To mark the opening of a 20-year retrospective of Pixar's work at London's Science Museum, spoke to the Oscar-winning director about his work for the legendary animation studio, and its future in the wake of the recent Disney buyout.
3D World: Having pioneered both the concept of feature-length CG animation in Toy Story and an industry standard software package in RenderMan, Pixar's achievements over the past 20 years have been both artistic and technical. What has made more of an impact in the animation world: the technology that the company has developed or its creative vision?
Jan Pinkava: Absolutely its creative vision. Without the ideas behind the movies, no amount of technology would make the difference. Are there real and compelling characters in a compelling world doing things that you want to sit and watch? The execution of [an animated movie] - how it comes across on screen in sound and light - is a way of telling a story. Without that story, it's just fireworks.
3DW: Are there actually still any major technological breakthroughs left to make in the kind of cartoon animation that Pixar specialises in?
JP: I think that there are, but we don't know what they are yet. Each project throws up its own challenges. As far as Pixar is concerned, I'm very excited by the possibility of telling stories with the medium of computer animation with different [visual] styles.
3DW: In your talk [at the National Film Theatre, preceding the interview] you mentioned that it would be possible to make an animated movie that looked like a pastel drawing. Would Pixar do anything that stylistically radical in future?
JP: It's up to the designer and the people developing the story. It's hard to think of a feature-length story that would be good to tell [in that form] - although I can think of shorts that might work.
We still have a hangover from the quest for realism pursued by the original creators of digital imagery: the people who first made computers do what they can today. But we now live in a world with a rich variety of types of [computer-generated] imagery. I think it's very important for [people working in the animated movies] to study the masters. You go into the National Gallery and the paintings are all true to life, but they're not real; they're not reality. An animated movie is just another version of reality. Maybe there's a story out there that would work as a great Impressionist movie.
3DW: While the backgrounds of Pixar's movies continue to become more detailed, the characters themselves aren't much more complex than the early shorts. How close would Pixar come to doing photorealistic characters?
JP: It comes down to what you feel works in animation. To me, one of the defining characters of animation is stylisation: that you're choosing to simplify and exaggerate at every level. Simplified, heightened reality is what [the medium] does best, so I think there's a reason to keep away from realism.
3DW: You mentioned earlier that the danger of photorealistic CG work is that audiences get lazy. Could you elaborate on that?
JP: I see mind-boggling work done in visual effects in which characters are in a real environment, or as near to reality as you can get, doing incredible things - and by incredible, I mean stuff I don't believe. Things that don't seem credible in terms of that world. I often see a mismatch between the world and the actions that are taking place.
To my eye, in a lot of recent VFX movies, there's a tendency to ratchet up the stakes and make the action more and more outlandish; to add more extreme, bizarre fight and flight sequences. And there's a sense that the audiences are expecting this heightening. But there comes a point at which it doesn't feel believable; it doesn't feel grounded in reality. To take an example from Pixar, while making The Incredibles, [director] Brad Bird said that the challenge was to make the audience feel that these superheroes were vulnerable; that you could feel that they were in jeopardy. It's not like you could run a train over them, and they'd be OK. So it was a conscious decision to write scenes that showed that they were grounded in a reality where they could be in danger. But in some live-action effects movies, the characters really are invulnerable.
I've seen things that are more like dreams up on the screen, in which anything is possible. And like some bad dreams, you lose your grounding. More and more, I get the sense that I don't know the limits of the world I'm looking at, and if the audience doesn't know what's possible and what's not possible, it's hard to know what to feel. The best animation is true to life but not realistic: true to life in that it's believable and takes from life those elements that you need to tell a story, but only those elements.
3DW: There are now a lot more studios making full-length 3D animated movies than in the early days of Pixar. How will the company maintain its edge at the box office?
JP: The only thing to do is to keep making good movies. That's all you can say. There will always be a lot of studios out there, and sure, they may have some impact [on us], but you must never lose sight of the fact that the idea is to make a good film. We are fortunate that having made the movies that we have, people expect a lot of Pixar.
3DW: That must have its downside, too. After six successive box-office smashes, people are wondering when Pixar will finally make a false move. What does that do to you as a director?
JP: Well, it's pressure. The idea is to put it away because it's not helping to make the movie. No one can keep a 100 per cent success streak going forever. But that's not the way to think about it. The only thing to do is to try to do the best you can every time -then, however things turn out, that's what you did. As long as we have such good people doing great work, you have to believe that's a good way to approach movies. There's no formula [at Pixar], no strict set of rules.
3DW: But unlike Pixar, Disney does have a tradition of making sequels and of working to rules. Now that the acquisition deal is done, is that something you think you can maintain?
JP: My guess is that with [Pixar co-founders] John Lasseter and Ed Catmull in charge of Walt Disney Feature Animation, there will be choices made to make the right movies. People are making the right decisions, I think, to make the work as good as possible. You've got to have faith in that.
3DW: From the outside, it seems that Pixar is creatively driving what happens at WDFA. Is that your perception from within the company?
JP: From where I sit, it's hard to tell. There are great people in charge and there are good people at Disney who are glad of the change. Everyone's looking forward to a good future.
3DW: With John Lasseter and Ed Catmull now also working across WDFA, do you think that there's a danger of the culture of Pixar being diluted?
JP: I know that's something that Ed - also John, but Ed especially - is interested in, and cares about very deeply. Not to change what is good about Pixar creatively and to keep it growing positively in future is dear to his heart. I expect that Ed, who's a very smart guy, will do what's right. When one cares about something, one has concerns about it. It's like caring for your children.
3DW: When the deal finally got signed off, was it a relief to people within the studio? What was the mood in the company?
JP: It varied. If you ask different people, you'd get different answers. Overall, I think people understand that at this point in Pixar's history, it was the right decision for the company. It makes sense, and I think people appreciate that.
3DW: Financial sense or artistic sense?
JP: Sense in terms of how Pixar as a company can move forward and make great movies. Nothing sits still forever; everything changes. At this point in the evolution of the company, it was a good thing for it to do.
3DW: What happens to Ratatouille now? [Shortly before the interview, it had been reported that Brad Bird was to take over from Pinkava as director of the movie.] Are you still closely involved?
JP: I think that Brad Bird's going to make a great job of it, but beyond that - and I've always wanted to say this - no comment.
3DW: Let's turn to your previous work, then. Shorts like Geri's Game have played a major part in Pixar's past development. What role will they play in future?
JP: Shorts have always been an ongoing part of Pixar's strategy. There continue to be many people at Pixar who are pitching new ideas and who are selected to do new shorts to keep things developing, and bring new talent to the fore.
3DW: Is that now their primary role? Back in the days of Geri's Game, they were also regarded as a way to try out new technologies, like subdivision surfaces and cloth simulation.
JP: I think that's still the case. But it's not the case that every film pushes the technology and it's not the case that every short is an opportunity for a new director to step up to the next stage. Just like the features, Pixar operates on a case-by-case basis: whatever's useful at the time.
3DW: How many shorts are there in development within the company at the minute?
JP: I don't know exactly. In the order of a dozen or so, varying from fully mature ideas to concept sketches and rough outlines.
3DW: It must be unusual for an animation studio to be developing so many non-commercial projects simultaneously. Why does Pixar continue to show such a commitment to shorts?
JP: Because it's a good idea to vary the palette of things you do. I personally love short films. I originally came to Pixar Animation Studios because of [the John Lasseter short] Luxo Jr. - I looked at it and thought, 'I could do that.' The range of expressive possibilities in a short film is very exciting, both storywise and visually. The more shorts that Pixar can do, the happier I'll be.