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.
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.
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.