Every so often, I do try and escape the confines of my nail polish packed bedroom and see the real world. Previous escapes have included seeing a waterfall, a load of beautiful qipao, a load of quirky lanterns, a silent Hitchcock film and most recently, a stunning array of Spring flowers. My latest venture – a trip to Hong Kong Heritage Museum’s special exhibition, Pixar: 25 Years Of Animation.
The Hong Kong Heritage Museum is quite a trek away, up in Sha Tin near the Shing Mun river (get off at Che Kung Temple Station on the brown KCR line for a shorter walk), so any exhibition that has me making the long slog up there had better be a good one! The last time I visited was for the Golden Age Of Couture dress exhibition, held in conjunction with London’s V&A Museum, which was utterly spectacular (and which I will get around to writing about some time, promise!). Meanwhile, the fact that I am a Disney/Pixar geek of the highest order – prone to parroting facts learnt from audio commentaries whilst my boyfriend tries to watch and breaking into Under The Sea on public transport are specialities – meant the omens seemed good.
The Pixar: 25 Years Of Animation exhibition showcases various types of conceptual and character art done by the studio’s artists for all of Pixar’s work, giving some artistic insight into the painstaking process that goes into making their much-loved CGI films. Taking in over 400 items, from early pencil sketches to storyboards, maquettes (small scale models) and exclusive specially-designed media installations, it features some never-before-seen-outside-the-studio artwork, with Hong Kong’s Heritage Museum the first stop on a global tour. A similar exhibition toured five years ago (including a stop in Singapore) but it has been refreshed and reinvigorated with the addition of new items, such as a large and extremely popular section dedicated to Toy Story 3. There’s also the amazing Toy Story Zoetrope (which you can also see at Hong Kong Disneyland), featuring rotating sculptures of characters that seem to magically come to life before your eyes.
We arrived early afternoon on a non-school holiday weekday and the queue was the biggest I have ever seen for a museum in HK. Having seen some photos taken by people who went on Easter Holiday weekend showing 300-strong queues, thank God we went when we did! Much of the artwork shown was obviously never intended to be displayed in a gallery and as such, there’s a limit on how huge a crowd can cluster around an A4 sized drawing and get much out of the experience.
Picture from Pixar artist Lou Romano’s blog, where you can also see his entire colour script for Up
There are two galleries devoted to the exhibition, the first dealing with character and the second with environment and scene-setting. The huge number of children visiting will obviously enjoy the Woody, Buzz, Sully and Mike models that greet you at the museum’s entrance, yet whether they have much appreciation for conceptual artwork of, say, Parisian landscapes in Ratatouille remains to be seen. Sure enough, the first exhibition gallery, which boasts the large Toy Story 3 section, a fairly big selection of Monsters Inc stuff (poor old Wall-E, one of my favourite Pixar films, sadly only gets about a quarter of a wall!) and lots of maquettes of characters, is the more family-friendly and consequently, much busier and noisier. Meanwhile, the second gallery is a much more tranquil and sedate experience!
As a full-blown Disney geek who exhaustively watches all the making-of features on her DVDs (or did before they started moving them to Blu-Ray only), some of the artwork was familiar to me already, especially for the earlier films, and I’m not entirely sure you garner that much more from looking at the originals rather than digital copies. Some art (particularly storyboards and colour scripts) have even been enlarged to suit the gallery experience more, in which case you’re looking at reprints anyway!
[By the way, you’re not meant to take photos inside the exhibition galleries. Not that this stops many HK folk. But I play fair, meaning the photos in this post are either taken outside or by scouring the net to find the pictures I’m referring to! (Further proof, incidentally, that lots of it may already be familiar to us geeks.)]
Pictures from Hong Kong Heritage Museum and Oakland Museum Of California
Nevertheless, the artwork itself is brilliant. What part of the exhibition you enjoy the most is strictly down to taste but my favourites were the wistful colourful designs for Up and its dreamy South American landscapes (you get to see a life-size version of the Paradise Falls mural that Ellie and Carl paint above their fireplace in the film) and the spiky dynamic work by Lou Romano for The Incredibles (the style seen in the film’s credits) – looking at the art, I could practically hear that exhilarating thrilling score pumping into my head!
A few interesting titbits to note: some character studies are annotated with comprehensive notes seemingly from John Lasseter himself (‘Dot is not so cute with 4 arms!’, ‘No antenna here’), with some Finding Nemo sketches stamped with a fish bearing John Lasseter’s head saying ‘I guess it’s alright’, whilst others are marked as checked by the man himself with a doodle-like representation of Lasseter’s face!
I’m also in awe of the fact that so much life comes out of these pencil sketches alone. Just a few lines manage to create a sense of motion and vitality even before the mammoth digitalisation process begins. I love this one of Russell, above, which totally captures his bustling sense of movement – Disney geek-dom ahoy, the character’s original name was changed to the onomatopoeic Russell to reflect his inquisitive nature. There’s also two maquettes of Russell where each and every Explorer Badge has been sculpted, with different designs on every single one!
The Up storyboards and colour scripts are also fascinating. There’s one storyboard just of that first 10-minute dialogue-free segment ‘Married Life’ and, in just a few small still-life pictures, it still managed to make me well up! Truly powerful stuff.
The second ‘environment’ gallery feels a lot more abstract in comparison to the ‘character’ one. You enter a room where the walls are covered with animations of the doors from Monsters Inc and the effect is quite hypnotic. I really loved some of the (at times, surprisingly dark) concept art for the settings of Monsters Inc, whilst all the pictures involving those huge cascades of doors are just wildly imaginative and wonderful. This gallery also contains, for me, the absolute highlight: Artscape.
Artscape is a highly-immersive, richly-detailed wide-screen projection that takes you inside the artists’ sketchbooks and experience environments from all the films in first-person. Frankly, it’s more 3D than most 3D movies. It’s indescribable and something you just have to experience for yourself. You feel like you’re swooping through the jungle and dashing across water in the chase sequence from The Incredibles, that you’re ant-size amongst the blades of grass, leaves and army of workers in A Bug’s Life or that you’re hurtling through the galaxies in Wall-E (oh ok, that one did feel a little like a Windows 95 screensaver!). I particularly fell for the Parisian scenes from Ratatouille – one of my least favourite Pixars – which felt like you were flying above the rooftops, looking down and around the city in all its romantic glory. This is all done by some trademark Pixar magic that manages to turn 2D drawings and paintings into a 3D visceral experience. Stunning.
Pictures from The Art Of Ratatouille book, featured on Pixar Talk
Despite the cutesy Pixar characters, Pixar: 25 Years Of Animation was definitely not designed with small children, nor I suspect the HK hoards, in mind (for example, there are kiosks where you can watch interviews with animators that can only be used one person at a time, whilst I struggled to see the small screens showing early Pixar shorts in just the small crowd that day). Whilst I enjoyed it, if I’d have seen queues of hundreds, I’d have definitely turned back round – I just don’t think you can give the artwork the attention it deserves if you’re having to elbow your way in or become absorbed in the detail if you can barely hear yourself think.
Pixar: 25 Years Of Animation is a largely captivating exhibition, although one which requires you to appreciate the animators’ work as art rather than pure entertainment. It makes you recognise the scale of Pixar’s achievements and value the dedication and talent of their artists even more. This is stuff that deserves to be on walls rather than hidden away in dusty backrooms and I would love to see a similar exhibition for Disney films (some of the concept art for their older films, as seen on DVDs, is just stunning). So, yes, worth the trek to Sha Tin. Make it on a week day, though!
Check out some more fun Pixar artwork here
Pixar: 25 Years Of Animation, 28 March-11 July 2011, Hong Kong Heritage Museum, 1 Man Lam Road, Sha Tin, 2180 8188
$20 admission, $10 on Weds, including free memo gift pad containing money-off vouchers. Opening hours: 10am-6pm, 7pm on Sunday and public holidays. Closed Tuesdays.