Pixar's latest short, Partly Cloudy, was yet another cinematic masterpiece from the company that can do no wrong. You may be surprised to learn that Peter Sohn, although he had worked in at Pixar for nine years, was a first time director with this project. On Tuesday afternoon he spoke a full house about how his vision developed and what he learned from the project.
The best thing about this talk was how down-to-Earth Peter was. His presentation may have been my favorite so far and it was magnified by the fact the came prepared with an element of what he is great at: visual storytelling. He storyboarded his own experience! He began by talking (and showing us) about his childhood and his parents, who were Korean immigrants. They owned a grocery store and they worked hard, but whenever there was a chance, he would to go to the movies with his mother. Peter's mother had difficulty with English, so when they would see serious films with subtly that actors conveyed through language, she wouldn't understand or enjoy the story. He remembers that the animated films that they saw together didn't present that barrier, and his mother was able to understand the stories without the aspect of dialogue.
Interestingly, Peter remembers seeing Dumbo particularly well, not only because his mother felt the story so strongly, but because he recalls wondering about the sequence in which the storks are dropping babies to Earth. Where did the storks get those babies? The question obviously stuck for Peter for many years because the idea idea for Partly Cloudy eventually grew from it. He began developing images on his own for the world and the characters, and he developed a rudimentary version of the story to pitch to big guys over at Pixar.
When he finally felt ready with his idea, Peter stood before the panel and did his pitch. They solemnly listened and nodded their heads and when he was finished, they discussed it. They told him what they liked and what they didn't like and in they end, they told him that the story wasn't ready yet. It needed more time to marinate. Peter was disheartened but not ready to give up. He went back to the drawing board, literally, and made more refined concept art and an animatic. Soon, he pitched the story again. They listened to him again and they liked some of what he presented, but they still weren't clear on the story and they didn't like the ending.
In this part of the presentation, Peter shows us a sketch of himself beside a noose. He wanted to die.
Still, he felt attached to this idea- in fact he compares the idea to a child. He loved it and he wanted to see it grow up. He pushed it in the way that he thought it should go because he wanted it to be great. What else is a parent to do?
Then Peter had the opportunity to meet Myazaki when he came over to Disney to work on Howl's Moving Castle. When Peter asked the great director for advice about developing an idea, Myazaki responded that he just kept digging until he found oil. Peter decided that he needed to let go a little and let the idea develop on it's own. He would no longer be a pushy parent that had a final result in mind. Instead he would explore and let the idea develop in a natural way. He reworked the art and redeveloped the animatic, and he got his big bosses into the screening room once again. They came in and they watched the story unfold in Peter's rough sketches, and this time, they laughed! They liked it and they wanted to pursue the project. Peter says he remembers the sound of the first laugh in the room. His idea was finally going to be realized!
It was at this point, that Peter started to face a few new challenges. Coming from a completely artistic background he had no idea how the project was actually going to be implemented. He now had to present his vision to groups of technical directors and work with a team to get the project completed. Luckily, everyone at Pixar is apparently incredible and the TD's listened, nodded, and got right to work, solving problems that didn't even exist yet.
In the end, the results are well, Pixar. Can we make that a synonym for amazing? Peter seems to glow about the positive working and learning environment at the studio. He explains that he had room learn and make mistakes. Perhaps, this is why the short turned out as well as it did.
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