The Magic of Storytelling

Imagination can extend “to infinity and beyond,” but to share that vision with others takes certain tools. Pixar has taken this to the Nth degree, turning storytelling into a science. “Everything is in service of the story [with Pixar],” said Cara McCarty, curatorial director at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. She has just mounted Pixar: The Design of Story, which examines the artistic techniques the famed animation company uses to create its signature brand of cinematic magic.

Before any bytes are processed or programs generated, Pixar constructs physical designs. The sets and characters are created and iterated. Whether it’s in the way a lock of Merida’s red hair curls or how Remy’s rodent fingers hold a spoon, every detail is considered, reconsidered, discussed and decided. For example, the directors and artists on Cars all took a road trip on Route 66 to visualize the lay of the land and even collected jars of dirt (on display) to get the colors right.

In five videos and about 40 drawings and paintings, as well as sculptures, visitors can see how attention to reality makes the fantastic believable. “When the house goes up with the balloons in Up…and you can see the foundation and the way the pipes are put together, you want the plumber in the audience to say ‘Yes, they got it right,’” said McCarty.

To convey the idea of how iteration works, the curators chose to spotlight Woody from Toy Story. Three sculpted models and several drawings show his evolution. “Woody, until a certain point, was a ventriloquist’s dummy and had lines down his cheeks,” McCarty said. He also had a five-o’clock shadow and a double chin. “He was gruff and angrier. But, eventually he became the adorable doll you want to hug.”

The recently constructed Process Lab, a special gallery with interactive equipment, allows museum visitors to experience Pixar first hand. Examples of design from the museum’s collection—from furniture to fabrics—can be traced on interactive monitors as they appear in films like The Incredibles; Finding Nemo; Monsters, Inc.; The Good Dinosaur; and McCarty’s favorite, Inside Out.

In her more than 20 year career—at MoMA, then the St. Louis Art Museum and now the Cooper Hewitt—McCarty has put together exhibitions on everything from Japanese architecture to microchips, but her focus has always been on design. “Design has an intended end user,” she said. With this exhibit, McCarty hopes to show how Pixar elevates the basic tenets of design to high art that transcends mere functionality. “It makes us feel good [because] it’s a wonderful marriage of the profound and the fun.”