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SXSW 2017: Interview with Pixar’s “Lou” Director Dave Mullins and Producer Dana Murray

Pixar Animation Studios was present at SXSW with the short film “Lou” directed by Dave Mullins and produced by Dana Murray. When a toy stealing bully ruins recess for a playground full of kids, only one thing stands in his way: the “Lost and Found” box. We had a chance to talk with Dave and Dana about the challenges of working on their first Pixar short film and more!

Dana Murray and Dave Mullins / Photo credit: Catherine Gutierrez

Interview Questions by Catherine Gutierrez and various publications

Catherine: What was the most challenging part of the story and process given that this was your first time directing and producing?

Dana: I think it was the best experience but we had to be willing to constantly blow up the story and try new storylines and because we’d go in one direction and we’d realize that didn’t work but we always learned something from it. The process can be painful and grueling as you’re doing that over and over again but also something about it is weirdly satisfying and fun as you navigate those waters and once you get to the core and know it’s working it’s such an amazing feeling.

Dave: For me that was the biggest learning process because you try a story idea and maybe it’s not working to support your core idea and thinking that’s somehow a failure. I just felt like I was failing and then you sort of realize after a while that this is the process, you’re trying to illustrate your idea the best you can and all these experiments and trying different things really ends up making the best story. I think that is what sets Pixar apart is that they are willing to continually go back to that process of ‘nope that story is not good enough’ let’s keep at it.

Catherine: I really enjoyed J.J’s character because he’s taking away these things from kids on the playground but they don’t get upset. He’s taking more joy out of the experience than they are feeling sad about it. How did the bully character mold over time and how did you show another side to the bully stereotype?

Photo credit: Pixar Animation Studios

Dana: Early on J.J. was much more one note and just your bully mean kid and we realized we didn’t like him and weren’t on his side. We did a lot of work on how he could be taking these things from the kids but in a humorous way.

Dave: We always thought of him as this mean kid and you want the audience to go with him and once we found that core idea of he actually wants acceptance the whole story changed. That was a really key moment in the filmmaking process when we found his character. J.J. was the hardest part of the film because you have to feel for this kid that’s kind of a jerk.

This is the first time you’ve directed an animated feature, tell me about the transition from going to animator to director?

Dave: There’s a policy at Pixar where they open the doors and say ‘anyone who wants to pitch a film idea’ please come and pitch. So whenever those doors opened up I always got in line and pitched my ideas and about 2012 I got an idea that they got really interested in. I’m very excited to have made this transition on this film and it was like Pixar film school basically with all those pitches.

What differences have you seen from working on “Inside Out” and now working on “Lou” technology wise?

Dave: The thing that’s great about Pixar is the technology is always pushing the art and the art is always pushing the technology. Some of the stuff we used on “Lou” was where we had technology where we could animate cloth with that much detail and as we’re working on it we could continue to sculpt it and work on that cloth. That’s something we haven’t done a ton of yet and the shorts are great because we take technology like that and test it.

Photo credit: Pixar Animation Studios

Physics is so important in animation and getting it right and what things will look like. What was your process of going through and thinking what could kids lose and how could those come to life and function as a whole?

Dana: One thing is we wanted to keep the short timeless and all the items we chose were in that realm like we didn’t want  iPads or gaming stuff. We wanted it be real stuff and we both have children so thinking of the stuff that they’d be devastated with if they left it on the playground. And also thinking of what we needed to create Lou’s different shapes.

Dave: There was also something about looking at the objects he was made up of and obviously needing the baseballs for his eyes. If a kid loses an electronic thing there’s not that attachment, I mean they’re going to be bummed out but there’s not that attachment like I had with my stuffed animal I had as a kid. There is a different emotional attachment to things that are non-electronic and that was a big part of and we didn’t want him to be a bunch of game systems and clanking around because it’d be a funny character but not a main character. We really wanted Lou to have a warmth to him.

Music is a big part of Pixar films and especially in the shorts so I want to know how that process works. Is it something where you choose the music and go with it or do you write it as you go?

Dave: We went out to a lot of composers and Chris ended up being the composer for the film because he had a quirkiness to his quality of music and we were opening up and looking at other composers but I kept leaning back to him. There were 14 percussionists in a circle and what they would do is one note would be played by each percussionist and Chris called it ‘music in the round’ and I’ve never heard anything like that. He had a conceptual idea that really sold us on him as a composer and for me it was really important to have a really strong theme in the film. I love very thematic scores like John Williams and scores from the 80s and 90s. I wanted to have a hummable tune and once we found it I wanted to use it for J.J. and Lou and weave it throughout the film. The confluence of all those ideas came together really well in the score and I couldn’t be more happy with it.

Is this the last we’re going to see of Lou in another short pop-up or creative outlet?

Dave: We really kind of landed on the idea that certain things come at a sacrifice. There’s certain things you do in life that take real effort and struggle. Lou has to give a lot to change this kid and I felt like it was very important that that statement was made.  But yes, I would love to see that character again for sure.

“Lou” will be released alongside “Cars 3” on June 16, 2017.

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