Artist behind the character designs for every Pixar feature from ‘Monsters, Inc.’ through the forthcoming ‘Toy Story 4’ steps into a new role for the studio’s 14th Oscar-nominated animated short film.
Helmed by veteran animator and first-time director Dave Mullins and produced by Dana Murray, LOU is the 14th short film from Pixar Animation Studios to receive a nomination for an Academy Award. The computer animated short is up against Glen Keane’s 2D Dear Basketball, MoPA’s Garden Party, the stop-motion Negative Space, and Magic Light Pictures’ Revolting Rhymes. The heartwarming film, which premiered at last year’s SXSW fest and played in theaters ahead of Cars 3 this past summer, tells the story of a schoolyard bully who learns a lesson from an invisible creature that lives in the school’s lost and found box. It’s gorgeously rendered in Pixar’s signature fantastically detailed style that verges on the hyperreal.
Albert Lozano, who served as production designer on LOU, has been with Pixar since 1999, contributing character designs for all of the studio’s features beginning with Monsters Inc., and continuing through 2016’s Oscar-winning Inside Out as well as the forthcoming Toy Story 4. Tackling LOU meant taking on a new role for Lozano, who for the first time would be overseeing the entire production, shepherding designs developed with Mullins through to the film’s completion. “The way I describe the job is, you try and get things back on track if they veer off,” Lozano says. “But,” he adds, “that usually doesn’t happen. The job gets pretty easy when you work with so many talented people. I’m there just to watch over things and make Dave, the director, feel comfortable that things are looking good and will look great on screen.”
Coming off his work as character art director on Pixar’s Inside Out, Lozano joined LOU in the early stages of development. Mullins had already been working on the film for a number of years, generating a considerable number of drawings as well as an actual physical version of the title character. According to Lozano, “Dave had been working on LOU for many years before I came on board. He had done a bunch of artwork himself, and had made a makeshift version of Lou, cobbled together using as many found items as he could, just like it is in the short. He had a lot of ideas about the short as far as what it should look like, what the characters should look like and how it should feel, so that made my job pretty easy as far as exploration.”
However, Lozano realized that despite Mullins’ concept and design development efforts, the character of Lou required considerably more work and would be the film’s greatest challenge. He explains, “I understood this upfront. When Dave asked me to work on the short, I was in the middle of my vacation. Dave’s enthusiasm drew me out of my vacation. But what also drew me out and made me excited was the challenge of the character Lou. I realized right off the bat that was going be the largest creative and technical challenge…that character.”
By design, as a character, Lou needed to change constantly. “There was no model sheet for Lou,” Lozano notes. “Usually, when you work on a character, you have a look. You create this model sheet for the character that shows what it has to look like all the way through. But, the whole idea of Lou was that he was going to change constantly. So, the challenge was to make it still feel like the character of Lou, whatever that meant, and look like Lou, even though it was going to change into multiple forms throughout the short.”
The film’s biggest challenge was figuring out how to animate a constantly changing character made from a number of shifting schoolyard items, including cloth. “When Dave was convincing me to come on board, he shared that when he pitched the studio, one of the things that led to a greenlight was the fact that this film not only would challenge the technical team but the animators as well. Cloth is always one of the main challenges on our films. Having a character made of cloth, moving around, with multiple items as well that run into the cloth and affect it, was going the be the technical team’s biggest challenge…just keeping track of all those elements needed to form together and make a character. Ultimately, you don’t want the audience to even think about it or realize how challenging it all was to create.”
In an animated film, there is a cost for every pixel on the screen -- narrative, design and technical considerations are constantly prioritized as to what elements, in the director’s vision, the film can, and can’t, do without. For Lou, a big struggle was figuring out how many, and what type, of items were feasible for the team to create and animate, given the film’s budget and schedule. According to Lozano, “Dave had specific ideas about what Lou should be. We had tons of ideas and a lot of sketches. There were a lot of meetings, a lot of back and forth. But, it really came down to negotiations…conversations back and forth with the technical team as far as what objects would be really difficult and which ones would only be hard. Of course, we compromised here and there.”
Mullins, like all directors, was open to a certain amount of compromise. But not on everything. “There were some things that Dave was adamant about keeping,” Lozano adds, “The slinky was one. That stretchy wire piece, I remember that one specifically. That was an issue for the technical team, of course. ‘Does it really have to stretch and move?’ Dave was like, ‘Yes it was really going to have to stretch and move.’ So, for every ‘win’ on what we were going to use, we tried to back off on other objects that were going to be too difficult to do. Ultimately, everyone, hopefully, is happy at the end of the negotiations. Our first test with the character gave us the results we were after. So, we were happy, and then everyone of course was happy when we saw it starting to come together and work.”
Working together with the director, Lozano helped determine which elements had to stay and which could be eliminated from the character’s design. He describes, “There was a point when we had to ask ourselves a very hard question: ‘If you have to lose all the objects and you’re left with only three or four, what would they be?’ The eyes were the most important thing. So, the baseball-softball combination with the buttons, that was definitely off the table, it was non-negotiable. And the red sweatshirt as well. We actually liked the idea of the red sweatshirt. In fact, if you look closely, there really isn’t another red object on the playground or anywhere in the short because we wanted you to have your eye immediately attracted to that red sweatshirt. So, the things that were non-negotiable were the two softballs and the red hoodie. Everything else was negotiable.”
Mullins also included a baseball glove and a football, which actually made animating the cloth of the hoodie a bit easier. “Dave was really excited to have the baseball glove in there,” says Lozano. “He really wanted a football in there as well, because his dad loved football. At the end of the dedication to his father, he wanted to make sure the football was included. The football actually helped because it was a large object that could push the shape of the hoodie around. Basically, larger, rounder, softer objects were better than small, sharp ones with a lot of angles. That worked out in our favor because we really were hoping to keep the football.”
For the film’s overall tone and style, Lozano drew inspiration from animation going back 50-70 years. He explains, “Because most of the film was about the character Lou, we were looking at a lot of classical animation done on cloth. From the 1940s to the 1960s. We weren’t looking for anything too technical, rigid or limited. So, we didn’t look at too many examples from Disney cartoons. I do remember looking at the sequence when Cinderella’s dress is being assembled. But, we looked at more cartoony stuff from Looney Tunes as well as some of the Disney cartoons for examples of cloth being brought to life without anything inside it.”
Taking the job as LOU’s production designer meant Lozano took responsibility for a new set of tasks, which required him to focus on areas outside his usual role on Pixar films. “The essence of production design,” he notes, “is looking at everything, not just the characters. This is the first time I’ve been asked to do something like that. My focus has mostly been characters since Up, so I had to work on sets again as well as a little bit with lighting and simulation. It was fun because even though I had done a lot of set work, graphics and other things before settling into characters back in 2007, I had to brush up and figure out my perspective drawing and do a lot of set drawings and exploration beforehand. It was different having to do a little bit of everything. That was fun. Challenging, but also a lot of fun.”
As far as artist tools, Lozano shares that every project is different, and he will use what’s best at that moment. “It’s funny,” he says, “because right now I’m working on Toy Story 4 and I’m working almost completely on the iPad. That’s because it’s what’s best for this particular project and the way I’m working. But on Inside Out, I didn’t even touch anything digital. I would always draw with paper, pencil, with watercolors…I even did paper sculpts. It felt appropriate not using anything digital on Inside Out for that kind of exploration. But, with Toy Story 4, we’re using tons of assets and characters we already know. So, most of my work is digital because it’s a lot of manipulation based around a world that everyone is familiar with. It’s [the tool] dependent on the production.”
He concludes, “As an artist, I would always prefer just to draw with pencil and paper or watercolor…use traditional media. But, again, I’ve learned not to make that a hard rule. In fact, I use whatever is necessary for the storytelling. I find what medium feels right as I’m developing and working through a project. Of course, for my first sketches, I usually put pencil on paper.”