Pixar director shares discovery process

By Sarah Cutler, Staff Writer

Even though Doug Sweetland has spent years working on animation films, he still suffers from many of the same hardships that novice filmmakers experience.

Sweetland, an award-winning animator and Academy Award-nominated director, recently went from working on movies such as “Monsters, Inc.” to making his own films.

The Pixar animator and director visited the U at a McMurrin Lecture on Tuesday night to discuss the process of turning a story from written words into an actual film and the changing narrative within the production process. His Academy Award-nominated short film, “Presto,” was a step in his career to adjust from animator to director.

“It’s the perfect time in his career to get him (to speak to students),” said Kevin Hanson, a fine arts professor at the U. “Here is someone who is right in the middle of wrestling with the same processes that we are teaching students to do. All the problems he faces are the same ones students are facing.”

Sweetland said a typical day in animation consists of watching one short scene repeatedly to perfect it. There are given circumstances that won’t change in the scene, and the animator works around them accordingly.

While working on the film “Monsters, Inc.,” staff members realized that in one scene, the boss, Henry J. Waternoose throws a coffee cup in the air, but there was no coffee in the cup. The animators also realized that the boss’ arms weren’t positioned correctly. Sweetland said there were tiny little details that had to be perfected.

“Presto,” Sweetland’s first short animation film, did not run as smoothly as he had hoped.

“I would go in thinking, “Oh, we nailed it! They’re going to be rolling in the aisle,'” Sweetland said. “And we would come out without a laugh.”

The creating and directing process lasted more than 3,000 storyboards, Sweetland said.

However, the outcome was not only an academy award nomination, but learning what will help him and students.

“The bad news: story is hard,” Sweetland said. “The good news: story is everything a director needs. All I need is the story, and I’m off the hook.”

Sweetland said that working on the story is a discovery process. He said the right answers require context.

“This is why you have to rework sequences over and over to find that right magic combination,” he said.

Film students are forming notions on how to do this as their careers. Sweetland is new enough at it to remember what the issues really are and what makes it difficult, Hanson said.

Sweetland brought Scot Stafford, composer of the score for “Presto,” to talk to students. The two men will speak to students in the film and music departments today.

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Nate Sorenson

Director Doug Sweetland chats with associate Scot Stafford during the viewing of his short animation Presto. Sweetlnad talked about how narrative changes during the production process.