Politics & Policy

Good Stuff

A conversation with one of the men behind Pixar.

How do they do it? It’s a question you can’t help but ask after watching the likes of The Incredibles or other animated films like Toy Story. In an interview with National Review Online’s Peter Robinson, Pixar’s Craig Good, an NRO reader, tells a little bit about the tricks of the trade.

National Review Online: Although I have at least a vague idea of the ways lawyers, plumbers and professors occupy themselves, but I have no idea whatsoever of what Pixar people actually do. An ordinary day in the life of Craig Good would involve what, exactly (aside, of course, from all that time you spend reading The Corner)?

Good: For context, I should start with a quick overview of our pipeline. Everything you see on the screen in one of our movies has to be designed, modeled, placed, animated, and lit. At Pixar we say “Story is King” and we mean it. The story gets worked out endlessly as simple storyboard drawings, then modelers build the sets, props and characters on the computer.

Once the story is working on reels (storyboard drawings cut to scratch voice talent and temp music) and the models are ready, then the Layout department builds the movie. This is the basic filmmaking step of composing and blocking each shot.

Then when final dialogue is recorded and edited, the shots go to Animation. The animators are our actors. Their job is to bring each character to life. Our main criteria are that the audience must believe that each character has physical weight, and that each action is the result of a thought process.

Meanwhile, other artists are “shading” the models. This is the process of defining the properties and colors of every surface. The animators are just working with the shape, or geometry.

When animation and shading are complete, the shots are ready for the Lighting department. There our artists, using pastel sketches from the Art Director as reference, illuminate each shot.

Finally, when everything else is done, the resulting pile of data is fed to our render farm, which consists now of well over a thousand dual-processor machines. There our “Renderman” software does the rendering, which is simply deciding what color each pixel in the frame needs to be. This happens 24 times for every second of completed movie.

The film version you see in the theatre was scanned out on proprietary laser scanners, sometimes directly to the print master. This gives us a high degree of control over the quality of the final image.

That wasn’t a very quick overview, was it? Well, maybe you can use it as background.

My job is to finish and polish the camera moves once the shots enter Animation. I also do lots of tweaks for Editorial, making sure that the compositions work in context to help direct your eye to the right part of the screen. Now on Cars I’m also being the Focus Puller–meaning that I set the depth of field for each shot.

So my day typically starts with Animation Dailies, where the director reviews the latest work by the animators. Then I’m in my office, wrangling my dual workstations, reading “The Corner” while waiting for shots to load, and having my day punctuated by various meetings and reviews. I also try to get in a swim in our lap pool every day. This usually results in actually swimming one or two times a week.

NRO: You’ve been at Pixar for 22 years–longer than I’d had any idea the company even existed. What attracted you to Pixar? Were you originally a techie? A creative? And what sort of work did Pixar do in those days, anyway?

Good: I’m one of the old timers who started at Lucasfilm. My first job was doing janitorial and security work. An in-house programming class led to an entry-level job with the Computer Division. One thing led to another, and here I am, a product of OJT (On the Job Training).

Ed Catmull founded the Computer Division in 1979 at the request of George Lucas, who wanted digital audio, digital editing, and a digital replacement for the optical printers used in effects work. Ed gets the credit for creating the unique Pixar culture where “techie” and “creative” aren’t words that separate people. We’re all artists here. Some have more computer science in their backgrounds than others, but everybody works together to tell stories with movies.

After Pixar spun off from Lucasfilm in 1986, our main business was selling some really hot (for its day) graphics hardware called the Pixar Image Computer. Those of us doing animated short films were a small group sometimes working just in hallways. I remember when we were working on Red’s Dream in 1987, finding John Lasseter at his workstation–literally in a hallway–one morning at about 2:00. He was staring at a cardboard tag dangling from a string, shaking it back and forth in front of his eyes. I told him, “I’m one of the few people on the planet who knows you’re actually working right now.”

Our goal was to be able to do feature films. To help build experience and infrastructure we did television commercials for a few years starting in about 1989. You may remember some Listerine bottles or dancing LifeSavers. We started planning a television Christmas special, A Tin Toy Christmas, starring the titular one-man-band in our short Tin Toy. We never made the special but, along the way, he morphed into Buzz Lightyear and his ventriloquist dummy sidekick became Woody.

NRO:The father of five, I’m something of an expert on animated feature films, if I do say so myself–and Pixar productions are simply and incomparably the best. Your stuff delights my three-year old, my thirteen-year-old, the three kids in between, and their parents and grandparents. How do you guys do it?

Good: Simple. We don’t make movies for kids. We make movies for adults, actually ourselves, and then just make sure there’s nothing in them that the little ones shouldn’t see. The local cineplex is littered with movies made by studios who want to second-guess what the audience wants. We find we get better results by making what we want, and then assuming that there are other people like us out there.

If audiences in general are underestimated, kids really get the patronizing treatment. Two things are often forgotten about kids. One: They have no taste. They will watch just about anything. This is normal and healthy. Taste comes later. Two: They are not stupid! Kids are born intelligent, and there’s no good reason to make dumbed-down entertainment for them.

NRO:Screenwriters in the live-action business know the limitations of their material when they begin writing–they know, in other words, what human actors can and cannot do onscreen, what sets can and cannot be built. But writers at Pixar? Your characters could be any size, shape, or color, and your locations could be anywhere or look like anything. How do your writers even get started? How do they decide, for example, that the Billy Crystal character in Monsters, Inc. will be a round ball with one eye? Where do the ideas come from?

Good: Writer/Director David Mamet, when asked where he gets his ideas, answers, “I think of them.” We’re blessed with some very talented directors, story artists, and character designers. As for story, our directors look for material that is appropriate to our medium. There’s no point in using CG for something better suited to live action or hand-drawn or clay. But, aside from that consideration, I like what Brad Bird says: “Animation is not a genre.” There is no kind of story that cannot be told in animation. Unfortunately, in this country at least, there’s a strong association between animation and “kid’s films” (whatever those really may be). In Japan, on the other hand, animated films are made for all ages, including action/sci-fi films which are clearly for adults.

The characters don’t spring full-grown from anybody’s forehead. The preproduction process includes looking at a lot of inspirational material, and getting concept art from people both inside and outside of Pixar. Mike, the one-eyed green ball from Monsters, Inc. didn’t change a lot during development, but Sullivan went through quite a few revisions before reaching his final form. At one point he had a bunch of tentacles instead of legs.

NRO:There’s been a certain amount of speculation here on NRO about the themes in The Incredibles. Did Pixar intend the film to celebrate family life? Or to assert the superiority of individual talent over the blandness of the collective? Have you got some sort of counter counter-cultural thing going on?

Good: In interviews, Brad Bird (who wrote and directed The Incredibles) has said that part of his impulse for writing this story was his own doubts about being able to succeed in the movies and still be a good dad. So the very real dynamic and respect for family in the movie is no accident. As for the other counter counter-cultural questions, a maxim of filmmaking is that we are not entitled to the reactions of others. I think that movies are mirrors, and what people find in them usually says more about the viewer than the movie. So if you saw something in the movie, you’re entitled to it. Frankly, we’re often astounded at what people see in our cartoons once they hit the theatres.

NRO:Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles–all these recent Pixar productions seem fully realized technically, as if there’s no action, texture, background, or sense of three-dimensionality that the giant computers you use are now unable to portray. Is that the way Pixar looks at the matter? Or are there still technical challenges in your storytelling that you’d like to overcome?

Good: Our technical artists are always being challenged by our story people. And it’s amazing how they always rise to the occasion. Before Nemo, water was scary territory. Before Monsters fur was frightening. And before The Incredibles humans and clothing were, well, just about unthinkable. But our studio is designed with cross-pollination in mind, so there are technical advances which also inspire our story people. Are there still technical challenges? Hoo, boy and how. Those will never run out. Every movie has us living on what we cheerfully call “the bleeding edge”.

In 1995 Ed Catmull promised the world that Toy Story would be the worst-looking movie we ever make. Looking back on it now sometimes makes me cringe. Some day, I hope, our current movies will look that bad. But if they age well it’s because there’s a solid story and solid filmmaking involved. The “gee-whiz” factor can only get you so far.

NRO:Since surprise is an element of delight, in what marvelous and unexpected way will the next Pixar release differ from all those that have gone before?

Good: Next up is Cars. For obvious reasons I can’t go into any details. But I think you will be stunned at just how gorgeous it is. We’re creating a little town for this movie, and it’s so convincing that people are probably going to try to drive there to visit.

NRO:Your Christmas wishes for readers of NRO?

Good: Hug your families. Be thankful for all the good things in your lives. Know that you are unique, but not alone. And take someone to see a good movie. There’s this one about a family of superheroes…

Note: Photo credits go to Josh Anon for the picture of Mr. Good and (c) 2004 Disney/Pixar for the Incredibles image.


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