This is a follow-up to an article on The Story of Up.
One of the challenges that CGI artists and technical directors face is how much detail to add to their characters. Especially for the types of stories that animated films generally tell, too much realism could be a distraction (or even disturbing). But at the same time, not enough detail makes for a blander image and might not be as engaging to audiences.
Pixar’s Renderman is the software that’s responsible for most of the photoreal images in modern film effects, so there’s certainly no technical limit to the complexity that Pixar could be adding to their films, but their art direction has always tried to find a balance. With Up, they’ve gone for an approach which they call ‘simplexity,’ adding detailed textures to simple objects.
More importantly, the simple shapes they’ve used help to tell the story better. Carl Fredrickson is a square. Every aspect of his anatomy, from his jaw to his glasses to his fingers, is cubic. Carl’s chair is a cube and his pictures are in square frames. His wife Ellie is different, slim and curvy and has a round head. Her furniture is curvy and her pictures are in oval frames.
When Russell comes on the scene, his roundness also complements Carl’s squareness visually, and their different body shapes help to communicate their character differences to viewers. When they meet up with Dug and Kevin, the shapes of the tall thin bird and the short fat dog make for an aesthetically pleasing lineup with clearly recognizable silhouettes.
This kind of design is very important to creating strong and memorable characters, but more than that, the rounded design similarities between the oppositely-built Ellie and Russell remind us of Carl’s emotional needs. At Pixar, story is king, and much of the four or five-year production process focuses on reworking the script and story reels. However, they also spend much of that time working on the art design of the project.
Since every single element of an animated film is created by hand, the director and art department have far more control over every frame than they would with any live-action film. To make the most of this opportunity, Pixar artists like Lou Romano will create thousands of sketches and paintings to develop the look of the film before any animation begins. You can see a tiny fraction of this amazing work on his blog.
Characters, sets, environments, props are designed and redesigned around and in the context of the story. Shot composition and camera moves are built and tested as the script and storyboards come together. Color keys and production stills flesh these designs out further for the texture painters and lighting technicians. Every shot is a work of art, because each shot has dozens of sketches and studies and lesser works of art behind it.
And the film is more than just the sum of its shots. The color design plots out the look of the movie over time. As Carl’s warmly nostalgic past fades into modern day, his life becomes desaturated. Not as an special effect in post, but naturally, as the paint on his house fades and the colorful surroundings are replaced by grey construction lots. Then, a brightly dressed scout, brilliant skies, and lush jungles explode onto the screen once the adventures start.
This is more nuanced than a simple Wizard of Oz shift towards color; dark caves, mist-shrouded plateaus, and stormclouds keep both the hue and saturation of scenes changing to match the storyline and compliment the emotional arcs of the story. This is all worked out in pre-production to maximize the power of the story’s message.
To learn more about this process and see more of the brilliant production art that was created, you can buy the Disney/Pixar book The Art of Up now. It’s a beautiful hardcover with 160 pages of tremendous work, everything from napkin sketches by Pete Docter to amazing character designs and digital paintings by Daniel López Muñoz.