Last Saturday, I had the opportunity to interview Josh Cooley. Josh works at Pixar as a story artist, and had given a talk the previous night at KANEKO as part of their Great Minds Series. Josh and I talked for over twenty minutes about the creative process, Pixar and more.
There is a lot we covered in the conversation that it deserves its own post. Here’s the transcript of our conversation. (To read my write-up of the Great Minds Series event, which is referenced in Josh and I’s conversation, click here to head over to Silicon Prairie News to read it.)
ROBERT MURPHY: You talked about the impact your parents had on you. As far as creativity and how they shaped you. As a fan of the Pixar films, I remember when I watched Cars I thought, “You know, that’s a good film but it wasn’t necessarily one of my favorites.” But then when I showed it to my boys they loved it. And I started to watch it through their eyes and I kind of developed this appreciation, a different appreciation for it than when I first saw it in the theater. I was just curious, you have a daughter and another one (baby) on the way, how has that changed your approach to creativity or to the story process?
JOSH COOLEY: Good question. The first thing that comes to mind is not so much how I approach story but more about how I watch movies completely differently now. Any kind of story, and it’s the same with my wife, any kind of story that has kids or families in it; it’s suddenly extremely gripping for me. I think in the future it definitely will have an impact on the type stories that I decide to come up with, because now it’s relatable. As opposed to when I was a single guy and I’d watch some movie where a kid gets kidnapped and I was like, “Oh, where’s the next action sequence.” But now being a father and having your own kids you’re going, “What is going on?” It lands closer to home for you. Right now, I can’t think of anything that’s directly been influenced by having a kid, but I can definitely see in the future.
ROBERT: I know for myself I’ve gone back and watched different Pixar films, like when I went back and watched Monsters, Inc., for instance, had a different relation to Sulley because of his relationship with Boo. I can completely understand that now with (having) two young boys. With Up, the gentleman asked that question last night about the opening montage and how he teared up, and I remember watching that in the theater, my wife and I were there, and I’m thinking, “Oh my goodness, I’m getting ready to cry at a Pixar film”. But it’s so touching, being married and you have those dreams, just kind of seeing Carl go through those range of emotions.
JOSH: Sure. Yeah, it’s one thing to feel bad for a character, but a whole another ball game to empathize with them. You know how they feel. That’s where the juice is in storytelling. Getting the audience onboard with a character. Because when you think about it, the character on screen doesn’t exist. It’s just made up of pixels and audio recordings. It’s not even real. But, creating characters that the audiences understanding their feeling and want to see what’s next, that’s part of the magic.
ROBERT: I appreciated, last night, what you shared about the creative process at Pixar. One thing I’ve read about is how you do these field trips.
JOSH: Reference trips.
ROBERT: Yeah, I read with Up how you went to Venezuela or Brazil.
JOSH: Yeah. I didn’t get to go on those trips of course. They took, we were busy working. (laughter) No, they took the heads of the departments to Venezuela and actually went up on tepuis, these plateaus that are literally a mile up off the ground and climbed up into the clouds.
ROBERT: I found that interesting because I think some people would say, “Well, you have the internet, you have Wikipedia, whatever, you could just research that.” Why is it so important for the creative process to take these key people on the teams that are going to be working on the project. To take them on assignment. I think of like Cars, I’m sure there was research…
JOSH: Well, we did a trip of Route 66. A couple of them, Route 66 trips. Cars is a great example. We met characters, real people along the way that are just as eccentric as some of the characters in the movie. Just the character of Mater was inspired by a couple of people we met along the way. One of the guys, I can’t remember his name, his thing was he could turn his leg completely backwards. You know, it’s just so random, but kind of a cool thing. I’m not exactly positive, but I’m pretty sure having Mater be the world’s best backwards driver was kind of like going to those largest balls of string off Route 66. So it definitely influences the story and the characters. We went to Paris for Ratatouille and just being, it’s different than looking at pictures on Google images, and then actually smelling smells and the way the light looks in real life. You know, just really different from a photograph. You know, walking on the cobblestone. You don’t think the sidewalks are different, but they are. Little details like that that you pick up in your research trips that we put into the movie. Even if you’ve never been to Paris, I think you know that’s what Paris is because of the detail that’s put into it. We even did things, they brought in professional chefs and we took cooking classes just so we could see how a chef holds a knife. I mean, I could draw what I think a chef looks like holding a knife, but if I get it, if I know how exactly they hold it, and I do my board like that, it will trickle down into the animation. And then it’ll look right on screen.
ROBERT: With the creative process, sometimes people think, “Well, we just got to be…don’t have any kind of boundaries or limits. But I thought it was really interesting last night one of the things you said, one of the keys you have with brainstorming sessions is knowing your limitations. I was wondering if you could expand upon that a little bit. Because some may think you’re being inefficient right off the bat, but I almost, not to put words in your mouth, but I see it as being an efficient way of creativity. Knowing your limitations.
JOSH: Oh yeah. It is absolutely more efficient. Because the general brainstorming session, if you just have people coming in who aren’t working on the movie and start throwing stuff around, it can just get…there is no road. You have to direct people into the areas you need help on. If the people are just pulling stuff from all over the place, it doesn’t help you. It’s free forming. But, if it’s a movie about a rat in a kitchen, this scene is in the kitchen. Okay, so, there’s a million different variations of a kitchen, but you still have a kitchen. You have what you need to do.
ROBERT: Creativity is, sometimes people think, “Well, we can think our way out of anything.” I think when people look at Pixar they think, “Wow, they can create something out of nothing almost”. And it was interesting hearing, last night, so many of the different films that have come from Pixar that have had massive rewrites in the midst of production. It’s like you completely change the story.
JOSH: Yeah, it’s part of the process. It’s what’s working. Switch to what’s working. If it’s not working, you redo it.
ROBERT: Coming off that, there was the news, and you may not have been a part of the team that worked on Newt, it was interesting in a cool way, some people may think there’s all this money sunk into Newt, I’m not sure how many years production had been worked on, but there was that point where in the past where we’ve done rewrites, we’re 11 for 11 with films, yet there was this conscious decision where you reached this point to stop work on it. What’s the thought process with that? With what we talked about creativity and limitations, was that a hard thing?
JOSH: I don’t know much about Newt, but I’m trying to think about other projects. It’s just part of the job of being a story artist. You have to have a certain removal from your work a little big. At the same time, it’s your baby. You’re coming up with these ideas. The process is you are supporting the director’s vision. And so maybe your idea doesn’t fit in with exactly what the director is thinking for that. So, we have a saying that’s…One of them is “murder your darlings” and other is “kill your babies”. And that’s what it feels like. And the directors go through it too. They get attached to something and in the overall picture it’s just not fitting in. So you kill the thing that you’re really attached to, which is hard. It’s part of the process because in the end you hope it’ll make what you have stronger.
ROBERT: Last night you showed us a progression of the scene where Russell finds the snipe. How long is that process from idea to all the different progressions to what we finally see on screen. What’s rough estimate of what that takes with time?
JOSH: I have no idea. (laughter)
ROBERT: How many people does that go through, you think?
JOSH: You know, that’s a good question. I really don’t know. Each sequence? It’s random, you just don’t know. Because everything has its own challenges and issues. There’s an effect. Simple things like dust kicking up when a character walks on the ground. Adding that little effect, there’s somebody’s job that’s just to do that. And maybe they’ve never worked with a character where the tennis shoe it’s really, really dusty like in a jungle. So it takes them awhile to figure out how to come up with that effect on the computer. Whoever creates the set is not ready to get to that point yet. There’s all these different things that affect sequences. I don’t think there’s ever a set timeframe of “its four months”. It varies completely.
ROBERT: Cars 2 comes out next summer, so you’re probably wrapping up. Are you still working on that at the moment?
JOSH: Story is doing awesome. We have this fluctuation of story. Beginning we start off with a few people and as it gets going we ramp up and we get to a full team and as it gets less and less busy we go back down to just a few (people). So, we’re on the down slope.
ROBERT: How does that work as far as getting a team together for a project? I would think Cars 2 wraps up soon, there’s probably another project waiting. How does that process work? You guys just get to choose, “Oh, I’m interested in that?” Or, is the director getting people?
JOSH: Oh, it’s a little of both. You see what’s ready to have new people come on to it. So that’s a factor. If we have a choice, or an opinion of what we’d like to do, they’ll listen to that. There’s also studio demands of what needs to be where. As a story artist we kind of get cast as well. If you’re an emotional guy, if you can draw emotions really well. Or you can draw actions or comedy or whatever. They don’t want to put all the comedy guys on one movie. They want to even it out. So, it’s like a different dodgeball in a sense. “Well, you got that funny guy, but you have this emotional guy so we need this emotional guy here.” A big team game like that.
ROBERT: How would you classify yourself?
JOSH: I like to do funny drawings. But I also, I love drawing action. Because you can draw great angles for the camera. But doing emotion is really difficult in trying to sell the feeling of a character. It’s a challenge I like to go into.
ROBERT: Talked about doing funny drawings. I saw the book you did, Movies R Fun, the different kids drawings of different scenes from movies, from rated R movies. Any other side projects you have, that you’re working on right now? Like a George & A.J.? Maybe in time for Comic-Con next year?
JOSH: That’s a good question. I finished the book in time for Comic-Con (2010) and it did really well at Comic-Con. I was really happy with it. I told myself, “I do it for Comic-Con. I’ll move onto something else.” I had all these other movies I wanted to do, so I started doing a sequel book. We’ll see if I finish those. A few of them, or if I actually make another book. But I have some other ideas of some stuff I’d like to do on the side. It’s great because Pixar allows us to do that. They’re very supportive of outside projects, personal projects.
ROBERT: One more, and this is from my three year old son. I told him, “Hey, I’m going to chat with a friend who is working on Cars 2.” He’s already looking forward to seeing it in the theater next summer. He saw his first movie in the theater this past summer, Toy Story 3. His younger brother, who will be three then, and we’ll take them to see Cars 2. He said, “Tell your friend that I like Lightning McQueen! I like tractor tippin’!” I said, “Okay.” And, he said, “Is Frank going to be in Cars 2?” (laughter) So, I understand you guys are secretive, but for my son’s sake I thought I’d ask if Frank is going to be in Cars 2.
JOSH: That’s a good question. Is he asking because he’s afraid of Frank?
ROBERT: He is. He calls him “the blender”. And, in every one of the Pixar films, there’s that one character. And he knows when they’re coming, so he gets a little bit closer to me and snuggles up. So, in Toy Story 2 it’s Zurg. In Toy Story 3, it’s the monkey. In Monsters, Inc. it’s Randall. So, in Cars it’s Frank. He says, “Daddy, Frank is coming up.” I say, “It’s okay. I’m right here.” Partly he was asking, he likes the character, but he still gets a little nervous when he comes on screen. Because he knows we are going to see it in the theater.
JOSH: (smiles) I don’t think I’m allowed to comment.
ROBERT: That’s fine. (laughter)
JOSH: I don’t know how to answer that question.
ROBERT: That’s fine. I’ll tell him…He’ll enjoy it either way. I told him, “I think I read they are going to go around the world.”
ROBERT: Thanks again for taking the time to answer some questions. As a fanboy I could ask a bunch of questions. I really appreciate you taking the time to meet with me, and hopefully you’ll enjoy your stay here in Omaha.
JOSH: Thank you.
(If you can’t get enough of this Pixar talk, be sure and check out my easter eggs post which has all sorts of information that didn’t make the write-up or was outside of the formal interview I had with Josh.)