RISE, ROBOTS, RISE PIXAR'S JAN PINKAVA HAS A PH.D. IN ABSTRACT SENSORY ROBOTICS THEORY, BUT HE'S ABANDONED THE RAREFIED AIR OF PURE MATH TO BRING A WOODEN MANNEQUIN TO LIFE

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JAN PINKAVA COULD BE A CHAR-acter in an Isaac Asimov novel; he actually has a Ph.D. in abstract sensory robotics theory from the University of Wales. Sounds most impressive, but what the hell is it? "It's something I want to forget," he says half-jokingly. "It's a paper and pencil intellectual exercise at least two levels of abstraction away from reality." Maybe so, but the pair of computer animated commercials Pinkava has directed since joining Richmond, Calif.-based Pixar last year have leaped those two levels and possibly a few more.

His U.S. debut was Listerine's "Arrows," for J. Walter Thompson/New York, the fifth in Pixar's heroic-bottle series for the client and the Best Computer Animated Commercial at the '94 Clios. The spot stars a bottle of that Cool Mint stuff, sort of a cross between Robin Hood and Tarzan, that removes all the Wanted for Germ Murder posters in the woods, no doubt put up by the Sheriff of Rottingums, with a quiver of two-bladed killing shafts.

In August came a Levi's Jeans for Women spot from FCB/San Francisco, titled, most provocatively, "Woman Getting What She Wants." What might appear on paper to be a relatively elementary CGI exercise-a wooden mannequin rummaging through a large box of balls until she finds one that bounces to her satisfaction-is launched into the memorable sphere of hyperreality by a startling sense of naturalness that has motion capture or some such esoteric animation technique written all over it. But such is not the case: "One of the deceptively simple aspects of that spot is that it's all hand animated," as Pinkava calls it without a trace of irony. "The best way to think of it is it's akin to stop motion in computer graphics," he explains. "We did take some actual footage of people here at Pixar for reference, but we didn't use it in the spot." While he notes that the ability to render objects in a realistic manner has made massive strides in the last decade, "the ability to animate, to create the perception of motion, remains problematical and probably always will. At the very least, it certainly has some way to go."

Again, maybe so, but, curiously, as FCB art director George Chadwick, who worked with Pinkava on the spot, points out, the problem here was going too far. "What's really interesting is that Pixar had the ability to make it more lifelike," says Chadwick. "We had to sit down and make a call on just how human we wanted it to be. The object was to portray human motivation captured inside a mannequin with certain physical limitations. We decided it would be creepy if she moved exactly like a human being. It's kind of a neat thing when the technology has spent the last 10 years trying to make it look real, and we actually had to pull back from that a little bit."

Pinkava, 31, has done some pulling back himself, first from his native Prague, which his parents fled for the U.K. in 1969, after the Soviet occupation. His interest in animation goes way back; he won a national children's animation competition in the U.K., and was a cel animation and stop motion prodigy of sorts, pegged by a trade magazine as a future animation star, which seems to have been a prescient observation, but he went off on a pure-math robo-tangent after getting a BS in computer science at the University of Wales. Eventually he pulled back again and decided robotics was too rarefied a field, and he joined London's Digital Pictures, where he brought NHL trading cards to life for McDonald's Canada, among other jobs. On his move to the States, Pinkava, who slipped back to England last month to get married, says, "I'm here at Pixar because to my mind it's the best place for computer character animation that requires a subtlety in acting and character development; work that involves an audience in an idea is what interests me."

As for the Levi's spot, an eight-week production, he says, "It's very sparse actually, the scene is very limited-just the character, the box and the balls. From that point of view it was quite a challenge to convey some basic human emotions: anticipation, disappointment and the like, without hamming it up, without making the performance too cute, too quaint. It's mime, in a sense, and it is a human character, which Pixar hasn't done much of; it's not a Listerine bottle or a Lifesaver. No one really knows how a bottle would move, but we all know how people move; in animating a wooden mannequin, though it may be a wooden object, you still have to get it right. People know."

In any event, this babe ain't no DeChirico tailor's dummy. As Chadwick says, "There are a few scenes where it just looks photographic-it's uncanny."

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