These days the animated short is a rarity. When one comes along it can be an enjoyable and exciting experience to see on the big screen. We’ve grown accustomed to seeing our animation downsized and presented on television. The old “Looney Toons” shorts were once a staple in movie theaters but we’ve only seen them on the small screen.
Animation World Magazine has a first look at Pixar’s newest creation, a new animated short that gives a nod to Warner Bros. animated classics and “Tom and Jerry”. The short Presto will make its debut as an opener for the Pixar animated feature Wall E about a robot who finds his true purpose. Presto will also be shown at the International Animation Festival in Hiroshima Japan in August.
Since the moment Toy Story hit the theaters in 1995. Pixar has been the driving force that made computer animation come of age. This time Pixar’s artists found inspiration from the past. They’ve taken a page from the classic work of Warner Bros. animators.
Presto is directed by Doug Sweetland, the animator who’s worked on every Pixar feature up to Ratatouille, as well as the short film Boundin’. This is Sweetland’s directorial debut. He pitched and sold the storyline about an amiable turn of the century magician and his reluctant rabbit. But he found that his original vision grew into something quite unexpected.
The film is about Presto, the magician and Alec, his rabbit in a hat who plots revenge against the overbearing and cruel magician. While the rabbit in a hat trick brings Presto great fame and fortune, Alec is left to languish in a cage, a carrot just out of reach.
Alec is decides not to take Presto’s abuse any longer and rebels giving the magician a taste of his own mean spirited medicine. The rabbit is determined to get the last laugh at the expense of his demanding employer. The film is filled with slapstick, magic hats, vaudevillian antics, all in five minutes of screen time. Presto is tormented in a variety of ways, including being attacked by a ladder, electrocuted, thrown to the rafters and having his clothes torn off among other comic tortures. The audience that had come for a magic show finds all of this uproariously funny and I suspect we will too.
It wasn’t Sweetland’s original intent to bring the feel of old style cartoons into this film until he found his story not only called for it but would thrive because of it. He found that the art of directing an animated film was something like “boot camp” where he would have to shape and refine his vision.
Presto was a contrast to the work he’d done on Pixar features and presented a unique challenge. He discovered that the short form using less animation meant he had to think things through even more thoroughly. The action in the short had to be designed around the punch line.
Through hours of work Presto morphed from the amiable magician to the comic antagonist with the kind of relationship with Alec that would bring to mind classic pairs like Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny. They were meant to be antagonists, to do battle and once again the rabbit was going to gain the upper hand.
Teddy Newton, the character designer, was well versed in the designs and art of the older hand drawn classic cartoon characters. It was Newton who designed the look of Alec and Presto. The decision was made that the characters would have an iconic look that the viewer would immediately recognize.
When searching for the style of the short, Sweeten decided that it should be like Tom and Jerry with Presto in the Tom role and Alec in the Jerry role. There was a melding of the old and the new.
The production designer, Harely Jessup worked on Ratatouille. The detail and research that was put into the short is impressive. Jessup looked at The London Opera House, the Paris Opera House and old vaudeville theaters in the United States to capture the look he wanted for the theater that is the backdrop to Presto’s comeuppance.
Another essential element that was difficult to achieve was the huge crowd in the theater. It’s not easy or inexpensive to get a huge crowd on the screen, even a virtual crowd. In the end the effort was successful and the crowd was created to enhance Presto’s humiliation at the paws of Alec.
In addition to direction and concept, Sweetland also provides the voices for his two characters.
Pixar is of course known for computer animation, but in Presto the effort was made to emulate hand drawn animation techniques. In the end the animators found the slapstick artistically liberating.
I’m looking forward to seeing Presto. It looks like it will be an interesting creation combining Pixar’s state of the art computer animation with the old style antics of our favorite “Looney Toons.”
Photos courtesy of Animation World Magazine