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Pixar lecture blends the technical with the magical

By in Culture
Pixar's Matthew Luhn and Andrew Gordon at the Broadway Theatre on Sept. 17, 2011
The creative minds at Pixar Studios are some of the best in the business.

That’s why I was extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to sit in on a free, public lecture presented by two veteran Pixar animators at the Broadway Theatre on Saturday, Sept. 17. Tickets were hard to come by and the theatre was packed (although not to the brim) with artists and computer scientists, as well as other students and Pixar fans of all ages. The public lecture followed on the heels of an in-depth, two-day seminar on the University of Saskatchewan campus that cost $450 (or $250 for students) to attend.

The speakers, brought to Saskatoon by the U of S College of Arts and Science, were Andrew Gordon, an animator, and Matthew Luhn, a story artist, who between them have over 30 years of experience at Pixar.

While both Gordon and Luhn are animators at heart, it was clear that they each had their own specific areas of expertise.

Gordon got the ball rolling by walking the crowd through a storyboarded version of one of Pixar’s more recent shorts, Groovin’ With Ken.

Storyboards are the rough outline of a cartoon that animators use to get a sense of the animation’s structure and flow. It’s Gordon’s job to take what an artist puts together with storyboards and animate them with computer graphics, frame by painstaking frame.

During his sections of the presentation the audience was treated to some behind the scenes footage of unfinished animations, which despite a complete lack of finishing, still had the crowd roaring with laughter. In addition to being simply entertaining, these unfinished clips offered a fascinating glimpse into how a modern digital cartoon takes shape, from pencil and paper, to rough (and entirely naked) computer generated models, to finished product. Of course, I’m simplifying the process enormously — it takes a massive team of people months of hard work to produce a few minutes of animation.

Gordon’s knowledge of animation and Pixar’s process was impressive, but for a few perilous moments his walkthrough of the finer points of computer animation drifted into the realm of the highly technical. Discussion of lighting rigs, model shaders and clothing physics left most of the children (and a good chunk of the adults) with a glazed over look in their eyes. Of course, the aspiring computer animators, computer science people and all-around nerds in the audience (I’m referring to myself with that last mention) ate that kind of stuff up.

Gordon was quick to emphasize the role of computer science in animation. “Pixar is made up of not just artists that draw. We also have artists that are computer scientists. Pixar has created a safe place for artists [of all types] to create.”

Luhn, who was admirably energetic on stage despite an injured leg, picked up where Gordon left off. He focused on the lifespan of an animation, from the inception of an idea, through the story boarding process, to the completion of the polished product. He stressed the fact that the animation process Pixar employs today hasn’t changed much since the early days of Disney — except for the kind of tools at the animators’ disposal.

“Pixar has been making films for 20 years,” said Luhn, “but our techniques are the same as Disney’s from almost a century ago. We’re doing the same thing those guys did when animation began.”

As a story artist, it’s Luhn’s job to concoct and refine the narratives that eventually become Pixar animations, either in the form of short films or scenes in feature-length movies. Pixar stories are born out of art, meaning that from the very beginning artists constantly envision how the story will take shape on screen. Instead of starting out with a written narrative, story artists begin with the seed of an idea and immediately flesh it out through drawing. This is one of the reasons Pixar animations are so visually touching and emotive — the story is inexorably linked to the artwork.

“We want to move people, touch people, make people feel something. We want to reach as many people as possible,” Luhn said.

Films like Up and Wall-E were intentionally rife with both hard-hitting emotion and social commentary. Luhn mentioned that because Pixar films are usually centred around a strong positive feeling and outcome, any deeper emotional and philosophical undertones tend to blossom organically during production.

“Organic” describes much of what Pixar stands for as a studio, as well as how they operate.

“Pixar is run by artists,” said Luhn, “it’s a very open environment.” The company’s organizational hierarchy consists of artists at the top, like John Lasseter, who have complete creative control over everything produced. This system has ensured an almost flawless 16-year streak of spectacular films.

photo: The Sheaf

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