The Birds and the Wally Bs
By: Mark Stuart
Issue: Volume: 32 Issue: 10 (Oct. 2009)

The Birds and the Wally Bs

In animation, as is true of life, quantity is not the same as quality, and feature-length animation is not necessarily loftier than the shorter works. Pixar Animation Studios is regarded as a giant of the CG cinema world, near-unanimously celebrated for its gorgeous, technically stunning movies with truly endearing characters and heartwarming narratives. The studio’s epic films of superheroes and fast cars, however, are but the end result of smaller projects.

Pixar’s roots began at Lucasfilm, where many of its future employees called themselves “the Graphics Group,” and cut their teeth working with Industrial Light & Magic on such films as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn and Young Sherlock Holmes. It was the dawn of computer animation, so convincing people that theirs was the technology of tomorrow was a tough order. Every year, the SIGGRAPH conference was glutted with programmers demonstrating astonishing new CG effects and techniques.

Going above and beyond, former Disney 2D animator John Lasseter created a partially rendered short film titled “The Adventures of André and Wally B.” Not only did this two-minute presentation feature CG’s first motion blur and squash and stretch capabilities, but it also presented something hitherto unseen in the field: a narrative.         

When a post-Apple Steve Jobs purchased the team and named the company Pixar, it began life anew as a hardware company, hawking its proprietary Pixar Imaging Computer to government agencies, medical research centers, and, eventually, its future partner, Disney Studios.
Sales for the computer were not as strong as Pixar had hoped. Remembering the successes of its previous animation project, Lasseter gazed upon his Luxo desk lamp and began work on the first actual Pixar short, pioneering the winning combination of astounding technical achievement and heart that drives the company to this day. When Pixar’s “Luxo Jr.” premiered at SIGGRAPH 1986, people were astounded. The film showcased cutting-edge shadow edge work, an entertaining story, and endearing personalities. This short not only advertised the prowess of Pixar’s systems, but also demonstrated to the animation community as a whole that CG was not a soulless automation of the craft, but rather a path to new and exciting territory.

Short and Sweet
As Pixar continued to grow, so did its short films. Each one not only sought to tell a story, but also pioneered facets of CG filmmaking, demonstrating for both Pixar and the audience that certain things were no longer an impossibility. “Red’s Dream,” a short film chronicling the fantasies of a unicycle, explored the risky territory of animating the “night,” rain, and organic characters.

Academy Award-winning “Tin Toy” featured a human baby, the first time a CG film had featured a human character with fully bendable appendages and realistic facial features. After “Tin Toy,” Pixar eventually went on to create Toy Story, the first feature-length all-CG cartoon at the behest of Disney Studios, which was convinced that if the company could do such quality shorts, it could pull off a full-length movie.

As Pixar forged the new world of feature production, the studio never forgot its roots. “Geri’s Game” released theatrically alongside A Bug’s Life. The short film experimented with new levels of cloth and human animation, proving that organic characters could carry a film. “From ‘Geri’s Game’ onward, the short films were helping to develop our talent [and] helping continue the research and development at the studio,” explains Lasseter on the recent release of the Pixar Shorts Collection Vol. 1, noting that “you want to have the opportunity to experiment with things, without committing to a feature-length film.”

Sometimes Pixar uses short films, such as “One Man Band,” to try out new technology; sometimes the studio uses the opportunity to try out new talent.
The tradition continues, with each new short giving fresh talent a chance to shine, while tackling new technology and CG feats (see “Cloud Computing,” pg. 32). “For the Birds” featured cunningly constructed feathers, while the more recent “Lifted” test-drove cutting-edge software and plug-ins, such as the “jiggle” technology that gave the aliens that particularly gelatinous touch. 
While Walt Disney is known as the father of the feature-length cartoon, Snow White’s Prince would have never come into the picture had there not been countless animated shorts to pave the way. Lasseter believes Pixar should continue doing short films, because of what it did for him as an artist and as a director, and he wants to be sure Pixar gives that opportunity to other people in the studio. Making a short is a fantastic opportunity for students of animation to learn dynamically and demonstrate their talent to the world.

Truly, great things do come in small packages.