Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A Short, Of Sorts - Pixar's "George and A.J."

The week of Thanksgiving, with its feasts, visits from friends and relatives, and vacation time for my husband, has left me behind in my writing. I have a film review and a book review in the works, but for now, please enjoy my short comments on this short piece of animation.

Pixar’s George and A.J. was originally available as a special feature for customers who purchased Up through iTunes and has been making the rounds on the internet for about a week now, so perhaps you’ve already seen it. It’s a short cartoon about the two nurses who were supposed to take Up protagonist Carl Fredrickson to the Shady Oaks Retirement Village, only to be thwarted by Carl taking to the skies, house and all. The story shows the impact of Carl’s departure on George, A.J., and the local seniors.

As you may have noticed, this cartoon is pretty different from most of the other Pixar shorts like Partly Cloudy - the short that ran alongside Up in theaters, or Dug’s Special Mission - the short that debuted on the film’s DVD and Blu-ray release. It’s hand-drawn rather than computer animated. There is very little actual animation and no real lip-synch. And the voice cast is different. What’s going on here?

My theory, which a lot of animation fans seem to share, is that this “short” wasn’t really intended as a fully animated short, but an animatic. An animatic, also called a story reel or a Leica reel (after the German camera brand “Leica”), is a version of an animated film, short, TV show, or other project in which the storyboards are filmed and edited together to make a simple “rough draft” version of the final film. A “scratch” dialogue track will usually be recorded as well. This is a temporary version of all the dialogue in the film, usually acted by story artists or other people around the studio. The animatic is useful for showing interested parties how the film is shaping up and for checking to see how the story reads on film. Storyboards on their own can give the filmmakers some idea of what’s working and what isn’t, but an animatic can provide additional insight into how well the various ideas are working without the benefit of the story artist being there to pitch and explain them. Are the characters interesting? Is the story clear and easy to follow? Do the camera angles help to explain the action and emotion of the scene? Does he pacing of each scene work? Do some scenes go on too long or end too quickly? With the help of the animatic, these questions can be answered and chances can be made before the costly and time-consuming process of animation begins.

If George and A.J. is an animatic, it’s a very polished one. Most animatics are not in color, except for some special cases, such as when they are being used to pitch the idea to studio higher-ups. Computers have made it easier to depict important movements in animatics, allowing artists to move characters and objects around over a background or even create simple animations – usually just two or three drawings, without having to redraw the entire scene. Even so, George and A.J. features a lot more detailed motion than the average animatic, such as the way George and A.J.’s car tilts slightly as it comes to a stop or the motion graphics that lead in to the news story about Carl’s great escape. While I don’t know for certain, I suspect that some version of this animatic was used to pitch the idea for a short, but never got approved for full animation. Then when a bonus feature was needed for the iTunes release of Up, the animatic was pulled out, possibly reworked a little, and presented as a short cartoon.


Why wasn’t George and A.J. made into a fully animated short? I don’t really know. One possible reason is that the characters were thought to be too obscure. George and A.J. have just one brief scene in Up, while Dug – who stars in the short that was made for the film’s home release - is a very important character, as well as the most merchandised one from the film. It’s not clear whether George and A.J. would have been hand-drawn or computer animated had it been made as a full-fledged short. If computer animation was the ultimate goal, then maybe it would have been too expensive. Dug’s Special Mission uses existing character models and sets from Up. While some of the characters, props, and sets in George and A.J. could have been reused from up, the reporter, the various old folks, their houses, the cat lady’s cats, and all of their various methods of escape would have to be designed and built, costing both additional money and additional time that may not have been available. The Wikipedia article about the short points out a couple of inconsistencies between the short and the movie, though none of them are so crucial to the plot of the short that they could not have been altered. There could be any number of reasons why the short didn’t get further along in production, and unless Pixar decides to tell us, we may never know.

So now that we have an idea of why George and A.J. looks the way it does, the remaining question is “Does it hold up?” Can the appeal of the story and characters overcome the lack of Ed Asner and full animation? I think so. I really like the idea of Carl’s example inspiring other seniors to figure out ways to make their homes mobile and take off. It may not be very profound or even the best short Pixar has ever produced, but it has enough fun ideas to fill out its allotted time. My one wish is that there was some kind of clip of the director before the short explaining why it looks the way it does. I can make an educated guess, but I can’t help but worry that some people might be led to believe that Pixar just doesn’t know how to do hand-drawn animation or that this is an example of what it looks like when they “use their computers” to make traditional animation. That one gripe aside, George and A.J. is worth a look. It’s both and entertaining short film and an interesting look into one part of the animation process.

All images in this article are copyright Disney/Pixar.

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