Book Review: The Films of Pixar Animation Studio 3


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The Films of Pixar Animation Studio is written by James Clarke for Kamera Books’s film and popular culture series. As a script reader, I read a lot of animation scripts so this book was of particular interest to me by way of finding out a little more about the process of such a popular animation studio’s output.

Whilst my main interest was the storytelling aspects, this book proved really interesting regarding the history of animation and how the production process works. The book is structured, with a detailed introduction charting the history of animation and the rise of Pixar in particular, and is followed by detailed discussions of an array of popular Pixar films over the years, including short films.

The author discusses some interesting points, such as how animation is not a genre; a genre being a set of narrative patterns and character types and ideologies. A big question is asked throughout the book: Are the directors also authors? With such a collaborative creative process, animation films’s storytelling achievements surely can’t solely be attributed to the scriptwriter?

One of the myths about animation movies is that they’re just for kids. Considered as mere “cartoons”, animation movies can be wrongly perceived by adults as somehow less worthy than material for adults. But this isn’t the case. “No matter how much technological wonder is applied, it’s the way in which the human soul is being expressed that we’re really connecting with.”

Animation movies contain “real” characters – Spirited Away has an ordinary girl as protagonist, not someone who can fly or do something impossible. Characters may not be human, but drama and comedy are built around “characters possessed of some believable psychology rooted in cause and effect”.

Furthermore, the book emphasizes how “a feature animated film has to have something besides comedy in order for the audience to stay with it.” These animated movies are thematically rich. They “rhyme with how we feel and think,” and as such “wish fulfilment is key to the popular film.” They enrich the vision of how you would like the world to be.

Despite their depths and seeming complexity, animated features more often than not work best with a simple plot that allows breathing space for development of atmosphere and character. “Cinematic storytelling is about what you don’t show.” The author comments on how the Pixar approach includes extending the story and enriching the characters through the use of songs and telling stories that give a moral lesson.

Animation is a visual approach so expressions, hand movements and tonal atmospheres can speak volumes. It’s important not to underestimate the intelligence of an audience, young or old, who will take much more from an animated movie than you might first think. “Show don’t tell” crops up in this book. It may sound obvious, but exposition via dialogue is a huge problem in animated spec scripts just as much as it is in any other type of script.

I also see a lot of violence in spec animation scripts which aren’t addressed appropriately, and the author of this book examines this too. Toy Story 1 – Andy decides he prefers Buzz and Woody gets so jealous that he makes Buzz fly out the window into next door’s garden – certain “death” if you consider how the horrid little boy experiments on his toys. We all empathise with the desire to lash out when we are angry and jealous, but we as adults know it is wrong. In order to get this message across to the kids, the other toys express their disappointment in Woody for what he has done.

The author gives lots of interesting facts, and compares each movie to others; and not just Pixar ones. You might be surprised to know, for example, that a Pixar animation film can have a 4 year production period, and that sequences can be reconfigured up to 30 times before being approved. An interesting point is made for the benefit of screenwriters, too: A Bug’s life was revised and amended several times, which “should encourage all writers never to give themselves a hard time about that aspect of the work”.

One of the most interesting aspects for me, though, was the focus on examining the heart of each movie’s story. Toy Story 1 – a buddy movie about growing up and the lesson of humility. Monsters, Inc – about fear and inverting expectations. Finding Nemo – about how fear can deny a good father from being one. Cars – the fear of becoming redundant. You’ll notice that these themes are much deeper and intellectually stimulating than perceiving these films as just being bout “toys that come to life” or “a fish that gets lost”.

This is an excellent book for the aspiring animation writer as well as anyone who simple adores or is interested in the history of them and how they are produced. You won’t find loads of writing advice here, but the examination of what makes an animation film successful, and how thematically rich they are, is vital education for writers.

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3 thoughts on “Book Review: The Films of Pixar Animation Studio

  • Helen Bang

    For a long time kids’ movies were something that parents had to endure (or possibly con a babysitter into enduring) as the stories had little resonance for adults. Then along came Pixar and the adults probably love their movies more than the children do. I know that the opening sequence of Up! sailed over many kids’ heads whilst their parents were blubbing. I’d like to find out more about how they did it. I particularly like the recent Monsters University as it challenges the nonsense of ‘you can be anyone you want to be’ instead saying ‘you need to find what you’re really good at and do that.’