless of the presence of a few token “Daddy Bloggers.” Nonetheless, it was a lot of fun. Pixar knows how to host a media junket; in addition to the screenings, interviews and info sessions, they also brought in experts to teach us about some of the cultural elements featured in Brave; we had workshops on kilts, the bagpipes, and archery, as well as an opportunity to be photographed in front of a green-screen and composited into a scene with Merida, the heroine of the film. (Incidentally, though I have to hold my review for a while yet, I will say, as I tweeted that evening, “Brave is not only going to be very good for archery, but also for red-heads.” I predict a dramatic uptick in sales for the hair-dye people.) My goofy green-screen photo is included here. They wouldn’t let me go to full-draw for the photo; something about being in the middle of the main Pixar atrium with several dozen employees going to and fro, and a concern that I might accidentally shoot one of them. As if.

Aside from the time at Pixar, we also had the opportunity to visit and tour the wonderful Walt Disney Family Museum at the Presidio, not far from Lucasfilm Headquarters. (After the tour, I slipped away from the group and ran over to try to find Lucasfilm, but it’s pretty unobtrusive and I ran out of time before I could locate the fabled Yoda statue that’s supposed to be in front of it.)

For now, though, let’s get to the questions…

How will they put the Pizza Planet truck into this movie?

I can’t tell you HOW they will do it, but I can say I’ve been assured that it is in there somewhere. (It’s not in the first half-hour that I saw.)

According to various stories, Finding Nemo was embarked upon as a challenge to see if they could come up with a way to animate water well. Then The Incredibles was a challenge to see if they could animate humans well enough to make them lead characters. What future animation challenges do they want to take on?


According to simulation supervisor Claudia Chung, Brave wasn’t so much about conquering technological difficulties as applying what they’ve learned on previous films. “I finally get to be an artist” is how she put it.

I would love to know if there are any sci-fi movies in the works along the lines of The Incredibles, or if there are any plans for The Incredibles II.

Pixar keeps things very closely-held secrets until they are ready to talk about them, so I couldn’t get a firm answer to this one. There are only three films in production that they even admit exist at this point: Monsters University (prequel to Monsters, Inc. with Mike and Sully in college), and two untitled films, one about a world where dinosaurs never went extinct, and one that takes place inside a girl’s mind. If there’s a sequel to The Incredibles in the works, they aren’t saying.

It took so long to get a female main character in a Pixar movie. Are there plans for more?
It wasn’t really a consideration this time; they didn’t set out to tell a story with a girl in the lead role, it just happened that the story they wanted to tell centered on a girl. Pixar is a filmmaker-driven studio, the directors are pitching ideas for films they want to make, and this time, it happened that Brenda Chapman pitched an idea that was very dear to her heart, based on her own relationship with her daughter; it wasn’t “it’s time for a girl movie,” it was that Brenda’s pitch was the story they wanted to tell. It was the right story at the right time, but that wasn’t a calculated decision.

Before most Pixar movies, the teams will go on extensive research trips. What did they do for Brave? Did the team visit Scotland to make sure they got the mossy rocks just right? Did they have to take archery lessons? Did they study bears in the wild?
The crew took two trips to Scotland, and the results are clearly visible in the lush scenery of the film. Additionally, Director Mark Andrews loves Scotland and has visited several times. He is also an archer, having practiced since age 12. While serving as second unit director on John Carter, Andrews worked with armorer Simon Atherton, who was also Weapons Master for Russell Crowe’s Robin Hood; because of that connection, Pixar was able to get access to many hours of high-speed film footage of arrows in flight shot for that film, which enabled them to closely study archery dynamics.

Why doesn’t Scotland have their own Pixar Brave page when Brave takes place in Scotland? There’s one for the U.S., U.K., and other countries except Scotland. I mean for Facebook.
That would be a question for the Scotland Board of Tourism, I think. Though as I understand it, the Pixar team is working with the Scottish government to do some tourist-promotion events. There is a possibility that Brave will make its European debut at the Edinburgh Film Festival.

What is the length of time that Brave takes place – a week, 2 weeks, a day?
It’s not specified, but the first half-hour goes from when Merida was six or seven to her teen years, and events from there take place over several weeks and/or months.

Excluding Angus who’s a horse, does Merida have any human friends (female and/or male) older and/or younger than her AND/OR the same age as her? It seems that besides her family and horse, from what I’ve seen from the trailers, she seems to be all alone. Every human, even independent Merida, needs human friendship.
A central part of the story is that Merida leads a very structured, rigidly-controlled life dominated by her mother. She has her three little brothers, but the story really centers on the tumultuous relationship between mother and daughter, and a lot of secondary characters would get in the way of that story.

I‘d be very interested to know what sort of technology they’re pushing for Brave. Both Disney and Pixar have a talent for always pushing the medium as far as it will go (sometimes until it pushes back like in Tangled). What are they focusing on that will develop the art of animation further?
The most difficult technological issues were Merida’s hair and the layering of clothing; some characters are wearing as many as eight layers of fabric, chain mail, leather, wool and bearskin, and they all have to move and interact realistically. A lot of the underlying programming was developed through earlier films, but there was some new programming developed to allow more realistic texturing.

I’d also be interested to know how the partnership with Disney works now that Disney has been entering the 3D animation market. Has Pixar been helping with the start up in the 3D animation department? How do they feel about Disney’s new found love for 3D?

 Would Pixar ever be open to doing a film that is an actual musical?
I wasn’t able to get much information about how Pixar works with Disney. As for the question of a musical, they are open to telling good stories; if one happens to be a musical, there’s nothing to preclude that. They have tried to have a different voice than Disney, and that’s not going to change.

Have they thought about the fallout among the children if the “mooning” scene is left in? At first thought, it sounds kinda funny: “Mooning Ensues Amongst Youngsters on the Playground.” But in all seriousness, the principal might be just as likely to suspend as to laugh. Okay, so maybe it’s a mountain out of a molehill, but having a passel of little ‘uns who act out every Pixar they see with their little friends, well…
Producer Katherine Sarafian says, “Fair question. It might seem like it’s ‘on the borderline’ of what might be acceptable, but y’know, we’re in Scotland and there are kilts… it really was about the character; Dingwall is a curmudgeon, and he’s got to get his point of view across any way he can. It was so true to his character for him to do that, and he’s the only guy who would do that in our whole movie. That’s Dingwall’s thing. I think that if kids relate to him, and I’m not sure that they would, he’s such a curmudgeon, but any kid who does, well, what kid is wearing a kilt to school? It’s a fun moment and there are always jokes about Scotland – ‘what’s under the kilt?’ — and that’s our moment to address that.”

I’d be curious to hear what their influences were, in particular if Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke inspired the look of the film. Judging from the more supernatural things seen in the movie’s trailers it certainly seems like that’s the case.
The major inspiration for the look of the film’s look was the Scottish countryside, the deep layers of moss and heather and fog and the contrast of rugged stone and soft plant life.

Will Pixar do anything to encourage/nurture/mentor kids who want to get into animation? Their movies inspire a lot of kids (K-12) to become fascinated with computer animation, but are they going to do anything to turn that inspiration into the next generation of Pixar animators?
There are a large number of schools and programs teaching animation. Pixar isn’t particularly concerned with finding people who know how to use Maya or Houdini or some particular software package; they want people with creativity and imagination, and that can’t really be taught. If a kid comes in with great ideas and a unique voice, they can teach him/her how to use the tools; they have a department just for that. Some of their animators and designers came in as a result of creating short films for YouTube using off-the-shelf animation software that’s readily available.

It seems that Pixar wants to graduate from more fantasy-looking films to a live action look. They’ve gone from animated toys, cars, and fish to people. As a kid, the only cartoons I hated were the ones that tried to be “real.” I feel the same way about the modern animated movies that try to mimic people and reality. Are they trying to leave their youth behind? Why?
They are trying to push the technology forward so that the films will be limited by only the filmmakers’ imaginations rather than the limitations of the computers. If you look at the early films, the characters are carefully designed to avoid difficult problem areas; In Toy Story, Andy’s mom wears snug pants and has relatively short “helmet hair,” and Boo in Monsters, Inc. also wears snug, simple clothing. This was simply because flowing loose clothing was hard to animate. Brad Bird once said that the single most difficult shot in The Incredibles was having Bob grab his boss by the shirt-front. Animating a shirt-grab was more problematic than building a world-destroying robot. Now that they can pretty much animate whatever they want, the opportunities for more stylized designs and unrealistic characters are a lot greater.

Since Disney owns both Pixar AND Marvel, is there any plans for a Pixar movie of existing Marvel properties? Even if there isn’t, is there any Superhero from the Marvel Universe that the Pixar team would love to tackle? Whether it be because they are a fan of the character, or because the character can present a technical challenge for the animators.

Nothing has been announced or publicly discussed, but it is within the realm of possibility. If there is a Marvel property that would make a good Pixar movie, they wouldn’t rule it out. That said, it will probably be 10 or 15 years before they get to it.

What sorts of discussions have there been about how Pixar’s Princess Merida will fit in with the lineup of existing Disney Princesses? Will she have character appearances and be merchandised as part of the “Princess” branding?

It’s possible that she may be marketed as part of the “Disney Princesses” line of merchandise to some degree, but she probably won’t appear in any video productions alongside the other princesses. Pixar marketing and licensing tends to stand apart from Disney somewhat, so I doubt you’re see her joining any lineups with the rest of them. The 3D computer animation of her character (and Rapunzel, for that matter) does not mesh well with the traditional hand-drawn presentation of the other princesses, so unless a new version of Merida is created specifically for the “Disney Princesses” branding, I think it will be a fairly limited thing.

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