It’s not easy to take creative risks when there’s so much at stake and so much to lose. Take, for example, Pixar Animation Studios, known for its animated blockbusters that indeed are very expensive to make but have been met with critical acclaim and huge box-office success. But, how do you keep the spirit of taking risks alive in an environment like this? Such was the question posed by Lindsey Collins, VP of development at the studio, to the executive team some time ago as part of a broad conversation.
Out of this desire to innovate and challenge themselves, Pixar’s SparkShorts program was born.
SparkShorts gives people within the Pixar community the opportunity to take creative risks that they are unable to take while working on a feature film. “There are people here who we’ve had our eye on and thought, what if we gave them a relatively small amount of money and put some incredibly talented and creative people around them, and have them work with little oversight, to see what they would make, what stories they would tell?” says Collins, who heads up the program. “Would we be surprised, and would it allow us to take some risks in a relatively safe way?”
Earlier, we highlighted the first film in the program. Now we follow that up with the second, "Smash and Grab."
Smash and Grab
Director/writer: Brian Larsen
Producer: David Lally
The second film to be completed under the Pixar SparkShorts program is “Smash and Grab.”
Brian Larsen, a 15-year veteran at Pixar, is a story supervisor, but his foray into SparkShorts with “Smash and Grab” enabled him to try his hand at directing, a prospect he gladly accepted. The program was newly founded and he was one of the first two candidates selected, along with Lester’s “Purl.”
As a story supervisor, Larsen helps manage a team of up to a dozen artists who generate drawings for story reels. “We are kind of at the very front end of the production process, where we take the script and visualize it,” he explains. But as director and writer of “Smash and Grab,” he was in the driver’s seat, working within the limits set forth in the SparkShorts program, all the while testing his leadership skills and more.
“Smash and Grab” is a science-fiction/action adventure about two robot friends living on a bleak planet and trying to escape their jobs. They want something more, beyond their monotonous work routines. They work aboard a futuristic train fueled by glowing rocks that one continues to break and the other shovels into the engine. One day, the Smash robot notices life outside that that is powered by batteries, eliminating the need to be tethered to a power cable, like they are. They cut their cables and escape, pursued by security bots. A fight ensues, Grab is deactivated, but Smash defends them by hurling his battery at the pursuers. The train derails, tossing them into a desolate landscape. With just one battery remaining, which they now share, they are tethered once again, only this time to each other.
“When we started out, we definitely wanted to try something that looked a little different. I put myself in a box rather quickly, though, because this was one of the first SparkShorts out of the gate, and I knew I couldn’t spend a lot of time or money on creating humans and simulations. So, that is why I chose robots and trains – hard surfaces,” says Larsen. “I was trying to conserve time with these constraints.”
Larsen acknowledges the short can be considered a cousin to Pixar’s feature Wall-E in regard to the sci-fi angle and the robot characters. He originally wrote the story with dialog but wanted to push himself story-wise with a project that had none. “To physicalize someone’s thought process was a much deeper challenge than I had anticipated, but I loved doing it that way,” he adds.
The catalyst for the story occurred when Larsen was feeling a little frustrated artistically, and the opportunity to direct a short allowed him to break out of the box and try something new artistically. “It was during a time when I felt tethered to things that I couldn’t fully crack at that moment in time in my life, things I couldn’t quite accomplish. Doing SparkShorts allowed me to break free, and it fulfilled me.”
When tackling the short, Larsen stepped away from his familiar world. Instead of proceeding immediately to storyboards, he wanted to move really fast, to get into the computer as soon as possible. So, the crew turned to motion capture for this initial production phase. “I would put the animators in the suits to act some of the scenes. Not everything is mocapped, but there is enough of it that gave me that head start I wanted,” he explains.
The group also took a more procedural approach to the project, particularly with the shading and lighting. “We’re used to having a lot of people around, but we had to make this work with an incredibly limited crew. So, we kind of made our own pipeline to get it all done,” Larsen says.
On the non-technical side, the big challenge was with the story – for a long time, it wasn’t saying what Larsen wanted it to say. So, he had to strip it down to its essential form so it was very clear.
The difficulty of following a different path from what the artists were used to certainly added to the project’s complexity. Larsen likens the process to being always using all the tools in the tool shed but then are given only two or three tools to build the same house.
“I also call it the Iron Chef of making a short. It’s just boom, you’ve got to start. Here’s your ingredients, and you don’t have time to putz around, or fiddle or noodle with things. And that is just not what we’re used to,” says Larsen. “So, we had to just pull back on a lot of stuff and be okay with what we had.”
In that vein, this cook used the full six months, and then some, to create his dish, so to speak. “In this industry, you use every bit of the time you are given, whether it is two weeks or two years,” says Larsen. “For ‘Smash and Grab,’ we were rendering right up to the very end. There’s never time to spare. There’s a lot of band-aids, duct tape, and chicken wire behind those frames holding everything together. We definitely had to think outside the box. There was no cavalry coming. But, it was exhilarating.”
As Larsen acknowledges, it is very different when you are in the hot seat and driving the car, than being a passenger. Everyone is looking to you to make decisions, and you do not want to waste their time, he explains. As a result, he now has a new appreciation for leadership. “I also learned to be more collaborative; you have to be super flexible. That is one of the great lessons to have come from this rough-and-tumble, scrappy, by book or crook way of getting things done,” Larsen further states. “I have an incredible appreciation for storytelling directing, leading, and trying to push the boundaries of technology in an incredibly short amount of time to make something that people are entertained by or can connect or relate to.”