A cartoon by any other name

One of the artists behind the ‘Toy Story’ series, other Pixar gems, will meet Israeli animators as part of the Animation in Pessah Festival.

Pixar animator Matthew Luhn 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Pixar animator Matthew Luhn 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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 worldwide.
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 store.
“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 sequence.
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 toy.
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 stressful.”
It helps that he has a wife who understands.
That’s because she’s Valerie LaPointe, also a Pixar storyboard artist.
“We’re 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 www.matthewluhn.com