Pixar Site Archives: The Puppeteer

This is the first post of the series Pixar Site Archives, where content from the old Pixar sites (courtesy of http://replay.waybackmachine.org and http://web.archive.org). All Rights Reserved.(All content is to be used under fair use).

This article features animator  Jan Pinkava, who left Pixar after Ratatouille . Jan was the original director for Ratatouille, who was replaced by Brad Bird. Jan is now at a Laika Entertainment. As always, readers..ENJOY!!

The Puppeteer

By Kurt B. Reighley
from SHOOT Magazine, 1-27-95

Balancing Technological savvy with a fine-tuned sense of human nature, Prague-born animation director Jan Pinkava of Richmond, Calif.-based Pixar has already established a shining reputation in his brief one-year U.S. career.”First and foremost, we are animators and storytellers here,” he says of himself and his colleagues at Pixar, creator of the ground-breaking RenderMan software.

In his spots, Pinkava brings inanimate objects to life with a depth of feeling. Through careful attention to detail and underpinning emotion, he’s managed to make audiences empathize with playing cards, mouthwash bottles and wooden mannequins.

“People come to us to bring their product to life. When we do that, we spend a lot of time looking at the ‘thing,’ imagining how it would come alive, [asking] what is its personality?… Not necessarily imposing a human personality or emotions, but actually saying, ‘Okay, this is a box — how would a box move if it were alive?’ It would waddle from side to side. Take the object, look at the inherent character of the thing.”Take our famous Listerine bottle,” he continues, “A bottle moves in a certain way. it doesn’t have legs, so it has to jump or roll around. If you just look at the object you can see it, its potential for animation.”

Pinkava and his family relocated from Czechoslovakia to the U.K. when he was six. The director has since visited his homeland on several occasions, and although he doesn’t feel his Czech background exerts a specific influence on his own style, he does recognize that an early appreciation of the subtleties of Czech visual techniques honed his aesthetic. He sharpened his skills in graphics and illustration and, while in college, served as an artist in residence in Wales. He ultimately concentrated his formal education in computers. After completing a Ph.D in abstract sensory robotics (“It’s abstract because it doesn’t have anything to do with the real world”), Pinkava landed a job at London’s notable Digital Pictures — thanks to a tip form his robotics lecturer.

“He gave me a newspaper advertisement that he’d cut out of a British newspaper,” says Pinkava, “Actually, the ad is sitting here in my office, because it said ‘Are You The Next John Lasseter?'”

Pinkava had long known and admired the work of Lasseter, Pixar’s creative director, one of the best-known figures on the team of his future employers.

While at Digital Pictures, Pinkava created spots for Hale & Pace and McDonald’s, developing ways to laugh at looming deadlines while delivering quality work in the high-pressure environment of Soho. Joining Pixar, he was pleased to learn that not all of the computer animation world moves at the same pace. “I was very pleased to find that, because of bigger budgets and the larger scale of the work there’s more time,” he says. “I guess, like a lot of people, I have to hold myself back from being a little too fussy. I’m a bit of a perfectioinist, and I’ll take all the time that’s given me. I’d always felt that the work I did in London was done under too much time pressure, and nothing was done to my satisfaction. Not always, but the dealines were much shorter. I don’t remember ever doing a commercial in longer than six weeks.”

STORYTELLING
In his year at Pixar, Pinkava won a Clio for Best Computer Animation for Listerine’s “Arrows,” through J. Walter Thompson, New York, his first U.S.-directed job. He also created the simple, effective “Woman Getting What She Wants” spot for Levi’s Jeans For Women through Foote, Cone & Belding, San Francisco, and is now completing a new commercial for Nabisco’s Chips Ahoy through Foote, Cone & Belding, New York, scheduled for a March 1995 air-date. The spot is a departure from the things he’s done thus far at Pixar. He explains it as “not a character animation-type piece, but more of a journey.”

In the case of “Woman Getting What She Wants,” Pinkava feels the spot succeeded because it eschewed a hard sell, and instead called on his ability to tell a story through animation.

“One of the things I like about the Levi’s commercials is they don’t feature products, they’re ideas, little stories,” he says. “At Pixar we always try to make each specific commercial a story. The Levi’s ads are great becasue they don’t show jeans, you’re just saying something interesting. You can really concentrate on the design and the art direction, so that was where the bulk of the thinking went on that commercial.”

The challenge in creating the Levi’s character, says the animator, was portraying its emotions through its body language. “It’s subtle animation,” he describes, “human but slightly quirky. We retained a sense of it being a mannequin come alive, as opposed to a human in a mannequin costume. That was one of the delights of that spot. I wanted to look at the animation in a subtle way, and make sure all those nuances — she’s happy, sad, anticipating something — were coming through with just little gestures, a movement of the head.”

To aid in the creation of “Woman,” Pinkava and company made study films of fellow employees. “I think any animator worth his salt is always looking at people,” he stresses. “That happened right here in front of the building. On a sunny day, we got a big table and pretended it was a box, and people came out and made fools of themselves… And we got it all on camera.”

The next article in this series will be released on Saturday March 12th.

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