At the Egyptian Theater in the heart of Hollywood, Pixar Animation’s Doug Sweetland gave a fascinating and fun talk about the evolution of his short “Presto.” The short was announced on March 9, 2007…but wasn’t approved until Sept. 27, after having been pitched 10 times with a total of 3,000 storyboards.
Sweetland’s talk, which he has been presenting at a handful of animation festivals, tells the torturous tale of how he evolved the storyline for “Presto” before “the brain trust” at Pixar gave it a greenlight. “I thought that because I’d been animating for 12 years that I’d do well with storytelling because I’d been around it for so long,” he lamented.
To set-up why it wasn’t an easy switch from animator to storyteller, Sweetland described the typical day of an animator as a series of iterations in a linear progression. “You start broad and become more detailed as you go,” he says. When he decided to pitch a story, he thought he could establish “given circumstances,” keep the direction local and maintain a linear progression.
He turned out to be wrong on all three accounts (“Story editors are usually laughing by now,” he conceded.) He initially pitched the story of a sympathetic magician who gets dumped by his stage rabbit and plucks a rabbit off the street in his act. The rabbit has to overcome stagefright and saves the magician’s act by pulling him out of a hat.
Anyone who’s seen “Presto” knows that the final story is completely different. Sweetland said the only note he got from his initial pitch was: “It’s too long for a short-and have the magician stay on stage.” “In animation, one note means it’s almost done,” he recalls. But keeping the magician on stage opened up dozens of other questions that threatened the entire storyline. “For the first few months, I struggled to answer these questions while I kept the circumstances the same: the magician is a nice guy, the rabbit is a strangerâ€¦and none of this worked,” he says. “One note completely dismantled my story.”
“They never said, we donâ€™t like the bunny or the nice magician,” he adds. “So Iâ€™m pitching a broken story over and over again.” Then he received my first break through advice from Andrew Stanton: “Just draw it. It takes 5 minutes.” “Which is to say: There are no given circumstances,” says Sweetland. “If your story doesnâ€™t work, you have no given circumstances. Story isnâ€™t a linear process, itâ€™s a search. So, goodbye linear process, hello trial and error.”
With storyboards by Justin Wright, Val LaPointe, Ted Mathot and Sweetland, he focused on vaudeville as a framing device. Still no reaction from the brain trust. Then he tried building up the audience, featuring personalities in the crowd. “Oops, that’s not story,” said Sweetland of this dead end.
After trying on and tossing out what seemed like dozens of ideas, Sweetland realized: “It needs to be simpler: The rabbit just wants the carrot.” Still, he tried gags with hats, gags with rabbit ears. “No reaction from the brain trust,” he says. “That doesn’t make it into the cartoon either.”
“Every single time we pitched, I’d go in thinking weâ€™d nail it, and weâ€™d go out without a single laugh.” Then he got his second piece of good advice, from Bob Peterson, head of story for “Finding Nemo: It should work without the hats. “Itâ€™s a conversation between two characters,” said Sweetland. “The set-up is who wants what and why canâ€™t they get it. Hat tricks or anything else only have meaning based on that conversation.
He altered his priorities and the story became: 1. Rabbit wants a carrot. 2. Magician is the obstacle to the carrot. 3. Hats are a fulcrum for back and forth conversation. 4)The audience applauds whatever comes out of the hat. “Lastly, vaudeville,” says Sweetland. “I love vaudeville and we did a lot of research. But vaudeville just becomesâ€¦the setting.”
With this storyboarded, he went into his 10th and last “brain trust” review, certain he’d bomb and the story would be canned. “Finally, the rains came after the longest drought in my life,” he says. “The brain trust laughed. What finally dawned on me is that in animation each part has to be as simple as possible.”
“Then why couldn’t the brain trust just tell me the answers?” he says. “It’s because the right answers have no value in and of themselves. They require context, which means they have to be worked over and over to find the right answers. My really bad gallery of tragically oblivious brushes with greatness actually DID make it in the story â€“ in different ways and in bits and pieces. All the times I thought we were failing, we were actually successfully searching, and wouldnâ€™t have found that if we didnâ€™t throw them away and keep searching.”
This is why story notes from the brain trust canâ€™t provide an entire solution, he concludes. “It turns out that animation is the exact opposite of storytelling,” he says. “Animation is a performance process, based on given circumstances or â€œmaterialâ€ because something exists before the actor gets it. Then you get a systematic attack. Throwing away means youâ€™re moving backwards.
“Story is a discovery process, in search for the whole,” he concludes. “There are no given circumstances. The attack is free-form, and throwing away means youâ€™re moving forward. Production is only linear because story is so free-form.”
The actual production of “Presto” was easier than the pitch process. “Iâ€™d never lit, modeled, painted or set dressed,” says Sweetland. “The bad news is story is hard. But the good news is story is everything a director needs. Every department is an instrument of storytelling.” His guiding principle for directing was to see “Presto” as a series of jokes, which he defined as “an unforeseeable twist to a set-up.” How to deliver a joke became central. “The punchline contains a contrast between broad text and dry delivery,” he says.
“We try for the same contrast, but visually,” he continues. “Shading. by Glenn Kim, painter is normally immersive but understated. But itâ€™s also a punchline factory. We pushed shading to make it broader, for example making the magicianâ€™s face darker, redder, paler.”
Lay-out, with Mark Sanford as camera lead, tended to be more dry. “The camera is the guy telling the joke, so donâ€™t step on your own punchline,” says Sweetland. “We rarely moved the camera and when we did, we tried to move it minimally as possible.”
In the animation, with Andrew Gordon as supervising animator, Sweetland tried to have elements of broad and restrained humor. “We looked at shot-by-shot,” he says. “The rabbitâ€™s movements are very dry, very simple â€“ delivering a broad punchline with minimalism. If there was a direction we pushed our animators, it was to not animate broadly. We werenâ€™t going for realism, but an arch style of acting that depended on minimalism.”
He also noted that comedy requires a tempo. “Naturalistic behavior doesnâ€™t have a steady beat,” he says. “Here, the timing became completely mechanical which is a form of delivery.” Lighting supervisor Jesse Holland designed a color map for the short. “Lighting puts across the emotional punchline,” says Sweetland, who pointed to the end scene, which finds Presto and the rabbit in a haze of environmental dust and sparkle from the stars and moon set pieces that have crashed down.
Sweetland reveals he animated the scene of Presto landing like a ballerina. “That was my gift to myself for sticking with the story throughout it,” he says.