Backstage with Nemo, Buzz Lightyear and friends
Pixar revolutionised the art of computer animated film. But long before work takes place on the computer, drawers, painters and sculptors are hard at work creating loveable characters and fantastical worlds. 25 years later, their works have arrived in Germany in the exhibition rooms of the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn.
Those who remember going to the cinema in the 1980s will most likely also remember a small, animated desk lamp. Luxo Jr. was the title of a two-minute film short from 1986, in which audiences could see two desk lamps – one big, one small – playing with a ball. With its small but striking effects, the film impressed and astounded cinema-goers and industry critics alike. Back then, artistically imbuing inanimate objects with spirit, soul and emotions was something completely new. Computer technology had made it possible.
Luxo Jr. was the first film by American computer company Pixar. The precursor for that, The Adventures of André and Wally B. from Pixar co-founder John Lasseter, was created in 1984 by the Lucasfilm production company. The experimental short changed cinema.
A quarter of a century later, Pixar may be part of the Disney group, but it continues to make its own unique artistic and economic mark on the industry. The 13 feature-length Pixar films, beginning with Toy Story in 1995, have all been global, multimillion-dollar blockbusters.
Commercial success does not always go hand-in-hand with artistic accomplishment. Indeed, many Hollywood films can be written off as soulless flicks, produced out of cynically calculated economic interests. But Pixar aims to be different, and illustrating that point is one of the main aims of the touring exhibition 'Pixar - 25 Years of Animation', which opened in Germany on 6 July, 2012.
Enlarge image A 3-D model of Dory at the exhibition (© David Ertl / Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland) Some might ask whether holding an exhibition dedicated to computer-animated films in the Bundeskunsthalle makes any sense, or can even be justified – especially in Germany, where the distinction "serious" and "entertainment" art tends to be stronger than in other countries.
"We never thought it would be possible that so many traditional artistic skills were necessary in the production of computer-animated Pixar films," said Robert Fleck, director of the Bundeskunsthalle. But as Elyse Klaidman, the curator from Pixar supervising the exhibition, emphasized, "Traditional art and design plays an essential role in the film production process." In order to draw attention to the long creative process, no feature films are found in the exhibition - not even excerpts.
Works of art
Before the computer specialists in San Francisco – tellingly, the Pixar studios are not based in Hollywood – turn on their computers, drawers, painters, sculptors and costume designers have all long been hard at work. The 500 artworks in the exhibition are a testament to that. Computers are only involved at the very end of the creative process; Pixar hits such as Toy Story and Finding Nemo, Cars and Ratatouille first came to life at the drawing table.
Work on feature-length films by Pixar takes an average of four years. Many thousands of drafts, sketches and scribbles, not to mention acrylic, gouache, and watercolour paintings, mark the beginning of the creative production process. Then, three-dimensional objects are made, designed not by computers, but on craft tables using classical sculpting techniques. That's when the computer designers enter the frame, capturing the artworks digitally and then working their magic in the editing suite before the film is finished.
Enlarge image (© Disney/Pixar) Connections to art history can also be found in the drawings and sketches collected in the exhibition. With their mix of skillful draftsmanship and sheer crudity, many sketches recall the studies of Leonardo da Vinci. Small, beautiful pastels from the hit film Finding Nemo are reminiscent of the bold colours typical of works by Emil Nolde. The fantastical, animated worlds of the films build on the rich tradition of set design à la Metropolis.
Those who think the stories told by Pixar are too kitsch or too childish, too saccharine and one-dimensional, are only partly right. One of the most successful Pixar films hit cinema screens five years ago. Ratatouille took audiences back to the heart of old Europe, to Paris, took a time-honored theme, cuisine, and a rat as the protagonist.
In true Pixar style, they created a touching, classic film. It sounds as ludicrous as two desk lamps playing with a ball – but it's a truly fine art.