The Oakland Museum’s newest exhibition celebrates 25 years of Pixar animation, displaying the East Bay studio’s unique visual style and the extraordinarily vivid digital animation that brought the world Toy Story, WALL-E, and Finding Nemo. Written on the front wall of the exhibit is a quote by the Emeryville animation company’s chief creative officer, John Lasseter: “Computers didn’t create computer animation any more than a pencil creates pencil animation. What creates computer animation are artists.”
Pixar Animation Studios, which is now owned by The Walt Disney Company, is famous for its innovative take on the artistry behind its animation. Rather than bubbly cartoons, Pixar uses a semi-photorealistic style. Instead of stories based on pre-existing fairy tales, Pixar comes up with tales set in the modern age that feature unusual characters such as garbage-cleaning robots, cooking rats and grumpy old men with houses that float away by balloon. Among its films are Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, Ratatouille, WALL-E, and Up, all of which have won Academy Awards.
After a five-year, 14-stop worldwide tour that kicked off at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2005, the exhibition that covers Pixar’s entire lifespan is coming home. This is the Oakland Museum’s first major exhibition since its grand re-opening on May 1 and it includes over 500 works, along with several pieces that weren’t displayed during the rest of the tour.
“We thought this exhibition would be the perfect fit for us,” said Lori Fogarty, the executive director of the Oakland Museum, during a Thursday preview of the exhibition, which opens to the public on Saturday. “Pixar has incredible stories set within imaginative and amazing worlds.”
The exhibit is centered on three themes: “story,” “character” and “world.” The director of Pixar University and Archives, Elyse Klaidman, who also headed the design of the exhibit, spoke to press reporters during the Thursday preview. “Without a fantastic story, we’re not going to make a film,” she said. She went on to explain that characters are important for viewers to connect with and that “world” is about bringing these stories and characters to different imagined places.
Lining the walls of the museum are light box transparencies, pastel drawings, projections of videos, sculptures, digital paintings and storyboards. One storyboard shows the process of how Pixar artists created a scene in Toy Story in which little green plastic soldiers work to escape from the “bucket of soldiers” in which they are kept. They jump from the edge of the bucket and parachute through the air.
One of the museum’s walls is covered with colorful paintings of all of the tropical fish that were in Finding Nemo, while another shows the evolution of all the drawings of Edna, the idiosyncratic fashion designer from The Incredibles with her nerdy glasses and short black bob. “We wanted to give an idea of what Edna looked like before Edna became Edna,” said one of the exhibition’s designers, DeAnn Cobb, “to create a viewing experience where those steps are clear.”
One room has an installation of all the sculptures made to create the protagonist of Monsters, Inc., the big blue monster Sullivan, aka “Sulley.” The sculptures go from portraying a sad monster in a suit to a hybrid of half-monster, half-octopus to the final friendly-looking monster with its over-sized arms and long tail. “They are all different,” said Jerome Ranft, the artist who created these sculptures. “When we were developing this character, the story kept changing.”
Ranft explained that he created all of these sculptures when work was slow to ensure that there was a record of each iteration of Sulley. “I cast this in my garage,” he said, pointing to one of the sculptures. “I never knew it was going to end up in a museum.”
The back portion of the exhibit features four different media installations, including interactive computers that people can use to learn more about the artists’ process, character building, and the the studio’s use of music and sound. There’s also a room where Pixar’s early short films are displayed on flat-screen televisions that are positioned on the wall like paintings.
Visitors can also view the Pixar Zoetrope, which is a large spinning disk mounted with figurines from Toy Story that come to life as it spins: Woody rides his horse, penguins hop on pogo sticks and the space ranger Buzz Lightyear bounces on a ball.
The final media installation is an “Artscape” movie, which was created just for this exhibit. It takes up the entire back room and viewers are invited to sit down and watch the film that is projected across the wall. Set to various sound effects, the movie shows drawings by Pixar artists that have been put together in such a way that a 3-D effect is created. It makes the viewer feel like they’re walking through the drawings with the Pixar characters in their landscapes. “It reveals what artists at Pixar saw when they created works displayed in this exhibition,” said director of the “Artscape,” Andrew Jimenez, “It’s immersive, you go into something and have it surround you.”
The Pixar exhibition will be open for the public on July 31 and will run through January 9, 2011. Throughout the course of the exhibition, the museum will host a series of screenings, lectures, talks and workshops with Pixar artists. The museum’s website has admission prices and hours.