I've always had the suspicion -- confirmed by Pixar's 1995 film, Toy Story -- that my stuffed animals, action figures, and Legos came alive the moment I left the room. I often wondered if my toys thought I was a great owner like Andy, or if I was a monstrous demon-child like Sid. I would sometimes try to catch them moving around my floor and leading normal, but secretive lives. Now, fifteen years later, I can uncover a new secret: the ideas and artistry behind Toy Story at Pixar: 25 Years of Animation, a new exhibition at the Oakland Museum of California.
Senior Curator René de Guzman's exhibition deconstructs all of Pixar's 11 feature films into their basic elements: Characters, Storytelling and World. In the Characters gallery, The Incredible's eccentric fashion designer, Edna Mode, undergoes several bizarre costume changes before arriving at the iconic outfit she donned onscreen. One of the early sketches featured Edna in suspenders, a thick red tie, and a putrid yellow shirt that put Larry King to shame. Thankfully, the artists decided on a modern circular dress in the always-chic black. As Edna would say, "I never look back, darling! It distracts from the now!"
While the traditional character sketch can illustrate certain attitudes and personalities, sculpture renders unique character expressions and presence in three-dimensional space, making the characters come to life even before they're animated. In a particularly funny display, four sculptures demonstrate the wide expressability of Russell's chubby cheeks from one of Pixar's most recent films, Up.
Numerous storyboards line the walls of the Storytelling gallery, capturing key scenes in charcoal, pencil, and digital drawings. In one piece, the entire 15-minute prologue of Up is conveyed through emotional stills. Colorscripts, produced in pastels, paint, marker, and collage, simplify scenes into basic color schematics, conveying moods and emotions. From sinister shades to heartbreaking hues, if you've ever walked out of a Pixar film with tears in your eyes, the dramatic colorscripts will tell you why.
Deep into the heart of the World gallery, you begin to hear the sounds of the films themselves. These sounds are projected from two separate, but equally fascinating, media installations. The first one is the zoetrope, a spinning diorama that reveals the essence of animation. Much like a flipbook, the zoetrope creates the illusion of movement with 3D sculptures. In this particular zoetrope, the cast of the Toy Story movies appears to be moving around in their enclosure. Only when the zoetrope stops rotating do you see that it is not one Buzz Lightyear jumping on a ball, but more than a dozen Buzzes in slightly different positions. When the zoetrope begins to spin again, we see Buzz come bouncing back to life.
Near the exit, an animated tour -- called "Artscape" -- of all the works in the exhibition plays in a small movie theater with a giant panoramic screen. Complete with sound and lighting effects, the camera swoops from image to image, digitally animating each scene and enveloping the audience into every story. We jump from doorway to doorway in the world of Monster's Inc., and dive under the sea with the fish of Finding Nemo. Placing "Artscape" at the end of the exhibition is with clear reason; it connects all the art you just saw to the familiar sounds and stories of each film. In a way, it enables the viewer to draw her own conclusions about how each part of the process influenced the end result.
It's surprising to remember that each piece in the museum was designed as a visual aid for the animators, and not intended as a standalone work of art. Viewing this collection is like ripping away at the movie screen to find what's on the other side. Instead of a brick wall, we're led into a playground of whimsical sketches and colorful drawings that were somehow swirled together to create successful films, such as Wall-E, Ratatouille, and A Bug's Life. For the average Pixar movie-goer, you're in awe. For the Pixar fanatic, you're in heaven.
Pixar: 25 Years of Animation runs from July 31 to January 9, 2011 at the Oakland Museum of California. For more information visit museumca.org.