Cooper Hewitt exhibition peeks into beloved Pixar’s design process

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The Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum resides along the Upper East Side’s Museum Mile. At this time of the year, the museum is strewn with emblematic posters, artsy, reflective surfaces and hanging Pixar graphics with short clips and simulations.

Perhaps the most interesting exhibition offered by the museum is Pixar: The Design of Story. Coupled with informational graphics that detail arbitrary animation processes with interactive elements, the exhibit allowed visitors to practice their hand at various animation techniques. Childhood nostalgia overwhelmed the exhibition upon entrance.

The exhibition did not receive as many visitors as anticipated, but the substantially low number—two total visitors at the time—could be attributed to the fact that it was a late Monday afternoon, a couple of hours before closing time.

The highlight of the exhibition must have been one of the interactive components. On a table in the center of the exhibition floor lay blank sheets. The rectangular table seated six but surprisingly, only the two people who made up the population of the exhibition inhabited the table. Its polished wooden slabs were adorned with instructions and cheerful Pixar doodles. Instructions called for visitors to either express an emotion through a spontaneously generated character or draw a continuous squiggle and reimagine a character out of its contours, depending on which side of the vast table the visitor occupied.

Both were equally amusing exercises, ones that challenged and broke the boundaries of an individual’s creativity. A video demonstration accompanied the written and sketched-out instructions. The video depicted an artist who began drawing smooth, horizontal squiggles on a blank page. After a pause, the artist’s momentary lapse to envision and think, the artist created a hula dancer. In other attempts, that same squiggle also assumed the form of a rabbit or a man catching a cat.

So superb and imaginative were these creations, yet so difficult were they to emulate. Despite pausing to “imagine” the extensions of the squiggle that would expectantly elongate into an original cartoon, it was difficult to operate under the pretenses of the lack of necessary skills. Pixar artists and graphic designers are immensely talented in their abilities to extrapolate complex images from basic lines and shapes.

Another daring facet of the exhibition was stationed in an isolated room that echoed low murmurs as one neared its entrance. In the room streamed Pixar’s 1986 short film, Luxo Jr., which lasted what seemed like barely two minutes. In the animation, two lamps—the obvious height difference giving the implication that one was a parent and the other a child—stood side-by-side.

The “baby” lamp rolled a ball around until it popped under its stance, an action that was met with a prolonged head shake from the parent. To resolve the issue, the baby lamp rolled out a bigger ball that would not flatten under its stance.

Directly opposite the animation hung detailed drawings and explanations of how the animation came into existence. Upon first entering the exhibition, the layout seemed like it was intended for prospective visitors to first navigate the exhibitions by the walls and learn the processes behind Pixar’s animations. But other facets of the exhibition drew more eyes. The most striking details of the graphics highlighted the progression of the animations in the studio. The cyclical process—consisting of research, collaboration and iteration—sought to create appeal, story and believability, which have become known as the three basic pillars of all Pixar films.

It called to mind the competitive nature that exists not only between Pixar and other animation studios but more notably within Pixar itself. Pixar always seems like it is trying to top itself with each new animation that it releases. The gravity with which the producers take each film showcases the desire to advance. The research panel exposed a behind-the-scenes look at the inspiration behind Cars, the movie; a scattered group of about 20 individuals shuffled through a desert in Texas alongside the Cadillac Ranch. Granted, Cars might be a poor example to illustrate the talent employed by Pixar producers. But the movie does demonstrate the fervor with which the producers operate.

Many other favorites such as Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Up and more recently, Inside Out, have topped movie charts and fully demonstrated Pixar’s capability as a serious animation studio. Pixar’s methods to achieve appeal, story and believability incorporate emotion, beautifully illustrated scenes and highly likeable characters. Criticism of Pixar comes from all angles, but the most common ones emphasize the lack of strong, central female characters, a notion that Pixar is attempting to change with the release of films like Brave and Inside Out.

It helps immensely that the Cooper Hewitt provides all visitors with an interactive pen that saves any work in the museum to a personal online archive accessed only with a unique code that can be found on the ticket given to you upon entrance. The potential to save the individual works and be able to reference them outside of the exhibition instilled a certain peace of mind, the feeling that the animations and experience would wither away or become unfamiliar subsided slightly.

Although the exhibition as a whole was enjoyable and reminiscent of childhood memories, the best part of it was feeling like one of the producers. Being given a chance to liven thoughts is only synonymous with a dream come true.