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Thursday, September 05, 2013

Fishing in the Discount Bin: The Pixar Short Film Collection Vol. 2

Welcome back to Fishing in the Discount Bin, my weekly look at one of the things in my video library.  Today, we take a look at some of Pixar's bite-sized offering with The Pixar Short Film Collection, Volume 2.  This entry is dated in my notes at January 5, 2013.

As previously blogged, I'm a Pixar junkie.  Love just about everything they do.  And one of Pixar's greatest innovations has to be returning attention to the medium of the animated short film.

Brief history lesson:  Pixar was originally formed in the early 1980s as the computer animation R&D lab for Industrial Light and Magic.  Yup, George Lucas's legendary special effects house.  As the 80s wore on, Lucas felt he got all he needed out of the R&D lab and was prepared to shut it down.  But, those in charge of the lab felt they were on to something special, so they went looking for a buyer.  And they found a buyer in the form of...Steve Jobs, recently turfed as CEO of Apple and looking for new challenges.  So, Steve Jobs bought ILM's computer animation R&D lab and re-christened it Pixar.

Now, in those early days, Jobs didn't want to make a movie studio.  He wanted Pixar to be a computer company, specializing in the hardware and software for computer animation.  But, what better way to test computer animation equipment than to make movies with it?  And so, they started up a film division.  As John Lasseter, who produced a lot of those early shorts himself, says in the wonderful documentary The Pixar Story, "[The film department] was 1% of the budget, but 99% of the visibility."  When Lasseter's short films started getting attention in Hollywood and winning Oscars, Jobs decided to re-organize the place and change it from a computer company into an animation studio.

(They still have a very viable software division, though.  Their RenderMan rendering package is still the rendering software of choice for the visual effects studios.)

But when they started making their feature-length films, Pixar still found the time to make short films.  Not only do the short films still serve as a test bed for new animation software, but Lasseter found that they also serve as a great training ground for new animators.  That's why Lasseter also resurrected Disney's animated short department when he took charge of Disney Animation in the great 2006 Disney/Pixar merger. 

And then, Pixar decided to make sure their short films got a wider audience than the usual computer animation expos and film festivals, and they started releasing them in theatres in front of their full-length films. 

Pixar's made so many short films now that they just released their second compilation of shorts, appropriately titled The Pixar Short Film Collection, Volume 2.  I just spent the afternoon watching this batch of shorts, so I'm going to offer up my thoughts.

Your Friend the Rat - This short was produced to be a bonus feature on that Ratatouille DVD.  Remy and Emile, the main rats from the film, present this quasi-educational film about rats.  I say "quasi-educational" because it's very tongue-in-cheek.  It's very funny, and very educational, too.  And, makes me swell with some Alberta pride as they do highlight Alberta's rat control program and how the province of Alberta is one of the few regions on Earth that's rat-free.  Fun trivia fact:  Pixar's first 2D animation is featured in this film.

Presto - This short was shown in front of Wall-E in its theatrical release.  A magician and his rabbit get into a scuffle, and they use magic hats to great effect.  This one is just funny as hell.

BURN-E - This one was produced to be a bonus feature on the Wall-E DVD.  So one sight gag in Wall-E concerns our heroes going back into the spaceship through an open door, and accidentally locking out a little repair bot that was doing repairs to the ship.  Well, that repair bot was Burn-E, and this short film tells his tale of what he was fixing, how the events of the film interfered with his job, and answers the question every one watching the movie had:  did he ever get back inside?  Again, this one is just funny as his simple repair job quickly turns into a task of Sisyphus proportions.

Partly Cloudy - This one was in theatres in front of Up.  Pixar decided to answer the age old question:  where do babies come from?  Well, they come from the clouds.  They are sculpted by sentient clouds, brought to life by lightening, and then delivered by storks.  (Man, they really got it wrong in junior high health class.)  This follows the contentious relationship between the cloud who sculpts things that bite, kick, and scratch, like crocodiles and sharks, and the poor, beat-up stork who has to deliver them.  The "cute" quotient on this one is very high.  You will go "Awww...." many, many times.

Dug's Special Mission - Originally released as a bonus feature on the Up DVD.  This one follows the adventures of Dug, the talking dog from the film (he of that immortal line "I have just met you and I love you!") and shows us what he was doing right before we met him in the film.  Turns out the other dogs were being mean to him and teasing him...and it was his birthday.  Well, all I can say is, once you've seen the movie and know it in the context of the film, it has the most wonderful ending.

George & A.J. - The most unique one in the collection.  I remember seeing this one online when Up was in theatres.  Much like Burn-E, we get the tale of two minor characters in the film.  At the start of the film, George and A.J. were the two male nurses who showed up to escort Carl to the retirement home.  And, if you remember the film, Carl releases a bunch of balloons from his chimney and flies off into the sunset.  Well, in this short, we follow George and A.J., and the event traumatized them.  On top of that, it inspired a bunch of other senior citizens to turn their homes into outlandish vehicles, and make a break for it when George and A.J. come to get them.  Some very clever sight gags turning these homes into vehicles.  Gotta love that crazy cat lady who herds her cats into a cat-sledding team and uses them to drive her home.  Now, what makes this one unique is it's all in the animatic stage...that's the early stage of animation where it's just the story boards, done with limited animation, to work the kinks out of the story before you turn it over to the animators.  I went back and listened to the running commentary to find out what it was never finished...turns it was because it was done by a bunch of animators in their spare time, and they had a grand total budget of $0. 

Day & Night - This was the short in front of Toy Story 3, and I must say, this is the most imaginative short film in the bunch.  We encounter two beings who are the personifications of day and night.  At first, they don't understand each other, and they don't get along, but once they discover all the amazing things that each other can do, they become fast friends.  It's difficult to describe...Day and Night are 2D animated...it's like their living windows, and we see scenes of day and night play out by looking through their bodies.  I remember seeing this in the theatre in 3D.  The set-up really works better in 3D because we can actually see off into the distance through Day and Night.  Really...probably my favourite here. 

Toy Story Toons: Hawaiian Vacation - Well, Pixar's new trend of franchising everything has extended even to their short films, as they've decided to resurrect some of their most beloved characters in shorts.  That's why, a year after Toy Story 3 was such a phenomenal end to the trilogy, we were reunited with Woody, Buzz and the gang once again in Hawaiian Vacation.  This one ran in front of Cars 2, speaking of franchising.  When last we saw everyone in Toy Story 3, all of Andy's toys had been donated to a little neighbourhood girl named Bonnie, who attends a daycare centre.  And all the toys at the daycare centre are governed by Ken and Barbie.  Bonnie and her parents are going to Hawaii for winter break, and as the toys are getting ready to enjoy a week of chillaxin', they discover that Ken and Barbie stowed away in Bonnie's backpack, hoping to also go to Hawaii.  Trying to cheer up Ken and Barbie, Woody, Buzz, and the gang do their best to re-create Hawaii there in Bonnie's bedroom.  There's some cute jokes in the film, but really, Toy Story 3 was such a brilliant end.  But to think, Pixar wouldn't have hit on doing this if it weren't for....

Cars Toons:  Mater's Tall Tales -- Air Mater - So, giving Pixar characters their own short films started with Cars.  Following the popularity of that film, Pixar decided to continue the success with a series of shorts called Cars Toons: Mater's Tall Tales, and they were originally shown on the Disney Channel.  The formula is simple:  Mater the Tow Truck spins a tall tale about some adventure he's had, and somehow, Lightening McQueen gets dragged into the tale for a very-real climax.  The shorts proved so popular that Pixar wanted to see if they could stretch the formula out to feature length, and the end result was Cars 2.  Can the formula be stretched to feature length?  No.   Anyway, I'm digressing too much.  This Mater's Tall Tale has Mater telling Lightening that he learned how to fly (in Cars-world that means he was turned into an airplane) and joined a fighter squadron.  It's OK.  This one was produced for the Cars 2 DVD.  Oh, and fun trivia fact:  this was the first film produced by Pixar's Vancouver studios, Pixar Canada.  I sent them my resume.  They told me they'd keep it on file!  (Fingers crossed!) 

Toy Story Toons:  Small Fry - OK, this Toy Story short I did like.  Bonnie goes to a fast food place, and we see a Happy Meal toy giveaway version of Buzz Lightyear, longing to be played with, switching places with out beloved Buzz Lightyear.  Fast food Buzz goes home with Bonnie, and our Buzz gets left behind at the fast food place, where he's inducted into a support group for unsold fast food toys from promotions past.  When this one came out (it was in theatres in front of The Muppets), I read an interview with the writer/director.  He said he was fascinated with the idea of fast food toys in the Toy Story universe, because fast food toys have such a short shelf-life.  Now see, that's where I can be OK with these shorts.  If you find a facet of the universe that hasn't been explored, go ahead and explore it.  The writer/director said that the producers had to reign him in quite a bit because he would get so caught up in telling the stories of these old fast food toys, and the producers would go, "Dude.  It's a short film.  5 minutes long.  Keep it brief."  This one is hilarious.  And, as you'll recall from the blog, this is the one where I developed my renewed fascination with the old Disney film Condorman, as the writer/director included a Condorman toy.  There's also this Transformer that turns into a steak, and when he transforms, they got the classic "transform" sound effect. 

Cars Toons:  Mater's Tall Tales -- Time Travel Mater - Pixar's actually made about a dozen of these Mater's Tall Tales and they have their own compilation DVD.  It's the only bit of Pixar I don't own because...dude, it's Cars.  If the Cars franchise is considered Pixar's lesser, then why do they keep pumping these out?  Easy.  Money.  In terms of merchandise sales, Cars is Pixar's biggest hit ever.  As one blogger pointed out, little boys all go through a phase where they're all about the toy cars, and the Cars franchise ties into that nicely.  Anyway, in this one, Mater discovers time travel and goes on an adventure to make sure his town of Radiator Springs is actually formed.  All I can say is, how can you do a Cars time travel tale and not include a talking DeLorean?  With the voice of Christopher Lloyd?  I can't find what film this was associated with, so it must have been an original for the Disney Channel. 

La Luna - The most recent one in this compilation, as it was in theatres this past summer in front of Brave.  We meet a group of janitors whose job it is to sweep up the falling stars that have landed on the Moon.  And we follow a grandfather and a father as they induct the son into this family business.  Again, this one has a high cute quotient, and you'll be saying "Aww..." a lot throughout this one. 

I haven't finished going through this DVD yet...for bonus features, three members of Pixar's brain trust (Lasetter, Andrew Stanton, and Pete Docter) offered up their student films.  It'll be neat to watch them and see how many of their trademark director flourishes started early in their career. 

So let's see...Volume 1 came out in 2007 and Volume 2 came out in 2012...see you in 2017 for Volume 3!

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