Masterpieces in Miniature - A History of Pixar Shorts

Partysaurus Rex becomes the latest computer animated gem from the studio

by Steve Withers Mar 30, 2013 at 5:10 PM

  • Movies Article


    Masterpieces in Miniature - A History of Pixar Shorts
    When you think of recent animated short films you probably think of two studios, Aardman with their stop-motion masterpieces, and Pixar with their five-minute classics. Perhaps no other studio has done more to push the art-form of short animation in recent years than Pixar, who have used them to push the boundaries of new technology and to nurture new talent. Now with Finding Nemo’s 3D re-release, we get to see yet another instant classic with the animated short Partysaurus Rex showing before the main feature.
    Pixar’s history of creating short films partly grew out of necessity because back in the early days of computer animation, even the simplest task required enormous amounts of computing power and the available storage capacity was very limited. So creating short films made sense, not so much as a form of creative expression but more as a proof of concept, showing that the technology actually worked. It was just such an experiment that led toThe Adventures of André and Wally B., an animated short made in 1984 by The Graphics Group, a subsidiary of Lucasfilm. This subsidiary was later renamed "Pixar" before being spun off as a separate company; so whilst The Adventures of André and Wally B. is technically not a Pixar short, the animation was by John Lasseter, who was working on his first computer animated project and would move on to be a pivotal player at Pixar.

    The animation on The Adventures of André and Wally B. was truly groundbreaking at the time, featuring the first use of motion blur in CG animation and complex 3D backgrounds, where the lighting styles and colors were made using particle systems. Lasseter pushed the envelope by asking for manipulatable shapes capable of being squashed and stretched, as earlier CG models had generally been restricted to rigid geometric shapes. Although not widely seen by the public at the time, The Adventures of André and Wally B. helped spark the film industry's interest in computer animation. If you're interested in seeing this groundbreaking short, it is included on the Blu-ray release Pixar Short Films Collection - Volume 1.
    ...featuring the first use of motion blur in CG animation and complex 3D backgrounds.

    After Lucasfilm had sold Pixar to Steve Jobs and Apple, the studio began to create imaginative and entertaining short films as a way of evolving the nascent art of computer animation. Luxo Jr., made in 1986, was the first computer-animated short film produced by Pixar and directed by John Lasseter. The film, which runs two minutes, revolves around two desk lamps: a larger lamp and a smaller lamp. The larger lamp watches while the smaller, "younger" lamp plays exuberantly with a ball but doesn't pick up the knack of correct handling. As Pixar's first film since leaving Lucasfilm, it became the source of the small hopping desk lamp included in Pixar's corporate logo ever since. Luxor Jr. was released theatrically along with Toy Story 2 in 1999 and can be found on that film's Blu-ray release.

    In 1987 Pixar produced Red's Dream, again directed by John Lasseter who was the primary creative force at the fledgling company. The short film, which runs four minutes, stars Red, a unicycle. Propped up in the corner of a bicycle store on a rainy night, Red dreams about a better place. Red's Dream is more strongly character-driven than Luxo Jr. and the short was designed to demonstrate new technical innovations in imagery. The short was created by employing the company's own Pixar Image Computer, but the computer's memory limitations led the animation group to abandon it for further projects. Space was growing tight at the company, and as a result Lasseter and his team worked out of a hallway during production, where Lasseter sometimes slept for days on end. Like The Adventures of André and Wally B. it is included on the Blu-ray release Pixar Short Films Collection - Volume 1.

    Pixar's breakthrough came with their next short, Tin Toy, which was directed by John Lasseter in 1988. The short film, which runs five minutes, stars Tinny, a tin one-man-band toy, attempting to escape from Billy, a destructive baby. The short was a risky investment and due to low revenue produced by Pixar's main product, the eponymous computer to manage animations, the company was under financial constraints. Lasseter pitched the concept for Tin Toy by storyboard to Pixar owner Steve Jobs, who agreed to finance the short despite the company's struggles, which he kept alive with annual investments. The film was officially a test of the PhotoRealistic RenderMan software, and provided new challenges to the animation team, namely the difficult task of realistically animating Billy. Tin Toy went on to claim Pixar's first Oscar with the 1988 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film and became the first CGI film to win an Academy Award. As a result Tin Toy gained the attention of Disney, who sealed an agreement to create Toy Story, which was primarily inspired by elements from Tin Toy. The short can be found on the Blu-ray release of Toy Story itself.
    Tin Toy went on to claim Pixar's first Oscar and became the first CGI film to win an Academy Award.

    Pixar followed up Tin Toy with Knick Knack in 1989, which runs three minutes and revolves around a snowglobe snowman who wants to join the other travel souvenirs in a hot party. However, the glass dome that surrounds him gets in his way, despite all his efforts. Knick Knack was Pixar's fourth and final short produced during the company's tenure as a hardware company. The short is the only pure comedy in Lasseter's early films at Pixar, and it was inspired by Tom and Jerry, Looney Tunes, and the work of animators Chuck Jones and Tex Avery. Lasseter collected snow globes and also enjoyed souvenirs from distant places and those elements made their way into the short as well. Singer Bobby McFerrin improvised the acapella vocal jazz soundtrack to the film while watching a rough cut, which was unchanged in its final edition. Knick Knack was originally presented in ‬3D, marking the studio's first but by no means last foray into added dimensions. Knick Knack was significantly altered for later re-releases, reducing the size of the breasts of the female characters in order to make it more kid-friendly. Knick Knack was released along with Finding Nemo theatrically and appears on the Finding Nemo Blu-ray, whilst the 3D version was included on the 3D re-release of The Nightmare Before Christmas.

    Knick Knack would be the last animated short produced by Pixar for eight years, as the studio poured all of its resources into the herculean task of making Toy Story. The next short film produced by Pixar was made specifically to go on release with the studio's second film A Bug's Life and was called Geri's Game. The short starred a minor character from Toy Story 2 playing chess with himself and went on to win Pixar their second Academy Award. This was followed up by For the Birds which was made for Monsters Inc. and won Pixar their third Academy Award. Since then every Pixar release has been preceded by a specially made short - Boundin' (The Incredibles), One Man Band (Cars), Lifted (Ratatouille), Presto (WALL-E), Partly Cloudy (Up), Day & Night (Toy Story 3) and La Luna(Brave). The next short will be The Blue Umbrella which will be released with Monsters University in the summer.
    This was followed up by For the Birds which won Pixar their third Academy Award.

    Pixar don't only create shorts for theatrical release, they have also created shorts to be included with the home release of their movies. Aside from being great fun, these extra shorts often expand the story of their main feature. So far we've had Mike's New Car which was created for the home release of Monsters Inc., Jack-Jack Attack which was made especially for The Incredibles and Mater and the Ghostlight which was produced for Cars. There has also been Your Friend the Rat which was included with (unsurprisingly) Ratatouille, BURN-E which was made for WALL-E, Doug's Special Mission which was produced for Up and The Legend of Mor'du which was included with Brave. Pixar have also produced a series of Cars Toons which centre around Mater's Tall Tales and Tales From Radiator Springs.

    More recently Pixar has also further explored the world of Toy Story with their Toy Story Toons. The first of these was Hawaiian Vacation which was shown theatrically with Cars 2 and that was followed by Small Fry which was shown before The Muppets. The latest is Partysaurus Rex, which is being shown before the theatrical re-release ofFinding Nemo 3D. In this short, Rex the timid dinosaur from Toy Story gets left in the bathroom where he makes friends with the bath toys and discovers his inner party animal. The short was directed by Mark Walsh and produced by Kim Adams.

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