Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Pixar Short Films Collection - Volume 1 is a roundup of animated shorts showing the development of computer animation at the Pixar company beginning in the early 1980s. Pixar started as a computer hardware & software firm owned by Lucasfilm, and was sold to Steve Jobs in 1986. To show what their tools could do, the Pixar people used animation as demonstration showcases for an industry convention called Siggraph, the International Conference on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques. While other companies were displaying basic graphic images of geometric shapes moving on screen, Pixar proved that computers could be applied to creative filmmaking. They hired Disney animator John Lasseter in the hope that a proven creative personality could get the most from their superior programming tools.
The collection contains thirteen original short subjects, and substantial extras.
The Adventures of André & Wally B. (1984)
This Lucasfilm short now looks primitive but when new represented a quantum leap for computer animation. Previous animated characters were little more than wireframes and moved like robots. The two 'stars' are made of basic shapes that move, gesticulate, and react like cartoon characters. The motion blur is also an innovation.
Luxo Jr. (1986)
attracted plenty of attention; many of us saw it as a theatrical short subject. Barely 90 seconds long, it's a deceptively simple bit of interaction between a table lamp, its offspring and a ball. The lamps provide their own illumination for the scene, showing off a quality that cel animation can't match. Director John Lasseter explains that the Pixar programmers wrote code to help him animate the bouncing ball, but he had to figure out how to 'motivate' the lamp cords on his own.
Red's Dream (1987)
appears to have grown from separate inspirations. One designer wanted to create a noir-ish nighttime ambience. Another liked bicycles and a clown was added to attempt a full-on 'living' character. New tools now existed to digitize the clown's pre-sculpted face, and new programs did all the computing for the path, squash and blur of the multiple balls being juggled. John Lasseter also tried out a new idea, a non-happy ending.
Tin Toy (1988)
reminds us that many of the Pixar artist-engineers were young people starting families; the 'monster' in this short is a human baby modeled from real life. A one-man-band tin toy at first flees the destructive infant. Everyone sees this short as a warm-up for Toy Story seven years later. The shiny toys are marvelous, while the baby is impressive but grotesque. Yet it's obvious that Pixar is heading in the right direction. An Oscar winner.
Knick Knack (1989)
is a cute cartoon-oriented gag picture about a sno-globe snowman desperate to join a bikini'd blonde on a Miami Beach ashtray. A Bobby McFerrin soundtrack helps out as the snowman does everything he can to break out of the sno-globe prison, and the animation of the globe's snowflakes is very impressive. I remember this short bringing down the house in theaters. Originally in 3-D, too.
Geri's Game (1997)
skips ahead in time over eight years in which Pixar concentrated on feature films, to astounding success. New short subjects would be handed off to other talented writers and animators; this one is a clever character driven piece about an elderly chess player who ends up playing with himself and winning. In his commentary, director Jan Pinkaya explains that 19 animators worked on the film for 1½ years. The characterization in the old man's face is quite different than anything cel animation can do, and the story changes the lighting slowly, indicating the passing of a full day. An Oscar winner.
For The Birds (2000)
accompanied Monsters, Inc. in theaters. Ralph Eggleston's deceptively simple gag shows a flock of birds snubbing an awkward larger bird that lands on a wire next to them. Only a couple of jokes, but they're solid. We're told that each feather on each bird is individually modeled with a program that fits it into the proper shape, "like a Pringles potato chip". An Oscar winner.
Mike's New Car (2002)
is a follow-up with characters from Monsters, Inc.. Apparently fresh out of Research & Development stories, Pixar covers the commentary on this short with two of the animators' small children, cleverly edited. The kids have their own highly personal explanations of how the animation is done (it comes out of the brain onto the screen, you see). They sign off professionally, hinting that the gag is a veiled lampoon of audio commentaries.
puts the directorial reins in the hands of Roger Gould and animator/voice expert Bud Luckey, who provides the commentary. Music and dancing figure into this high-plains tale of a sheared sheep's humiliation. Luckey explains that some of the characters and action programs were borrowed from features, like the fish that were adapted from Finding Nemo.
Jack-Jack Attack (2005)
is a hilarious follow-up to Brad Bird's The Incredibles and carries no commentary. It appears to be made to fill a continuity gap in the feature -- just what did happen with the babysitter and Jack-Jack, whose super-powers in the feature are withheld until the final act? Originally in 3-D, and flat-widescreen, unlike the Panavision Incredibles.
Mater and the Ghostlight (2006)
John Lasseter's follow-up to Cars borrows from the Legend of Sleepy Hollow to show the hick tow truck Mater spooked by a local superstition. Lasseter explains that all the creative modeling -- the hard work -- had already been done, making the direction of this show much easier. At seven minutes, it's quite long.
One Man Band (2005)
Andre Jimenez and Mark Andrews get their directorial shot with this amusing piece that makes heavy use of music. Competing one-man bands vie for the coin of a tiny girl, defining themselves with musical themes. It plays like an allegory for technology-driven competition, which is a constant game of one-upsmanship.
allows previous sound expert Gary Rydstrom to take charge directorially. A student alien in a flying saucer has difficulty abducting a farmer, and flubs his final exam. It played with Ratatouille, to great success. The aliens are amusing bags of green jelly. Rydstrom makes the saucer controls into a giant audio mixing board (naturally) and ends the soundtrack with the famous "Wilhelm" scream.
Disney Pictures' Pixar Short Films Collection - Volume 1 makes us wonder if we'll have to wait 24 more years for a Volume 2. The excellent encodings of the short subjects shift as needed from flat full frame to enhanced widescreen. The films with spoken dialogue carry full tracks and subtitle options in French and Spanish. English subs for the hearing impaired are present as well. The shorts can be played as a block, or one at a time with or without commentary tracks.
The main extra is The Pixar Shorts: A Short History, a pleasing docu directed by Erica Milsom. We see the Pixar group starting as a 'hallway company' that begins by doing short films as PR work, an activity that eventually just takes over ... it's a case where commercial toolmakers eventually abandon the market and succeed using their own tools. Early on, when the animated shorts seemed an unnecessary company frill, one Pixar associate is assured that the shorts account for 1% of the company's budget but are responsible for 90% of its visibility. The show goes through the development of the company and its tools and we get to see some of the personalities behind the pictures. The baby that served as a model for the baby in Tin Toy, for example, looks just like its digital counterpart.
Interestingly, the wonders of computer animation apply sophisticated new tools to the creation of images, but the nature of animated entertainment remains unchanged. Storytelling skills are what make the Pixar shorts succeed; the unique visuals add something to the mix but aren't fully satisfying in themselves. John Lasseter realized that his films were really working when the techies at Siggraph asked him story questions instead of technical ones. With the input of superb, personal filmmakers like Lasseter and Brad Bird, some of the Pixar animation evokes the creative heyday of the early Disney years.
The collection's extras end with four blackout skits used on Sesame Street. Luxo and Luxo Jr. explain the concepts of UP and DOWN, and SURPRISE!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Pixar Short Films Collection - Volume 1 rates:
Supplements: Commentaries, history docu on Pixar, Sesame Street blackout skits
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 6, 2007
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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