O NE morning not long after she started her new job teaching art at Pixar animation movie studio in 1995, Elyse Klaidman witnessed a curious thing. From her office window she saw a small group of people creeping slowly through the corporation’s shrubbery. Later she discovered they were part of the animation team working on a new film, A Bug’s Life. ‘‘ Their ideas and drawings came from what they observed outside,’’ Klaidman recalls.
The group had a tiny device they called ‘‘ a bug cam’’ attached to the end of a stick. ‘‘ They walked around outside, into the weeds and grass, to see what the world of a bug was really like,’’ Klaidman says. ‘‘ I remember thinking ‘ wow, these guys really go to great lengths to get it right’.’’
The animators, Klaidman remembers, spent a lot of time observing insects and drawing them. The ‘‘ bug cam’’ also provided details, as well as the extraordinary spectrum of colours found in dense scrub.
‘‘ They discovered the beautiful translucency of colours and leaves and the world of colour that bugs see,’’ she says.
‘‘ The artwork in A Bug’s Life is so beautiful, it really shows that.’’
The movie, which was released in 1998, is a highlight of Pixar’s repertoire. It was also one of the first projects Klaidman, a trained artist, could observe from concept stage to worldwide release, a process that usually takes four years.
The San Francisco- based Klaidman was in Melbourne for the opening of the exhibition Pixar: 20 Years of Animation, at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, which is on until October. She is dean of art at Pixar’s onsite university, and is also curator of the studio’s vast visual history: the sketches, drawings, paintings and computer- assisted designs that go into making feature- length animations.
The Pixar exhibition is a gallery of images from films such as Toy Story in 1995, A Bug’s Life , Toy Story II ( 1999), which won a Golden Globe for best comedy/ musical, Monsters Inc ( 2001), 2003 Academy award winner Finding Nemo, The Incredibles ( 2004) and Cars ( 2006).
When it first opened at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2005, Klaidman was struck by visitors’ responses. ‘‘ The exhibition is such an eye- opener for people. They think of Pixar as computer- generated animated films. Hopefully, they also think of Pixar in terms of good storytelling, which is our first goal. But this idea of these beautiful images being seen as art, and putting them in a gallery, it’s wonderful. They become art in their own right.’’
Klaidman, 46, was born in New York at a time when cartoon culture was starting to evolve through television. She has no favourite animations from that time but recalls the vivid colours and pop style of the 1968 film Yellow Submarine starring the Beatles.
Klaidman’s mother Kitty is an artist, her father Stephen is a journalist. She and younger brother Daniel, who is managing editor of Newsweek , ‘‘ always laugh and say we are the children who had no imagination because we followed our parents’’.
During her childhood, Klaidman’s family moved around Europe and the US. At an early age she became enthralled by art. ‘‘ I kind of grew up on the studio floor drawing and painting,’’ she remembers. ‘‘ I complained at one point ‘ I don’t have dolls like other children, I only have crayons’.’’ Becoming an artist ‘‘ was a pretty natural place to go’’.
She eventually settled in California, working as an artist and art teacher ( she has a university degree in fine art). From 1987 to 1992 Klaidman ran a commercial gallery in Los Angeles and during this time met and married her architect husband, Blyakim Rinat.
The couple has two boys, Liam, 12, and Itai, seven, and now live in San Francisco’s Bay area, not far from Pixar’s head office in Emeryville, about 12km from the city.
Klaidman’s warmth and easy humour defy conventional images of tough, power- suited female movie studio executives. ‘‘ I definitely don’t think of myself as a movie executive, that makes me laugh,’’ she says with a chuckle.
‘‘ I’m an artist and I get to do these amazing jobs at a wonderful film company working with beautiful artwork.’’
After Liam was born, Klaidman taught art to adults. One of her students worked at Pixar and, unbeknown to Klaidman, mentioned her teacher’s name to Pixar boss Ed Catmull. Catmull called Klaidman and asked her to the studio for a chat about working at Pixar.
‘‘ Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined I’d be doing what I’m doing now,’’ Klaidman laughs. ‘‘ In fact when I was called by Ed to come in for an interview I wasn’t even aware of Pixar, or what they did.’’
From their first meeting, Klaidman was drawn to the company and its vision.
‘‘ I’ll never forget meeting Ed, he was president of this extraordinary company and he greeted me at the door, then spent an hour showing me around. He told me all about the history, introduced me to people, and told the story with such pride and joy.
‘‘ That kind of mentality and that respect is the thing that makes Pixar so extraordinary. It starts at the top with Ed and [ chief creative officer] John Lasseter, that respect for the individual and for creativity.’’
Catmull was looking for someone who could teach drawing to his staff, which then numbered about 150 ( Pixar now has more than 1000 employees). ‘‘ The view was, if you could teach drawing to everyone working for the company then everyone would be able to visualise the world in a different way. They would have a greater understanding of what animation was all about, and what creating was all about.’’
Klaidman’s art sessions are open to all staff, allowing departments to come together, meet and share.
‘‘ In my first year Ed [ Catmull] took every class I ever took, so you had the president next to the guy from the mailroom, next to someone who invented computer graphics. It still happens like that, and I love it.’’
Her classes also highlight the importance of observation, a vital ingredient to Pixar’s storytellers and artists. ‘‘ Learning to draw is really learning to see, and learning to see allows us to take in more about our world,’’ she says.
‘‘ That’s very useful in telling stories, observing people and coming up with characters, or observing the world as we see it, the colours and moods.
‘‘ What we try to create are believable stories rather than realistic stories. Fish don’t really talk but if you create a world that people believe in, then they don’t question that the fish are talking.
‘‘ It’s totally believable.’’