THE SHORT CUT: An Interview with Pixar Director Mark Walsh

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The Short Cut is a new column on Under The Gun that showcases the careers of short film directors. Shorts are often overlooked when it comes to the entire spectrum of film, and by including interviews with the directors themselves and information about their creative efforts, this column will highlight the work of some of the medium’s dignitaries that we feel deserve your attention.

For two and a half decades, the brilliant minds at Pixar Animation Studios have been hard at work, collectively creating what have easily become the most beloved animated movies for children and adults alike. From 1995’s celebrated Toy Story to this year’s Scottish fable, Brave, Pixar has released 13 feature films and a plethora of ingenious, heartwarming and hilarious shorts to accompany their lengthier counterparts.

Pixar’s newest short, Partysaurus Rex, is currently opening on the big screen for the 3D re-release of the aquatic themed Finding Nemo. The short features Toy Story‘s Rex in a departure from his typical role as a worrywart who tends to be somewhat of a “party pooper” for the rest of Andy’s toys. Partysaurus Rex was directed by the talented Mark Walsh, a longtime animator, supervisor and all around workhorse at the Pixar Animation Studios.

Walsh gave UTG a special opportunity and spoke with me in depth about Partysaurus Rex, Pixar shorts and the many magics of working with the company, including some upcoming projects and how he began working with the studio. Read through and get an inside look from a highly accomplished creator at the Pixar Animations Studios and be sure to check out a sneak peek and movie poster for Partysaurus Rex immediately succeeding the interview!


THE INTERVIEW

For those that may be unaware, can you state what it is that you do?
I direct short films at Pixar. Before that, I directed some TV commercials for Pixar and before that I was a supervising animator on films like Ratatouille and Finding Nemo.

Do you do any other work outside of your projects with Pixar?
No, I didn’t. That’s part of the story I think for me; I had gone to school at CalArts where I made short films each year and I love the short film format. A lot of people here always wanna direct features but I was really more interested in an opportunity to direct short films again. I started here in 1997, ’98, and after animating scenes for so long, and even supervising, I wanted to make films again which led me to what I’m doing now. So no, it’s difficult professionally to have time based on the jobs I had. To make my own short film, I thought, “Well I’m either gonna do this on my own or I’m gonna try to make it at work.” Luckily I made it at work, but so far this has been my chief creative outlet.

Having the opportunity to work for Pixar seems like one of those dream jobs that one would just assume is intangible. How can you explain the experience of working with such a company?
Well, I started here early, just after Toy Story opened, at a time when the company couldn’t really hire professionals. Most of the business was in Los Angeles and everyone was working at Disney, or wanted to work at Disney. New companies like Dreamworks and Fox were throwing around a lot of money to try to attract 2D animators and nobody knew anything about the computer or computer animation and were really questioning its future, so Pixar was largely hiring students out of school. I myself was a hand-drawn student and was not particularly interested in the computer. When those other studios came to speak at CalArts, none of them seemed genuine, but when the Pixar people came, they were friendly and fun and they seemed like normal, fun people, and I had a friend that was working up here already and he said, “Yeah, this is a great place to be. The area is great, the people are great. We’ll teach you how to use a computer but this is the place to be,” so I thought, “Alright, I’ll go here for a couple of years until they go out of business like Fox and everyone else,” and they just never went out of business and here I am. So I got in at a really lucky time, but I think for me, working on all these films year after year and watching really great directors has been a really great inspiration for me and it all comes down to pitching an idea and being open to feedback. There’s always great feedback here which is the difference as opposed to other places I’ve been at. The feedback you get from your executive producer is always really great, creative feedback because they’re a creative person, they’re not a business major.

What has been your favorite film to work on?
It’s pretty cool actually, and I’m not just saying this, but my favorite professional experience was Finding Nemo. I was a directing animator on that and I focused on the character “Dory”. The characters in Nemo were really simple to animate because of the lack of ears, whiskers, tails, arms and legs, so we could focus more on performance and I was really pleased with some of the work I was able to do and I was pleased with our department here at Pixar with Finding Nemo. It was a great experience and I feel it’s our most emotional movie so when I found out that they were re-releasing it and wanted to put Partysaurus Rex with Finding Nemo, I’ve been pretty excited about it because it’s kind of my two favorite things that I’ve done in one 2-hour package. It’s pretty cool! You know, to take my Mom and re-live it again because I hadn’t watched Finding Nemo, even though I say it was my favorite, I hadn’t watched it in like 9 years but I saw it again recently and it was a really gratifying experience for me.

So Partysaurus Rex wasn’t made specifically to open for Finding Nemo? How long ago did you make it?
I just finished it in time. Partysaurus was pitched separately from this Nemo release. We didn’t know where it was gonna go when we first pitched it. We pitched it about two-and-a-half years ago. We did our story and artwork here and the actual production of the film, everything digital, happened at our sister studio, Pixar Canada, in Vancouver. We were gonna finish a few months after the Finding Nemo release and then when John Lasseter saw our latest cut he said, “Oh my God, we have to put this with Finding Nemo. It’s the perfect match.” So we actually had to really step up production and bring on extra people to get the film done in time to pull up our release date.

How is it decided which short will go with each Pixar film?
I think that’s the thing, they kind of just develop the shorts and they see where it lands and if it’s a good fit then it goes and if it feels like it’s not the right emotional or total fit, they’ll wait for another film. The nice thing about right now is that we’ve got these re-releases, the 3D thing, and if it hadn’t been for that, I’d probably just have ended up showing it on television. [For Partysaurus Rex] I had pitched several ideas to John Lasseter and of the three, John liked Partysaurus the best. It was originally called “Bath Time,” then after that it would be called “Wet Blanket” because it became more about Rex and finally I changed it to Partysaurus Rex because the short got more and more wild. Then John saw a rough cut of it and said, “This would be really great for Finding Nemo because of the water relationship,” because one’s a small tub, the other one is the big ocean. It’s also a feel-good party kind of film that gets people goin’. I think he just really felt that because of the water experience and with the party lights we knew it was going to be a very colorful film. I think that’s the two reasons he thought it would be a really good fit.

Definitely. So you can get really excited and then completely depressed by the opening to Finding Nemo.
[Cracking up] It takes the sting off the opening to Finding Nemo.

There are a lot of intricate details in Partysaurus Rex as far as what roles the toys play beyond their normal function. Obviously being an extension of the Toy Story franchise, how do you guys continue to expand that idea and come up with new concepts for which kinds of toys to use and what their roles will be?
Well for me as a kid, I just remember all these different kinds of toys; I remembered bath toys, my Star Wars figures, and there were all these different genres of toys that I would play with. When I started thinking about Toy Story shorts, instead of exploring the characters we already have, which I enjoy, I was also really interested in what those toys from my childhood would have been like. You know, if I left the room and they punched the clock and had a regular adult conversation when I left, what would that be like for a bath toy or these different types of toys? So I really just go back to my memory or I’ll be in a toy store and I pick up something and I think, “What would life be like for this guy?” For a bath toy it became funny because they had no arms or legs which led to a real high and a real low for them. When they’re played with, it’s great. When they’re not played with, they just have to sit around and wait. That seemed like an entertaining situation to me.

What are your thoughts on 3D and how prominent it has become in animation?
I’m somewhat surprised because me as an animator using our software, I can move around the character and look at different angles, so it’s always been 3D for me, although I’m not wearing the glasses, but it’s always been a dimensional experience for me, then for the audience it becomes a 2D experience. 3D is kind of fun for me. I remember going to Disneyland when I was a kid and watching Michael Jackson in Captain EO [laughing]. I don’t know if you’ve heard of that. It’s like a 3D music video that they’d play at Disneyland. I remember thinking like, “Wow! This 3D is really something.” It’s crazy to me that it’s become so widespread. However, for my short, I was really pleased with how immersive it makes me feel when I watch the film, especially with the surround sound, and we’ve taken our soundtrack, because it’s like electronic dance music, we’ve been able to separate the different elements and put them into all the channels. It sounds like you’re on a dance floor and with the 3D, it feels even more immersive like you’re on a dance floor. It just makes the whole experience more immersive and for that, I’m really happy about it and if it gets people into the theaters again to see films that are worth seeing that have emotion in them and a good story as well as a bit of action, then to me, I’m all for it!

Besides your own, what is your favorite Pixar short film?
Probably Knick Knack.

Do you think the Pixar short films get the attention they deserve in comparison to the Pixar full lengths?
I think so. One of the reasons I was attracted to Pixar honestly was that in the ’90s there was a video tape of John Lasseter short films floating around. It was the only place that I had seen an animated short film at that time outside of school. I thought a short film was just something you did to practice your craft. Because of those little early Pixar films, it led me to discovering these tapes of The National Film Board and different festival collections and really kind of opened me up to like, “Wow, the short animated film, post-Bugs Bunny, post-Disney, still has a life, and where else does the animated short film get as much attention as a Pixar short film?” I felt really lucky to be making them here where there’s the Disney advertising behind it and there’s the Disney awareness behind it because there are so many great films that don’t get the broad audience that they deserve.

Exactly. That’s pretty much the primary focus of this column; to try to bring attention to the short film directors that I feel deserve that audience.
Yeah! You know, I feel really gratified that the original short films often get nominated for Academy Awards but I feel that it’s also really gratifying these days that in the beginning we had such a “wow factor” of computer animation and in the 90s Pixar was winning a lot of Academy Awards for short films but now it’s really broadened out and I get really gratified when I see other people getting nominated and winning because that is the next forum for people’s awareness when you go to watch the award show and you’re like, “Who’s this guy from Czechoslovakia with 15 minutes of painting on glass? Oh my God, people do that and there’s no digital involved?!” It really raises people’s awareness I think.

What is your favorite part of the animation process?
I like working with the actors in the same way that I like working with animators because I see them both as part of the performance. After animating for so many years and feeling like it’s a solitary experience, I like the experience of directing because it’s more collaborative. I feel like the actors add a lot to your writing and the animators add a lot to the vocal performance and the lighting adds a lot to the mood. I found that I was constantly reinventing the film with each stage of the process and plussing it because of other people’s ideas beyond what I could have done by myself. It’s hard to say what’s the best but I think overall the experience of realizing that it’s not an auteurship. Things get better when one opens themselves up to other talented people and their contributions. I think that was my biggest realization and my favorite part of the directing process.

How would you compare being in the director’s seat to all your other work you’ve done with Pixar?
It’s interesting. I think, if there was a pyramid of who’s on top and who’s on the bottom, if you imagine a pyramid, when I was an animator I felt like I was on the top. There were all these people to support you and at the end they always say like, “That was a great scene! I loved it when Princess Anna or Woody said this. Who did that scene?” and “Oh, that’s the animator and everyone knows the 9 Old Men and the famous animators!” And the more I move up through the ranks here, the further down on the pyramid you go [laughing]. With directing, a lot of people ask me, “Oh, you’re a director, you must have tea at 4 o’clock or they must give you some kind of chariot to ride in or something,” but no no, it is at the very bottom where yes, you do get things like this which are really fun to talk to interviewers, and this is fun for me honestly, but the rest of it, you take all the blame and you take all the responsibility and if something works, great! The animator will get credit for it. If it doesn’t work, it’s your fault [laughing again]. So there’s a lot more pressure on it but I’ve always enjoyed teaching and I’ve always enjoyed helping other people with their work as an animator even more than I enjoy doing my own work. Watching the film and seeing everyone else’s ideas and contributions and their successes up there, although it does put the director at the bottom (laughing), I really do get more out of their successes than I do my own, you know what I mean?

Yeah, definitely.
I know how cheesy this all sounds but I really do mean it. Like watching a scene that I may have written but someone in layout came up with a better camera angle and the animator came up with a good idea that plusses this great vocal performance that I didn’t expect. I am more thrilled and entertained by the work than if they had done exactly as I had said. Something the director is is part of that. I think the work would be boring for me to look at if I didn’t encourage that from other people. I feel like I’m straying off your question, sorry, but I never get to think about these things until people ask me.

Can you reveal anything in the works for Pixar that may be unknown?
Oh! We’ve got Pete Docter, the director of Monsters Inc. and Up is working on a new movie. Bob Peterson, the writer of Finding Nemo and co-director of Up is working on a movie about dinosaurs which is looking really, really funny. I don’t know if the titles are released for that. And of course we have some amazing shorts planned for those films already in the works. I think the things that we’re seeing now in our shorts work is getting very, very creative and I think, for the medium, it’s going to be very exciting, and hopefully you’ll see more of me with these short projects if I can keep the job going here.

What are you working on now that Partysaurus Rex has been released?
I’m working on a few things. I can’t say what they are or the sniper will take me out, but hopefully in a year we’ll be able to talk again and I’ll have some more interesting things to talk about.

What has been the biggest challenge for you in the film industry?
To be honest, very often as an animator or even a supervisor, one is shielded from the needs of production. For so many years, I operated on the right side of the brain, thinking only about quality and artistic vision and as a director I find that the big challenge was also becoming aware of the equal importance of time and production needs. It doesn’t matter how beautiful something is if it’s two weeks late and nobody sees it. So I think for me the biggest challenge has been learning to develop my time awareness, develop the need, the art of, as a director, prioritizing and knowing what’s going to be important and seen and knowing what you can let go so that we can get everyone’s work on screen in time.

Do you have any advice you can give to aspiring film-makers that may be intimidated by the challenges the field may present?
I think that when you’re first starting to make a film, the important thing is to make a film. You know, because as soon as it’s done you’re going to learn from it and move on to your second film. Just get it out of the way. It’s kind of like if you go to the gym and you first try to do a push-up, at least for me and my under-developed pectorals, it’s almost impossible for me to do a push-up but I’m never going to get strong unless I’m doing them. The first one is always the hardest but I think the hardest thing that I ever had when I was in school was that my expectations were so high. I wanted my first work to be something as good as something from the National Film Board or as good as Pixar, and that might have happened [laughing] but I never knew because I kept delaying and waiting and I thought, “Well I don’t wanna do it yet. I wanna wait until I’m better.” I wish I had just gotten it out there. Just dig in, put something out there, see how it plays and then move on to the next idea. I think the biggest enemy we have is ourselves and our insecurities, so what if it’s not perfect? What if it’s not what we envisioned? It’s never going to be exactly what you envisioned… but it might be better. If it’s worse, you’re gonna learn from it and you’ll do better the next time.


Check out this sneak peek of Partysaurus Rex!
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9EuIo8VqHjs]

Pixar will also be doing a screening/presentation at the Ottawa International Animation Festival this Sunday, September 23!

 

Written and conducted by: Brian LionFollow him on Twitter

Brian Leak

Editor-In-Chief. King of forgetting drinks in the freezer. Pop culture pack rat. X-Phile. LOST apologist.
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  • Kenneth Elliott

    This short film sounds terrible. Too bad this director couldn’t have been booted out of Pixar like, you know, Brenda Chapman, who *clearly* directs “bad” movies.

  • Maybe you should watch it first and then if you still think the same, your rude opinion would be slightly more valid. I don’t see why you’re saying he should be fired based on something you haven’t even seen… He’s helped create some of their most renowned works and Partysaurus Rex is actually doing very well. I saw it and I thoroughly enjoyed it as well.