Saturday 15 September 2012

Interview: Mark Walsh, Pixarian and Partysaurus Rex Director

Today, I had the opportunity to interview Pixar's Mark Walsh, the director of the latest Toy Story Toon, Partysaurus Rex! Partysaurus Rex is showing now in America, alongside Finding Nemo 3D - although they don't arrive here until March (unless you can attend the VIEW Conference that is). However, I was able to watch the short online, via a secure link, just prior to our interview, and it's great (I'll post a quick review later)! I've loved all of the Toy Story Toons, but this is definitely the most original one yet.

Thanks of the highest magnitude, again, should also go to Pixar's PR king, Chris Wiggum, for setting the interview up!

Mark is a lovely, down-to-Earth guy, who went out of his way to ask me about my own life; and his enthusiasm and zeal for the characters and the short was abundant. In our conversation, visible after the jump break, Mark and I discuss his inspirations for the short, basing it around Rex, his other work for Pixar, working with Pixar Canada, Finding Nemo 3D, the future and more!

A113Animation: Right, first of all, you’ve just finished directing the third Toy Story Toon: Partysaurus Rex which is, as of today, in America, showing in front of Finding Nemo 3D! How’s that been?

Mark Walsh: Oh, it feels amazing. It’s been two years making the movie, and I’m now finally getting to watch audiences watch the movie and see their reactions, and enjoy the entertainment they get out of it.

A113: Right, so: great short, Chris [Wiggum] sent me the link earlier, and I got to watch it, it’s brilliant – very, very, very funny! It’s… it’s a very different Toy Story film, isn’t it? It’s essentially a Toy Story rave.
MW: Yeah. Yeah, Rex is such a sweet – he’s my favourite character from the Toy Story movies – and he’s such a sweet character. I mean, I started working at Pixar because of Toy Story 1; I worked on Toy Story 2 and 3. I didn’t set out to do something that drastically different, I just wanted to put Rex in a fun situation; because he’s so meek, I imagined that he would want to, maybe, try to break out of that. And putting him in a situation like, where if you moved to a new town, or go to a new school, or maybe have a new chance to make a first impression, he might try to put on a persona that was what he wanted himself to be, rather than who he was; I thought that could be entertaining. And, to make that entertaining, the even more outside of his comfort zone we put him, the funnier it got. And it was John Lasseter that suggested we get, this electronic-dance music artist, BT, to do the music, he had worked with him before on the Cars short [Tokyo Mater]. And BT is just, you know, he goes and he plays for hundreds and thousands of kids just like this really thumping dance music. And as soon as we started with that, we thought ‘oh wow, well we have to have the imagery match the music’, and before we knew it we were creating a complete rave. So, it’s not what we set out to do, but I think, because it’s such a left turn for the Toy Story world, I think that’s what makes it surprising fun.

A113: Yeah, because, I think it does take a lot of people by surprise, and that adds to, like you say, the whole humour of it. And obviously the music, by BT, is great, but, just juxtaposed against the fact that this is Toy Story, and you’ve got all these bright colours and all this partying, in a bath, it’s…
MW: Yeah, it’s probably not a direction we’ll take in future shorts for Toy Story, that crazy Toy Story world. But that’s the fun thing about these shorts, is that they are a place to, like, experiment a little bit, and push the world and explore the characters a bit more. And we all, we love the characters here – Toy Story is like our Mickey Mouse here at Pixar – you know, we all really want to see more of these characters, and explore, and we think these shorts are a great way to do that. So… yeah, it’s a weird one!

[Both laugh]

MW: But hopefully it’s in a way that expands the universe a little bit. Because, you pick up a toy and you look at it, it’s just a toy, but you think, you know, what would happen when I walk away and close the door, when the thing comes to life? What is life like for this guy? The world of Toy Story becomes endless when you think about it like that, there’s so many things lying around.

MW: I started in animation working at a special effects company back before there were computers, and everything was models and stuff. I was 15, and I was just getting coffee and making Xeroxes for people, you know, at this company called DreamQuest images. And from there on, I went back to school and started working my way through school, and – well, if you know what you’re interested in, why waste time?

A113: Yeah, exactly!
MW: You like journalism, and you like film and you like all that stuff. Yeah, follow it, that’s great!

A recording session with the voice of Woody, Tom Hanks, and (L-R) Mark Walsh, Short Fry director Angus MacLane and Toy Story 3 supervising animator Bobby Podesta.

A113: Thank you very much! And, yeah, you were saying it’s a very different short, but it’s been getting a great reception as well; like Hawaiian Vacation and Small Fry also got. But some people are saying this is the best Toy Story Toon yet, and I think it’s because this is so much its own thing, whereas Hawaiian Vacation and Small Fry, maybe just – they were both great, but this is, like you say, experimenting with what’s possible with the characters and with the format.
MW: Yeah, I think there’re a lot of things colliding here, some that are intentional, and some that are unintentional. The music seems to be really hitting with people, that it seems like an audience, an age group, that hasn’t been reached out to yet, with the Toy Story world. I mean, when we were recording voices for Partysaurus, we had a young man that came in and he read for the little froggy sponge that covers drains, his name is Andy Fisher-Price (his real last name is Fisher-Price!) and Andy said ‘oh, it’s so great to work for Pixar again.’ I said, ‘oh, what have you done for us before?’ And he said ‘oh, I was one of the kids in Finding Nemo.’ And I realised, that was like, ten years ago, practically, nine years ago!

A113: I remember, I was watching the John Carter Blu Ray the other week, with the commentary, and Andrew Stanton said the guy, I forget his name, who plays Edgar Rice Burroughs in that; he voiced one of the kids in Finding Nemo as well. But he didn’t realise that until he cast him in John Carter.
MW: Oh yeah, from – I think that’s the little guy – from the Spy Kids movies, yeah. So it’s weird that there’s like, I think for Toy Story, one thing we saw was that, with Toy Story 3, there was a big response from young people in college, because they had grown up with the Toy Story movies. For us it just seems like it was a year ago. But, outside of Pixar, yeah, I realise ‘wow, yeah, that was about a decade or more’. So I think, sort of what Partysaurus Rex seems to be hitting on, I think, is that he’s doing what his audience is doing, it’s like you’re all grown up, you’re at college, but your teddy bear is going to go with you out to party. I think it’s a kind of a wacky idea, it embraces young adulthood, and it embraces your childhood at the same time. I think, also, something that’s really important to me in the stuff that I make is having emotion, and I think that one thing I feel really good about in Partysaurus – the feedback I’ve gotten was good – is that you feel bad for Rex, and really understand that predicament of wanting to impress people, even though it’s not really who you are, putting on that show, having that… it never works. It might work for a little while, but it always backfires on you; the real you is who you are, we can try to expand ourselves a little bit, but, we all know what it’s like to push beyond that little bit and try to seem cooler than we are. And I think that’s the identifiable part of the whole thing, so beyond the music and the colours, I think that’s something that people really get.

A113: Mm, I think it was nice – after the very melancholy, definitely sad, end of Toy Story 3 – it’s nice to show that the toys, it’s not the end for them, they can still have fun without Andy. It’s a nice, happy ending for them.
MW: But it’s bittersweet, yeah. Well the fun thing about this new kid, Bonnie, the character that they’ve been left with – Andy was their owner, but now he’s given the toys away to Bonnie – whose a young kid, she’s in preschool, the way that John Lasseter and Lee Unkrich had designed Bonnie, in Toy Story 3, is that she’s a very creative child, she’s a very imaginative child. So that gives us a lot of fun, a lot of things to play with, like, I originally wanted to show Bonnie having a great time in the bath, to introduce the bathtub toys, and then we realised, well, maybe she’ll be playing Godzilla, or something, with Rex. And we originally had storyboarded that, with, you know, shooting it covered in suds, playing with her toys in the bath, and we realised, Bonnie’s such a creative kid, why don’t we look at this from her point of view, that’s where that sequence came in, were Rex was a real Godzilla, and we had a real rubber ducky, and a real boat with Captain Smog, all that kind of stuff came from her imagination. It’s a really… having a different order creates kind of a different circumstance for the toys to play in, filmically, they can play with a lot of different things, to make it more exciting. So I feel like the world is opening up in a lot of new ways; we still have the same characters, all of the original actors from the Toy Story movies are in Partysaurus Rex, which we’re really lucky to have, so it’s still grounded in Toy Story, but I feel like the world is expanding in a really interesting way now.

A113: Yeah, definitely! And I look forward definitely to the TV specials coming up, and for the next Toy Story Toons.
MW: Well, from your lips to God’s ears, let’s hope that we see more. We’re working on some fun things for the future, so we’ll see how it goes. I hope I can talk to you again about something new that we’re making.

A113: I would absolutely love that! As you said, you worked on Toy Story 2, and Toy Story 3, and given that, and knowing how important the franchise is to Pixar, and to the audience, did you feel a lot of pressure?
MW: Erm, yes and no. I mean, these are all characters that we all love here, I mean they really are like our family, like children, there’s a lot of respect here within the studio, from me and from everyone else working on it, so I feel like there’s nothing – you know, Pixar is set up in such a way that John Lasseter works with directors, like myself, and will try to pull the best out of the film, but also the best out of them. John really helped me find what was personal about Partysaurus Rex; he helped me find what was entertaining about Partysaurus Rex, and helped me put more of myself in the movie. It’s a really amazing gift that he has, and, because there’s so many great directors here, that take a look at what we do: Andrew Stanton and John Lasseter and Lee Unkrich, and, you know, there are so many guards against doing something dumb.

[Both laugh]

MW: And nobody will let anything dumb ever happen with the Toy Story characters, because, again, we love them so much. And so, I feel like it’s a great place, for me the shorts are a great place, to try new things, explore the characters, but I feel safe that – even if I’ve pushed it too far – that the guardians of the franchise, they’re the guardians of our quality bar here at Pixar, are also looking at it, and if I overstep, they’ll tell me, and if they have a great idea to push it, they’ll tell me as well. So I feel like, yeah, there’s pressure to make something that’s good, with all the Pixar stuff, but I didn’t feel any extra pressure because it was Toy Story, we have a pretty high pressure bar for everything that we do here. [laughs] Everyone’s always worried that their film will be the one that everyone hates.

[Both laugh]

A113: I don’t think there’s any chance of that anytime soon.
MW: Well let’s hope not! I mean, people associate quality with the Pixar name, and you want to live up to that. It took two years to make this six and a half minutes, and there’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears in that two years, on my part, on our editor, and our team in Canada – we worked with Pixar Canada, that’s our sister studio, two hour’s flight north in Canada. You know, they have as much – that is an interesting company too, because most everybody there is under 35, there are only 70 people at that studio, which is smaller than Emeryville’s whole animation department, their entire studio is smaller than our animation department. They are very much like Pixar was in the mid-1990s when we made Toy Story and A Bug’s Life, and they’ve got a lot of really great energy up there, because so many of them are young I think they really dug into Partysaurus, because it’s aimed at a younger crowd, as far as, when I say younger, I mean like a young adult crowd, since most everybody up there is a young adult, I think they really went nuts over it, and you can see it in the movie.

A113: Mm. So, did you envision and create the story at the Emeryville campus then? Then was the animation done at Pixar Canada?
MW: Yeah, the story development and the artwork design was all done here at Emeryville. Our editor was Axel Geddes, who’s worked on… oh, he’s been here as long as I’ve been here, since Bug’s Life. Bob Pauley, who was the art director on A Bug’s Life, and on Monsters, Inc., and on Toy Story 3, he was our art director. It’s been neat for me, because, coming up through the ranks here at Pixar, a lot of the people that I got to work with on Partysaurus, as partners, were gods to me, when I was just animating, you know, people like Bob Pauley, people I just idolised, and to be lucky enough to have them collaborating with me on this project was really cool for me. It’s kind of like meeting your heroes, and it was a really great experience. A lot of the times when you meet your heroes it’s disappointing, not, though, with the people here. It is really amazing, the whole way up to the very top, how much everyone really cares about the characters and the quality here. I know people say that a lot, but it is – having been through it now, as a director – it is absolutely true, never once did I have anybody, ever, at the studio, want to sell out any kind of line, or any kind of gag, or any of our characters, there is such a respect here for them, for the work.

A113: And that’s always a great, refreshing thing to see. And have you, after working on the Toy Story Toon, have you any desire to maybe direct another Toy Story Toon?
MW: Like I say, I hope so. We’ve got things that we’re developing, we’ll see what happens, I can’t say more than that. But if they enjoyed Partysaurus, then, you know, write a letter.

[Both laugh]

MW: No, I’m just, right now, I’m focused on – we are tossing around some new things, for different ideas – right now our focus is on, for me, is on Partysaurus, I want to see, I want to hear, how people react to the movie. It’s been such a solitary experience without a real audience, and for me now, when they play the movie, I guess I don’t watch the film as I like to watch people watching it, because I’ve been without audience for so long, it’s really gratifying to see people laugh in the right places, or they laugh at places I didn’t expect, or reverse, they don’t laugh at places I thought they would, it happens a couple of places, it’s such a learning experience. So right now I’m just really excited about getting the word out, I want people to go see the movie with Finding Nemo again, it’s a beautiful film, I think it’s probably one of our very best, our most emotional, it holds up really beautifully. I worked on it for three, four years, as a directing animator, and I hadn’t seen it until recently, I went to see the premiere in Los Angeles, and I was blown away, I forgot about all the work that we had put into it, I forgot about how emotional it was, I was getting teary, just like I had been nine years ago. It was amazing to me. And I worked on it! So, if there’s anyone who should be jaded by it, it’s me.

A113: Yeah, because, especially given that you worked on Nemo, but also knowing how huge it is, it must have been a huge honour to have Partysaurus Rex paired with Nemo 3D.
MW: Yeah, I mean, Andrew Stanton, who’s the director of Finding Nemo, he is just an idol of mine. I think that he is one of the gutsiest directors in animation today, and when you see Finding Nemo, I think, it sinks in how many really gutsy choices he makes filmically, and story-wise, and emotionally in Finding Nemo. And working on Nemo was, probably, up until Partysaurus Rex, was my favourite professional experience, I loved the movie, I loved the character of Dory, she was the character I specialised in, I love that character, I love the voice, I love Ellen DeGeneres, I really loved working on that movie. So yeah, when we started working on Partysaurus, we didn’t where it would it would be, we didn’t know if it was just going to be for television or what, and when the opportunity for Finding Nemo came up, John Lasseter really pushed that this would be a great partner for Finding Nemo, and I have been over the moon ever since. There was a lot of extra work at Pixar Canada, to meet the deadline. And I think with the water, in both films, it’s nice to see a Toy Story film against something Finding Nemo, its classic Pixar. And I think technologically, Partysaurus looks really pretty, and in 3D it looks really killer, especially if you see it in a theatre with the 7.1 surround sound mix, we’ve actually mixed the music by BT to be swirling around you at times like a tornado, it’s like you’re in the club. And it’s a really great theatrical experience to see them both together.

A113: And finally, I’ll just ask one quick question, the one I ask everyone: what’s your favourite animated film?
MW: My favourite animated film of all time?

A113: Yeah.
MW: Beauty and the Beast. Followed by Pinocchio. But, yes, Beauty and the Beast, very emotional.

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