Posted Oct 13th 2009 by

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An interview with
MARK HOLMES (PIXAR)words by , October 2009

When you think about 3D animated movies, it’s easy to forget that they’re entirely man-made creations. From the characters, to the cities, to the weather, it’s all been thought up in somebody’s head. And add to that the huge impact of graphics. Every brand is thought up, every billboard, every poster, every interface. And Mark Holmes is a guy who’s had a big impact on a stack of these brilliant graphic treats!

Working on some of the big releases of the last few years, including Wall•E and The Incredibles, we were lucky enough to chat to him about just how important graphics can be!

Hi Mark, welcome to Thunder Chunky! Could you tell us about yourself in 3 easy to follow steps?

1) Carbon-based
2) Bipedal
3) Slouch

You work at one of the world’s most popular film studios, Pixar. Could you talk us through a typical day in your life at the studio?

I usually start the day with a little coffee and breakfast in the Atrium, taking a few minutes to catch up with friends and co-workers before heading up to my office to check email and the day’s schedule. I might have any number of meetings on a given day: department check-ins, design or scheduling time with my production designer or manager to discuss the weeks’ goals and progress, art reviews with the director for direction and approval, drive-bys and tech reviews to assess our designs in shots and discuss the art needs of various departments. Depending on my role on a film and how deep we are in the process, my time is usually split between design work at my desk and checking in with other artists and technical directors.


The Atrium – where the day begins!
© Disney * Pixar

Early on a production I have time to plan and design, but as production heats up I spend increasing time running around doing fixes and putting out fires. Outside the usual day-to-day goings-on there’s inevitably some interesting event happening around the studio, be it film screenings, guest lecturers, Pixar University classes, surprise guests, press junkets, publicity events, what have you. (There’s rarely a dull day at Pixar.) I try to end each day by clearing my thoughts and listing out the next day’s to-dos so I can go home and enjoy a healthy life outside of work.


Another hangout at Pixar
© Disney * Pixar

Wall•E was a big release for Pixar and it had an unusual run in cinemas. The critics absolutely loved it, citing it as Pixar’s best movie to date, yet audiences weren’t as high as previous releases. What’s the vibe like at Pixar about how the film has done?

It’s been a little while since Wall-E’s release and our focus as a studio has since shifted to Up, our most recent production. It’s safe to say that it’s the same for all our films: there are no guarantees how a film will be received. All we can do is make films that feel compelling and be true to ourselves in the hope that audiences will feel the same. Box Office numbers vary from film to film, from year to year, depending on the timing, competition, economy and any number of other factors more difficult to ascertain. If we focused only on trying to beat our last record we would likely take fewer risks and fall into formula. By looking at all the luck and success we’ve had so far, there’s already the ever-present fear of a flop just from a purely statistical standpoint. Instead John, Ed and Steve have fostered a different kind of expectation at the studio-not how can we keep making bigger hits, but how can we constantly raise the bar in relation to our art, technology and story telling.

Your role on the film was to Art Direct graphics. What did that entail?

My role on this project was a little unusual in that I came onto Wall-E quite late in the production with much of Act 1 already designed by Ellen Moon Lee. I inherited the remainder of the major Act 1 set pieces along with the responsibility of planning out and designing the rest of the film graphics – including everything aboard the Axiom – within a very narrow time frame. Fortunately, I was assisted by a very talented crew of designers and motion graphics artists, some pulled from other departments or disciplines to help out.


Wall•E on board the Axiom
© Disney * Pixar

For the first few weeks I sequestered myself away with Philip Metschan, who had recently hailed from ILM (Industrial Light & Magic), having designed motion graphics for Attack of the Clones. We hammered out a game plan for every character, set, shot and sequence that would need graphic or motion-graphic treatment, a list that continuously grew and evolved as the film went on. We formulated a strategy for the immense design tasks and assembled a style guide with the hope of quickly getting all the artists and departments on the same page so we could blaze ahead with the actual work. The approach was approved, but as is almost always the case at Pixar, the story continued to evolve and so too did all our plans. Eventually we gave up planning, and just got down to the dirty work.

I asked Philip to head up and help define a motion graphics pipeline robust enough to handle the workflow. I also left him in charge of overseeing looks development and the design and execution of character POVs, as well as Axiom bridge controls based on our design plan. Meanwhile, I shifted my focus to the high-level design and oversaw the division of work handled by the rest of our brilliant artists: Craig Foster, Catherine Kelly, Chuck Waite, Becky Neiman, Susan Bradley, and Kristian Norelius, among others. Between them we tackled the immense Times Square and other major set pieces of Earth, as well as every design element aboard the Axiom, including architectural signage, robot graphics, holograms, computer screens, control panels and so on.

Over the course of the production I oversaw the design and execution of all of the film’s static graphics and most of its motion graphic components. My time was basically torn between hiding behind closed doors to do my own design work, and running from office to office to interface with artists, art directors, production designers and the many technical directors from Modeling, Layout, Set Dressing, Shading and Effects who were responsible for brilliantly bringing our designs to the screen.

In spite of the time and budget constraints I was faced with and the vast task at hand (perhaps our most graphics-heavy film to date), I received unending support from Production Designer Ralph Eggleston who allowed me to steer this small part of the boat and interface directly with director Andrew Stanton to help bring his vision to the screen.

Could you talk us through a few example scenes/environments you particularly enjoyed working on?

On Wall-E I enjoyed the planning, strategizing and high-level design phase-breaking down the graphic vernacular of the film in such a way that it brought both a consistent logic and visual distinction to the different areas of the film-especially in our approach to the graphic design of the Axiom.

Originally this vision encapsulated the evolutionary history of graphic design from present day to the complete deconstruction of the written language aboard the Axiom into a purely iconic image system. Eventually this idea evolved as the story evolved and the graphics shifted focus towards emphasizing the different economic and functional classes of the ship, while building a clear visual arc related to Wall-E’s journey.

The first design statement was to expose Wall-E, who had been entirely alone for years prior to meeting Eve, to a world of other robots. In two stages he goes from exposure to the limited cast and scope of the Docking Bay to being thrust into an endless tide of robots in the Service Corridors. The graphic vernacular of this part of the ship was to reflect the utilitarian role of the robots. We kept close to conventional sci-fi treatments: monochrome number and type treatments, directional signage, high-tech badging and iconography, to keep their read simple and let them integrate with the background.


Wall•E encounters other robots on the Axiom
© Disney * Pixar

The second design statement was to bring Wall-E and the viewer into the world of the humans. Up to this point, humanity was a missing element, so the first beat was to introduce a few humans, the second to completely immerse Wall-E in their world. The graphic language of the humans were commercial in nature-bright, colorful, simple, direct, with a rounded cartoony edge to reflect the designs of the humans and their environment.

As the first set, Economy Class needed to ratchet up the visual complexity and scope from the Service Tunnels. Graphics here were the most heavily branded, sticking pretty much to the red and blue colors of BnL, bringing the viewer into the present-day version of the commercially saturated world hinted at in the Times Square shot on Earth. Soliciting the most basic services and products of the Axiom, the ads were limited to a number of formats and sizes, the animation restricted to simple directional motion, to keep the overall effect contained.


The suped-up graphics of Coach Class on board the Axiom
© Disney * Pixar

The second set, Coach Class, needed to create the largest visual impact. Here the graphics had a broader color palette, more diverse sizes, complexity and dynamic animation with the goal of overwhelming Wall-E and the audience with the seemingly broad products and services available on the ship that are simply re-brandings of the same things.

The final class, the Lido Deck, brought the graphics back down to a simpler, more elegant under-statement. This scene contains less image density, subdued colors, simple designs and no motion, creating a break before introducing the third graphic statement aboard ship.

This final design component was the Command vernacular of the Axiom that reflected the interface between Auto-Pilot and the bridge. These graphics were complex, sophisticated, and unintuitive, far beyond the scope of the humans or captain to ever understand.


The sophisticated interface designs of the bridge
© Disney * Pixar

The role of graphics in animated movies must be immense, is it difficult co-ordinating graphic design, alongside other teams who might be 3d artists or animators as well as the vision of the director? How do you ensure consistency throughout?

The role of graphics at Pixar can be immense. I don’t know of any other studios that places as much attention on the graphic design in their films as Pixar does. I think this comes from their attention to both the big picture and the details, where the story is the big picture and every choice, down to the smallest detail, is designed to support it.

Graphics typically play one of two roles in our films: they are either textural-adding visual complexity or authenticity to a shot, or they are informational-communicating either specific plot information, or sub-textual emotion, symbolism, or character information. CG Animation is an incredibly collaborative art form, with many people involved in the creation of each image, from its earliest design to its final execution. The main way to keep consistency is constant communication and a clear understanding of the director’s goals for the story and the production designer’s vision in supporting it.


Mr Incredible’s trophy wall is a perfect example of where the graphics team need to work closely with the 3d artists to create a scene
© Disney * Pixar

In the case of graphic design, our art goes through the normal design process as any other work coming out of the art department: iterative reviews with the production designer and director in weekly or bi-weekly Art Reviews. However, to design effectively and efficiently we are dependent on many other departments: Modeling for the exact model or set on which the graphic will be applied so it can be appropriately formatted; Layout and Lighting for shot context so the graphic can be best designed for its particular context-whether it is full in frame, or in the background, in the dark and out-of-focus; Shading so we understand the local values/colors/material on which the graphic will be applied; Set Dressing to understand how the graphic relates to other graphics or design elements in the shot. Once approved by the director, graphics effectively become textures applied to models in the same way all textures are, requiring follow through and clear communication with these departments to make sure the graphics are applied correctly and serve the shots as intended.

Though it might seem complex, so long as the general graphic design plan is keeping within the director’s goals for the story, the production designer’s vision, and all the departments are talking, coordinating graphics and maintaining consistency is fairly straight forward.

In your time at Pixar you’ve also worked on A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc., The Incredibles, Ratatouille… which was your favourite of those films to work on and why?

Each film and experience has been so different, it’s like trying to rank which children you like best. Each has been challenging and rewarding in its own way. For me, A Bug’s Life will always hold a special place because it was my first feature film experience and I went through the whole experience wide-eyed and slack-jawed, proud just to be a part of it. Though it’s scope is miniscule in comparison to the films we do now, at the time it was a tremendous challenge, especially for me as I had to raise myself to the incredible level of perfectionism that Pixar expects.


A Bug’s Life
© Disney * Pixar

Monsters Inc. was ironically both a blessing and a curse from a design standpoint in that there was so much freedom in designing a world entirely from scratch that the challenge was in doing just that-designing EVERYTHING: having to re-imagine every aspect of the world, from architecture, vehicles, furniture, silverware, door hinges, etc.-into a consistent and believable logic. Though the look of the world gradually fell into a more conventional visual framework, early design exploration took us through many different stylizations, each very different from where we ended.


Monsters Inc.
© Disney * Pixar

The Incredibles was a fantastic experience. Getting to work with Brad Bird and his crew who were new to 3D gave me the opportunity to contribute in broader ways. Brad and his producer John Walker pushed us to think outside the box, to be smarter about how we did things, and brought such passion, energy and a solid story that you couldn’t help but be excited to be a part of. What also made it unique for me was it was the first film with such a heavy graphics load that I eventually had to cease my environment design work and shift exclusively to graphics for the later half of the production.


The Incredibles
© Disney * Pixar

But my favorite experience was production designing the short, Lifted, with director Gary Rydstrom, where I was responsible not just for a few of its environments or graphics, but for every single design choice and how it served the story-lighting, staging, shape, color, movement, texture, etc. I learned as much from that five-minute film as from any other film experience.


© Disney * Pixar

Everything the public sees from Pixar is entirely CG, does the good old pencil and sketchpad still play an important part in the process?

Absolutely! Pencil and paper are critical to our process. Animation is an expensive and time-consuming process, CG animation even more so. It takes dozens of highly trained people, expensive hardware and software, and hours of render time to realize a final film rendered image. What pencil and paper afford, or more to the point, what the Art Department provides is relatively fast, cheap and highly iterative Pre-Visualization of the film before it ever touches the pipeline. This development time allows the director to experiment, find the right choices, and allow the look of the film to evolve. It doesn’t matter what tools the artists use to express this vision-as long as it is fast and flexible. Pencil and paper, pastel, paint, charcoal, Photoshop, Illustrator, etc., they are all tools to help the director find the look of the film before it is made, and communicate that vision to all the technical artists who will bring it to the screen in a way that surpasses even our best estimations.

Am I right in thinking that people are given a lot of freedom to customise their workspace at Pixar? If so, what are some of the things you’ve brought in to jazz up your area?

Yes, creativity is encouraged at Pixar and many people bring a great deal of creativity to their workspaces. My environment is tame compared to some, partly because in my role I tend to change offices with each project. My last office I had made homey by installing wall shelves for my constantly growing visual reference library, with a red couch from IKEA to lounge in and hosts guests, I lined my walls with B-Movie sci-fi lobby sheets and Polish posters, every corner featuring tin robots, Universal monsters and random Kaiju figures. In my present office I’m surrounded by un-aesthetically arranged moving boxes.


A snapshot of Mark’s workspace

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve bought recently?

Nothing comes to mind that I’ve bought recently. However my wife and sons picked up a couple of interesting things for me this Father’s Day: a Tibetan skull prayer bracelet that I now wear every day, and a little bronze statue of Ganesh who has become my daily reminder to remove that one constant obstacle I face in life every day – myself.

Are you able to tell us anything about what you’re working on at the moment?

Presently I am taking a break as sets art director on our 2012 release to help with graphics on Toy Story 3. I’m not sure what I’ll be doing after this, but there are a lot of amazing projects happening at the studio right now and I’ll be happy to be a part of any of them.

Finally, what’s the one thing everybody should do today?

The same thing you should do everyday: Be thankful for what you have, and strive for what you want.

Now that we’ve got you in the Pixar mood, you should definitely go and check out their latest release, Up. And you can browse around a load of the previous Pixar releases over on the Pixar site. And big thanks to everyone in the Pixar PR team for helping make this happen! Keep your eyes peeled for another interview in the not too distant future!


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(3 Comments) - click to comment/read
  • […] An interview with Mark Holmes, Pixar Graphics guru. […]

    • Guys, this is fantastic. I’ve only just found the proper amount of time to sit and read this properly and I’m so glad I did. Best interview you’ve ever done. I’m not just saying that because it’s Pixar, but this has really stepped things up for you guys, TC has always been cool, but this is heavy-weight, pure class, inspiring journalism.


    • Exceptional interview guys.
      Pixar is the best in what they do and to be able to get in touch with them I’m sure was a great honor.

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