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Thursday, September 19, 2013

Fishing in the Discount Bin: The Pixar Short Film Collection Volume 1

Welcome back to Fishing in the Discount Bin, my weekly look at one of the many films I happen to own in a home media format of some sort.  Today, we finish what I started last week by looking at the first collection of Pixar shorts, appropriately titled The Pixar Short Film Collection Vol. 1.  This is originally dated in my notes at January 11, 2013.

So, not too long ago, I sat here and did The Pixar Short Film Collection Vol. 2 for this column, and it was much acclaimed. By "much acclaimed," I mean a friend of mine liked it and shared it through her social networks. Not going to lie, I do find it a little intimidating, because I've seen when she and her colleagues blog about movies. They tend to analyze the various "-isms" that you find in films, and next to them, my little column comes across as, "Duh, me like movies!"

But still, I find it to be a success when I make something my friends like, so that spurred me to do a follow-up. So it's time to do The Pixar Short Film Collection Volume 1. Besides, starting with #2 just made things feel a little...incomplete.

So yes. Pixar. Just a little more on the history. As I mentioned last time, Pixar began life in the early 1980s as the computer animation R&D lab of Industrial Light and Magic. Back in those days, the lab was headed up by a person named Ed Catmull, one of the pioneers of using computer animation in film. A computer animation test he did of a human hand wound up in the 1973 film Westworld, making it the first computer animation to be used in film. He won the job heading up the lab when, in 1979, George Lucas put out the challenge to computer animators to do a CGI X-Wing fighter from Star Wars. Catmull's company won the competition, and Catmull was wooed over to ILM. Now, one day, while working in the lab, Catmull had a brainstorm. Why don't the finally hire an actual animator? They've spent their career analyzing motion and how to re-create it in art...their insights would be incalculable! Besides, who best to test the animation software than an animator?

Meanwhile, at the same time, over at Walt Disney Studios, there was a rising young superstar of animation named John Lasetter. He was working in the legendary short film Mickey's Christmas Carol when he poked his head into the offices of some of his co-workers to see what they were working on. They were working on the lightcycle chase from Tron. One glimpse of that, and Lasetter was convinced that computer animation was the future. So, with production on Mickey's Christmas Carol winding down, Lasetter prepared a pitch for a movie version of The Brave Little Toaster. If Disney accepted it, it would be the world's first computer animated film. So he made his pitch to the higher-ups. When his pitch was done, one of the old men angrily jumped out of his chair and said, "The only reason to do it with computers is if it makes production faster or cheaper!" and stormed out of the room. The meeting came to an end and, disheartened, Lasetter returned to his cubicle. A few hours later, he got the call that Disney would not be making The Brave Little Toaster. But that's not all. He was also told that since, the movie he was working on was not going to get made, his services were no longer required. He was turfed.

So, unemployed, but still believing in computer animation, Lasetter found himself at SIGGRAPH, a world-famous computer animation conference and trade show. And while there, he was approached by Mr. Catmull, who said, "So, I hear you're an animator of some talent, and you're looking for a job...." And thus, the first members of "the Pixar Brain Trust" came together.

Much like how Walt Disney had his "Nine Old Men," the "Pixar Brain Trust' is the loving nickname given to Pixar's senior animators and directors, who've had a hand in most of their hits over the past 20 years. In addition to Lasetter and Catmull, it also includes:

  • Andrew Stanton, director of Finding Nemo and Wall-E
  • Pete Docter, director of Monsters, Inc. and Up
  • Lee Unkrich, director of Toy Story 3 and co-director and editor of pretty much everything
  • Joe Ranft, story editor and co-director of Cars (Ranft was tragically killed in a car accident in 2005.)
  • Brad Bird, director of The Incredibles and Ratatouille
The most recent addition is Michael Arndt, the Oscar-winning screen writer of Little Miss Sunshine who was brought on to help write Toy Story 3.  

And that's your Pixar history lesson for today. Once again, I co-opted most of this from the documentary The Pixar Story, commissioned by Pixar to celebrate their 20th anniversary in 2006. If you are interested in Pixar's history, I highly recommend it.  It was released as a bonus feature on the Wall-E DVD, and I see a lot of streaming video services have it, too.

But to know their history, it's best to know their films of the era, and you'll find them all on The Pixar Short Film Collection Volume 1. Let's look at the shorts.

The Adventures of Andre and Wally B. - As I said, Pixar began life as the computer animation R&D lab of ILM. So, this film, made in 1984, two years before Pixar was officially formed, is credited to "The Lucasfilm Computer Graphics Project." A cartoonish character named Andre is sleeping in the woods, only to be harassed by a bee...Wally B. to be specific. The computer animation is very early...thing a ReBoot level of quality.

Luxo Jr. - And here it is! Pixar's first official film, and the first computer animated film to be nominated for the Best Animated Short Film Oscar. If you've ever wondered why Pixar's mascot is a hopping desk lamp, this is where he makes his debut. A full-sized desk lamp looks on as a half-sized desk lamp energetically plays with a ball, before accidentally popping it. Despondent, the little lamp wanders off...only to come back in even more overjoyed when he discovers a beach ball. I remember listening to Lasetter talk about it in The Pixar Story. He tells the tale where, after the film premiered at SIGGRAPH 1986, he was told that a computer animator who worked at NASA making their animated space simulations - and considered to be the smartest man in the world at the time in the field of computer animation - wanted to speak with him. Lasetter thought to himself, "Aw, man. He's going to want to know something about the new software that film was testing. I don't know anything about the software! I'm just the animator." So, Lasetter went to the meeting, and Mr. Smartest Guy in the World had just one question: "So...what's the relationship between the big lamp and the little lamp? Is the big lamp the little lamp's father or mother?" And that's when Lasetter knew computer animation could do it...when he made the world's smartest guy forget the mechanics and get sucked into the character. After playing film festivals and such for years, Pixar finally stuck it in front of Toy Story 2.

Red's Dream - A lot of people were grateful for The Pixar Short Film Collection so they could own this. As it was never attached to a Pixar film, it was feared it would never be released on home media. On a dark and stormy night, in a little bicycle shop, in the corner, forgotten, unsold, is a little red unicycle. The unicycle has a vivid dream of being ridden by a clown in the circus, where the unicycle promptly steals the show, to the adulation of the crowd. The unicycle awakens from his dream, finds himself in the middle of the bicycle shop, and sadly goes back to his corner, alone and unwanted. Very dramatic. Very moody. Reading up on this on Wikipedia for this article, Wikipedia mentions that the Disney animator who argued against computer animation when Lasetter pitched The Brave Little Toaster came down to Pixar and watched this film. At the end, he shook Lasetter's hand and said, "John, you proved me wrong."

Tin Toy - And this is where Pixar broke through into the mainstream, as this was the first computer animated film to win the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film. It was with this film where Disney first approached Pixar about possibly making feature-length films. In fact, Toy Story originally began life as a feature-length version of Tin Toy. We follow the adventure of a little tin toy named Tinny, who's presented to a baby. Naturally, Tinny is frightened, because to a toy, a baby is a huge, slobbering, toy-wrecking monster. So Tinny runs from the baby, eventually hiding under the couch with other frightened toys. But, when the baby starts crying, Tinny decides to take one for the team, and heads out from the couch to allow the baby to play with him. And, in the twist ending, the baby only plays with Tinny for about 5 seconds before finding more fun with the box, leaving Tinny very jealous. This is just very, very cute. While it was never formally attached to a Pixar film, it has accompanied all DVD releases of Toy Story.

Knick Knack - And Pixar brings the 1980s to a close with this very funny film. A series of knick knacks on a shelf are having a party. Feeling left out is a snowman, trapped in a snow globe. A sexy bikini model...model (a souvenir from Miami) beckons the snowman to come join them, leading to a variety of slapstick scenes as the snowman tries to bust out of his globe. Again, this one is just funny. It also has a wonderful score, improvised by Bobby McFerrin. And I think this was my first exposure to Pixar, as I remember seeing it long before I saw it in theatres in front of Finding Nemo. I must have seen it on SuperChannel when I was younger, because back in the late-1980s/early-1990s, SuperChannel would show short films in between their main features. I know I've seen it before because I vividly remember seeing the original version. See, in the original version, the Miami model had, well, ridiculously large breasts. How ridiculously large? Stick a couple of basketballs down your shirt for a rough approximation. But when it was released in front of Finding Nemo, the Miami model was re-rendered to be flat-chested. When Lasetter was confronted about it, he said Disney didn't make him do it to make it more family friendly. He says he did because now that he was older, wiser, and a father, he felt it was inappropriate. It's still a funny film, though. Fun trivia fact: Pixar's first film made in 3D.

Geri's Game - So, Knick Knack came out in 1989, and then Pixar took a break from short films to put all their resources into making Toy Story, and pay the bills by making commercials. With Toy Story behind them, it was time to start making short films again, and they were used for their original purpose: testing new computer animation software. With this being Pixar's first film with a human main character, they were testing algorithms for rendering flesh tones and clothing. We're introduced to Geri, and old man who's playing chess in the park one day. He sits, waiting for an opponent who never comes. He eventually moves to the other side of the table and begins playing against...himself. It very much becomes a game between a man's good side and dark side. With a very funny ending, this was a pleasant surprise when I saw it in front of A Bug's Life. In fact, this was the first short film in front of a Pixar feature, this kicking off the tradition that continues to this day.

For The Birds - The short film that ran in front of Monsters, Inc. A group of cliquish birds sitting on a telephone wire begin mocking the large, awkward bird that comes to sit with them. And of course, there is a comeuppance. Very short, very funny, and to date, the last Pixar animated short to win the Best Animated Short Film Oscar. Fun trivia fact: Pixar's Studios used to be some cramped offices in Pt. Richmond, California. This was officially the last thing made in Pt. Richmond, before they moved to their sprawling campus in Emmeryville.

Monster's Inc: Mike's New Car - And with this, the start of another grand Pixar tradition: the original short film made to accompany a DVD release. I really don't mind these as much as I mind the Cars Toons and the Toy Story Toons. While those seem like desperate attempts to milk a franchise, these seem more like...deleted scenes, jazzed up a little. Anyway, Mike from Monster's Inc buys a new car and shows it off to Sully, leading to a series of slapstick gags as they try to figure out how all the options work. It's cute, but not groundbreaking.

Boundin' - The saga of a cocky little lamb, and how he likes to dance and show off his magnificent wool...and how he feels less magnificent when the farmer comes along and shears him, leading all the other animals to mock his nudity. The wise old Jackalope comes along and reminds the lamb that, while he no longer has his wool, he can still dance, and encourages the lamb to keep dancing, and incorporates the "bound" of the film's title. This one also has a high cute quotient...it makes you go "Aww..." more than laugh. This was in front of The Incredibles.

Jack-Jack Attack - So, in The Incredibles, when our heroes run off to save the day, they leave their non-powered baby Jack-Jack at home with a babysitter. Thing is, this is when Jack-Jack's superpowers being to manifest themselves, and that poor babysitter, well, they never trained her for this in her babysitting course. I think these are when the straight-to-DVD short films are the best...when the entire premise seems to be, "And here's what the background characters were doing!" Really helps to flesh out the universe.

One Man Band - Once upon a time, a long time ago, in a renaissance village, a little girl wishes to throw a coin in a fountain. But then, a busker appears...a one man band, and he begins to play for the girl, hoping that she'll drop her coin in his cup. Just as the girl is about to, a second busker appears...another one man band, and he begins to play for the girl, hoping to win her coin. This devolves into two words: ROCK WAR, as the two, one-man bands try to outplay each other. Again, this one is very funny, with a somewhat unexpected ending, and yes, good music. This was the one in front of Cars.

Mater and the Ghostlight - And with this one, the original short made for the Cars DVD, Pixar kind of unofficially started their Cars Toons: Mater's Tall Tales. The entire town of Radiator Springs is getting frustrated with Mater running around scaring everyone, so one night, they tell Mater the terrifying tale of "the Ghostlight" the prowls the highways for unsuspecting cars. Then, late that night, Mater spies the Ghostlight and goes on a panic-induced race. And it turns out those townfolk just stuck a lantern on Mater's tail gate. Oh, you silly Mater! So, yeah. Cars.

Lifted - And this first collection ends with the short film that was in front of Ratatouille. An alien is trying to pass his final exam, and he needs to abduct a human. But, he still has a few problems with the controls, leading to a series of slapstick mishaps as he tries to use the lifting beam to lift the human out of his house. (Thank God this was a family film, and it ended before we got to any...probing.) This was the directorial debut of veteran Pixar sound designer Gary Rydstrom, and we were told that it's not mistake that the alien control panel looks like a mixing board. Another very funny one.

And that's it! We're at the end of Pixar's first compilation of short films. I've often threatened that, one of these days, I'm going to do an epic series where I do every film in a franchise...maybe I should do every Pixar film.

How about I end with a taste of the future? This past week, Pixar released a clip from their next short film The Blue Umbrella, which will be in front of Monsters University this summer. Here's what'll be kicking off the eventual The Pixar Short Film Collection Vol. 3.

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