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Oakland Art Murmur illuminates a hidden side of Pixar

on September 30, 2010

While visual art enthusiasts usually stick to the galleries during the Oakland Art Murmur, this Friday the film-heads in the crowd may want to linger in front of the Great Wall of Oakland, a 100 foot square makeshift movie screen projected onto the side of a building. Every month’s offering is different; up this month is Behind the Pixar Screen, a nod to the artists who work at the beloved Emeryville animation studio. The program features 12 short films, or independent projects, that Pixar employees created in their time away from the office.

But Pixar’s signature style—kid-centric, morally complex stories enacted by a lovable cast of cartoon characters—does not necessarily carry over to its artists’ other work. Many of the shorts are far more experimental, abstract and cerebral than anything one would find in a Pixar movie directed at the masses. “Behind the Pixar Screen” features everything from stick figure drawings to video footage of animals to stop motion animation.

“You don’t feel like it’s linked to Pixar work, but it’s very creative stuff,” says Chris Curtis, who works at real estate development company Metrovation and founded the Great Wall. “Some tell little parables, some are animated, some are claymation—it’s all over the lot.”

Friday’s show is the result of a creative collaboration between the Great Wall and the Oakland Museum of California, and takes a page from the museum’s popular “Pixar: 25 Years of Animation” exhibit. Curtis envisioned screening the “other” work of Pixar artists—the work they do when they aren’t busy crafting films like Up and Toy Story 3. After calling for submissions and narrowing the field to 12 entries, curator Issabella Shields Grantham sequenced the program, which will be played on loop from 7 until 11 p.m.

The artists are Pixar editors, animators and technicians, and their entries differ in medium, style and tone. Karen Kiser has been at Pixar for 16 years; she is an animator but currently produces educational videos for Pixar employees. She made her piece, titled Solitaire’s Sanctuary, in 1985 when she was just a student. Without fancy equipment or a clear story line, Kiser came up with a poignant animation that has found its way into a number of film festivals over the years. The piece follows a hand-drawn, long-legged bird through a series of misadventures. The bird eventually builds himself a sanctuary—a simple, hand-drawn square. Though the piece is visually minimalistic, the viewer forms a relationship with its protagonist by the end.

Another one of Kiser’s pieces, How Dust Is Made, is also part of Friday’s show. In it, Kiser’s pet parrotlet (a small breed of parrot) furiously preens, creating tiny clouds of dust in the process. “I was filming my parrot and the sunlight highlighted all the dust coming off of him,” says Kiser. “When I was editing it, I got the idea to add more dust.  It was my first attempt at special effects.” By setting the sequence to Celtic flute music and exaggerating the clouds, Kiser finds whimsy in the everyday.

Peter Roe, who is responsible for making glass, metal, wood and stone look realistic onscreen, is frank about the difficulty of doing independent projects after a long haul at the office. “It can be a challenge, especially since I already spend my day working on a computer,” says Roe. “The idea of going home and turning on another computer can sometimes require a lot of motivation.” For the Great Wall of Oakland, Roe submitted the very piece that landed him his job at Pixar. The Showreel, as Roe calls it, is comprised of four separate pieces (including one about a totally sweet irate robot segment and one about a low-flying, earth-scorching animated plane) that meld animation and computer graphics. “I chose the pieces that I felt were interesting in and of themselves and best represented my skill-set,” says Roe.

Assistant editor Jeanne Applegate has been working at Pixar for five years, and a music video she made for local band Exray’s was also picked for the Great Wall. The video features the under-produced, percussion-heavy song “Everything Goes,” and the video is a mesh of clips—everything from stop motion animation of graham cracker candy houses to time-lapse videos of flowers growing—but no footage of the band itself. Applegate used a combination of her own animation and footage found online to make it.

Applegate credits Pixar with encouraging its employees to do outside work—the company loans equipment, gives its workers an education stipend, and promotes peer-editing and feedback. “I am always borrowing the cameras and lights and stuff,” Applegate says. “And I’m always getting co-worker input on my stuff.” Like many other Pixar employees, Applegate has a very demanding schedule, but she still makes time to do her own work. “I find it really fulfilling to work on my own projects,” Applegate says. “While I’m at Pixar, I’m learning, I’m an underling. But when I do my own work I feel a sense of ownership.”

The Great Wall of Oakland is a place where non-traditional films can be enjoyed in a non-traditional setting. The side of a building serves as a screen, and the films are projected onto it from another rooftop. The wall in question is the back of 2201 Broadway, which was home to Breuner’s Home Furnishings until it became an office building in 1977. In 2006, Curtis and the City of Oakland’s Cultural Arts Department teamed up to turn the unlikely canvas into an Uptown landmark that has since exhibited the work of over 400 artists.

Grantham says the Pixar project is particularly exciting because of its local nature. “The personal projects of Pixar employees have never been shown as a collection of works before,” she says. “All of these artists live in our community, in the East Bay, so it’s really wonderful to have a platform to showcase their art.”

Click here to visit the event website and learn about and the Great Wall of Oakland.

Image: The Great Wall of Oakland shows short films on the first Friday of every month for Oakland Art Murmur. In February of 2010, the film “Amino Assets,” by Zeitguised, graced the wall as part of a “Digital Drawings”-themed program.

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