Pixar animated shorts to close out 2016 Breckenridge Film Festival | SummitDaily.com

Pixar animated shorts to close out 2016 Breckenridge Film Festival

Jessica Smith
jsmith@summitdaily.com

Curiosity. Excitement. Sadness. Joy. It's not easy to make someone feel emotions for a lamp. But then, the animators at Pixar aren't just anyone — it's their job to find creative ways to entertain audiences.

Anyone who's gone to a Pixar movie like "Inside Out" or "Finding Dory," — that includes both those with children and those looking to entertain an inner child — knows that an animated short film will play before the feature. Those who saw "Toy Story 2" in the theater likely remember the little lamp mentioned above.

"We think of them as an extra treat that the audience gets to enjoy," said Chris Wiggum, spokesperson for Pixar.

On Sunday, Sept. 18, the Breckenridge Film Festival will present An Evening With Pixar — a showing of nearly all of Pixar's animated short films in one block, on the big screen. That's 17 films in total, including the most recently released "Piper," which played before "Finding Dory" in theaters this summer. The films will take up about an hour and a half, or roughly the length of a feature that they would normally precede.

In addition, Pixar producer Marc Soundheimer will be present at the event for a discussion and question-and-answer session.

"It's a chance for people to come and ask questions if they've ever wondered how things are done at Pixar," said Howard Cook, assistant professor and director for the Digital Animation Center at the University of Colorado Denver, and board member of the Breckenridge Film Festival. "It's just fascinating."

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WHERE TECHNOLOGY AND ART COLLIDE

Cook remembers when Pixar's first short film, "The Adventures of André and Wally B.," was shown at SIGGRAPH, an annual convention on computer graphics. The year was 1984 and the Pixar team — at that time the graphics group of the LucasFilm Computer Division, from which they later spun off — wanted to show off some new special effects they'd developed, together with a small story directed by John Lasseter.

"Before 'André and Wally B.' was even finished, everybody was already standing up and cheering," Cook recalled.

Though the graphics in the film may appear rudimentary to today's standards, back then they were cutting edge.

"At the time it was like, 'Wow, what was that we just looked at?'" Cook said.

"More importantly, they were telling a story with computer graphics, they weren't just showing off some new technology," he added. The audience was enamored both with the new techniques and the short plotline.

The practice of producing animated shorts continued within the company, even as it broke off to become its own corporation in 1986. At first, however, those shorts remained mainly internal, existing as tests for the latest digital animating technology.

"The first short films that Pixar ever made were essentially just tests to make sure that they could make a computer animated film (in a short version)," Wiggum said.

The first Pixar movie that featured a short in front of it in the theaters was "A Bug's Life" in 1998. The short, "Geri's Game," follows an old man's game of chess against himself and is among those that will be shown in Breckenridge on Sunday.

SNAPSHOTS OF AN EVOLVING FORM

Even today, the tests that Pixar's animators conduct are likely to become the next mini stars. "Piper," the most recently released short, began its life as a software development project.

"That's always been the thing about their shorts, because they're as much a technical proving ground as they are about storytelling," Cook said. "They're always really good."

Cook and Wiggum both pointed out that the Pixar showing, which will feature each short in chronological order, will act as a showcase of animated technology's progression throughout the years.

"It's really fascinating — you get to see a nice evolution of Pixar storytelling and technique and also technology," Wiggum said. "You'll see some of the early ones look a lot rougher than they do now."

This perspective may be one that those interested in the animated film industry will find particularly intriguing, Cook suggested.

"It's also a snapshot of the history of computer graphics, and that historical perspective will really be of interest for film buffs and connoisseurs of animation," he said.

YEARS IN THE MAKING

Something that outsiders may not know is that these little animated films are "short" in name only. On average, an animated short will take two to three years from idea approval to finish.

Anyone on staff can pitch an idea for a short story, and once it's approved by the creative leadership, the process begins. First comes fleshing out the story, which will likely take several months at least, Wiggum said. Next comes the actual animated production, during which various individuals and small groups will be drawn in to work on it. Fortunately, this isn't too hard to do.

"Everybody wants to work on the shorts because they're fun, and it's a nice change of pace from working on the features because you have more creative (direction)," Wiggum said. "It's a cool opportunity to stretch your wings a little bit here."

And though many of the shorts begin as tool testing, story remains a very important aspect.

"I think that (Pixar's) technical side, their desire to be at the very bleeding edge of technology, is another reason why they've been very successful," Cook said, "but ultimately a film, just like in writing, is only as good as the story you tell, and they have very, very high standards for storytelling."

And as many of us know, that's not always an easy task.

"They're almost as hard to get right as the feature films, just because you have to be so economical," Wiggum said. "You're dealing with six, seven minutes tops and you have to tell a complete story."

FAVORITES, NEW AND OLD

One of the most difficult questions to ask about films is, "Which one is your favorite?" Both Cook and Wiggum were torn in their decision, but offered up a few titles when pressed.

"I'll give you three," Wiggum conceded. "'Day and Night' is one of my favorites. It was the first short that I worked on here at Pixar; it's so crazy creative it's just super fun. 'La Luna' is another favorite; it is just beautiful and so sweet and so perfect in its storytelling, and then 'Piper,' our new one, is just — the characters are just incredibly adorable and the story is just really touching, and I really like the look of that one, it's gorgeous."

Cook chose "Presto" and "Piper" as his personal standouts.

"Every year I'm blown away by their work," he said. "I was just absolutely blown away by 'Piper.' It is just so amazing from a technical standpoint, from the storytelling standpoint — it's flawless."

Both insist that everyone — children and adults — will enjoy the chance to see these animated shorts all together on the big screen.

"Each one is just a fantastic little package of strong storytelling in short form, so I think folks will enjoy each one in quite a different way," Wiggum said. "It's a diverse collection."

if you go:

What: An Evening with Pixar

When: 6-7:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 18

Where: Riverwalk Center, 105 W. Adams Ave., Breckenridge

Cost: $5-$15

More information: Visit http://www.BreckFilmFest.com