04 September 2011

"Threads of Taste"

kung fu grippe | Merlin Mann | Threads of Taste

Excerpt from Toy Story 2 (dir. John Lasseter, Ash Brannon, Lee Unkrich; 1999)

Per yesterday’s marathon episode of The Talk Show (jump to around 123:52 here), this is a 15-second excerpt from one of my favorite PIXAR scenes in one of my favorite PIXAR movies.

It’s the bit with the POV shot while The Cleaner fixes Woody’s arm.

And, it’s a one-second shot.

Watch it twice. It’s insane.

Because, here’s the thing: like the transitions between The Magic Kingdom’s “lands,” the extravagant fish tanks and white tigers at The Mirage, and the impossibly seamless design of an iPhone 4’s chassis—there’s absolutely no direct or quantifiable financial reason to make this one little shot this good.

The only reason to make each thread on a broken toy’s shirt look this good is taste. Pure and simple.

And, at least as far as I’m concerned, that taste is precisely the thing that makes PIXAR, PIXAR.

There’s no A/B test for awesome.
(I'm not sure how well Blogger managed to post that video clip, so watch on Mann's blog for a higher quality.)

Yes, Pixar has got taste up to their eyeballs. I'm second to none in respect for their taste and commitment to excellence and the culture which supports that.  But that's still a little unsatisfying of an explanation.

Let me give you two other, not necessarily conflicting, factors that might either augment taste or make a culture of taste possible.

(1) This is 2 second clip to you and me, 500 pixels wide on our laptops. But the guys who make these look at them literally one thirtieth of a second at a time, plastered on 400 square inches of screen real estate. To do a mediocre job on this shot is going to take days of your time. You and I experience this in two seconds and move on, but the guy who made it experienced for hours upon hours. When you get that close to something — literally close to it — it becomes a lot harder to say "eh, good enough, let's move on."

(2) There's a competitive aspect to making these shots. Departments, and sometimes entire companies, get together to reviews the work in progress, called "dailies," well... daily. You've got leads, department heads, and as production moves along, the FX supervisor and DP and director critiquing your work in front of all your colleagues. That strikes me as a really powerful motivator.  The goal is no longer to make something good enough for the audience — who is distant in time and place, amorphous, unknown — but good enough for the hundred peers who also want their shots to be noticed as excellent.

Sidenote: This seems like such a strong motivator that it surprises me that so many professional artists (and by "so many" I mean "every single one whose studio I have ever heard about") work in isolation.

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