March 14, 2017
SXSW 2017

Pixar's New Short Film, 'Lou': How an Animator Became a Writer-Director

Dave Mullins: "This was my film school: pitching to Pete Docter and John Lasseter, and having them give me notes."

Every kid's imagination revels in secret lives, whether it's objects that come to life when we turn our backs or monsters that emerge from the darkness. In Pixar's new short film, Lou, many different objects come to life to form one big, benevolent monster.

When recess is over and the kids flock back to their classrooms, toys, gadgets, and items of clothing are left strewn all about the playground. Lou, made of kids' stuff from the lost and found, subsumes these objects into his being. When class lets out, he returns them to their owners. The kids are elated, as if receiving gifts for the first time.

If this sounds just like the kind of film Pixar might make, that's because it was helmed by a long-time Pixar animator. Dave Mullins has worked at Pixar for 15 years, bringing films such as Up, Inside Out, Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc., and more to life. On weekends, he wrote, scrapped, and rewrote pitches for John Lasseter, Pete Docter, and his other mentors at the company. For years, his ideas were passed over—until Lou.

No Film School sat down with Mullins and producer Dana Murray to discuss the writer/director's evolution, the rigorous process of pitching at Pixar, and what makes a good story. Lou will screen before Cars 3, which opens June 16.

"You're going to face a lot of doors shutting in your face."

No Film School: You were an animator at Pixar for many years. This is your first film as writer/director. How did you make that transition? 

Dave Mullins: While I was animating or supervising animation, on weekends and nights I wrote, boarded, and kept pitching, pitching, pitching. My wife, luckily, supported me where I needed a Saturday just to draw and write. I just did it on my own time. That's how much of the shorts directors do it—they do that on their own time. You're not really invited in to come and write a story. Most people come to Pixar with a passion project and say, "I've got this idea I'd like to pitch." 

NFS: What was special about this pitch, do you think, that made it catch the attention of everybody at Pixar? 

Mullins: It was really Lou [the main character]. He is such an interesting character—something we haven't seen before. At his core, he longs to give lost things back. Story is conflict, so you get a bully as his foil, and that makes a really interesting story. Plus, he can make all these great shapes. 

Dana Murray: It's only something you can do in animation. Early on, the concept was super exciting to everyone that saw the pitch. 

NFS: Pixar is known for its rigorous process of development. Do shorts go through the same process? 

Murray: Yeah, they do. Every project takes [its] own path. Some go quickly; some take a lot longer. Dave was in development a long time. [Shorts] have to fit between the features—you get resources when you can.

"I never looked at is as, 'Those guys, they just don't get it!' I was like, 'This must not be good enough yet.'"

Mullins: I started pitching short ideas in 2005. I've gone through multiple rounds of [development]. I was focused on animation for most of my career, and I love film. I was studying film and reading books about film, but this was my film school: pitching to Pete Docter and John Lasseter, and having them come back and give me notes on my film, tell me what's working and what's not. I did that for years, and it was a great education for me. I never looked at is as, "Those guys, they just don't get it!" I was like, "This must not be good enough yet."

I haven't quite learned what the secret sauce is. I think once I got to Lou, that idea really hit enough people the right way in the studio. 

'Lou' storyboardCredit: Pixar
NFS: What are some things you learned in your film school with them? 

Murray: Dave always had a really clear vision of what he thought the film should be, then you're kind of navigating the notes as you go through. Everyone always has a different vision of the film. A big part of our film school is deciding, "Okay, how do we keep Dave's vision, but also [incorporate] these good notes we're getting?" It's really navigating which ones you take, and which ones you're like, "You know what, it's not going to work for this."

Mullins: Sometimes you just have to try things. We would try things and I'd be like, "This definitely doesn't fit with what I want."

Murray: But you'd always learn something from it.

"Even when you don't feel like believing in yourself, keep believing in yourself. Keep pushing those ideas."

Mullins: By trying different approaches to the film, we found some great stuff that ended up being in the film. I think that's a really interesting thing at Pixar—you're always trying these different doors. You know what you want, but you have to keep trying these different doors until you find the exact right thing.

Every time there was a note, or I felt like it wasn't hitting just right, it felt like a failure. But making film is about not looking at it as failure—looking at it like we tried this, it didn't work, let's try and find the better thing. 

NFS: What advice do you have for aspiring animators that also want to be writer/directors? 

Mullins: Just don't give up. You're going to face a lot of failure. You're going to face a lot of doors shutting in your face. Even when you don't feel like believing in yourself, keep believing in yourself. Keep pushing those ideas. Maybe this idea isn't the right one, but if you keep at it, you will find the right idea and you will make it happen. Don't give up!


For more, see our complete coverage of the 2017 SXSW Film Festival.

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