The Ultimate DVD Extra: 20 Years of Pixar at the MoMA
In 1984, a young animator named John Lasseter left Disney to work for George Lucas’ special effects group. 21 years, six feature films, 10 short films, and fifteen Academy Awards later, Pixar Animation Studios has firmly established itself as one of the finest American animation studios in the history of the medium. To commemorate their 20th anniversary of filmmaking, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City is running a “20 Years of Pixar” exhibition which opened on Wednesday, December 14.
For the impatient, here’s the final word: this exhibition is a must-see if you have ever enjoyed a Pixar film, and make sure you see the zoetrope on the second floor. For fans of their work, walking through this exhibition is like experiencing the most amazing DVD extra ever created.
In addition to screenings of all of Pixar’s films, the exhibition displays hundreds of sculptures and works on paper created throughout the filmmaking process. The two-dimensional pieces range from rough preliminary character sketches to artwork that ultimately appeared on screen in some form. What may be surprising is the scale of some of the larger pieces, with the most impressive being a display of tropical fish from Finding Nemo which takes up the majority of a rather sizable wall. A painting titled “Waterfall Mechanics” from The Incredibles by artist Glenn Kim comes in as a close second. True Pixar aficionados will probably recognize some of the artwork from assorted behind-the-scenes material released on home video, but no home video equipment can properly reproduce the loving, hand-crafted quality of a barely visible pencil mark or the subtle gradations of color in a painted piece.
While one can, in theory, see works on paper through video screens, the many models and maquettes throughout the exhibit can never be depicted adequately on home video. These pieces are often seen sitting on desks in “making of” documentaries, but one can only fully appreciate the amount of work that goes into them when they are seen up close. A case containing sculptures depicting the many moods of Mr. Incredible brings the character to life before your eyes, and will be sure to draw a chuckle or two with his wildly exaggerated facial expressions. The static sculptures of a cool and confident Frozone and the loathsome Mr. Waternoose communicate volumes through their body language and character design. Even the sculptures from early in the filmmaking process, such the preliminary sculpts of Woody and Buzz from Toy Story by Bud Luckey, show a great deal of craft and thought from the outset, with Buzz’s innocence and optimism showing through clearly.
The feature films receive more or less equal treatment among the exhibition, with only A Bug’s Life seeming underrepresented, although a delightful case of design work by Pixar artist Tia Kratter more than makes up in quality what the show may lack in quantity. There are also relatively few pieces from Cars, although this is understandable since the film is still in progress. The short films get less attention, although six flat-screen monitors tucked in one corner run all of the shorts perpetually. The same corner also gets a large display case containing an enormous sculpture and the original plastic toy baby head used to model the antagonist from the Tin Toy short film. It must be said that the toy head is strangely unsettling, and will easily explain that vaguely disturbing feeling one has when watching the rendered version.
The exhibit is also remarkable because, as character and production designer Bob Pauley said, none of it was ever meant to be seen. Pixar’s artistic output is film, first and foremost, so one might expect that an exhibit of their art beyond the movies themselves would be of little interest. Indeed, any who believe that “the computer does all the work” in a Pixar film will be quickly disproven by the exhibit, since almost nothing in the exhibit is viewed on a computer screen. Despite the large amount of art on display, one rapidly realizes that the galleries must contain only the smallest subset of what was actually produced for the corresponding movies, and that most of it occurs well before anybody renders a single pixel. However, the colossal amount of work that goes into a Pixar film is only matched by the sense of fun and whimsy that drive the productions, and this exhibit is marvelously successful at capturing both. From the pieces on display, and from talking with the artists about their work, it is abundantly clear that the people who work at Pixar love what they do.
However, the most astonishing piece in the gallery is the one created specifically for the exhibition. Nothing will quite prepare you for the Toy Story zoetrope installed in the Yoshio and Akio Morita Media Gallery on the 2nd floor. Essentially a series of 3-D sculptures arranged on a rotating table under a strobe light, the zoetrope comes to shocking and vibrant life when it is turned on. It manages to combine techniques from the oldest form of 2-D animation, stop-motion animation, and computer-assisted animation to produce a truly three-dimensional animated product. Words and still photos are completely inadequate to explain the effect, and even video probably can’t quite capture the effect in its entirety. The universal reaction to it was a stammered out squawk of surprise and pleasure after a few minutes of watching it. Expect long lines of people staring at this mesmerizing exhibit, but make sure you wait them out to see it for yourself.
If there is a criticism to be leveled at the exhibition, it is the relative lack of didactic information or context for the art on display. Label copy for the pieces is limited to a name of the piece and the artist who created it, usually with little or no information on the purpose of the work or how it fits into the larger context of animated filmmaking. Further, the exhibition seems to have no easily discernible organization chronologically, by medium, or by artist. The lecture series and film screenings which will run throughout the exhibition may answer many of these questions, as would the audioguide or the exhibition catalog, but it is a bit disappointing to see the lack of basic educational material to accompany the works on display.
Members of the press were also able to watch Pixar’s latest short film, One Man Band, written and directed by Andrew Jimenez and Mark Andrews. The film features two street performers in an empty town square competing for a little girl’s gold coin. The directors state that they wanted to produce something that combined music and animation in a symbiotic way, and the end-result is as manically satisfying as any of the musically driven Looney Tunes short films. The film will be screened during the exhibit, but the general public will need to wait for the theatrical release of Cars in 2006. The chance to see it and the zoetrope may well be worth the price of admission alone.
In his remarks, John Lasseter pointed out that the company’s name is a blending of “Pixel” and “Art,” establishing their desire to blend art and technology from the outset. Indeed, Lasseter commented that the lines between art and technology are blurring more and more on each film they make. While other animation studios may have produced films that are comparable, if not superior, from a technological standpoint, so far only Pixar could sustain such an exhibition in such a respected cultural institution. The exhibit is a well-deserved accolade to a legendary production company.
And, as if viewing this exhibit with the artists present and without crowds weren’t enough, John Lasseter said he liked my necktie.
Pixar: 20 Years of Animation will be at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City from December 14, 2005 to February 6, 2006. The exhibition will include public lectures by Pixar animators and artists and screenings of all of Pixar’s films. More information on the exhibit can be found at the MoMA web site.
Toon Zone News would like to thank the employees of Pixar we spoke to at the media opening: Mark Andrews, Angela Bliss, Dr. Ed Catmull, Ralph Eggleston, Tia Kratter, John Lasseter, Ricky Vega Nierva, Bob Pauley, Jerome Ranft, and Lou Romano.