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Nordling Goes To Pixar Part 1! CARS 2! TOY STORY'S HAWAIIAN VACATION!

Nordling here.

Sometimes life hands you something amazing at very little notice.  I had no idea when I woke up Wednesday morning what the next two days would entail, but I'm quite certain that going to Pixar Studios and Skywalker Ranch and meeting John Lasseter never crossed my mind.  But I've found that since I started writing for AICN events tend to happen like that - with very little notice.

It's common knowledge about how I feel about Pixar Studios.  Their films have reached a pop culture significance - you know, when you're sitting down to a Pixar film, that the filmmakers didn't cut corners or didn't take care in the development of their story.  Pixar equals quality in my eyes.  I haven't seen one Pixar film that I didn't love.  There are degrees of love, of course, and every Pixar film hits everyone differently.  THE INCREDIBLES and FINDING NEMO are masterpieces, and TOY STORY 2 is one of the most poignant films about what it means to be a parent ever made.  But everyone has their favorite.

John Lasseter, Brad Bird, Andrew Stanton, Joe Ranft, Pete Docter, Lee Unkrich - these guys have created a legacy that will stand the test of time.  But they didn't do it alone.  The hundreds of animators that helped bring their visions to life, the teams of artists, screenwriters, and producers that make up Pixar all came from humble beginnings.  Pixar itself was simply known as The Graphics Group at the beginning, and the studio really began to coalesce as something to be watched when Lasseter designed the famous Stained Glass Knight in YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES.  Lasseter began to see the potential for this new technology to tell stories, to break the boundaries of what animation could do, and when "Tin Toy" became the first computer-animated short to win the Oscar, it was inevitable.  Now Pixar is synonymous with quality family programming, and their success has raised the level of other studios as well.  Films like RANGO, KUNG FU PANDA, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON - they're as good as they are because Pixar's rising tides of excellence lifted all boats.

Not to get too much into a history lesson, here.  I was sitting at work on Wednesday when an email from Mr. Beaks came across my inbox.  It seemed that there was a Pixar press event for CARS 2 taking place the very next day, and Beaks couldn't go.  I normally don't do the heavy lifting when it comes to the set reports, or interviews.  Beaks, Quint, Capone - that's normally their area.  Not that I haven't interviewed people before, but those guys are far better at it than I am.  So I fully expected one of the other guys to scoop it up.  I'm not very experienced at how this works.

But it became obvious fairly quickly that the other guys couldn't go either, citing prior commitments.  Now my heart began to race a bit.  Go to Pixar Studios, see some CARS 2 footage, go to Skywalker Ranch, and interview John Lasseter?  Fly out to California, where I've never been, and drive out to Marin County and meet one of my personal heroes, and go to the place that helped define much of my movie-going childhood?  I didn't think it would be possible.  I'd have to do some rearranging in my life to make sure it happened, because I'd be a fool to pass up the opportunity to see two of the places that have created the films that I love so very much.

This was going to be tricky.  Wednesday was my 15th wedding anniversary, and I already had plans for Thursday night, when we were going out to a nice dinner and a movie.  Also, I have a second job, and I'd have to clear it with them to just take off the next couple of days to indulge my geek whims.  Disney and Pixar would be flying me out there to show me the footage, the studio, and have me do the interview - full disclosure - so moneywise, this wouldn't be a problem, but I wasn't sure how my wife would take it if I flew to California without her, especially to San Francisco, where she'd always wanted to go.  I'd be going alone, without family.  My daughter is also a huge Pixar fan - the first film I took her to see was TOY STORY 2 - so I felt pretty guilty about all of it.  Thankfully my boss was good about me going, so that hurdle cleared.  Then my wife, who knew that these things don't happen every day, was very understanding about the whole thing and I was good to go, with the explicit promise of souvenirs for her and my daughter.  The next morning, Thursday, I was off to the airport and to infinity and beyond.

I had a layover in Las Vegas, and seeing as my second flight was late, I had a little time to hang around the terminal, when I came across this:

Now, I'm not a religious person, but I know a sign when I see one.  So I said what the hell, sat down, and threw in five bucks.  Next thing I know I've won $10 and I had the sense to quit while I was ahead.  I took the $10 and bought me lunch.  I figured George Lucas paid for my food that day.  Thanks for the burrito, George!

I was running very late, so I would be going straight to Emeryville from the airport.  The car drove me through Oakland until I reached these hallowed gates:

It felt a little surreal as we pulled through.  I half-expected to see Gene Wilder walk out with his cane and do a roll right there in front of the main building.  So after being dropped off, I make my way to the front lobby:

This was to my right, all the awards Pixar had won through the years.  It was impressive, a wall of glory:

Woody and Buzz, all decked up in Lego, greeted me as I walked in:

I was there with a few other journalists, including some ladies from Italy.  Today we would be touring the studio and seeing 30 minutes of CARS 2.  The woman who took us on the tour was Adrienne Ranft, Joe Ranft's sister-in-law, whose husband worked there as a sculptor.  She was a wonderful host as she showed us around the inner workings of Pixar's main building.  We had to rush the tour a bit as we were behind schedule, but I was able to catch some photos of a few things I saw.  Granted, I can't show you everything I saw, but there were places I was allowed to take pictures:

For Pixar, story is king.  Joe Ranft, who to this day still influences much of what Pixar does although he's passed away, knew that better than practically everyone.  Even now, characters he imagined and ideas that he came up with are still being used.  Finn McMissile, the character Michael Caine plays in CARS 2, came from his mind.  

Many of the storyboards in THE INCREDIBLES use color to convey mood, tone, and emotion.  The drab surroundings of Bob's office, the bright colors of his heroic deeds, the warmer tones all helped Brad Bird sell his story and vision.  Here's more INCREDIBLES:

Here's NEMO:

Here's the Luxo lamp and ball out in front.  The ball is as big as a person:

I also saw the Render Farm, with towers of computer processors.  I could just see the power in that room - probably more computer power than almost anywhere else in the world.

I won't deny it - the things I saw overwhelmed me.  This is a place where art and creativity reign supreme.  The building itself was designed for everyone to collaborate and share.  Even the location of the bathrooms was significant in that - John Lasseter insisted that the bathrooms be away from the offices, to force the animators and creative crew to at least interact with each other in the lobby.  Outside I saw Pixar employees exercising and walking in the beautiful Emeryville day.  I think part of the reason for Pixar's creative success is that feel of camaraderie and family that Lasseter has encouraged.

After the tour was over, we made our way to the Pixar Theater.  We relinquished our cell phones and cameras for security, and sat down in the 230 seat auditorium. We would be seeing the Pixar short "Hawaiian Vacation" that would open in front of CARS 2 and then the first 8 minutes of reel 1 of CARS 2 and then an additional 20 minutes of reel 3.  The seats were plush, the screen huge, and as the lights dimmed, we heard the sound of crickets come over the theater and then the ceiling lit up like Van Gogh's Starry Night, with shooting stars and colors.  If they wanted to impress with the power of that theater, well, they did.  It's a gorgeous theater and I wish major multiplexes took care of their own theaters half as well.  The animated scenes we'd be seeing were in 3D.

I'm on record as being fairly ambivalent about 3D.  I think the glasses we get in theaters dim the screen too much.  Not these, though.  If every theater had these glasses, made of lenses that didn't dim the screen in any way, I think people would be happy to see everything in 3D.  The image was crisp and bright with no degradation, and I was wearing glasses on top of my other glasses.  Just superb 3D in every way imaginable, and I doubt even Roger Ebert would complain too much about the set-up that Pixar Theater has.  I can't get into spoilers too much, but I will talk about my reaction to what I saw.  First, "Hawaiian Vacation":

I adored this new TOY STORY short, which has all the original voices back from TOY STORY 3.  Bonnie is heading to Hawaii, and Ken and Barbie think to stow away from Sunnyside in her backpack, in hopes of making the trip with her.  When they realize that Bonnie isn't taking her backpack with her on her vacation, the other toys try to make it up to Barbie and Ken by throwing their own vacation in Bonnie's room.  It's cute, funny, and Michael Keaton's Ken is kinda awesome in it.  I'm not too keen on any more sequels with these characters, as I thought TOY STORY 3 ended their journey nicely, but little snippets of fun like this are fine by me.  I think people will laugh quite a bit at this one.

Then, the reels of CARS 2:

Call it THE BOURNE CHASSIS.  I don't want to get too heavy into spoiler territory, but CARS 2 is definitely not the original film.  As soon as the film opens, we're in an action film.  Lasseter has taken the characters of the original film and put them, essentially, into an old fashioned spy film.  Michael Caine plays new character Finn McMissile, and I can tell right away that he's going to be a popular one with the kids.  Heck, with the adults as well.  He's decked with gadgetry, and during the opening as he tries to infiltrate the offshore oil well of Professor Z (Thomas Kretschmann) to discover his dastardly plan, he's helped in reconnaissance by Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer).  Simply put, Caine is wonderful, and he plays Finn as the ultimate tough guy car he is.  I'd see a movie with Finn McMissile alone.  But Finn gets himself into a tight spot, and soon it looks like Professor Z's plans may come to fruition.  Who will be able to stop him?

Then we cut to reel 3, as Lightning McQueen prepares to race in the World Cup in Tokyo.  The film is much larger in scope than the previous film, and as Mater (Larry The Cable Guy) gets himself into one tight spot after another, Lasseter intercuts between the race and Mater's adventure as he tries to get away from the Lemon Squad (Professor Z's goons, made up of, you guessed it, lemon cars like the Pacer and the Gremlin).  Bruce Campbell is a Mustang involved with the events, and Mater gets in a fight with a Japanese bathroom stall.  It's all very fun and enjoyable.

Kids will enjoy Mater and his antics, but older adults may find him grating.  He's funny, but that character just wasn't written with me in mind.  I did enjoy Mater wrestling with the bathroom, confused by the cryptic Japanese button system.  There's a sweetness to the character that people will respond to.  But the action in the film is extremely well done, with riveting escapes, lots of high tech gadgetry in the CARS universe, and Michael Caine running the gamut from his very own GET CARTER to James Bond.  He's extremely effective.  Also effective is Emily Mortimer as Holley Shiftwell, who plays a strong female role, a role that I think young girls will appreciate.  Of course we get The Bruce as a spy operative Mustang, and at first I didn't recognize his voice, but he's his usual awesome self here.  CARS 2 had an abundance of characters, new and old, and Lasseter is trying for something bigger in scale than the original.  I was impressed that these characters and this film were able to make that genre leap so effortlessly. 

Visually, CARS 2, from the scenes that I saw, has a completely different look from the original film.  I described it as "Jolly Ranchers for the eyes" because the colors pop so much here.  In the Tokyo sequence we get the race, the busy streets, and everything looks alive and well conceived.  I haven't seen the finished film, but people who complained that the original CARS was too slow can't really complain here as there's a lot going on.  CARS 2 isn't a mere sequel to the first; it transplants the characters into a completely different kind of film, and I think, for the most part, it works very well.

Once the screening was finished, we made our way back to the hotel.  The next day would be more time at Pixar and with the animators, some presentations on CARS 2, and then the trip to Marin County, Skywalker Ranch, and the sit-down with Mr. John Lasseter himself, including a little bit on forthcoming Pixar productions like BRAVE and MONSTERS UNIVERSITY.  For me, it was all very overwhelming and amazing, and I'll share my Lasseter interview, meeting a geek icon, and more of my experiences on Friday.

Nordling, out!

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