Pixar & Dreamworks: The Stories Their Brands Tell

Pixar is a billion dollar company because it knows how to tell a story.

They know how important it is and that without a strong story at the core, all the technical wizardry and aesthetic mastery of their films would be overly sweet.

Story telling is often as important in graphic design as it is in animation and film making, even if it isn’t as obvious — we use grids, type, colour and imagery to help bring stories to life.

When there is a lack of a story—of an idea—there is nothing but average design to be found. Why? Because there’s a lack of a point of interest — there’s nothing for the audience to grab onto.

So let’s learn from the mistakes and glories of others, comparing two story tellers who act on the same stage—Pixar and Dreamworks, of course—and the stories told through the branding of their films.

I’m talkin’ logos, baby.

Toy Story

Pixar

Playful and fun — a great way to start!

This logo is a winner because it’s appropriate without being condescending.

The primary colour pallet aims it perfectly at its audience and nothing says “gimmie” like red and yellow. The type size, the chunkiness of it, as well as the playful way it’s laid out, make this cute in the right way and screams, well, “Toy”.

It’s also nice to see a logo which has depth (hinting at the 3D of the animation) without going straight to embossed trickery.

A Bug’s Life

Pixar

Another nice and flat logo from Pixar. It’s lovely to see a beveled look isn’t what they go for just because their films are CGI.

The bugs eating away at the letters are cute and the little one between Disney & Pixar is a great touch.

The typeface is appropriately playful and has an exaggeration to it that suggests that we’re going to be shown little things really big (I’m looking at the i, f and e mostly), but it’ll be a gentle ride.

The slight warmth of the yellow is nice little ray of sunshine that gently touches down on the bug covered leaf.

All this adds up to a little reflection of the film — it has its footing in it.

Antz

Dreamworks

I’m sorry, what?

Valuable Ideas and TED

The most valuable of all that we can ever own costs us nothing. When it is passed from one person to another, it does not diminish in quality or quantity. In fact, what happens to this possession is quite the opposite – it grows. It develops and becomes strong, frightening the closed minded and exciting the willing. Let’s have a look at few video presentations on this special little something at the Technology, Education & Design conference – TED.

The most valuable of all that we can ever own is an idea. A thought.

An idea is the start of everything. most of everything is, obviously, ultimately worthless. Which means many of the ideas that come to us through the ether are, you guessed it, ultimately worthless.

Yet once in a while, an idea grabs hold. It latches on and infects the host with curiosity and passion. It pushes those in its path to discover something new. To do something great.

It may be something as simple as the ball-point pen or as complex as a thought as to how the human brain functions.

In a nutshell, the TED conference is about clever ideas. Creative, awe-inspiring ideas that help to shape worlds – be it the world of science, the world of the hungry, a third-world nation or the world of business.

An annual conference (or should I say because of recent expansions, conferences) TED runs for three days, as fifty people share their ideas, 18 minutes at a time.

It is for reasons like TED that I hold reverence for the power of the internet. A few years ago, those behind the conference began to share some of the moments of what happens on stage online. The popularity and spread of these videos is extraordinary. It shows that we are all curious and interested in how to better ourselves and the worlds around us.

The collections is now at over 400 videos, and it’s growing.

What you’ll find below are a few videos which I find to be fascinating and in relation to what you are here for—what it is we love—graphic design, creativity and beauty.

Stefan Sagmeister.

… much, much more difficult is, this,
where the design actually can evoke happiness.

There are two lessons that are to be learned from Stefan Sagmeister‘s talk at TED.

The first is about happiness. It is about the importance of finding as much happiness as we can from the work on which our thoughts dwell. And more than merely finding happiness for our selves, the joy one can take when they can inject happiness into their work and have it show through to the point of the audience being able to connect and share in such feelings.

The second lesson, and one that is no secret to anyone to whom Sagmeister’s work and career holds some familiarity, relates to honest. Honesty and the ability to place a little part of your own mind and thoughts into the work.

It is perhaps because of this that many see Sagmesiter dancing upon the line that separates graphic design and art. It is definitely why his work is so engaging and entertaining. Through his work, which is all client requested, he makes it easy to appreciate what it is he is thinking, feeling and saying, because the messages are perosnal to him. And they are messages he wants to share.

The Art of the Title

The first few minutes of a film will often either leave the audience full of excitement and eager to see how the story of the movie will play out, wondering what hints they were shown in the opening credits to what they’re about to watch. Sometimes these opening moments are grander than the film that follows them. Sometimes you talk to your friends about the notebooks instead of the head in the box, or the silhouetted men running around more than the prodigy delinquent. Ian & Alex of The Art of the Title Sequence are two curators of a collection of title sequences best described as fine art.

With the amount of media we are shown every day, to be willing to sit down for two hours and say to the film makers “alright then, you have 120 minutes of my life” is no small feat. Not to mention that we have conditioned ourselves into jumping from topic to topic, idea to idea, advertisement to advertisement, resulting in diminished attention spans.

So when that 120 minutes starts up, the first three or four might be some of the most important. If the opening credits to a film bore us, we would be forgiven for feeling the whole film will be boring. If they’re exciting and manage to push our cart to the top of an emotional roller-coaster, then there we’ll be, sitting at the edge of our seats, strapped in, waiting to be thrown around.

Ian Albinson and Alex Ulloa are two who enjoy that roller-coaster and have the discussions about the notebooks. The two behind the immensely addictive site The Art of the Title Sequence have a passion for those opening moments and regularly show some of the best to have been created.

They were kind enough to give me a few moments of their time and provide one of those interviews you wish never really ended.

What is it that good title sequences share?

A: They are original in a way that is either daring and challenging, or clever and wonderful. They are always thoughtful; even those with raging adrenaline and nervy force have a thoughtfulness to them.

I: Almost all tell a story, however straightforward or abstract they may be.


The now legendary opening sequence to Se7en.

It seems like title sequences are to Se7en as branding is to the FedEx logo (and it’s white-space arrow) – why do you think the opening credits to Se7en serve as a suitable gateway drug to explaining the world of title sequences, as the FedEx logo does to explaining branding?

A: Because they were both lucky and smart. Have you seen Man on Wire (note this: much of life relates back to Man on Wire)? When the physicality of Philippe Petit stretches and lays amongst the clouds in actual manifestation of a man realizing-and-soaking-in-and-being-playful-with His Dream we understand—once we’re over the drunken thrill of this incredible moment—that this man was smart, but he was also lucky enough to have existed at a moment in history where twin monuments were being built. So goes the opening title sequence for Se7en (the film itself being the rare example of every collaborative element, which is to say the whole of it, was executed to perfection), this new standard in title sequences equalled the film and the film delivered the brilliant tonal darkness promised in the sequence. That sequence and the classic example you provided in the FedEx logo have a depth and thoughtfulness to the ‘communicative attributes‘ within. Thank you for the question; because of it I revisited a posting I hadn’t thought of in years.

This new standard in title sequences equalled the film

To Infinity and Beyond!

Pixar is a company we all know, with most of us having a soft-spot for their films and lively characters. Pixar have proven themselves as maestros of pixels, bringing them together in a way that is best described as symphonic. To Infinity and Beyond! The Story of Pixar Animation Studios, written and pieced together by Karen Paik, is a beautiful and well designed book that very few won’t be able to find some point of interest in. Telling the story of Pixar from their early beginnings through to the merger with Disney, Paik has brought us something hard to put down.

A shot of the fabric cover, featuring a glossy sticker of Buzz.
The title is printed on a removable wrap-around.

More than a book about an animation company, To Infinity and Beyond! is about an idea had and a non-stop drive to not only to have it realised, but to realise it over and over without repeat. If you have an interest in Pixar that is only slight, you’ll find something enjoyable in this book. Be it the beautiful artwork and film stills, or the development of technology that goes on, to become standards industry-wide, or perhaps the stories of the process gone through for each film will capture your interest. And if you’re already a big Pixar fan, well, you’ll wet your self.

A close up shot of the Pixar logo in it’s two varieties – the bottom version featuring the Luxo Jr. lamp from one of the first shorts, c. 1986

A pastel illustration by John Lasseter of Wally, a character from the first short created by the team that would go on to become Pixar Animation Studios. Created while at Lucasfilm. c. 1984

A still from the first animated commercial created by Pixar in their early days after first going independent. Directed and animated by John Lasseter.

To Infinity and Beyond! is 300 pages of beauty. Found between the lime-green hard covers are illustrations for each film in a range of mediums, interviews with dozens of people at Pixar—from the founders through to the new(er) generation of directors, writers and tech people—run downs of each of their films, ranging in subject from the genesis of the stories, goals they set for each film, fears had and problems found. And the best (visual) part of all? Pages and pages of beautiful rendered stills from the films.

The Beauty of Minimalism

Most poorly designed pieces have something in common; they’re too complicated and too busy. Too many fonts, too many photos, too many logos, too many colours. Just too much. Have a look at the majority of the award winning work that’s floating around—there are few fonts, few photos, few logo, few colours. Even the busy looking designs can be broken down into simple elements.

Design is about being able to convey a message, which is more often than not bundled with an emotion, in an effort to evoke a reaction in an audience. One of the truest maxims I’ve ever known is; if the message is interesting, if it has power and strength, then wrap it in a simple design—let the message do the heavy lifting, not your design. Let the audience discover the emotion or thoughts or connections themselves, let them fill in the gaps, rather than forcing something onto them.

Before we get too far into this, I’ll offer you a brief explanation as to how I came to the genesis of this article. While working on a piece about realism in illustration, I found something much more interesting. Recently, the team behind Family Guy put together a 40 minute retelling of the first Star Wars epic – A New Hope. While comparing the shots of the original film with their illustrated counterparts I realised there was a different kind of article burried in the 240+ stills from the movies I had put together – Blue Harvest, the Family Guy homage, was a well designed take on the original that with or without intention, demonstrated minimalism in an awfully fun way.

Why simple is good

More often than not, the reaction we are trying to provide, be it an emotion, thought or action, is complex and powerful. To make someone laugh, you wouldn’t have a routine that rivals Who’s on First? in length in your layout, would you? Instead, you’d use a single image, with a single tag line, that when combined will generate the reaction you are after – a smirk, giggle or hopefully, a fit of hysterical laughter. The audience will see the image and the line of text and relate it to an idea or experience they hold locked away in their memory, waiting to rise to the surface when triggered. The less there is on the page, the fewer of these memories there are trying to be remembered. A simple combination can deliver powerful results. A simple combination, a simple solution, means there is less to absorb and understand, that is, the easier it is to ‘get it’ now and the easier it is to remember down the track.

Recreating a mood

Take a look at the following shots. The opening to A New Hope is something that everyone vividly remembers experiencing for the first time. An enormous, technological marvel passes over the audience, belittling a moon and surface of a planet as it menacingly chases it’s victim. This mammoth ship is light-years ahead of anything that we can fathom—it’s awe inspiring. It is this that the illustrators of Blue Harvest wanted to recapture. This feeling of awe and of shock. When it was first seen back in the day, it’s complexity was phenomenal, it was like nothing seen before. However as time has gone on, it has became less phenomenal in the world of Science Fiction. So the artists of Blue Harvest had to do what they could, to recreate that initial feeling of awe. So they added detail, more detail than the original. More lights, more compartments, more gidgets, more gadgets. Each one simple in its self, adding up to a more complicated whole.