‘Ellie in Concert’: GeekDad Q&A with Mike Wu

Books Entertainment People

If you don’t have young kids, you might be excused for missing out on many of the great picture books getting published today. But you really are missing out. There’s some amazing stuff happening in children’s publishing, and Disney is no stranger to the scene. Disney Hyperion has quietly been publishing some absolutely phenomenal picture books under the Artist Showcase banner, which gives a venue to animators from both Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar. Holly’s Day at the Pool and Bug Zoo are two fantastic examples.

But the magic doesn’t end there. Disney has an in-house goldmine with its animators, and Mike Wu is one of the brightest golden nuggets around. Wu is an animator with Pixar and has worked on The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Up, and Toy Story 3 (among others). His book Ellie came out in 2015 to rave reviews and was named by NPR as one of the best books of that year. (We also featured the book here on GeekDad and chatted with Wu about it then.)

Ellie in Concert is the adorable follow-up, which finds Ellie the Elephant trying to calm the disjointed noises of the zoo and conduct them into music that will help her friend Lucy the Giraffe – who simply cannot find peace and relax. It’s a charming story about the nature of friendship and how important it is to find “music” in the chaos of the world around us.

I had a chance to chat with Mike Wu about his newest book and how much his “day job” at Pixar influences his own work.

GeekDad: Ellie in Concert is incredibly musical. The story itself is about finding the music that’s buried in the chaos and noise of the world around us, but you’ve also incorporated actual music into the book. The endpaper and dust jacket include sheet music for two different pieces, which form a soundtrack for the book, if you will. Why was it important to include the actual music with the story?

Mike Wu: That’s a great question! For me, Ellie isn’t only a book. The music fills out the experience for the reader, and we can enjoy what Ellie is hearing and what the music sounds like in Ellie’s world. Ellie is a Champion of the Arts, and I wanted to celebrate music in the book and expose children to what music looks and sounds like on a page.

GeekDad: You got fellow Pixar animator Andy Jimenez to compose those pieces, and you’ve actually made the tracks available on your website. Listening to the music while reading the book makes the experience much more engaging, and it almost feels like the book comes alive and becomes an animated short in your hands. Was that the intention?

Wu: Yes, Andy Jimenez and I collaborated on the first Ellie book, and we also did a special animated trailer for the original. He’s an amazingly talented guy, and he has been instrumental in giving Ellie her musical soul. I realized not everyone will be able to read and play sheet music, and I designed a way for parents and children to listen to the music on my website. I am not musically gifted, and I had to learn how music was written or how it looks like in written form in order to incorporate it effectively. All of the musical notes and staff that is part of the art in the book can be played and were informed by the original sheet music.

GeekDad: You also have fun with the type treatment in the book, emphasizing the animal noises in a fun and quirky way. This has many effects, but one of the biggest, it would seem, is that it almost requires the person reading the book aloud to put on voices and act silly. When you’re writing and drawing, how much do you think about the performance aspect of picture books?

Wu: I thought very much about how the book would be read. From the early concepts, I wanted the book to be fun to read out loud. The original Ellie was a quieter read, and I felt since this was about music it should have a louder voice, if that makes sense. When I read The Book With No Pictures, I was struck by the novelty of making the reader say anything that was written. I wanted Ellie in Concert to be fun to read out loud and fun for the kids to read and make funny noises.

GeekDad: The zookeeper’s name is Walt. Is that an homage to who I think it is?

Wu: Yes, it’s a nod to Uncle Walt. I’ve been working for Disney since I graduated college. Walt has always been an inspiration for the creative genius and pioneer that he was. It’s quite fitting that Disney publishes Ellie.

GeekDad: There’s a moment in Ellie in Concert where Ellie goes to Gerald the gorilla for help. When we first see him, he’s reading a book with a Gandhi quote on the pages: “Speak only if it improves the silence.” How much of that is a general storytelling philosophy at Pixar, especially when it comes to the shorts?

Wu: That is such an insightful question. I included that quote as it gives a nod to the thinker and reader that Gerard is. He doesn’t say much but is always there with a great idea. As far as how it relates to Pixar, I guess you can say the general rule is “show, don’t tell.” The shorts are all developed as films with no dialogue and only pantomime with the use of music/sound to heighten and support the story. Ellie in Concert is similar in that way, and I envision most of my books as short films. I see myself more as a storyteller than a writer.

GeekDad: How much of the “Pixar house style” has become part of your creative approach? How much of your time with Pixar is on display in your books?

Wu: My personal work is very different from my Pixar work. At Pixar, I mainly work on the computer and very little of my own design aesthetics make it to the screen. The Ellie style is a culmination of all my years working in animation and developing a style that honors the old traditional animation form but also expressing it in a pure artistic way. There are elements I’ve taken from different artists along the way, but I feel I’ve finally found a style that represents an appeal and design aesthetic that is uniquely mine.

GeekDad: Your artistic style in the Ellie books has been regularly called “classic” and “retro.” When I read them, though, I get a very strong Bill Peet vibe. Peet was one of the classic Disney animators, so it makes sense, but was he an influence?

Wu: I love Bill Peet, and I have many of his books. I love his ideas and his characters, and you can really see his influence on films such as 101 Dalmatians and Dumbo. His work had such charm and quirkiness. He’s famous for his animation work, and not many people in children’s publishing know of his work. I’m honored to be compared to such an amazing artist. I still have much work to do to fill those shoes!

GeekDad: What can you tell us about Henri’s Hats, which is mysteriously included as a Pixar Artist Showcase book on your website?

Wu: I was fortunate to be selected as the next Pixar Artist Showcase book. It would probably have been published by now, but my work at Pixar takes priority. I’m excited to share Henri’s journey with Pixar fans next year.

GeekDad: While I’ve got you, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about The Oodlethunks series, which are a favorite in my house. Are there more coming?

Wu: The Oodlethunks! Glad to know Oona has found a place in your home. Oona and Bonk’s adventures continue in Welcome to Camp Woggle, which drops on July 25th.

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