The art behind Pixar's long run of hits

road trip at home For 25 years, Pixar has been turning out megahit films. CNET's Daniel Terdiman stops in on an exhibit of artifacts from all 11 of the studio's feature films, as well as from its award-winning shorts.

Currently showing at the Oakland Museum of California, Daniel Terdiman/CNET

OAKLAND, Calif.--"Computers don't create computer animation any more than a pencil creates pencil animation. What creates computer animation are artists."

Those words would ring true no matter who said them, but in this case, the source has just about the highest possible credibility on the issue at hand: John Lasseter, the chief creative officer for both Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar Animation Studios, and the director of four of Pixar's most loved films.

Lasseter's words hang high on a wall in the Oakland Museum of California here, where the exhibit "Pixar: 25 Years of Animation" is currently showing.

If you're not familiar with Pixar, then you've probably spent the last 30 years living outside the range of popular media. Even then, it would be hard to escape the influence of a movie studio with 11 consecutive commercial and critical hits, including "Toy Story" and "Toy Story 2," "Finding Nemo," "Ratatouille," " Up ," and others, and whose latest film, "Toy Story 3," recently topped $1 billion in worldwide box office.

The exhibit, which has spent the last five years touring places like New York, Japan, Finland, and Australia, is nothing short of a fan's playhouse. Packed with room after room after room of concept sketches, models, storyboards, videos, and much more, in excess of 500 individual items overall, it is a rare view into the sometimes rough-around-the-edges art work that comes before the highly polished imagery that dominates the screen during a Pixar movie.

Those who are familiar with the history of the studio will also know that it has crafted well more than a dozen high-quality, and sometimes award-winning, short films, and those are represented here as well. In essence, this is an all-encompassing look at the earliest stages of the work that Steve Jobs' other company has been up to over the last 25 years and beyond.

The exhibit also features elements from Pixar's many award-winning short films, including this storyboard, done in pencil for 1997's Daniel Terdiman/CNET

And at the core of the show are the three elements that Lasseter is said to have defined as being instrumental in an animated film: story, character, and world. "In the simplest sense, that is the heart of this exhibit," reads a blurb about it on Pixar's website, "the handmade designs for the worlds, characters, and stories of Pixar's first 25 years of filmmaking.

"So where...do we start [our stories], enliven them, give them shape?" Pixar's site continues. "As with all storytelling, we begin in the imagination, with an idea. Then we turn to traditionally trained artists and sculptors, who start with blank paper and lumps of clay. Handmade art--made using the same ancient tools available before writing existed, like drawing and painting and sculpture--brings the vision of our stories to life. In this exhibit, we hope you'll discover the wonder and purpose of the handmade art that is the groundwork from which our animated stories spring."

Though this character did not appear in Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Interestingly, the scope of the exhibit, which began in New York in 2005 as "Pixar: 20 Years of Animation," has been growing over the last half-decade as it's traveled the world and as the studio has added five new films to its portfolio. And that's why any visitor should allow at least a couple of hours to take in everything, and to enjoy it properly.

I half expected the show to be nothing but a chronological journey through the 11 movies and the shorts, but the curators took a different path. Instead, they kept to Lasseter's themes, beginning with characters, then moving on to worlds, and finally story, mixing in imagery of all kinds from each of the films as the themes developed. That was a smart way to put the show together, because it reinforced each element of the studio's entire repertoire before moving on to the next theme. And always made you wonder what you'd see next.

The show will be at the Oakland Museum of California through January 9. If you're in the Bay Area, or will be, during that time, I'd be sure to make a beeline for the museum and take a look for yourself at a surprisingly diverse and satisfying collection that leaves you feeling like someone who got to see behind the Pixar curtains, a true studio insider.

 

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