In preparation for the book Ideas for the Animated Short: Finding and Building Stories, 2e, authors Karen Sullivan, Kate Alexander, Aubry Mintz, and Ellen Besen interviewed Andrew Jimenez of Pixar Animation Studios. Andrew Jimenez went to San Diego State University. His first big break was on Iron Giant after which he moved to Sony Pictures to work on the first Spider-Man movie as a story reel editor and storyboard artist. That job led to a move to Pixar with Brad Bird to be a co-director of photography on The Incredibles. Most recently, Andrew worked on the animated short, One Man Band.
Q: How do you recognize a good idea for an animated short?
Andrew: Feature films and shorts are two completely different types of stories. When Mark Andrews and I were trying to come up with the idea for One Man Band, even when we were considering very un-fleshed-out ideas, it was clear that, OK, this idea belongs in a feature film and then this idea belongs in a short film.
It’s a strange analogy to make, but a good short film is like a good joke. It has a great setup, gets to the point, and pays off right away. And it doesn’t demand too much in terms of where the story has to go. It gets to the idea right away. You get it. Even if it takes you somewhere different than what you expected, it gets there right away too. It’s just very simple. And it’s about one idea. It can have multiple characters, but it has to be very clear, because in three or five minutes you don’t have time to really develop all these side stories and other plot lines.
To use the “joke” analogy again, if my timing isn’t perfect and I go on a little bit too long, I can ruin it. I also think it’s almost a little bit harder to tell a short film story because you don’t have the luxury to develop anything deeply, but yet it should be as meaningful.
It’s funny because so many short films aren’t short anymore. I think the biggest pitfall is that they are always the first act of a feature film, or they seem to be used as a vehicle for: “I’m just making this part of my bigger idea, but I’m using this to sell it.” I’m always disappointed when I find out a short film has done that, because it ignores what is so wonderful about making short films.
Q: When you’re building the story, how do you stay focused on one idea?
Andrew: One of the most important parts is the pitch. When your students or any new storyteller tells somebody else the idea, whoever is listening and/or the person pitching should really pay attention to how they are pitching.
I’ll use One Man Band as an example:
There’s a guy on a corner, and he’s playing music. He’s pretty good, but not really that good, and there is another musician that he is going to battle. That’s the story. That’s it. The second I start pitching and telling, or describing events to the story that sort of breaks out of that little quad that this movie takes place in, that’s the point where I start to get a little worried. The entire pitch should never break from that initial setup.
I think you should be able to pitch your idea in really 15 seconds. Even in One Man Band the film never really breaks out away from what’s presented in the first 15 seconds of the movie.
And it gets back to the joke analogy, which is a silly analogy, but I think it really makes the point well.
If I’m telling a joke, every beat of the story has to be right on the spot. In the feature film I can wander a little bit, lose you a little bit, I have time to get you back, but in the short film, if I lose you, there is no time to get you back. In the short film, if I go one beat too long, I can ruin it.
For example, if I start setting up giving too much background and explaining too much, then you, as an audience, start getting bored, and by the time I get to the punch line, it’s like, uh, OK, that wasn’t funny, because you gave me way too much information.
I keep using the analogy of telling a joke. That is not to say a good short film has to be funny. It’s just a way of illustrating how important timing is in the short film format.
Q: Is it hard to be funny?
Andrew: Yes, absolutely. I know if I’m trying to be funny, then I should stop right there. Stories are just like people. The funniest people never really try to be funny, they’re just really funny. And in story, the funniest stories come out of the situations.
The only thing with One Man Band that we started with before we created the story was that we knew we wanted to tell a story about music. There was a theme about what people do with talent and how people view other people that may have more talent than they do. Humor came out of story development but we never tried to do humor before we even knew what our characters were doing in the story. It is what the characters do—the acting—that makes it funny. Of course their designs played a big part of that too.
Everything comes out of story. Whether you try to be depressing or sad, or funny, humorous, or make a statement, I think the second you try to do that without arriving at that through your story, then it’s kind of like telling your punch line before your joke.
Q: What was the hardest part of making One Man Band?
Andrew: For One Man Band the hardest thing—it’s true for the features, too—was that after Mark and I got the green light just to come up with ideas (and we were so ecstatic about that) was to actually come up with the ideas.
There’s no science to coming up with a story. You can’t say, “All right, go—come up with a story.” So, Mark and I started having lunch every day. We started talking about things we had in common, things we liked, things we didn’t like in other movies.
I had this book I called “The Idea Book,” and I wrote down all the ideas we came up with, about 50. One of the common themes in all these little ideas was music—and competition. I have been an avid film score collector since I was a child and have always wanted to tell a story where music was our characters’ voices.
So we started developing and working around that theme. That time was the hardest part of the entire production of One Man Band—really getting that theme through the progression of the story. Because if you don’t have that locked down and perfect, no matter how good the CG is or the acting is, you’re never going to save it.
Don’t worry about your perfectly rendered sunset, and shading and modeling of the set. It’s the characters and their story. People will forgive so much if they really believe and love your characters and your story. When André and Wally B. was shown at SIGGRAPH for the first time many years ago, most people in the audience didn’t realize it wasn’t finished because they were so involved with the characters.
Q: What advice do you give to an animator making their first short?
Andrew: My advice would be: don’t over-complicate it. Just find one idea that you want to tell, stick with that and trust it. If it’s not working ask yourself why. Don’t think you have to pile a bunch of other stuff on top of it to make it work and make it longer. Students, especially, will pack so much stuff into the film to try to show what they can do and to make the amazing film. I know I learned so much more by making several shorter films in the span of a year instead of making only one gigantic opus.
I know at Pixar, when we look at other short films, the thing we respond to the most is a short simple idea that grabs us, that we get to react to, and then it lets us go.
Please enjoy One Man Band ©Pixar, written and directed by Andrew Jimenez and Mark Andrews.
Excerpt from Ideas for the Animated Short: Finding and Building Stories, 2e by Karen Sullivan, Kate Alexander, Aubry Mintz, and Ellen Besen © 2013 All Rights Reserved. Ideas for the Animated Short can be purchased on BN.com, Amazon.com, or your favorite online retailer.