D23 Expo- Day 2: Yes, You Can Work At Pixar And Not Be An Animator. But You’ll Still Need to Be Able to Draw.

After a very full day that was still keeping us high off the fumes from celebrities and exclusive sneak peaks we went for the very thing that Busy Bumble missed out on yesterday: a chance to peek behind the curtain at Pixar. Tonight’s panel was the Evolution of Character, a chance to hear from some of the forgotten character design artists from Pixar’s films.

Because much of the work that was shown was not meant for the public eye, either as unfinished or discarded work from the artists, we were not allowed to take any photos of the presentation. Nevertheless it was an amazing experience to hear from people who do what Busy Bumble always wanted to do.

For those who aren’t aware of what a character designer does they don’t do any kind of motion-based animation. In fact, many of them have no part in the nitty-gritty, day-to-day creation of the film beyond the initial concept phase. Their job is to create the look, style, and appeal of a character. Character designers don’t just do the main characters. They’re responsible for any character that shows up onscreen, which can be a blessing or a burden.

On the panel were artists who had worked on WALL-E, Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur, Monsters, Inc., and The Incredibles. The always entertaining Pete Docter (director of WALL-E and Inside Out, producer of Up) moderated. The whole panel stressed that character and narrative were intertwined and should support each other, which is probably why Pixar has had such strong characters in their films.

They spoke at length about appeal, which is an animation term that is hard to describe to a lay person. Like the idea of “chemistry” between actors, appeal is something hard to pin down. Most people think appeal means the character looks attractive, mainly in conventional “pretty” versus “ugly” terms. That isn’t what appeal is. It is more akin to being eye-catching and memorable/thought-provoking. The example they used was Edna Mode from The Incredibles. By most people’s standards of beauty Edna falls literally short: dramatically shorter than the other characters, big nosed, severe hairstyle, eye glasses so large they distort her physical appearance, and dressed entirely in basic black. But then why do audiences gravitate to and remember Edna so well? It comes down to the ephemeral “appeal” and Edna has it in spades (hence why she’s one of my favorite characters). The artists emphasized that physical perfection and attractiveness was not appeal and a good character designer can tell the difference between the two concepts.

Among some of the best anecdotes of the panel:

  • A point that is well-known by now but still fun is the obvious technological difference in looks between WALL-E and EVE. WALL-E was based on a bunch of scrap parts that the designers literally put together to make a junky robot. EVE is was blatantly based off the sleek designs of Apple’s products (Steve Jobs was a founder of Pixar). It sets up not only the personalities of the characters but also the divide between them that they must overcome.
  • On The Good Dinosaur one of the artists was tasked with creating bugs for Arlo to collect. She considered carefully why someone might collect bugs and realized that for many people collecting comes down to aesthetic appeal. The closest human culture analog she chose was rock/precious gem collecting. She made all the bugs colorful and shiny, leaning on making them candy-like in their appeal. In the end Arlo had a lovely collection of bugs even humans could envy.
  • For The Incredibles 2 Edna Mode is getting back into the world of high fashion, despite her distaste for models. A character designer was tasked with creating the fashion designs that would be Edna’s. With a background in costume design this artist fashioned colorful sketches that were mid-century modern with space-age/superhero flair. One thing she realized after she made the designs was a critical error: she’d drawn a bunch of designs with capes! How could she justify Edna’s hatred of capes and these designs?! In the end she said it was more about Edna bringing the superhero look to the catwalk, and if one of the models broke her neck because of a cape, Edna hates models anyways.
  • Inside Out is one of the films with the most human characters in the cast. Aside Riley’s family and immediate interactions there are a host of background characters that helped ground the locations of the film, primarily Minnesota versus San Francisco. The character designer watched public access television from Minnesota to get the idea of what folks from the Midwest might stereotypically look like. Her designs were sturdy folk, farmers and blue-collar laborers, with more rounded features that seemed a bit cuddly. For San Francisco she realized all she had to do was look at the passengers on her bus to get ideas (she, like many Pixar folks, lives in SF). The San Francisco extras are a dramatic mix of tall, angular, and dramatic contrasts (think the guy in shorts and flip-flops with an enormous wool scarf). Being from San Francisco, Busy Bumble and I got a kick out of the extras, recognizing familiar types from our own experiences in the city.
  • The artist who worked on Mike Wazowski for Monsters, Inc. was really proud of her design: a very round guy, single eyeball, cute little horns, and spindly arms. Even better was that he was colored a sunny, happy yellow to match his humorous demeanor as a would-be stand up comedian. She presented her design to John Lasseter, who promptly discarded it as looking like a lemon and demanded she change the design. Pride wounded and angry she went back to the drawing board and decided if Lasseter hated a lemon she’d give him back a lime, coloring Mike with a bright green hue. She handed it back to him and he loved it.
  • The same artist was also in charge of finding the right texture for Sully’s fur, one of the more complicated animation efforts Pixar made at the time. She had actual furs and hides delivered to her office, trying to find something that the team could feasibly animate that could also provide a good character feature. The team complained that her office began to smell like a petting zoo.

The biggest takeaway was that finding that winning look takes time, effort, collaboration, research, and some intuition. Not everything works out the way it was planned but a great character sticks, not only for audiences but for the team working on the films.

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