I recently visited Pixar, 25 Years of Animation at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg. Gewerbe means “industrial arts” and I enjoy seeing the arts in this context, something appreciated for its craft and application in the world. It is certainly less intimidating, and you don’t have to spend the majority of your time trying to get the idea behind the artwork!
Pixar Animation Studios has produced such well-known films as Finding Nemo, Toy Story and Up, developing its own groundbreaking software to render computer generated animation. Before I saw this exhibition then I imagined that this digital world would only be created of itself within a computer. But the exhibition is mainly comprised of hundreds of drawings and sketches involved in the character development, in all media, charcoal, acrylic, watercolour as well as clay sculptures.
Surprising too was the degree of collaboration involved in creating the characters. Many different animators and artists drew up initial sketches and models of the same characters while deciding on the final look.
Although I appreciate the craftsmanship, I can’t say that I am a fan of Pixar. In the exhibition it is continually stressed how important it was that the characters and the world that they inhabit are believable, if not realistic, and how much effort was put into that. I saw a trailer for Cars, wondering whether to buy it for my son. But the idea of watching anthromorphised cars falling in love, adhering to or straying from the American dream, coming together as a community or dropping out just doesn’t interest me. I couldn't care less if the characters and the world they inhabit in this case are believable. They make perfect sense within their own world, too much so for my liking.
Contrast that then to Studio Ghibli and its creator, Harao Miyazaki director of films such as My Neighbour Totoro, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. The idea of collaboration and creative democracy sound appealing, but in Gibli studios, Miyazaki takes a leading role as director and writer and that perhaps bears upon the result, an uncompromising artistic vision. In his films there are struggles between nature and technology, the unpalatable and repulsive contrasted with innocence and beauty, the whimsical alongside the solemn. The characters are also believable within their own world but they also touch ours in their complexity.
Despite this, I was not disappointed by the Pixar exhibition. There is a very clever HD projection, for example, onto a 10 metre by 4.5 metre screen showing Pixar’s landscapes. The film starts off as a wall of pictures each containing a world of a Pixar film. As the film takes you into a frame your eye moves between 2D and 3D worlds, the pastel strokes lift and separate into planes as you literally are led into the landscape of Cars, for example, or a 3D landscape of an army of two dimensional ants from the film A Bug's Life. This film illustrates well the unique approach and research put into each landscape aesthetic by Pixar. The film, The Impossibles, is reduced to moving collage of stark angular black, red and white graphic shapes, the accompanying soundtrack sounding like welding steel. The film continues to take you though highly stylised versions of Pixar’s films for 12 minutes.
The other highlight of the show is The Pixar Zoetrope. Based on the Zoetrope in the Studio Ghibli museum in Tokyo, the Pixar characters from Toy Story appear to come to life on this 3 dimensional Zoestrope. Using 18 sculptures each slightly different to the last one, a strobe freezes the movement in space creating the illusion of movement for the viewer.
I also found out at the exhibition the reason why the actor's who speak the voices get so much credit on the Pixar films, as the script is recorded before the animation is made. This is in contrast to the films by Miyazaki where the animation is made first and the voices added afterwards, making the movement of the mouths is more stylised.
In the exhibition I got the feeling more than once though that Pixar was trying to justify animation and its own particular form of animation as an art form. There is no doubting the amount of craftsmanship and talent involved, but why play down the fact that it sprang out of a computer division of Lucasfilm and the huge contribution it made to computer animation technology?
It could have told another story, less of a chronological presentation of Pixar's films but a focus on how the technology it developed changed animated filmmaking. A story which would be more believable.