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    The chaos theory behind Pixar’s Presto.
    It’s Not Magic, It's a Story without Words.
    CGSociety :: Production Focus
    4 December 2008, Renee Dunlop

    Presto Producer Richard Hollander’s long-standing history in the entertainment industry exposed him to a broad range of film creation processes. He had worked in areas from optical printing to digital work, so had knowledge of special FX, and visual effects, including digital post, miniatures and melding of live action with other elements. However, he says he longed for a new challenge, “something different, and not exactly in line with what I had done before. I’d been looking for an alternative when an opportunity to produce at Pixar popped up.”

    What Hollander found was a studio that created greatness seemingly from chaos, a process he still struggles to define. But with a track record as solid as Pixar’s, the method cannot be discounted. The enigma is, how does this seemingly haphazard process result in a track record of such highly successful films? “The whole dynamic is different. This comes down to the mechanics of doing business. My business was always service related with a dividing line as a vendor to a client, where that line was a battlefield and very sharp rules were applied. Here, you are a client and a vendor at the same time, where the responsibility is carried all the way across that line and on down. I always felt, in dealing with VFX, that there wasn’t enough blurring of that line. Even though they like to say there is, there were always money issues that got in the way. Here, it’s very clean and very straight forward- it’s about making a good film. Story is very important to Pixar, and it’s not done until the story is done. That was quite new to me.”
     
    “It was the best of everything, had enough in there that I’m familiar with, and enough that I wasn’t familiar with.”
    Richard Hollander, Producer at Pixar
     
    Image courtesy of PIXAR Animation.

    Image courtesy of PIXAR Animation.
     

    THE SURPRISE
    Hollander is still humbled and excited about the priorities. “I always joked that I was looking for a place where, when I walked through the door, I’d know about 50% of what I was doing and not know about 50% of what I was doing. I think I knew a lot less than 50% when I walked through the door! The environment is great because of the people; a remarkable group has been gathered here. From where I came from, the little experience I had with story from my other life, I’m humble to the fact that it’s a process and something I need to experience more of. And, it’s a process I can’t predict.”

    This combination of enigmas is what Hollander believes in part makes Pixar so successful, but he hesitates implying the process is remotely simplistic. One notable difference was that the Presto short was treated equivocally to a feature; “It’s not a second class citizen. All the effort is given to make it right and funny and a good story. That’s a point that I didn’t know or understand when I got to Pixar, but it hit me in the face just how much energy was going into the short."

    "For Presto, the process was a little more wild than I had experienced doing anything else in the industry. That wildness, I think, is highly connected to having a really fine piece of work in the end. That’s my theory at this moment- and by the way, most of my theories dissolve away. People that know me know that I like coming up with theories and I’m very humble knowing that they will get trashed pretty soon” he chuckles.

    But whatever it is, Hollander would like to see more of it in the industry. Though he realizes special FX project methods differ between live action and fully animated projects, he questions some of those methods used. “Maybe the system Pixar has developed is well suited for the production of an animated film, which starts from one end to the other in the same facility. Maybe that is the reason people are frightened to use it for live action, or maybe it doesn’t work. Live action is not so enclosed, the same people don’t hang around all the way through. There is a producer and a director and whatnot, but not a support group. Here at Pixar the difference is there is a support group other than the director as part of the brain trust. A long time ago old studios had a staff of writers and a staff of directors, and they used them as resources for getting feedback. This is kind of a throwback to an old studio, and the good thing about that is the real goals stand out and are not blurred by other peoples needs.”

     

     
    Image courtesy of PIXAR Animation.
      Go to page 2
  • THE DIFFERENCE
    There are quite a few solutions in the VFX industry that aren’t even considered at Pixar. “It’s just where they grew up and what kind of tools they had to develop. The VFX industry had to develop a bunch of different techniques to survive the varied abilities on the outside. When everything is being generated on the inside, that varied ability is less. I think that is slightly common to the animation studios but as the animation studios imagery becomes more sophisticated, I’m wondering whether they’ll all kind of meet up somewhere in terms of how they put their stuff together, what kind of tools they’re going to use. But certainly, if you don’t have to inject a live action image into your storytelling process, the tools you are going to use will be different.”

    Hollander finds that the chemistry at Pixar is one large factor in their success. As bonds and balances are formed, and individual strengths become an integral part of the whole, the trust factor increases and the group creativity and production solidifies into a powerhouse of ideas.

    Brainstorming is a way of life, and experimentation by everyone is not only tolerated, but expected. And though no contracts are signed at Pixar, turnover is at a minimum. Artists have a home there with the extended family, and few want to leave, and under most circumstances they aren’t asked to.
     
     Image courtesy of PIXAR Animation.
     
    Image courtesy of PIXAR Animation.
    Images courtesy of PIXAR Animation.
    THE STORY
    An overview on the creation of Presto and the efforts director Doug Sweetland made to bring it to life was quite the saga. Sweetland first pitched to the brain trust consisting mostly of John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Bob Peterson and Pete Docter. Lasseter greenlit the project in the spring, but on the same day gave some notes. Based on those notes, Sweetland revised and pitched an idea with storyboards that was again reviewed by the brain trust, and more notes were delivered. Sweetland and his story team brainstormed on the suggestions, and Sweetland pitched it again. “That process is the typical process,” said Hollander. “I believe there were ten pitches all together including the final pitch.

    “One of the interesting things for me was watching how far off to the side some of the variations were. But even the far out pieces had some kind of ground attempt to go forward.” It seemed that everything Sweetland considered had its value. “One, he found out he couldn’t use it so he didn’t have to go there again, and two, some of the things he did, certain gags or concepts, some of the parts worked well so he would extract them and condense them and put them back in the story. Doug was trying very different things on each iteration, and things finally came together because he had spent that energy understanding the problem.
     
    Images courtesy of PIXAR Animation.
    Images courtesy of PIXAR Animation.
    “There was an overlap. We were starting to build sets and working on the characters. The story wasn’t changing too much in terms of who the characters were, it was just changing according to what they did. So the characters and a lot of the sets were begun before the actual story was finished.”

    When the story was finally solid, it was time for layout to do their first pass and the animation team got started. Sweetland worked with the animators to continue improving and pushing the body language, but those changes no longer affected the story. The overall arc was there, but some of the gags were refined, adding nuances to make them clearer or funnier. “It’s normal for Pixar to continue to work on it until the very last moment.”

    Hollander is now focusing on producing the upcoming feature, newt (lower case ‘n’), directed by Gary Rydstrom, and finds that once again he is at a loss to define the Pixar creative process. Though there are similarities, the grander story arc brings another dynamic and believes “there will be something very specific that I get out of the film verses the short.” But does he feel he can define the Pixar storytelling process yet? “No. I don’t. All kidding aside, I doubt if I ever will, because it’s such a variable process.”


     
     Image courtesy of PIXAR Animation.
     
    Related links:
    Richard Hollander
    Doug Sweetland
    Presto
    Cars
    Ratatouie
    Wall*E
    Pixar

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