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?"
Initially, there was no distribution model for the shorts in the program. "Maybe that was the safest way for us to really let them do what they want to do and not feel like we have to be looking over their shoulder all the time, making sure that it's perfect," Collins says. "But deep down, we knew that if what they made was great, we wouldn't be able to help ourselves from wanting to get [the projects] out into the world and would figure out how to do that. Nevertheless, it was a leap of faith but within a safe environment that forced us to take some risks."
Pixar has been long revered for its theatrical short films, which have been associated with a feature release. Alas, under the theatrical model, the short filmmakers no doubt felt pressured to make something that was Pixar-branded and worthy of this presentation method, Collins believes. Thus, they felt the short had to look as perfect as the feature film it was released with, and often second-guessed some of their instincts and followed less-risky paths, and the production process became lengthy and expensive.
"We wanted to give more people opportunities and see what stories they would tell, so we tried to release them from the pressure of theatrical shorts," explains Collins. "And every time the temptation is there for us to put 'Kitbull," or 'Float," or another of the films in front of a Pixar feature, we have to talk ourselves out of that. We have been down that path before, and this [SparkShorts] is something different."
A few years ago, as Collins stepped off Finding Dory, which she produced, and into development, she was able to focus on the SparkShorts initiative and begin identifying those within the studio who might be ideal choices to put into the director and producer roles of these shorts.
With SparkShorts, there is no pitch process or approval process. As Collin explains, everyone spends a lot of time together in the studio, and she and the executive team become aware of those individuals on shows who have risen to the top, or were informed about others who were working on concepts of their own. The only rules were that the short had to be animated, that is a narrative story, and that it is in-line with the values of the company.
Once selected, the director is given six months and a modest budget in terms of people-hours. "It's such a different pace to what they are all used to," Collins says of the participants. "The creation process here is usually long, but here they made these amazing, great, heartwarming, different stories. That's been really rewarding for all of us here."
The directors/teams are allowed to use studio resources (equipment and talent). Often they rely on their own brain trust - friends and colleagues - to help them flesh out their ideas, and when the concept becomes solid and official, they are assigned a producer and a crew; they interview and select their supervising TD, giving those persons an opportunity for leadership exposure as well, through the program. Collins points out that Pixar has had female supervising technical directors from the SparkShorts program who have later assumed supervising TD roles on feature films.
Collins acknowledges that the process was difficult for the first few filmmakers because the program hadn't been formalized yet, and they were flying under the radar. As such, not many of their colleagues knew what they were working on. But when the fruits of their labor were revealed at a company meeting, it was to the delight and surprise of the entire staff. Now, everyone at Pixar is familiar with the program and excited about it.
Careful to avoid labeling or defining the program by its content, the studio released the first three SparkShorts - "Purl," "Smash and Grab," and "Kitbull," which are very different from one another in terms of story and aesthetic - simultaneously to illustrate the diversity and breadth of the program. The three shorts celebrated their world premiere at the El Capitan Theatre with a limited showing in January 2019, followed by debut on Pixar's YouTube channel. Since then, the shorts have been played on the new Disney+ streaming platform.
"We wanted to let the SparkShorts program evolve and show us what it wanted to be," Collins explains.
So far, seven of the short films have been released, and as of this writing, two experimental filmmakers are in the process of working on the ninth and 10th SparkShorts. "For now, [the program] is still doing what we want it to do, which is to give people the freedom and the opportunity to tell some stories that are continuing to prove themselves worthy of being told and people showing they are worthy of the investment," says Collins, who remains hopeful that this program will continue for some time.
Smash and Grab
Meanwhile, Collins says Pixar is very cognizant of maintaining an equitable balance in terms of male-female directing and producing, and to this end, is trying to have a couple shorts in progress at a given time.
The goal of SparkShorts was to come away with some fantastic stories. "That is a huge win, having felt like we might have identified some of the future storytellers in our studio," Collins adds, which is a big plus, as the current (or traditional) path to becoming a feature director is a long one at Pixar, as the moviemaking process is typically very lengthy. SparkShorts, however, shortens that path, making it a win-win for the studio and these hidden gems: the filmmakers themselves and their projects.
To date, the following short films have been released under the SparkShorts program: "Purl," "Smash and Grab," "Kitbull," "Float," "Wind," "Loop," and "Out." Here we take a look at some of them, while the others are detailed on our website, cgw.com, in the In Focus section.
Director/writer: Bobby Rubio
Producer: Krissy Cababa
"Float," the fourth SparkShorts film released by Pixar, is a heartwarming story of a parent and a child who is "different." It is a story of many parents who are trying to cope with such a child, although for "Float" director/writer Bobby Rubio, it is a very personal one. It is his and his son's story.
In "Float," a father discovers that his son is unlike other kids in the most unusual way. To keep them both safe from judgment, Dad keeps the boy out of sight - but when his son's ability becomes public, Dad must decide whether to run and hide or accept his son as he is.
"The inspiration for 'Float' came from my relationship with my son, Alex, who is on the autism spectrum. When he was diagnosed 10 years ago, I was trying to deal with it emotionally and had a difficult time processing his diagnosis," explains Rubio.
Rubio, a Pixar storyboard artist, is a storyteller who makes his own comic books outside of work. And this story was one that had been gnawing at him for years. "When I was struggling [with the situation,] my wife said, 'You make comic books, you tell stories. Why don't you make a comic book to help you work through this?' " he recalls. He began the process of doing just that, but it was an emotional road for him to travel, making it very slow going. Determined to complete the journey, he opted to turn the story into an animated short film instead.
"I was going to do it in my spare time, and I drew a storyboard animatic for it and showed it to my friends, who suggested I show it to Lindsey Collins, executive producer of SparkShorts," says Rubio "I wasn't too sure, as this was a personal project, but I know her and thought I might as well get her impression of the story. She loved it and thought it would be a good candidate for the SparkShorts program."
For director Bobby Rubio, “Float” is based on a very personal story/journey.
Rubio's story unfolds as he, in the role of the father, is playing with his son, Alex, in the front yard, but when Alex shows his unique ability to float, he immediately takes his child indoors, out of sight from the watchful gaze of neighbors and passersby. He keeps his child hidden from the world, allowing him to float indoors. When he finally does take the youngster to the park, he tries to prevent Alex from floating by weighing him down with rocks in a pack attached to the child's back. All seems fine until Alex catches the other kids by surprise by exhibiting his uniqueness. At this point, dad voices the only dialog in the film, chiding the child for not being normal. Shocked at his own outburst, dad hugs Alex, realizing his mistake, and begins pushing Alex on the swings, bringing happiness to the boy. And then the boy floats - as his dad smiles.
"Float" is reflective of the Pixar house style. This became a big advantage when, to save time and budget, the team used some assets available at the studio when creating the short. "We went 'total independent film style' and looked at what we could get our hands on. Toy Story 4 was coming out, and I liked the look of it. So, we used a bunch of assets, background characters," says Rubio. In fact, viewers may recognize Alex's house - it was Bonnie's house in
Toy Story 4. It is just changed digitally to make it look different in "Float."
According to Rubio, he wanted 'Float' to have a live-action feel and took a more gritty approach to reflect the story. "It needed that," he says. "It's about a father who is experiencing depression, so there are a lot of dark moments. There are times we get super dark with the backlight, especially with sequences in the house. We went as dark as we could. Michael Sparber, director of photography, was amazing."
To this end, Rubio and the lighters looked to live-action movies for inspiration, and one scene of the father and son in the house by the window is in full silhouette - dark with black around them. The inspiration for that, according to Rubio, was the feature film E.T.
Rubio's team mainly used tools from the Pixar box to craft the short. The biggest technical hurdle, according to the director, was the child's hooded jacket when the hood was pulled over Alex's head. "We didn't have a huge budget, so we tried to cheat as much as we could. We showed a little bit of a hand going over the head, but we didn't go completely over the head. Also, I wanted the dad to take off the jacket completely, and that was difficult. We cut corners for that, too," says Rubio. "You see dad start to take the jacket off and then it cuts to another shot, and we come back and the jacket is completely off of Alex."
“Float” looked to live-action films like E.T. for lighting inspiration.
Creating the tears Alex sheds after his father's outburst was quite the challenge, as well. But, there were just some elements to the short that were too important to skip, despite the difficulty they presented. "They were really important pieces of the film, and I am super grateful that Jane Yen, supervising technical director, and her team were able to pull them off," says Rubio.
Completing the short in the given time period required cutting a full minute from the film. "That was a tough one. We went right down to the wire. But I feel like we were successful," Rubio adds. "I still miss that one minute. Maybe there will be a director's cut some day," he says wistfully.
As for the float animation, the timing couldn't have been better to tackle that, as many of the animators were just coming off Incredibles 2, in which Jack-Jack flies. "We were looking for more of a graceful Peter Pan type of gliding across the screen for Alex, as opposed to Superman's powerful directional flight or Jack-Jack's tumbling," Rubio points out.
Despite the emotional toll the film took, Rubio relishes the opportunity to direct. It also gave him the chance to learn the pipeline, something he never experienced before as a storyboard artist. "As a director, you get to see the pipeline from the beginning to end, from story to character designs, to the art department and to the sets - how they are built - and animation," he says. "This is a totally different animal from traditional animation [which he previously did at Disney]." Plus, there are the music and lighting elements, too.
"All the way from beginning to end, it was a big education for me and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was a big learning curve to go through in just six months, but I am confident that if I had to do it again, that I could," says Rubio.
Director/writer: Erica Milsom
Producer: Krissy Cababa & Michael Warch
"Loop" might be a short film but it is long on emotional content. The animated film, directed and written by Erica Milsom, tells the story of two teens at summer camp: a talkative outgoing boy and a very quiet girl, both of whom are paired up on a canoe course. The girl, as we come to learn, is not simply shy. She is non-verbal, autistic. To complete their trip, they must learn how the other experiences the world so they can communicate.
Milsom already had been making films on the side and felt participation in the SparkShorts program was a natural evolution to her storytelling interests.
Milsom is a documentary filmmaker in Pixar's Creative Content department, telling the stories behind the stories of the studio's features. So when the SparkShorts opportunity came up, she was immediately interested, wanting "to explore working inside an animated story versus
about an animated story," she says. ("Loop" aired in early January, and now Milsom is directing an upcoming series about the studio that also will be shown on Disney+.)
Prior to working for Pixar (she has been there for approximately 15 years), Milsom worked within the disabled community, later teaching a class for disabled adults in her neighborhood where she had met many people who communicated through gestures rather than words. Initially, her reaction was to talk her way through a situation with them; the effect was not a good one, she adds.
"People were not trying to communicate with me because I was creating a wall of friendly chatter," the director says. "The inspiration for the short came from the work I did as a volunteer."
In the film, the boy Marcus tries to communicate with non-verbal Renee by talking a lot. Renee becomes agitated; Marcus, frustrated. Eventually, they figure out how to communicate.
Milsom also drew on her love of canoeing while crafting the film. "If you are not getting along or not in sync with your canoeing partner, you are kind of stuck. You can really work against each other," she points out. "So, I thought this would be a good location for fun and also some drama."
"Loop" is indicative of the Pixar aesthetic. Using the studio's pipeline, the group called on the animators' talents to find very specific and different behaviors and performances from the characters - for the animation and acting, as well as in the voice performances.
“Loop” filmmakers considered the visual and sonic POVs of the autistic Renee.
The biggest technical challenges, according to Milsom, were the visual points of view and the sonic points of view of the girl, Renee. "We had learned that people with autism have a different sensory experience of the world, that they might have an amplified sense of the world around them," Milsom explains. "We only had a short time to make the film and had to define an entirely different look for Renee's point of view." Danielle Feinberg, cinematographer, then asked Milsom to provide some information on her idea of what this POV was, which Feinberg then sent out to the lighters, who were not yet on the project, asking for examples of different kinds of lighting.
"We got five potential looks from people around the studio. They were amazing. We shared them with our consultants at the autistic self-advocacy network to get their opinions. Danielle and I both liked one in particular but felt we should choose the one that feels most appropriate to them," says Milsom. The group, in fact, chose a completely different look, almost the opposite of what Milsom and Feinberg had liked.
"The one we chose had a de-saturated look and these beautiful bloom lights, and they chose something that has a deep saturation in the center and the lights bloomed but in a different way, harsh on the highlights," Milsom explains. "But they look beautiful in the film. So, whenever you are with Renee and looking at the world through her point of view, the world has this particular look, this deeper saturation in the center and bigger highlights on the sides. It actually amplifies a little if there's more emotion and the highlights get even hotter."
There were other considerations, as well. Kenny Pickett, sound designer, wanted to know how Renee would experience sound, so the sound effects are different from her perspective than from that of Marcus. It also differs depending on whether she is calm or overwhelmed. Moreover, the camera department, led by DP Sylvia Gay Wong, made sure that when you're looking throughout Renee's POV, eye contact is not made.
"The details and the careful consideration that went into the film are significant," Milsom notes.
In fact, the complexity of the film is apparent throughout, even in the water and hair simulations. Marcus wears a hat, which cuts down on some of the sim work, while Renee was given a hairstyle that was not overly complicated to simulate. "She is a young woman of color, so on a technical level, emulating darker hair is a little easier to do than lighter hair," Milsom points out.
Also, the two characters are on water for a large part of the film, requiring water sims. Effects lead Kylie Wijsmuller,who was fairly new to Pixar, figured out the water cycle, the waves generated by the canoe. "I knew the water would be difficult, but I hadn't really thought about the water reacting on the sides of the canoe," says Milsom.
The simulation team further tackled the fit of the life jackets on the characters and moving them in such a way that they did not look too rigid..
Animators used very specific and unique behaviors and performances for the characters.
"The simulation team was so great," says Milsom. "They are all such superstars in this industry, and their care and attention, and contribution to the story, is very deep."
It goes without saying that having the characters talk (most of the other SparkShorts do not have characters who speak) presented some hurdles. Not only was it more work for the animators, but recording the voice actress for Renee did not follow the typical Pixar process. With assistance, the filmmakers found Madison Bandy, who voices Renee. She is autistic and can be overwhelmed due to sensory overload. Therefore, her voice performance was recorded at her home and captured her performing naturally - when she was happy, stressed, and so on.
Milsom credits her team and her producers for the project's success, pointing out that it takes a partnership to make a film like this, and producers Krissy Cababa and Michael Warch were always right there. "They were very much like the strategists. I was the confidence lady. We'd talk about how great we were going to make this, but they would strategize with people and make sure we got things done. They were truly great partners."
Milsom steps away from this project with a newfound appreciation for the animation process, being inside of it and collaborating with artists to bring two little somebodies, as unique people, to life in the animated form as Renee and Marcus.
"I feel they are really honest and true and authentic as characters, but they're still designed, and their way of being in the world was carefully considered. It was one of those amazing artistic experiences that only comes in animation, because you have to design, consider, discuss, and create every single part of your story," says Milsom. "How does Renee move her hand under the canoe? How does Marcus flip around that reed when you're only looking at his hand in certain shots? I had no idea that those would be some of the most challenging shots to get right, because it was such a subtle and emotional gesture."
In addition to coming away with a love for animation and connecting on a story so deeply, Milsom also had the opportunity to learn about autism, which she says was a treasured take-away. "It's hard making films, particularly smaller stories with unique characters that you haven't seen before," she says. "It was a wonderful journey."
Editor's Note: "Loop" recently was named SIGGRAPH 2020 Computer Animation Festival's Best in Show.
Director/writer: Steven Clay Hunter
Producer: Max Sachar
The seventh in the series of SparkShorts, "Out," released in May, tells the tale of two guys and a dog who are packing up to move, when the parents of one of the men arrive unexpectedly to assist. The problem is that Greg's parents are unaware that he is hiding a secret: He is gay and in a relationship with Manuel, and is moving from a small town to a big city, where he believes his relationship will be more accepted. Greg quickly and quietly ushers Manuel out the back so his parents do not see him. Manuel complies but wants Greg to tell his parents the truth.
Meanwhile, a cosmic purple cat and pink dog emerge from a rainbow to watch the situation unfold, and they enchant the collar on Greg's dog, Jim. As the parents make themselves at home, Jim's collar magically attaches itself to Greg, and the two switch bodies. Jim, now in Greg's human body, pays special attention to dad, while Greg, in Jim's dog body, tries to hide a beloved photo of him and Manuel from his mother, with many hilarious close calls. Mom eventually pours her heart out to the dog (who is actually her son), saying she would like to tell her son that she and his father hope that one day he will find someone who loves him as much as they do, and that he will make their son happy.
“Out” uses a unique painterly style.
Greg and Jim return to their own bodies, and Greg later introduces Manuel to his parents, who welcome him. As for the cosmic cat and dog, they return to the rainbow, their work complete.
The short film is written and directed by Steven Clay Hunter, an animator at Pixar. "I wanted to create a story for my closeted gay self, something silly and funny like the cartoons I used to watch growing up," he says. "I wanted to create myths for LGBTQ kids, to inspire us and get families talking."
The story unfolds using a unique painterly style that is very atypical from what we are used to seeing from Pixar - yet, that is exactly the spirit of SparkShorts, to experiment with story and style.
According to Hunter, the Little Golden Books served as a big inspiration, as the "Out" crew were looking to create something that had a bit of childlike wonder to it. Mary Blair's concept paintings from Alice in Wonderland greatly inspired them as well.
Hunter guided his team, averaging a dozen people at any given time. They utilized Pixar's in-house pipeline, using Presto for rigging and character animation, and recycling as much imagery as they could from the studio's feature-film backlots, with sets lead Kristifir Klein filling in the modeling gaps. Rendering was done with Foundry's Nuke, as Colin Thompson, look-dev lead, worked with DP of lighting Andrew Pienaar to achieve the desired lighting and painted brushstrokes.
The biggest technical hurdle, contends Hunter, was figuring out the look for the short and how they would achieve it. "We've never really tried to create a moving painting before at Pixar, and we were still defining what that would look like while we were making the film," he says. He praises Thompson and Pienaar, along with DP of camera Matt Silas and supervising technical director Gordon Cameron, as the "brains" behind it all and keeping the group focused on staying true to that painted aesthetic.
When the parents arrive in the short, the “fun” begins.
"In film, we rely on depth of field to communicate where the audience's focus should be, but we didn't know what that would look like in a painted render," Hunter says. "We didn't think we'd be able to figure out how to do that in our production's time frame. But Colin came in one day with a big smile and said, 'I think I figured it out.' And he did!"
Working on the experimental short was a big adjustment for the team, which is used to working on big-budget feature films, for which they are given ample time and resources to polish their work to perfection. "But on an 'indie film,' you have to learn to get your strongest ideas out in the shortest amount of time possible, and then let it go. That's an easy thing to say but an even harder thing to do," Hunter says.
Nevertheless, the rewards were plentiful. Hunter has helped many a director tell his or her story but had never sat in the director's chair himself before this. "So when a question came up, I suddenly couldn't turn to the director to find out what to do. I was the one who had to have the answers!" he says. "I had to learn what kind of filmmaker I was, what kind of storyteller I was. And, I slowly gained that confidence as we made [the short], but it wasn't there when we started the process."
Hunter especially enjoyed working in the smaller teams and figuring out how to make films and still tell great stories, "which is what Pixar is all about," he adds.
Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of CGW.