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Looking into the success of Pixar and 'Toy Story 3'

June 21, 2010 | 12:10 pm

Toy-story-3

If you're a student of animation history, chances are that, over time, you've come across at least some of Charles Solomon's books, including "Enchanted Drawings: The History of Animation" and "The Disney That Never Was: The Stories and Art From Five Decades of Unproduced Animation." A frequent contributor to the Los Angeles Times, among other publications, Solomon is also a visiting assistant professor at UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television. He talked with Jacket Copy about his new book, "The Art of 'Toy Story 3' " -- and while The Times' Company Town blog parses "Toy Story 3's" success at the box office, Solomon prefers to focus on the movie's power to stir strong emotions in viewers.

Jacket Copy: You're a renowned animation historian, the author of several books, and you teach at UCLA. How and when did your fascination with animation begin?

Charles Solomon: I can't remember when I wasn't interested in animation. Some of my earliest memories -- going back to when I was about 4 -- are of watching cartoons on television: Disney, Warner Bros. and Fleischer's.

JC: Why was the first "Toy Story" film, which came out in 1995, so revolutionary?

CS: "Toy Story" was the first CG feature. It proved that the new medium of computer animation could be used to tell stories that would make audiences laugh and cry and care about characters, just as they care about drawn characters or stop-motion characters -- or live actors.
 
JC:  Did the logistics of writing this book prove tricky, considering how incredibly busy your interviewees must have been? Was it difficult to coordinate?

CS: All the artists were extremely gracious about making time to talk to me, as busy as they were. Director Lee Unkrich did three interviews in the middle of production.
 
JC: With an insider's view into the making of this movie, what did you discover about Pixar?

CS: When you're at Pixar, you can sense the energy of artists who are excited about their work, because they know it's good and new. The old animators said the Disney Studio had a similar excitement under Walt, especially during the days of the Hyperion Studio.
 
JC: How does the "Toy Story" trilogy mirror the journey and evolution of Pixar itself?

CS: When you watch the three films, you can see the artists develop as animators and filmmakers. The human characters, who were relatively crude in the first film, have become more subtle, more expressive and more believable. When "Luxo Jr." first screened in 1986, many critics compared it to "Steamboat Willie" -- a technical breakthrough that promised wonderful things. "Toy Story 3" and the other recent Pixar films have fulfilled that promise, just as the great Disney features fulfilled the promise of "Steamboat Willie."

Read more after the jump.

JC:  In "Toy Story 3," there's a poignant way in which the neglected toys serve as stand-ins for parents, left behind at home as their kids grow up and go to college. They're abandoned, outgrown. (The film's screenwriter, Michael Arndt, who also wrote "Little Miss Sunshine," describes the act of letting go as a "melancholy truth.") In fact, the story idea for this installment sprang from real life and was deeply personal. Could you talk about this a bit?

CS: Fifteen years have passed since the first "Toy Story" was released. Many of the artists have become parents and seen their children grow up. It was touching to hear John Lasseter's voice crack when he described the parallels between "Toy Story 3" and his own experiences taking his son to college. Artists whom I first met as skinny twentysomethings now have some gray hair; so do I. The film reflects the changing perspective that age and its inevitable losses bring. One of the losses many of the artists talked about was the death of Joe Ranft, whom everyone loved and who was probably the best story artist of his generation. I dedicated the book to his memory.

JC: You devote an entire chapter to color scripting. Why is it so essential?

CS: The color script enables the filmmakers to preview the emotional and visual beats. I hope readers will gain an understanding of the importance of the color script that will enrich their viewing of the film. And the paintings that Dice Tsutsumi and his crew had prepared were beautiful: Any author would want visuals of that caliber for his book.

JC: I was fascinated by the details you provide about lighting in "Toy Story 3." It is something the average viewer never thinks about, particularly with an animated film. A sky in one scene, for instance, was inspired by Edward Hopper's paintings. The filmmakers seem obsessive about getting this element right and establishing an authentic and distinct mood for each scene. Can you share an anecdote that illustrates their attentiveness?

CS: Light is an essential element in any film, live action or animated. Think about the brooding shadows in "Citizen Kane" or how in "Toy Story" the sunlit wallpaper in Andy's room suggests a warm, happy home. I ran into lighting director Dice Tsutsumi one day at lunch. He and his crew had spent the morning on a nearby street, studying the dappled light that filtered through the leaves of the trees -- an effect they wanted to create in certain key scenes. Production designer Bob Pauley had some hilarious stories about going to a dump to study the light there.
 
JC: In your introduction, John Lasseter notes that thanks to current technology the Pixar artists were able to "cast" new characters in the latest film, such as a translucent rubber octopus, that simply would not have been possible when the first movie came out. Did the technological advances present any daunting problems?

CS: Maintaining the feel of the earlier films with more sophisticated software and more powerful computers was one of the biggest challenges the artists faced on "Toy Story 3." Many of the artists said they were trying to make the movie look the way John Lasseter would have made the first one look if he'd had the tools.
 
JC: Finally, what was the most surprising thing you learned while writing this book?

CS: Although I went over every scene in the film repeatedly with the artists and again when I was writing the text, I still cried when I saw the finished film.

-- Carmela Ciuraru

Ciuraru is a contributor to The Times' book section and the editor of several poetry anthologies, including, most recently, "Poems About Horses."

Photo: A scene from "Toy Story 3."  Credit: Disney / Pixar

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