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Interview: Pixar Animator Travis Hathaway

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Disney, Warner Brothers, Tex Avery, and GI Joe made up a healthy cartoon diet for Travis Hathaway’s impressionable early years. He was convinced by his high school drama instructor to apply to California Institute of the Arts where he met other Star Wars geeks just like himself, and fell in love with the art form of animation. After short stints working at Rhythm and Hues studios and doing freelance story and design work, he escaped LA and found a home at Pixar Animation Studios in the San Francisco bay area where he animated on Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, and various short films. He’s now animating on Cars, and preparing for an arduous battle of attrition with male pattern baldness, and whatever future projects Pixar has in store for him.

SKWIGLY: Why do Pixar feel the need at attend a European Festival at Imagina?

TRAVIS: This is a very good venue for such an important animation festival. Outside walking by the venue you can see that it is pretty cool.

SKWIGLY: Tell me about ‘Cars’, the current Pixar project.

TRAVIS: It is directed by John Lasseter and we hope that it will be out in the summer of 2006. It is a ‘high octane adventure’…no I’m just joking, that’s what the Press Release tells us we are supposed to say. Basically it’s a film about a world populated by cars and the cars are the characters. The main character is a racing car who is used to the glamour, the fancy lifestyle but who gets trapped in the middle of nowhere and has to make some new friends in order to get back to that former life.

SKWIGLY: I have seen early clips of ‘Cars’ and I have to say that it doesn’t look either technically impressive or honestly inspiring.

TRAVIS: Sadly correct. Most of that trailer, the race stuff for example, was done a year before production started. It is a ‘diorama’. When production begins the studio like to have a trailer already in the pipeline to see what might work, to see what might break. The racing part of that trailer was as a result of that test. The stuff that is more current is stuff with the tow truck and the racing car talking and I am not sure that the trailer will convey that the new stuff is very good. Everything going on now has left me awestruck, from the lighting to the textures. It is so inviting and beautiful to look at. In a way it feels completely different from The Incredibles which focused more on classic, simple shapes and is not quite as detailed.

SKWIGLY: It is old fashioned in a way. Do you feel that CGI will concentrate les now on the technical prowess?

TRAVIS: Some people think that the Holy Grail of computer animation is to emulate reality and most people at Pixar would completely disagree with that statement. We may see a few more years of people saying ‘look what we can do, we can make this look real’ but then sooner or later somebody is going to sit down and say ‘yeah we can make things look real but let’s try to make things look cool, let’s add some style and real design to it’. I think that is one thing that The Incredibles does very well. It harkens back to classic 1960’s action films not only in the storyline but also in the design of the film. Ultimately the style and the new rendering technology is important but it is not as important as a story you can sink your teeth into and characters you can believe in and care for.

SKWIGLY: What next for Pixar, what is the vision?

TRAVIS: Pixar, in a relative sense, is still a pretty new studio. Despite the success that we have had with animation, I still think that we are constantly thinking ‘right, that was very good, we are really proud of that but what can we do to really make something much better’. I think from now on Pixar will continue to try to raise the bar for cinematic animated films.

SKWIGLY: Do you think the major studios have raised public expectation with regard to what is achievable in animation? Do you think they have been guilty of, from the public’s point of view, making animation look easy?

TRAVIS: One of the things I have learnt working in animation is that it is not a cookie cutter. You can’t just churn things out and if you start to do that you will start to get into the same boat that modern Disney found itself in. They rested on their laurels in the 1990’s and people started to feel ‘haven’t we seen this before?’. That lead to the downfall of that studios creative output. There were few good films, such as ‘Lilo and Stitch’ but that was only by going back to basics with a decent script and some good characterisation.

SKWIGLY: I understand you are a great Warner Bros fan?

TRAVIS: Indeed. I definitely think that films that are good enough to be a pop culture reference will endure forever. Warner Bros cartoons are as popular today as they ever were. It is for us as animators to follow in this tradition and to create lasting characters.

SKWIGLY: Are we going to see lasting characters in ‘Cars’?

TRAVIS: I hope so. It is still at the story tweaking stage but it is very strong. It is not necessarily my kind of movie but it will be a great film. I really sunk my teeth into The Incredibles. That was the kind of story when I was growing up, I would have wanted to watch. I was weaned on James Bond and Raiders of the Lost Ark and at Pixar we always say we want to make films that we enjoy. Brad Bird came in saying that he wanted to make a movie about a superhero’s daily life and everyone fell in love with the concept.

SKWIGLY: Is The Incredibles a shoe in for the Oscar?

TRAVIS: No, no, no (slightly unconvincing pessimism!!)…in the animation industry it is very much a favourite because they know what goes in to making animation. Interestingly at a recent festival The Incredibles won the Critics Choice but the Peoples Choice went to Shrek 2.

SKWIGLY: Good luck

TRAVIS: Thank you

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