THIS IS HOW Pixar 2.0: The Next Generation works. One month you’re sitting in class as a Visualization Sciences student in College Station, Texas, trying to master the finer points of 3-D painting and shading. The next month, you’re sitting next to animation demigod John Lasseter on Emeryville, Calif., acreage that is also called a “campus” but in truth is a whole other playing field. You are listening to tips from artists who have largely birthed and defined your very industry. You are working on characters that will come alive and become ubiquitous and generate more than a half-billion dollars in box office and counting. You are in your early 20s and you have arrived, here, in the belly of the “Monsters” beast.
Your mission: Help turn fantasy into digital reality all while you adjust to the most surreal of realizations — you belong.
“Pixar comes in and plucks you up and plugs you right into a film,” says animator Bob Moyer, who was a graduate student at Texas A&M when he interned on the 2006 film “Cars.” “No making copies or fetching coffee for anybody. ... It’s sink or swim.”
Moyer’s talent proved buoyant. After his “fantastic” residential internship, he would return to work on “Cars” for years, then lend his shading artistry to such films as “Ratatouille.” Now, not a decade later, he is one of two character supervisors on this summer’s “Cars 2,” which has just topped $200-million at the global box office.
Yet Moyer is more than that. At 32, he represents the next wave: the studio’s artists who are young enough to have been profoundly influenced by Pixar’s pioneering first feature film — 1995’s “Toy Story” — while still in school. He is of the generation that felt called by Pixar’s landmark calling card. And as the studio strives to remain the much-envied leader in feature animation, it is enthusiastic masters such as Moyer who have assumed leadership roles as they help advance the state of Pixar’s art.
To innovation. And beyond.
AS HE HEADED TO THE METRO, Bob Moyer viewed the scene differently than do most people. Preoccupied Washington commuters often fix their gaze on the signs or the time or their mobile device — or the time on their mobile device — as they stride through the station. Moyer’s train of thought traveled in another direction: He obsessed over surfaces. The ochres and umbers and burnt oranges that pocked the worn walls. The chipped pillars. The thinning tints beneath his feet. The Green Line was once more than his ride home: It held lessons in vivid visual storytelling.
He paid his fare, then he paid attention.
“I geek out over surfaces and scenes like the Metro,” says Moyer, who grew up in Prince George’s County and graduated from the University of Maryland in 2000. “Going down the stairs, there are the rust streaks that go down the concrete. ... And I remember the wear of the platform at the College Park Metro [Station]. I like that indication of age and history. That’s the kind of stuff I love:
“Telling a story without having to say anything.”
Moyer’s attention to discoloration was more than fanciful distraction. Within a few years, the student’s new professional stop would be across the country, at Pixar Animation Studios. He worked as a shading artist on the Oscar-winning “Up” — which features the four-minute “Married Life” montage that is perhaps animation’s pinnacle for telling a story without having to say anything.
Now, for “Cars 2,” both Moyer and one of the characters he lovingly labored over -- Tow Mater -- have been thrust front and center. As the sequel’s co-character supervisor, he has worked especially closely with director and studio visionary John Lasseter. And as Mater -- the bucktoothed simpleton of a tow truck (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy) -- basks in center spotlight, the viewer spends much of the film taking in the character’s rust-caked body, rendered in a rich palette of ochres and umbers and burnt oranges. The animator did not create the character, but Moyer’s attention to surface detail is everywhere evident in the new film.
For an artist chasing a dream, who knew the Washington Metro line extended quite so far?
SEEING SILENT BACKSTORIES within public surfaces takes one type of keen sight; envisioning your career path where none quite existed requires an entirely different sort of depth perception.
“I was one of those kids who was always kind of looking at the ground, checking out how things work or came together,” Moyer says of his Maryland upbringing. At that same time, he was a fan of Saturday-morning cartoons, of high-speed desertscape chases and a coyote’s doomed mechanical schemes. Then, in grade school, he was introduced to the early computer-generation imagery from the “Mind’s Eye” videos -- “just beautiful stuff,” he recalls -- and was dazzled when he discovered Industrial Light & Magic’s “Genesis Effect” animation for 1982’s “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” He said to his parents: “I want to do this.”
“There was no career path for it yet,” Moyer says. “IBM and Hewlett Packard were just trying to show off their computers.” He studied theater at Eleanor Roosevelt High, but by the time he was at College Park, he was creating his own degree program in Computer Graphics. “You could make your own major as long as you could defend it,” he recounts. From there, it was off to that graduate degree at Texas A&M, which had become a pipeline program for computer animators. “After ‘Jurassic Park’ happened in the ’90s,” he says, “[George] Lucas was sucking up anybody who knew how to do this.”
Moyer interned at the “Star Wars” creator’s LucasArts Entertainment Company. Through it all, for Moyer, the impact and influence of the first “Toy Story” remained a touchstone and a true-North.
For Angus MacLane, the animating director for Pixar’s “WALL*E,”the clarion call of “Toy Story” pealed with similar allure. “ ‘Toy Story’ came out when I was in school, and ... in 1997, I got an 8- to-10 week internship,” MacLane has told Comic Riffs. So, notes the animator, who is in his mid-30s: “There was a bit of a leap for me when I did ‘Toy Story 2.’ ”
Now, as the Woody and Buzz Generation collaborates on the look of Pixar well into this decade, John Lasseter remains clearly at the spiritual helm — compelling the former students to keep following him into the future.
THE FIRST TIME Bob Moyer worked with Lasseter, on “Cars,” it was with a sense of awe. “Here I was with one of my idols, who invented the very industry I work in,” Moyer says of the animation guru in the Hawaiian shirts. “I’m sitting down in screenings with him, getting comments on the work I’m doing.” As they worked on the sequel, though, Moyer was struck anew by the degree of Lasseter’s boundless creative energy.
“It’s been a great experience — kind of like a nostalgia tour,” Moyer says. “Getting to work with John again is to see and experience this joy for this [‘Cars 2’] world. He sees it so clearly in his head, and it’s great just to be pulled along by his enthusiasm.”
“The best directors have the ability to inspire,” “WALL*E’s” MacLane has told Comic Riffs, “but John also has the ability to get everyone involved in the process and makes it an enjoyable experience for everyone. There’s a communithy sense to it — making films with friends — and he makes it an experience where he wants to hear what people have to say. That made Pixar.”
With this communal sense, a decision was made about the first “Cars”: Some of its spare narrative parts would be left by the side of the road. Lasseter “had this concept of an action thriller with a spy named Finn McMissile,” Moyer says. “These were story ideas that everyone loved, but it the final cut, we couldn’t make it tie in. And John always had this idea stewing in his brain ... of Mater in a fish-out-of-water story, taking it out of Radiator Springs.
“How would it apply the world of racing if we blew up the ‘Cars’ world to the rest of the planet?”
“CARS 2” HAS RECEIVED some of the harshest reviews of any Pixar film, yet few if any critics have taken issue with its state-of-the-art visuals. That’s largely because the Pixar creatives have followed a mandate: “Cars” has to feel like cars.
“It’s one of the first things John [Lasseter] said he learned: CGI is so realistic-looking that it puts into contrast anything that looks cartoonlike ... ,” Moyer says. “So 80-percent of the character is just a ‘car.’ Finn McMissile” -- the British spy car voiced by Michael Caine -- “does some crazy things, leaping from roof to roof, but visually, you still believe he weighs 2000 pounds. You don’t want bumpers too noodly and soft...you don’t want eyelids that look too crazy. You just kind of buy it.” (And for the record, Moyer notes that he owns nothing near as fancy as a Bond-like auto: “I drive a Honda CRV.”)
Moyer acknowledges that he’s constantly cognizant of Pixar’s very high standards. “Of course you feel pressure,” he says. “There are the deadlines, and it’s a lot of work, but ... you just bring the best you can bring to the job that’s in front of you right now -- and you trust that everyone around you is doing the same thing.”
This stay-in-his-lane approach earns Moyer the praise of Pixar colleagues. “Bob is wicked smart, with an amazing sense of humor,” says “Cars 2” producer Denise Ream. “His technical brilliance and wonderful personality made working with him a genuine pleasure for the entire ‘Cars 2’ crew and elevated the quality of the film.”
Sounds like just the combination of talent and traits that the Next Generation will need to lead Pixar to maturity.