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Pixar Canada Launches with 'Air Mater'

Bill Desowitz came away with info about Air Mater and Small Fry at his recent trip to Pixar's new studio in Vancouver.

Air Mater launches Pixar Canada's mission to produce supporting material for the studio's established franchises.

This week saw the release of Air Mater, the latest in the brand of "Cars Toons: Mater's Tall Tales." However, Air Mater is different: it's not only part of the Cars 2 Blu-ray/DVD set from Disney Home Ent., but also the first legacy project from Pixar's new startup in Vancouver.

That's right, after 25 years, Pixar has decided to feed off its prestigious legacy by creating a satellite studio in Canada, taking advantage of the tax breaks and talent pool. They will concentrate on shorts, beginning with the Cars and Toy Story franchises (the second short is the upcoming Small Fry that will open in front of Disney's The Muppets on Nov. 23).

In fact, I got to visit Pixar Canada a few weeks ago, located in a renovated building still under construction in the Gastown district of Vancouver. Unlike the more suburban headquarters in Emeryville, however, this one is very much in keeping with the local vibe. Decorated with Eames-style furnishings to highlight the office's gorgeous seaside views, the design also incorporates the indigenous flavor, such as the use of locally sourced cedar wood.

Air Mater also sets up the upcoming release of the direct-to-home entertainment Cars spinoff Planes.

Boasting a staff of 75 (a nice mix of veteran animators and recent graduates from Sheridan and other prestigious schools in the region), Pixar Canada is run by VP/general manager Amir Nasrabadi (formerly with Disney), creative director Dylan Brown (a long-time Pixar supervising animator) and CTO Darwyn Peachey (another Pixar vet).

Indeed, cutting their teeth on Air Mater while getting used to the Pixar way has been very challenging, especially with the inconvenience of a building under construction. So, how do you transfer 25 years of Pixar legacy? According to Brown, you lead by example but also remain flexible (assigning a control articulator to do a digital matte painting to fill a sudden hole).

In Air Mater, the folksy tow truck imagines that he's an ace aviator, which meant retrofitting him with plane gear (the same for Lightning McQueen). This entailed some nifty animation challenges to get the look just right. Director Rob Gibbs, who started helming the Mater shorts when John Lasseter hopped onto Cars 2, says it was a matter of trial and error to get the right fit. At one point, Mater looked too much like a plane, and Lasseter suggested they pull back the design to make him look more like a tow truck.

Mater is a character ripe for short comic adventures.

"They are metal so the animators here had to find a balance of not over animating too much, so we had a learning curve to go through with some of the new animators," Gibbs suggests. "They wanted to take Mater all over the place. And it got a lot smoother. He might even be less expressive than in the previous shorts."

Not surprisingly, the upcoming Small Fry, part of the "Toy Story Toon" brand, is very different from Hawaiian Vacation. Rather than trying to cram as many characters into a fast and furious short, this one is more character-driven. Directed by Angus MacLane (BURN•E), Small Fry is about Buzz getting left behind at a fast food joint when Bonnie accidentally takes home the meal toy version. Brown says it's an exercise in pacing and riffing on the wonderful cheap quality of toys.

"I think each film is a new challenge to hit a certain quality bar but also to take a step back and evaluate after each one," he adds. "Shorts bring a new level of interest and refresh your bucket, if you will. For us, we will get smarter about how we use our technology and more savvy as artists."

Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and editor of VFXWorld. He has a new blog, Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com), and is currently writing a book about the evolution of James Bond from Connery to Craig, scheduled for publication next year, which is the 50th anniversary of the franchise.

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