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Pixar Launches Legacy Start Up in Vancouver, Air Mater Short Takes Flight

Features
by Bill Desowitz
November 6, 2011 1:33 PM
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It’s been a great week for Pixar, writes TOH columnist Bill Desowitz in this week’s Immersed in Movies.

John Lasseter got a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Tuesday, timed to the release of Cars 2 on Blu-ray/DVD from Disney Home Entertainment, and an opportunity to rev up the Oscar campaign for best animated feature. A little bumpier than usual, given that the Cars franchise is not in the upper echelon of Pixar achievements.

However, as part of the prestigious Pixar legacy, Cars continues to deliver craft and amusement in many ways, including the “Cars Toons: Mater’s Tall Tales” brand of shorts for kids. The latest one, Air Mater, is the exclusive animated short on the Cars 2 collection.

A follow-up short, Small Fry part of the “Toy Story Toon” brand, will play theatrically in front of Disney’s The Muppets (November 23). The legacy timing couldn’t be better to take advantage of Pixar’s 25th anniversary.

I recently visited the quaint studio located in the Gastown neighborhood of Vancouver. They’ve managed to fuse the organic look and feel of the suburban Emeryville studio in Northern California with the natural elements of the more urban Vancouver. Formerly a hotel that was nearly destroyed in a fire, the building has been transformed into an attractive work space by Pixar in the last couple of years, yet maintaining its original character. Pixar selected modern Eames-style furnishings to highlight the office’s gorgeous seaside views. The design also incorporates the indigenous Vancouver vibe, such as the use of locally sourced cedar wood.

Starting a new studio and hiring a team are daunting enough without having to simultaneously refurbish the building. But that’s what Pixar Canada was faced with under the guidance of VP/general manager Amir Nasrabadi (formerly with Disney), creative director Dylan Brown (a Pixar supervising animator), and chief technical officer Darwyn Peachey (a technical artist on Toy Story 3).

Even though a third of the 30,000-square-foot facility is still under construction, Pixar Canada has cut its teeth on two shorts and has begun to forge an identity. There are currently 75 people on staff (two-thirds are Canadian nationals and a dynamic mix of veteran and newly graduated animators) in a studio with computer rendering power of 2,000 CPUs.

The challenge, of course, has been creating a high level of production value worthy of Pixar (and there’s a world of difference between animating cars and humanoid toys), but also instilling the Pixar ethos among animators that have never worked together. “You have to make a constant effort to bring groups together; communication is always an issue, even for a company our size,” explains Nasrabadi.

But how do you transfer the Pixar legacy? That’s the biggest challenge, which Brown finds a bit amorphous. “We’re trying to take the core values and extend it,” Brown says. “You can try to create a collaborative environment and have fun, but it actually doesn’t mean anything until you start working. As it was being built, I would check out how [Air Mater] was doing or how this person that we’ve just hired reflects the values that we came here with. It’s about teaching by example but it’s also about [multi-tasking].”

For instance, when Brown suddenly had a hole to fill, he took an animator that specializes in control articulation and let him do a matte painting for Propwash Junction.

According to Air Mater director Rob Gibbs (a story artist on Up), the animators wanted to take the folksy tow truck all over the place, but in the end, Mater’s tall tale about becoming an ace aviator was all about the less is more philosophy.

By contrast, Small Fry, directed by Angus MacLane, in which Buzz gets left behind at a fast food joint when Bonnie accidentally takes home the meal toy version, is an exercise in pacing and riffing on the wonderful cheap quality of toys.

“I think it’s our job as leaders to make the connections and seize those opportunities,” Brown adds. Not to be too philosophic about it, but it ultimately becomes about maximizing our potential as a studio and helping individuals maximize their potential.”

Sounds like the Pixar legacy.

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