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Pixar perfect

Here's how technology and storytelling combine to give our favorite animated films their Buzz.

February 24, 2020

By Cory Phare

You already know the names: “Toy Story.” “Monsters, Inc.” “Finding Nemo.”

These blockbusters from Pixar Animation Studios are instantly recognizable as some of the most successful animated movies of all time. They’re engaging, with well-written and relatable characters in a visually stunning environment.

But why is it so effective when Dory implores us to “just keep swimming?”

“Animation is a form of narrative art – really one of the most interesting forms,” said Craig Svonkin, associate professor of English at Metropolitan State University of Denver. “Back in the day, the first films were individual frames of photography stitched together.

“From the beginning of film, animation has been right there — it’s pure cinema.”


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Svonkin will lead a March 3 discussion at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, sponsored by the Denver Project for Humanistic Inquiry, tracing the studio’s evolution since its founding in 1986 as a spinoff of the Lucasfilm computer division (with Apple co-founder Steve Jobs as a majority stakeholder); Disney would later purchase the animation house in 2006 for a valuation of $7.4 billion.

But before becoming a titan of storytelling, Pixar existed as more of a testing ground for technological capabilities, as evidenced by 1986’s “Luxo, Jr.,” featuring the now-famous anthropomorphic desk lamp that serves as the studio’s mascot.

“In the beginnings of computer animation, there were very few animators; it was mostly computer engineers playing with the technology to move things around onscreen,” Svonkin said. “By looking at five shorts, we’ll see how things began to move into three dimensions with a sense of character, how they brought lamps and bugs and toys to life.”

"There’s really a whole army of people who epitomize all parts of STEM fields working alongside artists (to create Pixar films)," said Ka Chun Yu with the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, where "The Science Behind Pixar" allows attendees to immerse themselves in the movie-making magic behind the beloved films. Image courtesy Denver Museum of Nature and Science.
"There’s really a whole army of people who epitomize all parts of STEM fields working alongside artists (to create Pixar films)," said Ka Chun Yu with the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, where "The Science Behind Pixar" allows attendees to immerse themselves in the movie-making magic behind the beloved films. Image courtesy Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

More than software

The list of folks responsible for breathing life into Buzz Lightyear stretches to infinity – and beyond.

“When you look closely at what goes into the making of a Pixar production, it’s really a huge support staff,” said Ka Chun Yu, curator of space science at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. “It’s the animators, yes, but beyond that, you’ve got physicists, computer scientists and more; there’s really a whole army of people who epitomize all parts of STEM fields working alongside artists.”

Yu, an astronomer by training, is himself part of a team responsible for bringing “The Science Behind Pixar” to the museum. Among other elements of animation, the immersive exhibition running through April 5 gives museum patrons the chance to try their hand at “rigging,” essentially digital puppeteering, that allows them to manipulate thousands of facial expressions for the “Toy Story” cowpoke Jessie.


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One technological element Yu noted that affords such lush animation in Pixar films is simulation. Characters might be cartoonish and playful, but background environments – such as the hallowed halls of the Monsters University campus – are highly detailed.

“It’s almost impossible to animate every strand of hair on a character or waves in an ocean,” he said. “This is where people with math and physics training come in to create these simulations that result in highly accurate renderings.

“They’re concrete examples of people trained in something else who were hired by Pixar to successfully build these lifelike environments.”

The immersive exhibition running through April 5 gives museum patrons the chance to try their hand at “rigging,” essentially digital puppeteering, that allows them to manipulate thousands of facial expressions for the “Toy Story” cowpoke Jessie. Image courtesy Denver Museum of Nature and Science.
The immersive exhibition running through April 5 gives museum patrons the chance to try their hand at “rigging,” essentially digital puppeteering, that allows them to manipulate thousands of facial expressions for the “Toy Story” cowpoke Jessie. Image courtesy Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

Emotional investment

Impressive technical feats notwithstanding, the thing that really makes Pixar films rise above the rest like a house suspended by balloons is telling a tale that tugs at the heartstrings.

“Certainly the ‘Toy Story’ films are great examples of (technology),” said Vincent Piturro, professor of English and cinema studies at MSU Denver. “They bring to life something that would have taken decades to make with stop-motion animation. But we can also relate to the characters and story, regardless of the medium.

“The films give us something with which to engage and in which we can invest emotion.”


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In addition to their widely discussed rules of storytelling, a rigorous editorial and revision process, involving a focus group of five to 10 folks at each step of the production, is vital to ensure a narrative that’s truly Incredible, said Svonkin.

“What works for Pixar better than other animation studios is that they have this brain trust,” he added. “That process of workshopping can be really effective in providing an outside perspective; it might highlight some social or emotional considerations the film’s writer or director hasn’t thought of.”

It’s a time-consuming process, to be sure, but key to ensure sociocultural competency – another element Svonkin will discuss during the March 3 event.

Piturro, who also will also lead discussions at a Friday screening of “WALL-E” in Northfield as part of a family-film series and the forthcoming 10th annual Sci-fi Film Series at the DMNS, noted how the animation studio’s formula for success has resulted in movies that are both ahead of their time and timeless.

“Pixar is so successful because they do what great films have been doing since 1895 – tell great stories with great characters that touch us in some wonderful manner,” he said.

Or to put it another way: They thank for the adventure – then invite us to go have a new one.


The D-phi event is free for MSU Denver students, faculty and staff. RSVP by email to dphi@msudenver.edu.

Tickets are also available at the Phipps IMAX Theater • $12 member, $15 nonmember, $8 students.


 

 


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