Pixar Sparks New Tales

New Sparkshorts initiative gives animators the opportunity to produce their own animation shorts.


Disney & Pixar Press Release Image

Anthony Karambelas, Staff Reporter

From the studio that brought you tear-jerking animations like Coco and Up, and blockbusting franchises like Cars, Monsters Inc., Toy Story and the Incredibles, now comes a more experimental arm of operations. Pixar’s new venture, SparkShorts, provides a new platform for its story artists to animate from the heart.

Not much changes quality-wise. It’s the same RenderMan 3D software and the same story artists who worked on the animations we all know and love. All that’s different is an adjustment in attitude.

Sparkshorts gives Pixar employees the chance to put together an original animated project in six months, with a bite-sized budget to boot. Each project reflects the identity of its team, and in some cases, Sparkshorts allows directors (recruited from across Pixar’s various departments) the opportunity to tell their own stories.

“So that’s why we call them Sparkshorts and not just Pixar.” said Lindsey Collins, VP of Development and New Media, in a press video. “We want to discover that new, creative spark and it allows us to start thinking about the future storytellers, the future directors, the future producers. Who are they?”

But don’t be fooled by the low budget and small time frame. These eight-minute shorts pack a punch in ways that viewers may not see coming. Now available on YouTube, they play around with the typical mood of Pixar animation.

Kitbull, a heart-wrenching tale of an unlikely friendship between a stray kitten and a pitbull, departs from Pixar’s long-established 3D animation techniques in favor of a more abstract and impressionist 2D look. Rather than being computerized, each frame is hand drawn and hand painted.

“That posed a lot of challenges early on, just trying to figure out how to tell the story with the resources within the studio and then taking this 2D project and getting it to fit back into the normal 3D process at Pixar,” said producer Kathryn Hendrickson.

Another Sparkshort, Smash and Grab, completely does away with the storyboard process.

“Drawing takes a long time. To save time, we were trying to get to the computer as quickly as possible, so we went right from script, right to motion capture,” said director Brian Larsen.

Instead of hiring costly MoCap actors, members of the team donned the skintight bodysuits themselves, imitating their own creations.

Set aside some of the avant-garde animation techniques, these SparkShort stories are also markedly non-traditional. One of the available shorts, Purl, centers around a ball of yarn and her challenges fitting in at a male-dominated corporation.

Director Kristen Lester commented how she sought to fight the combative themes of 1980s films like Working Girl and Nine to Five.

“I always feel like there’s this narrative with these kind of films where the person who finds themselves different has to prove their worth by being better than their job than the people they’re working with,” said director Kristen Lester. “I just felt really strongly that that shouldn’t be something that you have to do. You don’t have to be better to prove your worth…It’s about belonging and understanding.”

For the first time ever, Pixar is releasing these Sparkshorts exclusively on YouTube (in lieu of the January 18th launch at the El Capitan theater), and while only three are available at the moment, the rest are expected to follow suit. Pixar projects to land these shorts a spot in Disney’s new streaming service, Disney+.