An entirely random Disney playlist I made a few years back

Hey! I like Disney. You like Disney. We all like Disney, yeah!

So let’s kick off the woes of the working week and have a dance, with an entirely random Disney playlist I made a few years back and have just relocated.

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Of Morals and Men: Billy Wilder’s The Apartment

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This is an archival post that was first published in 2013.

“Be a mensch. You know what that means? A mensch! A human being!”

Billy Wilder’s The Apartment is many things. A beautiful dark romance, a bitter office comedy, a biting social satire. Above all though, it’s a plea for humans to act more, well, human. Wilder, a bruised romantic who looked at life through a skewed and cynical lens, was inspired to make the film after watching Brief Encounter. He got to wondering about the logistics of adultery. How does one conduct oneself? Where does one go? What happens in the peripheries?

These questions led Wilder to the story of C.C. Baxter, a low-level clerk at insurance company Consolidated Life; Fran Kubelik, an elevator girl he’s in love with; Jeff Sheldrake, the married executive she’s having an affair with; and the titular apartment, which Baxter loans out to Sheldrake and other execs at the company to enable their extramarital activities. The Apartmentis Wilder’s best movie and my favourite movie of all time. Here’s why…

C.C. Baxter
Baxter is the heart of The Apartment and a surprisingly unpleasant character to anchor what is ostensibly a romantic comedy. A weasely little man whose devious ambitions belie his happy-go-lucky demeanour, Baxter grasps to his thin sliver of power to climb the corporate ladder at Consolidated Life, never considering the collateral damage he helps inflict on the families of his bosses. Why should he? That doesn’t affect him. All he has to give up is a few nights sleep here and there and pretty soon he’ll have a nicer office, a better job and a bigger pay packet. The perks are plenty, the drawbacks few, so he’s prepared to work around them.

In a scene early in the film, he re-organises his diary to accommodate three of the most important executives. He has a cold and needs to use his apartment to recover. So he calls the exec who has the apartment booked in. He agrees to move, but only if he can have the apartment on another night. Problem is, another exec has it then, so Baxter has to call that exec to make sure the night the first exec wants is free. He, however, also wants a night that’s booked. And so on and so on…This cycle continues until finally, Baxter finds a free night and he can at long last get his apartment back. It’s an awful lot to go through to get to sleep in your own bed, but a promotion’s a promotion.

As the film progresses though, Baxter earns the promotion he’s been hoping for and he proves less accommodating to the quartet. The execs come to see him in his office and Baxter stands up to them, quickly refusing to let them use the apartment. They’ve given him what he wants – why help them out anymore? Later in this scene, Sheldrake also asks to use the apartment and Baxter’s mood shifts again. The front he’d shown to the other execs disappears, replaced by the eager-to-please sycophant who’d been so welcoming to the other execs. Sheldrake is the director of Consolidated Life and Baxter knows that it’s him he now needs to impress. So, the only hint of resistance he puts up is a passive-aggressive joke that cements his immorality. “Ya know, you see a girl a couple of times a week, just for laughs, and right away they think you’re gonna divorce your wife,” Sheldrake tells him. “Now I ask you, is that fair?” “No, sir, it’s very unfair,” comes Baxter’s reply. “Especially to your wife.” Baxter knows he’s doing wrong, but does nothing to stop it.

Despite all this, Baxter remains a fundamentally likeable, charming and engaging character. We never turn against him – if anything we root for him. Bad writing? Masterful casting, more like. In his second turn in a Wilder film, Jack Lemmon gives arguably the best performance of his career. Funny, sad and a little frayed around the edges, he imbues in Baxter a central decency that means even as he descends into a moral black hole, there’s something human and sympathetic about him.

Wilder knows on this (why else would he cast Lemmon over the less innocent likes of, say, Tony Curtis or Walter Matthau?) and enhances his lead’s everyman qualities. The first time we see him inside his apartment, he does what all bachelors do. He puts his tea on (a shove-it-in-the-oven, pre-prepared affair) and sits down to watch TV. Grand Hotel is on! But some ads spoil the fun. He flicks over and then back to Grand Hotel. Finally it’s starting…”after these messages from our secondary sponsor”. Baxter turns the TV off and the scene ends.

We’ve all been there, and Wilder’s use of such a scenario is brilliant in its cunning. He wants us to identify with Baxter; he wants us to overlook all his flaws, manipulation and cunning, as we overlook our own. It’s a tactic the director used time and time again during his career and here it produces a characters who is a neat foil to the typical depictions of American everyman masculinity – the type James Stewart portrayed for Frank Capra. Those films are aspirational; they show us how we wish we could be. Wilder’s are a little more realistic; they show us how we really are: flawed, troubled and deeply human.

Disconnection and alienation
The Apartment opens with shots of New York City, but this isn’t Woody Allen’s romantic view of the Big Apple, forever bathed in warming monochrome glow. The city of Wilder’s camera is a plain, rather ugly place shot with a cold and distancing helicopter shot.

Accompanying it is a Baxter monologue, in which our lead tells us who he is and what he does for a living:

“On November 1st, 1959, the population of New York City was 8,042,783. If you laid all these people end to end, figuring an average height of five feet six and a half inches, they would reach from Times Square to the outskirts of Karachi, Pakistan. I know facts like this because I work for an insurance company – Consolidated Life of New York. We’re one of the top five companies in the country. Our home office has 31,259 employees, which is more than the entire population of uhh… Natchez, Mississippi. I work on the 19th floor. Ordinary Policy Department, Premium Accounting Division, Section W, desk number 861.”

Welcome to the world of The Apartment, where people are numbers and everyone knows their place. Yet the fierce regimentation of Wilder’s world doesn’t bring its occupants closer together; it tears them apart. The film touches on many subjects, but its core theme is disconnection and alienation – it is, after all, a film about men who’d rather indulge in cheap affairs and tawdry flings than the love of their wives.

Once Wilder has shown us the city, he introduces us to Baxter in one of the film’s defining images – that of Baxter sitting in an office of endless desks. The long shot and depth of field combine to give the audience a sense of isolation among a massive crowd. We hear his voice, but at this stage, we don’t see Baxter. As he tells Kubelik later in the film, he’s “Robinson Crusoe…shipwrecked among eight million people”.

When Wilder finally introduces us to his character properly, we see him from a low angle that subtly looks up towards him. But our gaze is far from reverent. Wilder is not showing us Baxter from this angle to subjugate us, but to subjugate him. In the distance, we see the ceiling, a suffocating hatch keeping our characters safely locked in, and all around there’s an ocean of people, stifling our lead even more.

Wilder further emphasizes Baxter’s smallness a few scenes later. Having been turfed out of his apartment, we find Baxter trying to find comfort on a park bench – Wilder again employing a heightened depth of field to echo the alienating scope of the office. This scene then dissolves back to the office, where Wilder’s camera tracks from the clock that hangs above the foyer to the masses arriving at the building. Such is the amount of people, the camera has to pluck Baxter out from the crowd. Baxter is just a another person, a number at a desk. “19th floor. Ordinary Policy Department, Premium Accounting Division, Section W, desk number 861.” The film’s drama comes from his struggle to escape this drudgery.

The apartment
Wilder reverses his shooting style to create the world of the apartment, though the effect is similarly isolating. If the office is hellish due to its lack of space, the apartment is nightmarish due to a surplus of it. Wilder shoots many of the scenes in the apartment with big long shots and a heightened depth of field, always keeping the doors of the bedroom and kitchen open so we get a sense of the size of this bachelor pad. Even Baxter’s trip up his building’s stairs is lonely, Wilder laboriously drawing out Lemmon’s steps with a long take rather than cutting directly from one floor to the next.

The takes are similarly long inside, Wilder’s camera dwelling on the characters and their problems. When Baxter’s in there, the lack of edits highlights the emptiness and his loneliness; when Sheldrake and Kubelik are in there it emphasizes the lack of connection between the two. Three characters all connected by their separateness.

The above image also neatly highlights Wilder’s use of blank space. The Apartment represents its characters’ spiritual and moral isolation by placing them off-centre in the frame. This can be seen in the image of Baxter eating that I’ve used at the start of this post and in the images below. These are skewed characters in a skewed world.

The bedroom
As I’ve mentioned, Baxter’s bedroom can be seen in almost every scene based in the apartment. It’s one of Wilder’s most brilliant and subtle visual tricks. He uses it as both a serious statement on society’s warped sexual mores (sex is a universal fact of human existence, yet we avoid talking about it) and a sadly ironic comment on the state of the characters – here is the symbol of emotional and physical connection and the only people who are not using it are the only ones who are connecting in a meaningful way.

This finally changes once Kubelik attempts suicide. At this moment, Baxter and Kubelik’s relationship takes a significant turn – and the film with it. Suddenly, The Apartment (and the apartment) folds into the bedroom. The location that never left the peripheries of the drama, now becomes the centre of it and the rest of the building fades into insignificance. Note in the images below that the apartment beyond the bedroom door is either out of frame or out of focus. For the first time, our concern shouldn’t be with the location, or what it represents, but the people inside it.

In these shots, the framing is comfortable and neat – we’re seeing characters’ faces in cozy medium shots and Wilder is using the standard shot/reverse shot technique to cover the dialogue. Finally, the world has returned to normal. For a time at least.

Business and the individual
Now we come to the secondary theme of The Apartment, as Wilder posits the dream of a successful career against the dream of a happy life. Can you have both and if so which would you choose? Wilder makes it clear that the answer to the first question is no, and doesn’t leave much doubt with regards to the second issue either.

The third act of the film begins with Sheldrake’s wife learning of his affair with Kubelik. She promptly divorces him, leaving him free to, in his own words, “take Kubelik off Baxter’s hands”. After all that’s happened, Baxter, who at this point has realised where his heart truly lies, is alone again. But he won’t be entirely without reward. Sheldrake has made him his assistant – he’s finally earned the kind of position he’s been aiming for since the start of the film. Of course, he no longer wants it and as the news is broken, Wilder uses close-ups to isolate Sheldrake and Baxter, highlighting their new-found separateness.

Sheldrake ushers Baxter into his new office, and the skewed framing returns, with much of the right hand side of the frame filled by emptiness. Sheldrake leaves and the camera slowly moves in on Baxter, trapping him within in. Wilder then brilliantly cuts from Baxter to the notice board in the building’s foyer. Baxter’s name is being added to the roster of executives and Wilder’s dissolve visually traps him within the case. Be careful what you wish for…

Of course, that’s not how the film ends. Baxter rejects the job and decides to find a new life, away from his office and the apartment. Wilder reflects his choice to become, in the words of his neighbour, a “mensch, a human being” with a commanding high-angle shot. He’s finally taken control.

Kubelik does the same, realising Baxter’s feelings for her and shunning Sheldrake on New Year’s Eve to run to Baxter’s apartment. It’s here that Wilder creates one of the most memorable closing shots in movie history. The pair share a bottle of champagne, take a seat and resume the game of gin they had started while Kubelik was recovering from her suicide attempt. “You hear what I said, Miss Kubelik? I absolutely adore you,” says Baxter. “Shut up and deal,” comes the iconic response.

Wilder shoots this final scene with a static camera, perfectly framing the characters in an almost symmetrical two-shot. Gone are the skewed angles and warped morals of earlier scenes, replaced by two characters who have found love and emotional connection in each other. In Wilder films, this is the only victory there is. You can’t change the world – it doesn’t want to be changed and it doesn’t deserve to be – you can only change yourself.

The wonderful romance of The Apartment

Let’s play a game? What do you think my favourite film of all time is? E.T., right? Close Encounters of the Third Kind? Pinocchio or Sleeping Beauty? Something related to Steven Spielberg or Disney, anyway. Yep, that’s probably what you’re thinking. And for good reason too. I go on about them waaaaay too much.

But sadly, you’re wrong because my favourite film is actually Billy Wilder’s The Apartment.

Many years ago, I wrote a thorough analysis of the film, looking at Wilder’s shooting style and the moral centre of the film, and I’ll try to find that in the Wayback Machine and post it to this site. In the meantime though, I just want to write a quick blog to celebrate this wonderful film and what it means to me, because along with Spielberg and Disney films, it never fails to put a smile on my face.

At the centre of The Apartment‘s sheer brilliance is the melancholy tone it takes. It’s under no illusion as to how bad the world can be. The men in the film are disgusting pigs, all of them engaging in affairs with little concern for their wives, their children, or their mistresses. If they’re not cheating, they’re chasing power and status, using whoever and whatever they can to get their way. Even out hero, Bud Baxter (played by the greatest actor ever Jack Lemmon) isn’t immune to this.

And yet, within this cesspit, there’s a bright centre of hope. Baxter is a flawed character, but he’s also a good one. He cares – about being a good person, about doing the right thing, and above all, about the lovely Miss Kubelik (played by the lovely Shirley MacLaine). She, like Baxter, is flawed, and is actually the mistress that Baxter’s boss (a very nasty Fred MacMurray) is cheating on his wife with. Yet there’s an innocence to her – just as there’s an innocence to Baxter. They’re two lost souls trying to find each other in a soulless world.

I think about The Apartment a lot because it’s perhaps the perfect way to look at life. We live in a hard world – bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. There’s no logic, no rhyme or reason. And it’s all too easy to find ourselves drawn into these things – to find ourselves defeated and seduced by it, to be the bad person doing the bad thing.

Yet The Apartment shows that it doesn’t always have to be that way. Because Baxter and Kubelik wake up. They clean themselves of the grime of the world, and in the beautiful final scene, Wilder has Kubelik rushing down the road to Baxter’s apartment ready to start a new life with him.

We are all Kubelik and we are all Baxter. We all have our Kubeliks and we all have our Baxters. And someday, thanks to The Apartment, I believe they’ll be running down the road to make life complete.

A Shyness Update

I’ve written about shyness on this blog before, and I figured it was time for a little update. Partly because I hope that by talking about shyness, other people will talk about shyness as I think it’s something people don’t talk about enough (because, y’know, they’re shy). And partly by way of exorcism. It’s just nice to get it off my chest, y’know.

I’ve been shy all my life. I was one of those kids who’d hide behind my mother’s legs and never answer a question in class despite knowing the answer. The rare occasions I did raise my head above the parapet, I’d get laughed at by the other kids. They didn’t like what I liked, they thought I was ugly, they mocked my voice. It’s probably why I enjoy writing – I have something to say, but I’m afraid to say it, so I write it instead.

My shyness has stopped me from doing many things in life that I’d like to. People on podcasts have asked me to participate, but I’ve politely declined as I’m terrified of speaking. People have asked me to meet up, but I’ve politely declined because I fear they wouldn’t like me. People have asked me my thoughts on things, but I say the bare minimum as I don’t want them to think bad things of me. It’s silly, but it’s the hand I’ve been dealt, and I try to play it as best I can (by setting up blogs, for a start!).

The biggest thing this shyness has denied me is a love life. I turned 32 this year and – as embarrassing as this sounds – have never had a girlfriend. I hope people reading don’t think any less of me because of that. I’d like to think it’s not because I’m not good boyfriend material, it’s just that my shyness makes it so difficult to talk to people, even though – weirdly – I’m much better at talking to women than I am at talking to men. I fear that men will think my love of Disney and my admiration of a lot of geeky female fashion is a bit pathetic. I don’t fear that when talking to women.

I truly don’t know if my love life will improve, as I worry that I’m now past my sell by date: too old for some, too inexperienced for others. But I’m going to keep going. I’m going to some fun events over the next few months (Destination Star Trek, comic cons, and – most excitingly – a preview of Moana with a Q&A by Ron and John!!!!) and am really enjoying writing this blog. I’ve started talking to some wonderful people because of it and those conversations really cheer me up. (I hope you people know who you are).

I’ll keep writing about shyness, but that’s it for now. Thanks for reading 🙂

Scene and Heard #2: Anna’s Frozen Jig

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In Kids Riding Bicycles’ regular series, Scene and Heard, I take a look at great moments in movie music. This feature isn’t just about the particular scene or the music underscoring it, but how the two come together to form a complete whole. In this edition, I run through one of the truly great moments in modern Disney history: Frozen and one of its signature songs.

If you’ve read this blog before, you’ll know I like musicals. That’s because musicals are great and if you’re uncool enough to think they’re not cool, I don’t care. As a hopeless romantic, I totally and shamelessly buy into their vision of love as something so wondrous you’ve simply got to break into song and do a little jig about it. Because honestly, why would you not want to do that if you’ve finally found the joy of romance?

The moment I want to focus on here is a very specific moment of Frozen‘s masterful song ‘For the First Time in Forever’. As I’ve explained before (erm, twice in fact), Frozen is a beautifully unique film that makes some important points about the nature of true love, refusing to dismiss the possibility that true love can exist, but at the same time warning against giving your heart away too easily because true love comes in different forms.

‘For the First Time in Forever’ is at the centre of that. Here we have two characters sharing a duet and communicating the same idea: that they’re both on the brink of experiencing human interaction for the first time in a long time. But the dramatic tension of the song comes from the fact that they have different readings of that experience: Elsa is utterly terrified, while Anna is utterly delighted. In many ways, if ‘Let It Go’ is Elsa’s song, ‘For the First Time in Forever’ is Anna’s.

We hear Anna’s jubilation first of all as she sings about how she could find her true love and how that will make her life perfect. Then we hear from Elsa, who sings of her terror at letting her guard down, being found out, and hurting people. It’s an incredible piece of music for the way it blends those two competing emotions, allowing the audience to understand the characters emotions while also showing how utterly wrong-headed they are in their approach to them.

Part of that is due to the direction. When the sequence is focusing on Anna, there’s a balletic quality to the camera movement. Like with all the truly great musical numbers, we aren’t just watching Anna dance; we’re dancing with her, swinging and sashaying our way through Arendelle like gravity’s something only other people need to worry about. By comparison, Elsa’s scenes are shot with a slow, deliberate pace and steady camera movements, our viewpoint remaining rooted and still, just as Elsa is.

The style creates a sense of desire within the audience. We want these characters to feel happy: we want Anna to find her true love and we want Elsa to be as free as her sister is. And towards the end of the sequence we get a taste of that, as Anna bounds out of the castle, jumping on walls and swinging around poles, before finally, the moment that always delights me happens: Anna dances a jig.

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It’s a small moment, no more than a few seconds long, but it’s important because it captures Anna’s character perfectly. We’re so used to musical numbers being carefully choreographed with little to no room for improvisation, certainly no room for someone to do a little, daft jig. But that’s exactly what Anna does here. She’s walking along, hikes up her skirt a little, and starts jigging along.

It’s the moment in the film where I knew two things: that I was going to love Anna and that I was going to love the film. Because here, we have someone so utterly in love with the idea of being in love, so utterly transcedentally happy at the opportunities she now has in front of her, that she simply can’t contain it. She’s dancing. And when I say that, I don’t mean Dancing Dancing. I mean actually, really dancing. Big, embarrassing, I can’t contain it dancing.

I think about this scene when I feel down. I think about how it made me smile when I first saw Frozen while struggling with anxiety in 2013. I think about how it still makes me smile, even when I linger on the fact that I’m 32 and still, thanks to shyness, haven’t ever had a girlfriend. I think about it because I, to some degree, am Anna: searching for that one wonderful thing that will make me dance a jig. Maybe we all are. And maybe that’s why this moment is so beautifully powerful.

 

Making a Paperman Shirt

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Anyone who follows me on Twitter will know I have a deep, abiding love for the Disney short film, Paperman. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a sweet, lovely tale told in black and white about a bored office worker (George) who meets the girl of his dreams (Meg) on a train platform one blustery morning. The pair part, but when he spots her in the office opposite his, he tries to draw her attention by making and launching paper aeroplanes. Yep, it’s an amazing meet-cute as a short animation, and it’s absolutely magnificent.

In recent months, I’ve been trying to boost my confidence and have decided a good way to do that is by buying some cool t-shirts. As a previous blog explained, I’m a very shy person, but am hoping I can start to feel more comfortable standing out a bit, and maybe start some conversations with likeminded people because of the shirts. Progress on the confidence has been slow so far, but I’ve bought some super-cool shirts that I’m enjoying wearing.

I wanted to buy a Paperman shirt, but sadly I couldn’t find one. So, I decided to make my own by creating a stencil I could use to paint onto a shirt with. As I’m not a t-shirt designer, or artist, in any way shape or form, I wanted to keep things pretty simple. That’s when I came across a piece of Paperman art Disney released for Valentine’s Day 2014, a year after the film had been released with Wreck-It Ralph. It’s a beautiful piece, and it provided a route into what would become my Paperman shirt.

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I didn’t just want to copy this pose, but I loved the line approach the artist had taken, and so wondered if I could transpose it onto a still from the film: namely the one of George and Meg on the train platform. So, I printed the still, got out my craft knife, and started experimenting.

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Initially, I tried cutting out along the light being cast onto the characters, but that didn’t work. While it gave definition to the right side of their bodies (as the right is where the light is coming from), the left side was left completely blank. The result looked a bit weird, so I tried again, this time cutting out lines around the whole body.

It’s important to note that I didn’t simply cut their outline as then I’d just have a sillouhette. Instead, I cut out a stretch of line, then left a space, then cut out a bit more and left a space. I placed the stencil on a piece of paper, painted, and was left with the below.

wp-1474902213015.jpgI was pretty pleased with this, for a first attempt, but I still had George to do, and even on Meg there was room for improvement. The left hand side of her skirt was missing, her hair lacked definition, and her hands seemed to disappear into nothingness. I gave it another go, this time stencilling George too. Same technique applied: cut out the stencil, put on to paper, and paint.

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Despite the paint bleeding, this was an improvement. The bleeding wasn’t a problem (as this was just a test, I hadn’t secured the stencil to the paper, so the paint ran under the stencil), and Meg’s skirt looked a lot better. George came out well too, and attempts to define hair showed improvements. All the other little issues, I knew how to solve, so it was on to making the proper, final stencil.

Before embarking upon this activity, I’d watched tutorials on YouTube, and they all recommended using ‘Freezer Paper’. This isn’t something I’ve encountered before in the UK, but it’s essentially food wrapping paper that’s like regular paper on one side and lightly waxed on the other. The wax is important because that’s what holds the stencil in place. You create the design on the papery side, put the waxy side onto your shirt, and iron, so the wax bonds just enough with the fabric to hold it in place while you paint. In other words: no bleeding!

I bought some Reynolds Freezer Paper from Amazon, placed a little of it over the stencils I’d already created, and started cutting along the lines. This was nerve-wracking as I knew it was for real this time. I took extra caution to get it right, but still took some risks by following my hunches and righting the mistakes of the test runs. I ended up with the below, which I placed over some black card help me more clearly identify where all the lines were.

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Ready to take the plunge, I put the stencil on the shirt, ironed it, and applied the paint. Gulp!

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This is the scary part, because there’s no happy medium. You’ve either created an excellent piece of art, or ruined a perfectly good shirt. What’s it going to be? In this case, I was convinced it was the later. As the lines were so thin and as I was unaccustomed to painting on fabric rather than paper, it didn’t feel like the paint was applying properly to the shirt, so I painted over some lines a few times. Had I done too much? Would the paint bleed because I’d over-painted? There was only one way to find out…

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It actually… worked? It worked?! It actually, really worked?! Some lines are thicker than others sure, and the paint actually bled through the shirt and onto the inside of the back (luckily it’s not visible on the back of the back of the shirt – top tip though: put some paper inside the shirt, beneath where you’re painting), but it worked. It actually looked pretty good!

I left the shirt for the night, pleased with my efforts, but I couldn’t help but feel something was missing. It didn’t quite look complete: Meg and George seemed a little lost in the empty space without something to anchor them. So, I decided to push my luck the next day and create a stencil of the film’s title, written in its distinctive font.

This would be a challenge for two reasons: (1) the font has a handwritten quality that would be hard to reproduce with stencilling (2) the only way to create a stencil of letters with holes in them (a’s and e’s for example) is to keep the part you cut out and put it gently back into place when you come to ironing the stencil on. It was, not to put too fine a point on it, a massive pain in the arse. But once it was cut out and all the teeny tiny pieces carefully put in place, I ironed and painted and held my breath.

And reader… it worked!

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I literally let out a little sigh of relief when the stencil came off and looked good. Better than good, in fact. Fantastic! The text anchored the image and helped frame it in the t-shirt as a whole, making it seem less lost in the empty space. The font itself came through pretty well, not exactly looking handmade, but looking enough like the real font to feel right. I’d taken a risk and somehow it paid off.

I’d considered adding other elements to the shirt, but decided to quit while I was ahead. The shirt looks great as it is, and further tinkering would just complicate what’s a pretty nice, simple design. So, I gave it its first spin while I was in London for the Empire Live Moana and Pixar events, and it held up. No-one spotted the shirt, sadly, but I was happy with how it looked and the paint didn’t crumble or flake. My first t-shirt had been a success, and I’m already planning other designs to try out in the near future.

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To make the shirt, I used the following:

Pixar Shorts at Empire Live

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Following the Moana preview, the second event I attended at Empire magazine’s Empire Live was a screening of all Pixar’s theatrically released shorts. I state theatrically released because sadly this didn’t include shorts released as DVD extras, such as Mike’s New Car, Jack-Jack Attack, and Your Friend the Rat. While it would have been amazing to see these shorts as part of the package (especially the inventive Your Friend the Rat and hilarious Jack-Jack Attack), 17 shorts being shown together theatrically for the first time ever is, y’know, pretty good going really. Kudos to the Empire team for getting them.

If you’ve never watched the Pixar shorts together in one go, I suggest you give it a try because it’s a fascinating insight not only into their development as a studio, but computer animation’s development as a medium. From the necessary minimalism of Luxo Jnr to the photo-realism of Piper (which I saw for the first time as part of this package and which had me blinking in disbelief, wondering if it really was animation), Pixar has repeatedly pushed at the boundaries, creating films that not only look great but draw you into their emotions in a way so many features fail to.

The early films (Luxo Jnr, Red’s Dream, Tin Toy, and Knick-Knack) were all directed by John Lasseter, and show huge visual ambition despite the limitations of the tools available. The baby in Tin Toy, for example, may be rudimentary by today’s standards, but it was a huge leap for computer animation back then. There’s also real thematic meat to these shorts, even if they are just a few minutes long. It’s easy now to think of John Lasseter as an executive, but the focus on small worlds hidden from human eyes seen in these early films pre-empts the same worlds we see in Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, and Cars. Lasseter seems fascinated by the imagination of places and things in the world we see every day but never really see, and he deserves to be studied more closely as a director of great work, rather than simply an over-seer of it.

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Each Pixar short acts, in part, as an animation school because what you’re seeing is directors and animators trying new things. Geri’s Game is a wonderful example. In this charming tale of an old man playing chess with himself, we see a masterclass of character animation as the man acts out his passive and aggressive sides in a thrilling (and funny) duel. For The Birds (a personal favourite) plays on similar ground, pitting a hapless big bird against some nasty smaller ones, while Day and Night (another classic) blends 2D and 3D animation to make a stirring point about our differences and how they make us stronger. Animation is uniquely equipped for such explorations of character, and these shorts play in that area wonderfully well.

Of course, Pixar is always experimenting technically, and that also shows in these shorts. Partly Cloudy shows a mastery of light that still takes my breath away, The Blue Umbrella pushes the envelope on animated realism, and the aforementioned Piper takes that realism to unprecedented levels in both backgrounds and character design. If Piper is anything to go by, pretty soon it’ll be impossible to tell animation from live action, and that’s both thrilling and a little bit terrifying.

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It’s difficult to choose favourites from this wonderful collection, but if I had to pick five they’d be: For the Birds, The Blue Umbrella, Presto, Day and Night and, above all, the utterly incredible La Luna. The latter film blends everything that’s so great about Pixar shorts: staggering beauty, tremendous invention and wordless emotion. These shorts have, for me, become as anticipated as the features they precede, and I hope Pixar (and Disney who produce equally wonderful shorts) continue to celebrate them. They’re incredible pieces of art that live long in the memory.