Last week I had the opportunity to chat with Pixar artist Mike Wu about his upcoming children’s book Ellie, a heartwarming story of self-discovery and hope.
When Walt the zookeeper tells the animals that the zoo must close, they all pitch in to tidy up their home. Ellie wants to help, but she’s not tall, strong, or clever like her friends. Dejected, she decides to ask Walt to give her a job, too. That’s where Ellie discovers a most peculiar object and a hidden talent of her own that just might be the key to saving the zoo.
Ellie is filled with beautiful and expressive illustrations reminiscent of the Reys or Maurice Sendak, making it a great book for pre-readers through adults. Even in my house, where there’s not a reader under 12, we all finished the book quickly, then flipped back through it again, admiring the artwork.
GeekDad: Is being a Pixar artist as awesome as it sounds?
Mike Wu: Yes! it’s such a privilege and an honor to work with such talented people at the best studio around. I’m humbled each day I walk in and see all of the tremendous artistic collaboration that is being put into every piece of each film.
GD: What advice would you give to a kid who wants to be an animator?
MW: Go to life drawing class! Draw and observe from the world around you…from life. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes or bad drawings. Study great actors and performances. Keep coming up with ideas, and don’t be afraid to express them! Study all kinds of art, dance, and film. These will all help you become a better artist and animator.
GD: What was your favorite Pixar project you worked on? Were there any scenes you are especially proud to have contributed to?
MW: Working on The Incredibles with director Brad Bird was a real highlight to my career! He’s so amazing and knows exactly what he wants and can inspire a whole army or small country. I am particularly proud of the scene I worked on where Bob Parr is in Frozone’s car listening to a police scanner for some trouble to get into and he’s energetic, giddy and is practically jumping out of his seat with excitement once they hear some crime being committed.
GD: So, what made you want to write a children’s book?
MW: Working for big studios is great, but I wanted to tell my own stories and create my own, unique art. Children’s books allow me to take everything I know from my artistic experience and put it into a neat little book that all ages can enjoy!
GD: You dedicate this book to your kids. Is there a specific message you’d like them to take from Ellie?
MW: Yes. I believe that everyone in this life is born with a specific purpose, so don’t be afraid to go find what that is. Try something that scares you and don’t give up!
GD: Was Ellie’s story of self-discovery autobiographical?
MW: Yes, in some way. I knew I always had a fascination with computer graphics and I liked to draw. I was lucky enough to take a chance and apply to a small art school in Valencia, CA called Cal Arts, and there is where my animation artistic journey began.
GD: You make your living as a digital artist. Why did you choose to go with watercolors for the illustrations? Is it difficult to go back and forth between the two?
MW: I chose watercolors because of the free and fluid form of the medium. I work in front of computers all day and it was great to go analog, old school again. It’s not too difficult to shift back and forth. The big difference in watercolors is there’s no undo. The same goes with animation. It’s challenging on the computer and on paper, but on paper, once you commit, there are no undos, just redos.
GD: The characters in Ellie are reminiscent of early Curious George. Were you inspired by the Reys? Who else do you draw inspiration from?
MW: Yes, I like the style of Curious George, and I wanted a soft vintage look. I’m also inspired by Dr. Seuss and Bill Peet. Bill was one of Walt’s great story artist, and he did a plethora of children’s books. I’m mostly inspired by animations artist of the past — illustrators from the ’20s and ’30s such as Oliver Hurst and Norman Rockwell.
GD: Do you have any future adventures planned for Ellie and her friends? Any chance we might see them on the screen someday?
MW: Yes, I think you can count on seeing Ellie again. As for the big screen, one can only dream.
GD: One last question: after over a decade, we’re finally getting a new Parr family story. Any insider tidbits you can share with us about The Incredibles 2?
MW: We’re doing an Incredibles 2?!?!
(Can’t blame a guy for trying)
You can check out more of Mike Wu’s artwork, as well as his incredibly cute children’s clothing line “Tiny Teru”, at http://www.theartofmikewu.com/. Also, our friends over at Geek Mom are doing an Ellie giveaway! Ellie will be released tomorrow, May 12.
GeekDad received a review copy of Ellie. The opinions above are my own.