I have been a fan of PIXAR Animation Studios for as long as I can remember, and one of my favourite elements continues to be the theatrical short films released before their full length motion pictures. The tradition started before PIXAR Studios even existed, while the founding fathers were still working for Lucasfilm, and was a way for them to test the limits of 3D computer animation. The first 5 of these tests would be screened at the Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques (SIGGRAPH) in Minnesota and would push the boundaries of their field, while the rest would accompany their theatrical features. While these full length films were important, they were primarily a way for PIXAR Studios to make money while they focused on innovation and advancing the art of 3D animation. Instead of ranking them in quality, I have opted to go through them in release order, because as far as I’m concerned, they are all as important as each other.
The Adventures of Andre and Wally B. (1984)
Created by the animators, led by John Lasseter, who would later found PIXAR Studios while still working for Lucasfilm, this short film is a mere 2 minutes and length but tells a complete story. The titular Andre has awoken from his nap to find the bumblebee Wally B inches from his face, and flees the scene before he is caught off screen as Wally floats back through the frame with a crooked stinger. At the time, it was revolutionary with its use of 3D tear drops, dotted tree leaves, motion blur and manipulatable shapes. The charm is completed by a classical music composition.
Luxo Jr. (1986)
Perhaps the most famous of all the PIXAR Shorts, and the first to be made at the studio, this short is also two minutes long. It features a large desk lamp watching a small desk lamp as they play with and eventually puncture a ball, which is then replaced by a larger ball. Without dialogue or faces, the short manages to provide both lamps with personality and emotion, which was groundbreaking at the time. John Lassester would later tell how he expected questions about the shadowing algorithm (which is superb) but was asked about the gender of the lamps. They have none. The film was rendered on the Pixar Image Computer which gave the company its name.
Red’s Dream (1987)
Clocking in at 4 minutes, this was the biggest project PIXAR Studios had developed so far. It tells the story of a discounted unicycle in a bike shop as he dreams of being in a circus act with a juggling clown. It was a character driven piece with a gloomy undertone and John Lasseter would later refer to it as PIXAR’s Blue Period. The impressive technical aspects are in the juggling, the rain and the price tag that hangs from Red. Of all the shorts, this one seems to be mostly forgotten but it is just as good, and as much of a testament to the company, as the rest of them.
Tin Toy (1988)
Created at a time when the Pixar Imaging Computer wasn’t selling so well, this needed to be monumental- and it was. It was this very short that would gain the attention of the Walt Disney Company, who would provide the funding for PIXAR Studios to create Toy Story. Clocking in at a staggering 5 minutes, this tells the story of a Tin Toy Soldier as he attempts to avoid being picked up by a baby named Billy. This one has possibly aged the most as it features the first 3D animated person, and the living room is noticeably scarce, but that gives it a certain charm. Of particular note are the PIXAR logo on the gift bag and the photo in the photo frame, which is clearly just a genuine photo that has been imported. Despite how it has aged, this is still a marvel of animation and one of my favourites.
Knick Knack (1989)
You most likely haven’t seen the original render of this short, because it was only ever sold to the public via the VHS and Laserdisc copies of Tiny Toy Stories. What you are familiar with is the 2003 re-render that was released to theatres. Either way, it’s a lot of fun. It follows a snowman in a snowglobe as he attempts to break out to be with an attractive woman who is part of the “Sunny Miami” ornament. The slapstick in this short and the simplistic designs really help this one to stand the test of time, and the score is one of the catchiest things I’ve ever heard. The original is available online, should you choose to go looking for it, but be aware it involves larger female appendages than the 2003 re-render.
Geri’s Game (1997)
I know this is the one I’ve seen the most, but it holds a very special place in my heart because of that. It tells of a pensioner in the park playing a dramatic game of chess with himself. It’s particularly noteworthy as the first short to be released in a theatre and the first with the current PIXAR Studios logo. It also marks the second short with a human character, although this one holds up considerably better than Billy. Lastly is the personality of Geri himself who might be one of the most likable characters ever created, despite never saying a word. If you’re a theatre student, or just a fan of acting in general, I feel like you could learn a lot from Geri’s performance.
For the Birds (2000)
We have reached the point where none of these shorts age because of the choice in animation style. Here we find a group of small birds sitting on a phone line before they are joined by a large bird that they dislike. What stands out the most are the details on the birds, like their individual feathers and the scratches on their beaks, and the annoyance in their eyes. Also, the sound effects in this one are just fantastic and the squeaks of the birds themselves may sound familiar to fans of Toy Story.
Another major achievement for PIXAR Animation Studios and another one of my favourites. A sheep who adores his coat enough to dance about in it, is is shorn leaving him to be mocked by all the other sheep. Through a great American Jackalope, he is taught the benefits that come with being lighter like being able to bound high. This is the first short with dialogue and it was chosen to be a musical number that teaches a great message about self acceptance.
One Man Band (2005)
The first short to feature multiple human characters, with two men competing musically for an old woman’s coin. The background in this one is especially beautiful and is only topped by the musical score. There’s joy, determination, rage and fear, which are all demonstrated in the sublime facial expressions and the beautiful music. It’s perhaps at its best in the quiet moment near the end, and in the comedy contained therein.
This is the only time that PIXAR Studios have done aliens, and that only amplifies the uniqueness of this short. A young alien in training attempts to abduct a human from their house using a control board with hundreds of switches and chaos ensues. I love how simple it is, using only what it needs to in order to tell its story. It also has some stellar use of motion blur, demonstrating just how far animation has come
As somebody who grew up with Tom & Jerry, The Looney Tunes, and Knick Knack, the tone of this short is super familiar to me. The often energetic animation, the comedic timing and the slapstick would be right at home with those classic cartoons. It tells of a magicians rabbit who makes the magician’s show difficult because he won’t give him a carrot. Unlike other shorts, there is no score throughout as many of the audio is sound effects. I love this one.
Partly Cloudy (2009)
Now that PIXAR Studios is well established and has an excellent grasp of animation, they’re really starting to experiment through their shorts. Here we focus on a cloud who creates ferocious baby animals for a living and the exhausted stork who has to deliver them. There is so much going on, like the fluffiness of the clouds, the feathers on the storks, the lightning effects and the fading sunlight. It also happens to accompany a wonderfully simple story.
Day & Night (2010)
This is another one of my favourites. It features the characters of Night and Day who each have a centre that acts as a window into their namesakes. It progresses as they demonstrate the advantages of each timezone from fireflies to sunbathing women. All the sounds are ones that you would organically find in nature like ducks, wolves, and frogs while the score is a mixture of classical music and an original jazz composition. Particularly interesting is how the short uses 2D for the characters of Night and Day while their centres are 3D.
La Luna (2011)
This is, by far, the most adorable of the PIXAR Theatrical Shorts. A small boy, his father, and his grandfather sweep shooting stars across the surface of the moon to change the shape of its glow. The father and grandfather are both different from each other, and the boy isn’t sure who he wants to be like, before deciding just to be himself. The entire story is told through facial expressions and vocal noises and the haunting score but its the stylistic animation that sets it apart.
The Blue Umbrella (2013)
A blue umbrella falls in love with a red umbrella and the foundations and buildings of the city work to bring them back together. It is the very first story centred on romance in this collection and that makes it special, which is helped by the lovely score. The biggest achievement is the animation, which is darn close to realistic and really set the course for PIXAR Studio’s animation going forward.
Another tale of romance but, this time, between two volcanoes modelled on Hawaiin singers Kuana Torres Kahele and Nāpua Greig who provided their voices. This is the second use of dialogue in one of these shorts, and once again it is used to provide a stellar song that tugs at the heart strings. This is also the most story based, choosing not to focus primarily on the animation, but it is still worth every second of its 7 minute runtime
Sanjay’s Super Team (2015)
The mostly true story of Sanjay is an important one the history of PIXAR’s diversity and follows the titular child as he daydreams about the Hindu Gods while bored during his father’s prayer. During his daydream, he perceives them as the superheroes in his favourite show and uses this as a way to bond with his father. The daydream itself also has a really nice, comic book style look to it but it’s how much this story means to the real life Sanjay, and the millions of other Hindus, that really make it important.
A reluctant baby bird traverses the dangers of the beach for the first time in search of food in a story that is just as adorable as it sounds. All of this would have been impossible for a computer to do 20 years prior but now the particles of sand and texture of the water seem like an absolute breeze. The score and sound design match perfectly while Piper herself is filled with infectious enthusiasm.
An amalgamation of Lost and Found items in a school playground known as Lou encounters and befriends a young bully who eventually helps return all the items in the box. The way that all these items interact with one and other is fascinating to watch and the story is as delightful as you would expect.
This would sadly be the last of the theatrical shorts, but it would also be one of their best. A Chinese-Canadian mother makes a steamed bun that comes to life and she decides to raise as her child. The eventual plot twist is an emotional gut punch that was worthy of the Academy Award it won, as is the animation and score. If it wasn’t already clear, diversity and representation is something that matters to the folks over at PIXAR Studios and we can only hope they are all as beautifully told as Bao
PIXAR Animation Studios would cease the creation of Theatrical Shorts with the release of Bao in 2018 but this does not mean that the PIXAR Shorts are no more. It was felt that instead of giving limiting the Studio to working on one short at a time, they would be better having multiple shorts on the go at once. These PIXAR Shorts have always been led by a sole creator who was relatively new to the company and that continues to be the case today with the Sparkshots Programme. These shorts would be released on the PIXAR Studios YouTube channel before migrating to the streaming service Disney+. They are continuing a long standing tradition and are definitely worth a look.
Until Next Time…