pixar in tokyo


30 June, 2006

My friend Paul Topolos, an artist who formerly worked for Lucas Film, but who now paints backgrounds for Pixar, recently got flown out to Tokyo to attend the gala opening of the Pixar: 20 Years of Animation exhibit, which is currently showing at the Mori Museum. He kindly invited me to tag along.

I have to admit that I have mixed feelings about Pixar’s movies, though these are the same mixed feelings I have about most commercial films that come out of the United States these days. While Pixar’s movies are incredibly enjoyable, and it’s clear that an incredible amount of work and creativity goes into them, it’s also clear that commercial interests keep the films within a confined set of fairly predictable parameters — but as I said, this a criticism I have of most contemporary commercial film, whether it’s Pirates of the Caribbean, or King Kong, both of which I found incredibly entertaining. Perhaps — since everyone else I know tends to love Pixar movies — the real issue is that, as my friend J. says, I’m just a “picky bitch.”

One thing that I definitely love about Pixar movies, however, is that they are very skillful at acknowledging their generic complicity and playing with the generic conventions that define the limitations of their subjects. I remember when Toy Story first appeared in the theaters and I stubbornly declined to see it since, judging by the promotional trailers, I assumed that the film was nothing but a kind of expensive advertisement for its commercial tie-ins. However, after I was thoroughly chastised by those who knew better, I did go to see Toy Story, which I enjoyed thoroughly — though I still have to admit that my favorite ‘world’ in the film was the world of the lugubrious misfit toys that had been dismembered and reconfigured by the punk kid who owned them. Even though his character was portrayed as cruel and abused, the product of a “bad childhood,” it was the babydoll spider in his room that made me think, “Ah, genius at work.” I also have to admit that while watching Toy Story 2 I fell slightly in love with Jessie, the Yodeling Cowgirl.

The first Pixar movie that Paul worked on was The Incredibles (he painted several of the urban landscape backgrounds, as well as the exterior of the church that Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl tie the knot in). I think that the The Incredibles may be my favorite Pixar movie so far. It’s especially smart when dealing with the conventions of the superhero (i.e. the “underwear pervert”), and it brilliantly investigates the darkness of fanboy sycophancy. The thing I liked most about the movie, however, was its implicit critique of the isolated nuclear family. While the idea of the sanctity of the nuclear family has made a strong comeback in conjunction with the renewed pull of the religious right in the United States — to the point where the existence of the nuclear family has become a kind of telos in itself — The Incredibles shows that a hermetically sealed nuclear family, a family cut away from social concerns and larger fields of meaning, is nothing but a graveyard. In addition, the “no capes” sequence is simply priceless.

What I wasn’t prepared for at the Pixar: 20 Years of Animation exhibit was how much I was blown away by the pre-production, and even mid-production, conceptual art that precedes Pixar’s final products. The show was introduced by the screening of a short film that displayed the talents of Pixar’s artistic team in the context of thematic groupings based on Pixar’s movies; but these weren’t simply scenes taken from the films and remolded in a museum context, instead they were original meditations based on the moods of particular filmic sequences. These meditations included a slow glide through a softly green clover field, an army of blue and sketchy angry ants, a scene of abstracted purple jellyfish swimming through a green void that emphasized the painterly, a clockwork domino of infinite hanging doors, and an abstract paint pallet that came to life as a cloudscape and a desert. In some ways this film reminded me of the more abstract and artistic sequences in Fantasia.

In fact, nearly all of the work on display in the show struck me as magnificent. Teddy Newton’s “Frozone facial explorations” displays the incredibly subtlety and expressivity of line of the best 1930s and 1940s caricaturists; Tia Kratter (who also worked on Tron) creates incredibly beautiful paintings that mimic a natural color palette and resemble the kinds of studies you might find in a zoological or botanical museum; Geefwee Boedoe’s “Miscellaneous monster” (which my friend Tim calls “the Salaryman Monster”) floats in a field of blue, a colorfully blotched paper cutout with a turned-down alligator mouth and a brown bowler; Lou Romano’s “Miscellaneous monster” looks like a cross between Russian Constructivism and War of the Worlds; Nicolas Marlet’s “Sullivan” looks like something that Al Columbia might have come up; and Harley Jessup’s “Monstropolis” looks like something out of a brilliant urban New Yorker cartoon. And did I mention that there was a fully functioning Pixar zoetrope? I watched the zoetrope for 15 minutes or so. Each time it would start up I could see the characters on display slowly come to perfect 3D life and I felt like a kid with his nose and hands glued to the glass in wonder. The zoetrope alone is worth the price of admission.

The Pixar exhibit will be on display until August 27, so if you want to see it, you should see it soon.

Click here for a link to the Mori Museum Website.

After Paul walked me through the show (he only had one piece on display, and it’s not in the catalog because he didn’t think it was representative of his work) we were hustled to the party, which was in a bar that was on the same floor of the Mori Building as the Mori Museum (that would be the 50th floor). Mori-san himself opened the festivities with one of those oh-so-official Japanese introductory speeches, and then Paul and I wandered around the bar, which had been decorated in a Pixarish theme. Perhaps in keeping with the notion that the experience of film has to do with projected light, most of the decorations were images projected onto the walls and curtains of the bar. My favorites were the eyes from Cars that, taken out of context, became beautiful abstract discs of color.

This lounge was so cool! Red lights, and Frank Lloyd Wright lights, and plush leather seats, and cheap 70s JVC speakers, and did I mention the canopy bed?

These projected discs, the eyes of the characters in Cars, were ubiquitous at the Pixar party. I like them in their abstracted lightshow modality.

A pinky-purple photo of Paul in front of the view from the Mori Building. Paul looks good in pink-purple, no? “Isn’t he / pretty in pinky-purple?”

Here’s the view from the Mori Building. This shot was actually taken using the lenses of Paul’s eyeballs, so if it’s a little blurry, that’s just his superhero drunk-vision at work.

The nice orangey glow of bar glasses. I suppose it reminds me a little bit of the taste of warm milk before bed.

Paul in front of the entry/exit curtain to the bar. Here’s lookin’ at you, kid.


2 Responses to “pixar in tokyo”

  1. 1 Scott

    Oh hey! I didn’t realize you were talking about *that* Paul. I’m glad to hear he’s working for Pixar, but I feel it’s only right to add that he is the man soley responsible for teaching me what a proper cappuchino was when he was the espresso-god at the Apple Box, and to this day I can’t help but measure every cappuchino I drink to Paul’s standard.

  2. 2 Trane DeVore

    I remember Paul’s cappucino’s as well — incredibly fresh and sweet foam, and then a slow fade down into milk-coffee perfection. I guess this just goes to show Paul’s attention to craft from day one. So far in Japan I haven’t found really good espresso drinks, but the coffee, if you avoid the chain stores, is often finely handcrafted with great care. Delicious.

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