Storytellers have been key to human society since before there was writing, never mind computer technology. Pixar Animation Studios has mastered (or invented) countless tools and techniques, yet all of them are there to serve the story. In films like “Finding Nemo,” “Cars,” “Inside Out” and its newest, “The Good Dinosaur,” art, design and science merge into magic. There are fascinating tales behind these beloved classics, but since stories don’t tell themselves, Cara McCarty, curatorial director, and her team at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum decided to tell Pixar’s in The Design of Story -- an exhibition that’s equal parts studious, serious, and fun.
McCarty and her team first conceived of a Pixar exhibition more than three years ago. Since then, the museum has undergone a major renovation, including the creation of the Process Lab, a special gallery with interactive equipment that gives visitors a glimpse into the methods designers use. It’s the perfect place to engage inquisitive minds, especially when the display involves characters like Wall-E and Buzz Lightyear.
The lab’s two galleries are filled with dozens of drawings and digital paintings, sculptures and models, story boards and plans selected to offer a glimpse into the design decisions that underlie the films. While there are lots of things to attract and engage young visitors, it’s not like a Harry Potter theme park, filled with costumes, props and souvenirs. Rather, it’s a way to understand the planning and preparation that goes into each stage of production.
“Working with Pixar was a real eye opener for me,” McCarty said. She and the other curators met with Pixar’s creative team to discuss their work and methods. Together, they came up with a visual representation of their process, designing a target-like medallion, McCarty explained, with “Story” at the center. Surrounding it, and next in importance are “Appeal” and “Believability,” which are arrived at through the third layer, “Research,” “Collaboration” and “Iteration.” All are crucial, and the exhibition shows how it all comes together.
When the artists started working on the cute little ants that starred in “A Bug’s Life” they found that six legs weren’t so cute, so it was back to the drawing board for Flik and the gang. Four legs made the characters seem a little less buggy, increasing their appeal factor. Remy, the rat from Ratatouille, may have begun with anatomical studies of rodents, but the designers knew they had to make him a little cuddly, too. The Parr family, a.k.a. “The Incredibles,” lived in mid-twentieth century California. To make the story feel believable—less like a cartoon and more like an action film—designers put tremendous research into the architectural styles, furniture, cars and clothes that show up in the film.
That’s where Pixar ties into the Cooper Hewitt. Background elements, like George Nelson’s “Ball Wall Clock” were so accurately portrayed that they can be matched to the actual ones in the museum’s collections. The same thing happens with Eames chairs and hundreds of other items the curators identified as they watched all the films. Visitors can trace and link them in the lab’s interactive computer displays.
To see how Pixar utilizes Iteration, visitors can look to Woody, from “Toy Story.” In successive sculptures and drawings he evolves from a gruff, weathered old cowboy to the adorable character kids and adults have come to love.
Visitors are offered the tools to try their own hands at creating a loveable, believable character starting from just a squiggle, and while it’s a tight, small show, it’s surrounded by a whole museum’s worth of other wonders that can easily fill a day.
At the end of each Pixar film, when the final credits roll, it takes a second or two for the live actors’ names to scroll past. The list of writers, animators, technicians, programmers, artists, sculptors, and visual and sound effects editors rolls on and on. All of them have to be thinking in unison, sharing a vision, following not just story boards, but myriad esthetic considerations to create a story that’s not just believable, but memorable and meaningful.
“There’s magic, and a lot of imagination,” McCarty said, “but there’s a lot of reality. I think that’s the brilliance of Pixar, that they are able to pick up on and distill things down to the essence with a high credibility factor. And,” she added with a chuckle, “lots of fun.”