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Newton, Reher and Wellins Talk Disney and Pixar Shorts

The directors and producer of Day & Night and Tick Tock Tale discuss how small films really are big at their studios.

The joy of discovery became the theme of Day & Night. Images courtesy of Disney/Pixar.

Check out the Day & Night clip and exclusive 3-D tests at AWNtv!

Check out the exclusive Tick Tock Tale clip at AWNTV!

When most people think Walt Disney Animation or Pixar, their minds quickly jump to their favorite animated features.  Even though animated shorts may not be first and foremost on people’s minds, they continue to thrive at both studios, produced within an artistic and creative incubator where ideas are hatched and nurtured alongside new production methodologies, problem solving techniques and artistic development.  The production of animated shorts is a strategic commitment, a crucial part of feature film development for years to come.  

At this year’s Ottawa International Animation Festival, I was able to sit down and talk with Teddy Newton, director of Pixar’s latest short, Day & Night, Kevin Reher, the film’s producer and one of the key development executives for all Pixar shorts, as well as Dean Wellins, director of Disney’s latest short, Tick Tock Tale.   We spoke at length about their own experiences developing their respective films, the role of shorts at both Disney and Pixar, how shorts get made and what value they bring to each organization. 

From left to right, Dean Wellins, Teddy Newton and Kevin Reher. Image courtesy of Dan Sarto.

Dan Sarto: First of all thank you. I appreciate you guys making the time to talk with me. I have some specific questions for each of you about your films, but I think people will be interested as well in learning about the broader impact of short films at Disney and Pixar, a little bit more strategic discussion about the value, the benefit, the plan, the strategy for shorts.

Teddy [Newton], can you tell us a little bit about the genesis of the story [for Day & Night]?  I know that from previous discussions with short film directors at Pixar, there are different ways in which these films come about. How did your film come to get made?

Teddy Newton: Well, I had pitched some shorts in the past at Pixar and had actually boarded them so thoroughly that I thought it was a sure thing. It was like, “This is it.” You can see the whole thing as it’s going to come out.  And that actually worked against me in a lot of ways.  What happened was that I was developing it with a small group of people that didn’t include John [Lasseter].  Once he became involved, it was like it was all done and he didn’t feel a part of what this pitch was. So the next time Kevin said you should pitch another short, by this point I was saying, “Nah, I don’t think they want to do my kind of humor, there’s something missing there, it’s not going to happen.” But he just kept on me.  He kept on me to the point that I said, “Well, OK, I’ll come up with something.”  At the time, they were doing some 3D experiments, trying to make these 3D movies happen and I thought, “I have this one idea that’s kind of like a cutout but it’s sort of a negative space cutout of a keyhole as a character.” I decided not to flesh it out any more than just a few ideas around the concept. And that’s how I pitched it.  It wasn’t a complete story, it was just a lot of concepts we could do with this effect. There was a test as well.

Kevin Reher: There is an underground network at Pixar.  You find a TD who’s got some time, and all of a sudden there’s a test on this short of how it could look. And that sold John right there.

TN: Sure, that was it. So then we started developing it from there.  I got a sense of what John really liked about it.  He saw certain drawings, especially when Day and Night were interested in one another’s world.  He said, “You should play that up” and that was the thing that kind of got me thinking about what the story could be.  That’s basically where it started.  I kept flushing out more ideas around how the characters got excited about each other’s world until I finally had a story.

KR: Pulling back a little bit and getting to your original question, we tend to target people who might be the right creative mix to do a short.  So, we go out to story artists, we go out to animators, we go out to certain people…do you have a short, would you like to pitch a short? Because John is so busy with Cars [Cars 2], we do this thing we call the Shorts Board, which is Pete Docter, Pete Sohn and Bob Peterson – [this is] the group of guys we get to see the first pass of the shorts. Once they get past that, then they get to John.  At Pixar, we tend to target people.  If the barista has a great idea, we’d probably see it. [everyone laughs] I don’t know whether or not we’d produce it! We ultimately want shorts to be a training ground for potential feature directors or heads of story. 

DS: I think that plays into your history of shorts, testing people, trying new things, giving individuals the opportunity to be at the helm of a film.

KR: They may not get to be a feature director and we may not be looking to them to become a feature director, but at least we develop a stream of people who want to stretch those muscles. [talking to Dean Wellins] Is that how you guys do it at Disney?

Dean Wellins: We have sort of like a face-off, where you just start punching on each other until only one is standing. [everyone laughs] Ours now seems specifically like it really is your step towards your feature.  Mine was very much like you need to do something to learn the 3-D pipeline because your next film is going to be a 3-D film.  I had an idea already but I felt I needed to do something that really went through the 3-D process all the way to shot finaling.  Mine [my short] was really seen not as an avant-garde piece but mostly to teach me the process.

The clock evolved from a funny sound to the hat going up and down to the pants falling down.

KR: One of our shorts was actually [made] to show a producer how to produce one of our films.  We’d hired a producer from outside of Pixar, so this was his way of learning how our pipeline works compared to an effects house [where he’d been], so that he could adapt it to his feature.

DS: Going back to the genesis of your film and the initial idea for the story, was the final visual close to what you envisioned.  Do you think story first, do you think visual style first, do those go hand in hand right from the beginning?

DW: For this [film] it was hand in hand. As I was story boarding it, I did a big viz-dev digital painting of the clockmaker sitting in his shop with all his clocks surrounding him.  It had that sort of semi-photorealistic look with a little bit of pushed animation style.  For my presentation, I had that painting, and we go, “Yep, that’s pretty much what we want, that’s the idea.”  I put it up on the wall and John went up to it and said, “If it looks like this, then we’re doing it.”  Because he just loved the painting. He said, “I want this to happen just like this.” So the style of the film ended up just like I had intended.

DS: Was there any thinking that historically, Disney shorts, unlike Pixar shorts, have had fewer inanimate objects as main characters? Doesn’t that seem more like a Pixar thing? Was that ever a consideration?

DW: No. This was just something personal.  I just love that sort of thing.  For me, I just find when you have something inanimate, it’s going to lead to a lot of pantomime.  I just think a lot of creativity comes about when you’re really hamstrung…you have all these parameters.  Once we got into it, the clock itself, I figured, “Well, this will be a big challenge trying to get acting out of something that is pretty inanimate.”  An example is Charlie Chaplin with no head. He has no facial expression…this is really hard to communicate.  It was difficult.  Initially, I had these two keyholes in the clock’s face and I thought maybe at least I can use that, make them as little eyes.  John was like, “No, I don’t want anything like that. I want it to be just a flat face.”

I went in thinking, “Oh, this will be a really fun challenge” and I came out scratching my head thinking, “Oh my god, this is really hard to get across, the story points, how he’s feeling!”

DS: There was an article some time ago on the Time Magazine website about why parents cry at Pixar films.  One of the theories at Pixar was that because inanimate objects aren’t real people, they have no emotional back story.  So, the audience can take ownership of what the character is going through and create their own emotional connection.  When you make a film like Day & Night, or Tick Tock Tale, obviously you’re thinking about how people are going to watch it, but do you think about what people’s emotional experience and response will be as they watch? Does this in turn impact how you write or design the film?

TN: Yah, I hope so, I hope it comes through.  You always want it to come through. Usually, the way I normally draw, I will get a very specific expression and sometimes I’ll draw it over and over to know if it’s funny or not.  That’s usually a place where I start.  Is this making me laugh, is it appealing, is it cute? There are so many things that can go wrong, where it looks ugly or alienating because the eyes aren’t just right.  I’m always thinking about those kinds of things, as far as the how will someone else look at this. I remember when we did Violet for The Incredibles and at one point we were thinking, “Oh Tim Burton, we’ll do a Tim Burton thing, we’ll make the eyes pinpricks.” And it just had no appeal to it compared to the other characters.  It didn’t have that warmth you’d want.  That’s where I start with anything.  It’s the eyes… knowing that connects directly to whomever is watching it.

DW: I had no eyes.

TN: [laughs] Yah, he had no eyes, he had it much harder.

It started as eyes on a keyhole and evolved into a stylistic innovation.

DS: Kevin, what are some of the main philosophical underpinnings guiding shorts production at Pixar?  There is certainly a history, with John himself obviously, but strategically, why do you produce shorts? What are some of the things they bring directly to Pixar, whether they have any appeal to anyone else?

KR: For us, you said it before.  John believes in the short form.  He feels it’s a lost art and it’s a great chance for directors who might not get a chance at a feature, to direct something, to have ownership over something.  The technical challenges of the last two films, clouds that talk in Partly Cloudy and Night & Day, making the movie four times…because we did the day, we did the night, we did it in 3-D and cg at day, we did it cg at night, those were tremendous challenges. [Teddy laughs]  It’s funny, the new film we’re finishing production on now, which will be attached to Brave in 2012, it’s three characters and two sets, and man, how easy it is.  It’s different, there’re no gags…”

DW: There’re no clocks.

KR: [Laughing] It’s beautiful, it’s lyrical, it’s very different from all the other ones. It’s amazing how easy it can be when you just have 3 characters and 2 sets.

TN:  It’s funny because I thought ours was just going to be the simplest, mostly because I draw so simply.  And I was hanging it all on that.  But that had nothing to do with it.

DS: Watching your film, you see the obvious cg elements, but it’s not obvious how much cg there really is. The 2D piece of it makes it seem less complicated than a full cg film.

A 3-D test for figuring out framing and depth.

A 3-D test for figuring out framing and depth.

TN: Absolutely.  That’s what they told us when we started.  [everyone laughs] That’s how I thought it would be. 

DW: 20 years from now you’re just going to forget all that hard stuff and you’ll say, “That was easy. All those characters, that was awesome.”

KR: The animators who we drafted to do 2D at Pixar, we had to go find them.  It [Day & Night] was the hardest thing they’ve ever done and probably the most satisfying…though they’re glad it’s over. They look at it and say they’re so proud of the work they did on it.

TN: It’s almost like an actor who is used to doing movies and suddenly they do live television.  It’s like a different world. They’d done drawn animation, but not in 10 years.  So they were not accustomed to it any more.

DS: Were they happy to embrace it?

TN: I’d say some were.  This is what happened.  Either they were people who were excited and wanted to work on this movie, or they were people who were excited but were afraid of this movie and didn’t want any part of it. And then there were people who didn’t think any of those things and then got scared once they got involved. You know, it’s hard. It is a hard thing to control, 2D drawings.

KR: Things on boards, just a character going across the screen on a board, to be actually animated, it’s like, “Oh, you can’t get him across the screen, he’s got to go over here, how are we going to do this?”

DS: What’s the future of shorts at Pixar? Do you see things continuing as they are now? Is there anything new or appreciably different in your upcoming plans?

KR: Well, we’re working right now figuring out which one’s going to be the 2013 short film.   There are two that are both going to go in front of John. One is very different from anything we’ve ever done. One is a little more traditional.  You might see another compilation of Pixar shorts.

DS: Have you ever heard any criticism and if so, how have you reacted, regarding Pixar’s tremendous success with shorts, the Academy Awards, and it’s so stacked against everyone else.

KR: We get it.  When you have Michael Ciacchino doing the score and you have Skywalker doing the sound, we get it, we’re a big one. 

DS: Yah, the 800 pound gorilla.

KR: I always joke that there is someone in Prague with 2 pieces of glass and some sand who makes films for what we spend on a wrap party.

DS: And it takes them 6 years to complete it.

KR: Exactly.  We get it. We understand.  That’s why we don’t put them in competition because it’s not fair. We do it for the art of the short film and to give directors a chance to have an outlet for their creativity. 

The clock maker could've stepped right out of 101 Dalmatians.

DS: Do you guys get a chance to see your work, to see the audience reactions to your films at a festival like this?  The Pixar or Disney logo comes on the screen and everyone wakes up. They know something special is coming.

DW: The only other festival that I went to is the Hiroshima festival and their reaction was a bit different than other people’s reactions. They were a little more sedate. I haven’t had the film shown as much as you guys have [looks at Kevin and Teddy].

KR: Annecy was great.

TN: Yah it was. The paper airplanes and everything.

DS: Had you been there before?

KR: Yah, I was there for Partly Cloudy. I think it showed the first time outside.

DS: You mean on the lawn, on the big screen beside the lake? 

KR: Yah and then they showed it in the big theatre.

DS: I’m sure people went nuts.

Teddy Newton had no idea that mixing hand-drawn with CG would be so difficult.

KR: There was this one woman, who was very French, and while everyone was saying “Wow, great!” she said to me, “Has your mother seen Day & Night?” 

TN: Yah, she was really upset about the girls in bikinis. [everyone laughs] She just kept on it, [in a heavy French accent] “Hez your mozair seen zis?  Hez your mozair seen zis?”  I didn’t understand what she was after.

DW: So you have to go to church to say “Hail Marys?”

DS: She was taking you to task?

KR: Yah, I don’t think she took it to be an homage to the old style cartoons.

DW: With the wolf whistle.

DS: From a very personal sense, is there a point during the production, where you say to yourself, “Yah, I did good on this?”

TN: You know, it’s funny.  When it was actually done I was not convinced it was done.  You never really feel you’re finished. 

KR: You’d still be working on it if you could.

TN: It was probably about the fourth time I saw it.  It was usually with people who were coming in, like some actors that were visiting Pixar. We’d show them.  And when they would react to it that’s when I thought, “Oh, maybe this works.” I think for all the people who worked on it, when we watch it, we’re just looking for all the problems.  When you see fresh people come in, they’re like, “Wow, what’s that?  That is really different.”  They appreciate that aspect of it.  I think the people who are working on it can’t see anything but what they did wrong.

Kevin [to Dean]: Did you ever show yours to visitors when they were there?

DW: Here and there, but mostly, it was just within our own ranks that we showed it. For me, it’s a communication thing. You put it out there, you get a reaction to it and you go, “Oh yah.”  For us, we [Disney] had so many huge things going that our little team was not on the radar at all.  Nobody knew it was being made, nobody knew that it even was in our own building. And after seeing it, people were going, “When did we even do that? When did this happen?”  And so at that point I felt that we pretty much did what we were supposed to do.

KR: All of these original shorts for us are all done within the dip among productions.  You want to keep people busy.  Our dip had to be with people who did 2D animation, so it was a little different [than Dean’s film].  That’s why for the most part with us, it was the same thing, people were like, “When did this happen?” Well, it happened in-between Cars 2 and Brave.

They didn't bend wood or glass much but took cartoon license with metal.

DS: On Thursday, there was a session at TAC [the Television Animation Conference] with Jan Pinkava.  He spoke of the iterative process of writing on Ratatouille.  He described how there is a point on every production, where despite all the work and effort done up to that moment, you sit down one afternoon and say, “God, this is just a piece of shite.” [everyone laughs]  But from there, if you trust the process and people you’re working with, something wonderful will come from this.  Was there a particular period of time in the making of your films when you sat down and said, “What did I get myself into?”

TN:  I thought it worked fine in the storyboard and everyone thought yah, this is interesting, this could be great.  Then we started making it.  And there were so many technical problems of how to actually align the two mediums, so many drawing problems.  All those things started happening and were going on for maybe 3 months and I was thinking, “Oh my, they’re probably going to fire me and this will be the end of me at Pixar.” It was so mangled, it was almost unwatchable for a very long time.  I was amazed.  But then at one point, the people that were really good at multiple parts of the production, whether it was technically or artistically, those people came to the front and made the movie what it eventually became.  I don’t think it could have been done without certain people like that, that had a more dimensional view of how the different parts would fit into the other.

DW: It seems to always happen that you get certain key artists, usually not even people you really know or expect, that suddenly have an almost adjacent, secondary vision that takes it home. You say [to them], “Yah, I think I know what I want to do” and they come in and sort of take it over.  And they say, “I think I know what to do with this” and they go running and you go, “Wow, look at him go man! He really got it!” [everyone laughs].

KR: Right.  We had this one guy who was all over the place.  Nobody knew who he was.  He was a relatively new hire at Pixar.  He was the only guy who knew how to use the ink and paint program. He did animation.  He did rigging.

TN: He did everything.

KR:  Nobody knew who this guy was! We were like, “Who?” He’d been hired, they didn’t have a spot for him so they put him on [Partly] Cloudy, then they still didn’t have a spot for him because nobody knew who he was, so they put him onto Day & Night. [everyone laughs]

TN:  He did all the ink and paint by himself.  One guy.  The whole film!

KR: To answer your question about the story, Teddy worked with a story editor named Karen Paik.  The two of them just kept working each one of the scenes.  It forced them to say, “What does this mean, what does that mean, why is this like this?” They kept going through it.  We had regular check ins with John and he would go, “Yah, I don’t get that part” or “This isn’t selling it. You need to think about this more.” [to Dean] Did you do regular check ins with John? Did you check in with other people at Disney?

DW: It was with John but not very often. It was every two to three months. I talked to him maybe 4 times.

TN: We saw him a little more than that.

DS: Everybody has a different trajectory into the business, different backgrounds and paths.  Can you tell me a little bit about your background and how you got to be where you are now?

KR: You mean how I got so far on so little? [everyone laughs] I came in the finance door. I had worked on The New Adventures of Gumby and then The Nightmare Before Christmas.  I came into Toy Story in the middle because the accountant hated Pixar and didn’t think it was ever going to be successful and that Toy Story was never going to get finished. And so I got in there and I wasn’t sure cg was going to have a future, that’s how dumb I was. [everyone laughs]  So I came in as an accountant on Toy Story, then was a co-producer on A Bug’s Life and then I’ve been a development producer for the last 15 years. And I got to do some shorts.

TN: When I was a little kid, I always liked cartoons.  Coincidentally, my father was re-modeling Richard Williams’ studio. He was a carpenter and he was hired to do this.  I remember occasionally he’d bring back these pamphlets and write-ups of the studio. They were about all the people who were commissioning commercials from Richard Williams.  I remember even as a kid, these pictures, they were so interesting to me.  They would show all the drawings and how they went in motion.  That was the first time I had really seen how cartoons were made and I became very interested.  It pretty much stuck.  Now and then I got interested in movies in general, but CalArts was a place where you could do both, art and movies, so that’s where I ended up.

DW:  Same place.  I started at CalArts.

TN: They say some high schools are feeder schools to Berkeley.  Well I think that some schools are feeder schools to Disney and certainly CalArts is one of them. 

KR: Wasn’t CalArts at one time called Walt Disney University or Disney U?

DW: Something like that. Yah. 

KR: [talking to Dean] Did you like cartoons as a kid?

DW: I was always a Saturday morning Bugs Bunny guy.  That’s what I lived for and certainly even now, it’s a huge influence on me.  Chuck Jones, that sort of entertainment and comedy.  My dad is an oral surgeon.  Originally, I was actually taking the path of being an orthodontist all the way up to college.  But I always drew pictures, I always liked animation.

KR: Your characters always had braces. [everyone laughs]

DW: Yah. As hard as all the classes were to go through for pre-dental school, I loved science.  But they were hard and I was getting Cs.  So I decided to take some art classes to help out my GPA. [everyone laughs] I had one teacher when I went to UC Davis, who said, “These are really good, maybe you should do this!”  I thought, “I don’t know if I can do this for a living. I love drawing like that but…”  He brought me the Cal Arts admissions catalog and said you should check this place out.  So I called them and looked them up, and it looked like there was a pretty good life in animation.  I actually took a bunch of my drawings and put them in a Tony Llama cowboy boot box, taped it up and sent it to CalArts.  Then they said, “Yah, you’re accepted to the film and video program.”  I went, “Oh, OK.”  [everyone laughs]  I knew so little about it. The worst part was calling my dad to tell him I wasn’t going to be an orthodontist.  He was like “Nawwww.”

KR: I just think the coolest thing, which I know has happened at least 3 times, is when you see a PA sitting just doodling and some art director comes by and says, “Did you draw that?” and all of a sudden they become a sketch artist or character designer.

DS: That’s part of the magic of being in that environment.  The last thing I wanted to ask you is what’s next? Is there anything you can talk about?

TN: Well, I’m back in development, just coming up with some new cartoons at the moment.  But, I haven’t pitched them yet so it’s still early.  Probably another month or so.  I’m still mixing ideas.  We haven’t settled on any one yet. 

DW: I am now in the “B” side, as Tick Tock Tale was the “A” side, of my springboard into a feature, which I’m developing right now at Disney.

DS: Is there a timetable on this project?

DW: It looks like it’s going to be 2014-2015, depending upon how things go. So far, so good. We’ve got a writer, we’re busy doing development artwork, we’re excited.  John’s excited.  I’ve been going on research trips, actually been using a lot of Pixar guys, like Jay Ward.  He has been side by side with me as we gallivant around the US looking at crazy car stuff.  It’s cool.  Jay Ward is John’s car guy.  He’s like the guru of all things automotive. He sort of oversees the integrity of cars, like on Cars 2, all the vehicles, their names and characters. His card says “Jay Ward, all things cars.”  You gotta love that job. It’s great.  It’s what you love and you want to be the best at it.

DS: How many shorts do you have in development and production at any one time?

KR: We’re finishing one for 2012.  We finished early and are taking it to Annecy in 2011. There’s a funny short that got put in with Cars so we got bumped to go with Brave.  Then we have two other shorts that are going before John, as soon as we get some time with him, for 2013.  We’ve also put it out there to a number of other people, “Do you want to pitch a short?”  And this one person says, “Nah, I got to work on my writing, I can’t deal with that.” [everyone laughs] OK, so you don’t want a million dollars to make a short, writing is more important, OK! [more laughter] So you never know.

Dan Sarto is the publisher of AWN.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.