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Pixar’s Peter Sohn sheds some light on the making of his wonderful new short, Partly Cloudy.
It seems fitting that Pixar’s newest short, Partly Cloudy, is about things being born. For first-time director Peter Sohn, the production was a study in how ideas get incubated at Pixar and eventually hatched. Sohn, a nine-year studio veteran who’s contributed animation and story art to Finding Nemo, The Incredibles and Ratatouille, had an idea for a short that would wind up pushing Pixar’s animation and lighting techniques to new heights.
Sohn admits that he never imagined how hard it would be to execute his idea for Partly Cloudy, which depicts ‘cloud people’ making baby animals that are delivered to Earth by storks. ‘My original drawings were just black-and-white lines,’ recalls Sohn, who successfully pitched the idea to Pixar’s creative chief John Lasseter over a year ago. Sohn readily acknowledges the inspiration provided by Disney’s Dumbo, in which a stork delivers the baby elephant from the sky. But hand-drawn clouds are light years away from characters made of 3D-CG particles, as Sohn would soon discover.
‘Gus, who is the ‘main’ cloud, is made of over 200,000 particles. I’d never seen the character like that. I saw him as a piece of cotton. And I had birds landing on these clouds. I had no idea how hard that would be,’ admits the incredulous Sohn, whose voluble manner had led director Brad Bird to cast him as the voice of the Ratatouille character Emile.
Sohn notes, ‘Pixar is split into two sides. There’s the artist side and the technical side. When I pitched the idea of a cloud with eyes and a mouth to other artists, they’d say, ‘Oh yeah? What if he has a cloud tongue?’ When I brought the idea to the technical side, there were cross-armed people with skeptical looks on their faces. They’d ask things like, ‘Do you see this as a gaseous character?’ They forced me to pinpoint exactly what I was looking for, because they had to figure out the engine underneath.’
The experiments that followed were eye-opening for Sohn, who emphatically stresses his non-technical inclinations. ‘In high school, if I was presented with a math problem, my mouth would go slack-jawed and my eyes would roll back in my head. But the technical people at Pixar saw the options. They’d ask which road I would like to go down, because each road led to a different look, and would take different amounts of time to figure out.’
Fortunately, the production had guidance from Pixar’s longtime tech guru Tony Apodaca, one of the studio’s Sci Tech Award-winners for RenderMan. ‘Tony was ‘the guy behind the curtain’ who knew all the technical challenges,’ Sohn remembers. ‘He’d reveal them when he needed to, because he didn’t want to worry me.’
It’s the wordless animation of Gus and his pal, the stork Peck, that’s at the heart of Partly Cloudy. Despite the dangerous babies that Gus asks Peck to deliver’including a porcupine and a gator’their friendship endures. But the animation was tricky. Sohn notes, for example, ‘We didn’t have a cloud effect on Gus as we were animating him. We had to animate him in a ‘Michelin Man’ form and then add the cloud effect’which by itself just looked like pocket lint. Gus had to go through three layers to become the character.’
And the comic rapport between these two unlikely friends is what attracted everyone at Pixar to Sohn’s story. ‘When I first pitched this, it was all about miscommunication. I grew up with parents who spoke Korean and I spoke English. I would say something in English and my mother would nod, but she never really understood me. There were lots of funny miscommunications, and that’s what I wanted in this film.’
Sohn gives a lot of credit to supervising animator Andy Schmidt (whom he’d worked with on Iron Giant) and to Lasseter and WALL’E director Andrew Stanton. ‘They said I had to trust the process. In the nine years that I’ve been here I’ve often heard, ‘Trust the process.’ But when I had a chance to work on my own idea, it was like a chorus singing behind me!’
Disney/Pixar’s Partly Cloudy screens before the feature Up in theaters this month.