How does Pixar, the computer animation studio behind beloved titles like “Toy Story,” “Finding Nemo,” and “Inside Out,” create such richly textured universes from a young boy’s bedroom, the ocean floor, and the inside of a child’s mind? “Pixar: The Design of Story,” now on view at New York’s Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, shows that it begins as much with the artful visuals as it does with the heartfelt narratives.
Featuring handmade sketches, paintings, and sculptures from the Pixar canon, the exhibition focuses on the processes of visual design—iteration, collaboration, and research—to illuminate the origins of the studio’s storytelling. The level of detail is impressive, down to the mechanics of “Wall-E,” which determine how the titular robot moves about his destroyed world, or an image of “Ratatouille”s Remy, which so lovingly renders a bunch of cherries that it becomes clear the film’s deep appreciation for food was embedded into the concept from the start. Maybe most striking is a storyboard from “The Incredibles,” drawn with the bold, sharp edges of a mod comic. Though the final product softened the lines slightly, the roots of the film’s pop sensibilities come through loud and clear.
Taken together, the images and objects on display also suggest Pixar’s distinctive, consistent “house style,” in which brilliant filmmakers like Brad Bird and Pete Docter operate. Each film is unique, designed to suit the requirements of the story and the director’s particular vision, but the teamwork at the center of Pixar’s output, and of the Cooper Hewitt installation, ensures that we see both the forest and the trees. In an era dominated by indistinguishable blockbusters, it’s the commitment to form as well as function that may explain Pixar’s success. All these years later, the studio’s work still feels fresh.
The exhibit also includes more than 600 digital artworks from Pixar’s history and an interactive book for artists and fans, “Designing with Pixar: 45 Activities to Create Your Own Characters, Worlds, and Stories,” available for pre-order now. “Pixar: The Design of Story” runs through August 7, 2016.