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Catmull on Technology and Storytelling

Ed Catmull discusses the upcoming VES Awards, his pioneering spirit and the way VFX are now evaluated.

Check out Up in the 2010 AWN Oscar Showcase!

Up is the epitome of how Pixar is always heading in new, creative directions. Courtesy of Disney/Pixar.

Ed Catmull, the esteemed, visionary president of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios, who will receive the 2010 Georges Melies Award Sunday at the 8th annual VES Awards, discusses his career and the previous year's achievements.

Bill Desowitz: It's been a great year for animation and visual effects.

Ed Catmull:

Well, you know, I was looking at the voting for the VES Awards this year, and as I was going through, I couldn't help being struck by the general quality of the work. Usually you see one or two at the top, but uniformly it was high all over the place.

BD: That's what people were saying at the bakeoff. And pretty soon we won't even be discussing the effects or the technology but just the visual storytelling.


I think we've kind of reached that point now. If you look at the quality of the effect itself, I find it pretty hard to distinguish values in a technical sense between them. If I look at how well they integrate to tell a good story, then, of course, it gets mixed in with the quality of the story. But at some point, how do you disentangle them? These effects were part of a merging of this whole, and you evaluate in a somewhat different way.

BD: What did you think of Avatar, Star Trek and District 9?

EC: I buy the worlds. They sold me.

Catmull actually had to see Star Trek twice because he was unprepared for its alterations. But the second time he really enjoyed it. Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

BD: Was Avatar what you expected?


It was. First of all, I really enjoyed the movie -- it was what I expected. Cameron does know how to tell a good story -- there's no question about that. Incidentally, with Star Trek, I had to see it twice. It turns out, the first time I had to recalibrate my head about what I was seeing with the alterations and the fact that they were younger. But the second time I really enjoyed it. And I hardly ever do that. But by the second viewing, I was saying, "I really like this! This is a very good film!"

BD: They really conveyed outer space more believably in a Star Trek film.

EC: Yes.

BD: Again, you buy the world. And you certainly buy the world of Up, which is another milestone for you.

EC: Well, we're very happy about it -- it doesn't fit into anybody's categories. It's different and Pete's a phenomenal director and has a strong personal vision.

BD: In looking back at your career, did you ever think it would end up like this?

EC: No, the goal of making the animated feature was a goal that lasted 20 years. And in the process of getting together people who shared a similar goal, then there was something beside the movie that was created, which was a style and a way of thinking, and people who were always wanting to create something that was new and challenging and different. And it was only after Toy Story that I could think about it in different terms, and in terms of that creative culture. And the goal was different: How do you make a sustainable culture? Something that is dynamic and unstable? The thing is, I believe strongly, that successful groups are inherently unstable. And so you can't think of it in terms of: "I'm going to grab on to what I've got and hang on to it for dear life." Rather, if we're going to keep changing, how do we adapt and modify and bring people in and help people grow and let people do great things, but don't let us get stuck in the past by always heading off in an exciting direction?

Catmull was sold on the world of Avatar and Cameron's storytelling. Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.

BD: And how did your background in computer graphics guide you?


Well, for me, the start was when I was at the University of Utah, and the field of computer graphics was completely brand new, so the people coming in were exploring and looking for the new. And so the mindset at the very beginning was: How do you discover? How do you let things happen? How do you move blocks from people? And the principles coming out of that environment apply to any creative environment, and the blocks that can get in the way, can happen in any creative environment. For me, at each one of these places, going from the University of Utah to New York Tech to Lucasfilm to Pixar, it was learning from things that worked and learning from things that didn't work. And thinking about what the difference is.

BD: Any interesting epiphanies as of late?


Actually, there have been many. And they have to do with the changes that we go through here [at Pixar] and the other is dealing with a different group of creative people [at Disney], and the legacies that they have and the legacies that they're trying to make on their own. And because they're different people, you can start to tease apart those things which are ways to operate vs. the unique characteristics that the individual people bring.

BD: Do you find it an interesting irony in taking over Disney?


Yes, and for a while I thought of it in terms of irony. But then I realized that I actually had to step away from thinking of it that way because, to some extent, the legacy of the past can also get in the way of the future. And it's a difficult thing because a legacy is something that you build on that you're proud of, but at the same time you can't define where you're going, so I don't want to think about that group in terms of what was there in the past. Rather, what can these new people do to make great films and tell good stories?

Toy Story 3 will be measured by how well the consistency of the artistic vision supports the story. Courtesy of Disney/Pixar.

BD: Would you give us a sneak peek of Toy Story 3 and Tangled?

EC: Toy Story 3 is largely done at this point. We're extremely excited: this is a film that is funny and emotional. And it's got it all.

BD: A perfect example of being part of a legacy but not wanting to be tied down.

EC: Yes, and you'll feel it in this film. With Tangled, this is where I would say Disney is coming into full flower of what they can do. It's got some very different elements to it and it's smart and I think people are really, really going to enjoy this film when it comes out.

BD: And technically?

EC: The fact is, they have to make a lot of technical changes with each one in terms of simulation and there's a fair amount of simulation work to be done in the future. But we've reached a point where people are going to look at it and judge it on whether or not we've delivered a consistent artistic vision that supports the story. And that's how it will be measured.

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.

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Bill Desowitz, former editor of VFXWorld, is currently the Crafts Editor of IndieWire.