- The Washington Times - Friday, May 29, 2009

When a director or producer talks about 3-D, he or she typically hypes the incredible nature of the new 3-D systems while simultaneously saying that the effect is secondary to the story. It’s hard to gauge the level of sincerity from these filmmakers because every major studio at this point seems to have fully embraced the 3-D model, often attaching it to less-than-stellar products such as “My Bloody Valentine 3-D.”

Pete Docter, on the other hand, seems genuinely to mean it when he says the story comes first. It probably helps that he works at Pixar Animation Studios, one of the most commercially and critically successful studios in recent years.

“I kind of worried about it early on,” Mr. Docter says of the inclusion of 3-D on “Up,” the first movie the studio has released in the format. “I didn’t want it to get in the way of the story. You see so many films where it’s all about booga-booga-booga, coming out at you, and for me, as an audience member, when I see that, I’m reminded that I’m watching a movie, and I’m not swept up in a dreamlike state.”

At Pixar, the emphasis is always on story and not effects. It would be easy for the studio to get carried away on the visual side of things — it is, after all, one of the original computer-animation studios, and its movies — from “The Incredibles” to “Monsters Inc.” to “Wall•E” — all have been praised for their visual beauty.

Those films, however, don’t skate by on visual panache alone. Their glossy sheen doesn’t outshine the heartfelt stories at the emotional core of the movies. The tricky thing about 3-D for Mr. Docter and his fellow filmmakers was making sure the effect was integrated gracefully into the look of the film.

“We really tried to use 3-D more subtly, more like a window, so instead of having things come out at you, you kind of see into the world,” he says. “The 3-D group would follow alongside, and they would try to use 3-D as another crayon in the crayon box, just like lighting and composition.”

Before the animation process begins, the movie is storyboarded: In addition to the basic outline of each scene, the artists create color schemes and, now, 3-D schemes.

“How do we use 3-D to help plus the storytelling?” That’s the question facing Mr. Docter and his team. As an example, he points to the creation of space within the abode of Carl, the elderly main character whose life seems boxed-in and kind of cramped before his big adventure.

“Carl’s living alone, and he’s all shut down and confined, and we tried to make that as claustrophobic and reduce space,” Mr. Docter explains. “By contrast, when he lifts his house off, we tried to exaggerate the depth and make that more dramatic.”

Pixar has long been intrigued by 3-D — its 1989 short “Knick Knack” was released in 3-D and 2-D formats, and John Lasseter, an animator who was with Pixar when it was still called Lucasfilm Computer Graphics, took 3-D pictures at his wedding, according to Mr. Docter. “Toy Story” and its sequel will be rereleased in 3-D in October, and “Toy Story 3,” scheduled for release in 2010, also will be in 3-D.

The move into 3-D has come hand in hand with the expansion of Pixar as a studio.

“When I first started, it was a computer company,” Mr. Docter says of Pixar. “They made hardware and software; they made RenderMan [a computer graphics software program] and all this stuff. Animation was kind of the little thing to the side, and now it’s the entire studio.”

The big jump came when the studio’s first full-length feature, “Toy Story,” became a huge hit, and now the company is moving into a huge new campus in Emeryville, Calif.

“It’s impossible to stay the same,” Mr. Docter says. “You have to be constantly growing and changing, and Pixar has definitely done that. But it’s also managed to hold onto its sense of fun. Most people, you have to chase them out of there because they just work so hard, they’re so passionate about what they do.”

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