If you’re like many parents, the only movies you look forward to seeing with
your kids are from Pixar. This is the studio that has produced the most
consistently compelling, moving and entertaining films in American cinema over
the past two decades.
Pixar is behind the Toy Story series, Up, WALL*E,
Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, Cars, Monsters Inc. and other films, including dozens
of short movies. The California-based company, now in a business partnership with
Disney, started out making shorts about 26 years ago and turned to
computer-animated features in the mid-Nineties. Its films have won 26
Oscars, seven Golden Globes and earned more than $6.3 billion
So it’s with a great deal of fanfare that Israeli animation
lovers will welcome two of Pixar’s brightest stars: Matthew Luhn, a story
supervisor, and Andrew Gordon, an animator. They are visiting Tel Aviv from
April 20-23 to teach a Master Class as part of the Animation in Pesach Festival.
The festival will take place at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque and the Israeli
Animation College (Ha Michlalah Ha Israelit le Animatzia), and is being
sponsored by the College.
Having admired Pixar’s films for many years, I
was eager to interview Matthew Luhn and find out his secret for making movies
that are so enchanting and engrossing.
According to Luhn, it’s simple:
“At Pixar, we create characters and a story are really compelling for kids, but
also entertaining for adults. That is our big thing: You have to have a
character you can be invested in, that you care about. You have to show real
characters going through real character arcs.”
This simple proposition is
generally ignored by most filmmakers in general, but certainly by most of those
involved in making films for children.
Luhn cites the Woody the cowboy
character in the three Toy Story films, saying that whatever film or situation
he is in, “He is driven by a fear of abandonment,” an emotion virtually everyone
can relate to.
But it isn’t enough just to come up with a motivation for
the character. Pixar spends years creating each film. Pixar films don’t start
out with a script, that is then filmed by a director and a technical team, as do
most animated movies. Instead, studio executives come up with an idea, and then
five story artists, along with a writer and a director, work on it. Once
the team determines the basic structure, the story artists draw up storyboards,
which Luhn likens to “giant comic books,” visual representations of virtually
every shot in the movie.
Luhn emphasizes that it isn’t only directors of
children’s films that use storyboarding.
“George Lucas, Steven Spielberg
and the Coen brothers use this approach,” he notes.
The film is divided
up into sequences, and different teams of story artists work on each,
storyboarding the scenes over and over until they are just right. So what
sequences has Luhn been responsible? I ask him to give me some examples from the
movie that is the ultimate favorite film in my house – and in millions of other
houses – Toy Story 2 (1999).
“I worked on the crossing- the-road
sequence,” says Luhn, in which the toys hide under orange construction cones to
get across a busy intersection and wreak havoc with traffic.
“And I came
up with tour-guide Barbie,” the doll who shows the toys around the toy
“There was no real tour-guide Barbie.”
He also created the
fantasy scene in which Andy kills time by playing out the “Evil
Dr. Porkchop” scenario and the airport conveyor- belt
His contributions to the long-awaited third part in the Toy
Story saga, last summer’s Toy Story 3, which was the top-grossing movie of 2010,
are just as memorable.
“I did the ‘Spanish’ Buzz,” says Luhn. In a movie
with many funny moments, the scenes in which Buzz gets reprogrammed so he speaks
only Spanish and then flamenco dances to woo Jessie brought down the house. He
also came up with Mr. Pricklepants, the fussy hedgehog plush
ALTHOUGH HE is not credited on every single Pixar film, he has
worked in some capacity on virtually every feature.
“Some films I get
called in specifically by the director I’m good at problem solving. Sometimes
they can’t figure out the plot for a section of a film. So I’ll work on it for
only three weeks. I did that on WALL*E.”
Although generally his work is
great fun, “When you don’t have as much time as you’d like, that’s when it gets
It helps that he has a wife who understands.
because she’s Valerie LaPointe, also a Pixar storyboard artist.
the only husband-and-wife story artist couple.”
Luhn comes from a family
that has been involved with entertaining children for years. His family founded
Jeffrey’s Toys, a legendary San Francisco toy store.
“I worked in toy
stores all my life. So did my dad. He was an amazing cartoonist. He
wanted to be an animator. He wanted to work for Disney and then he went to
Vietnam. When he got back, he was persuaded to keep working at the toy store and
he never got to fulfill his dreams. The instant my dad saw that I could draw, he
made every possible opportunity available to me.”
As Luhn talks about his
father, I decide to ask a question about the Toy Story films that’s been nagging
at me for years. The films revolve around the toys that belong to Andy, a young
boy in the first film who grows into a college student by the third. We
see his mother, his sister and his neighbor. But never, in any of the films, do
we see his father. Andy’s dad is never mentioned.
“When you make a movie
you have to make sure that every single person is there for a person. Everyone
is there to help tell the main character’s story. If there was a dad in Toy
Story, the boy would not have had such a need for a doll who represents a kind
of authority figure, like Buzz,” he says.
It was such a simple decision,
that “we never even brought it up.”
What advice does Luhn have for
aspiring animators and artists?
“My suggestion for somebody who is aspiring to
be a storyboard artist is to learn everything about story structure, how to draw
and how to develop ideas. I took improv classes and acting classes. There was an
improve group at Pixar and I took acting in high school and at college. I also
took lifedrawing classes. I spent time studying the masters. Also, get a script
off the internet and storyboard from it.”
Summing up the creative ethos
at Pixar, Luhn says, “No one passes the buck. They hand it off to another person
and he adds to it.”
To learn more secrets from the Pixar vault and to
take your children to an affordable and creative festival this Pesach, go to the
festival site at www.ani-mator.com Matthew Luhn’s site on teaching cartooning is