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Practice Makes Perfect: An Interview with Pixar's Dave Mullins About His Short Film, 'LOU'

November 7, 2017Ben MK

If you're a fan of Pixar, you know they're about more than just feature films. In fact, it was the release of their very first animated short, 1986's Luxo Jr., that put Pixar on the map; and ever since then, the studio has been constantly innovating and using the short film format to drive the storytelling medium forward.

Their latest, LOU, which played in theaters alongside the third installment of the Cars franchise this past summer, is the perfect example. And now that Cars 3 is available to own, I had a chance to catch up with LOU's writer/director, Dave Mullins, to talk about his experiences working at Pixar and his journey making the film.

What made you decide to try your hand at writing and directing your own short?

Mullins: Well, I fell in love with movies and animation when I was a kid. Actually, it's funny, I studied painting, but I never really thought that making films was an actual profession. I didn't think you could do it; it just wasn't done where I come from. And so in college, when I found an old computer with Alias on it, I started making films, and once I started working with that, I never looked back.

I got to Pixar in about 2000, after I had worked at Disney and Digital Domain and a couple different places like Sony Pictures Imageworks. I always knew that I wanted to make a film, because I had made some films in college which were just animation clips that I was working on. I was pretty much self-taught, and once I got to Pixar, I just decided, "I'm going to make a film; I want to direct." I love animation, so I was just pursuing those dreams and basically trying to learn from the best.

I got to work with Pete Docter and John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton, and I just studied what they did; I read the books that they suggested; and they were very supportive of me, and I just sort of continued to learn. And so I started pitching short film ideas in 2005, and it wasn't until 2012 that I came up with LOU. I got to direct some Cars commercials and some Monsters Inc. commercials, things like [that] before, but never anything that I had solely written myself. So I was very excited about that.

Where did the idea for LOU come from? Is there a personal connection or story you care to share?

Mullins: Yeah, it came from me just being a kid. I moved around a lot, so, you know, you always feel awkward when you're walking into a new group of kids. It made me feel like I just wanted to hide or be invisible or something like that, and I was thinking about that for one of the film ideas. I pitched three of them, and the last time I pitched I was like, "I wonder if there was a creature that could hide in plain sight, but [who] wanted to be accepted by kids." So I came up with this creature at a school that basically was stealing all these toys.

And I pitched that idea, and John Lasseter gave me a great note. Because there was this little kid underneath all of it, he said, "Why don't you just get rid of the little kid underneath it, and just do what the title of the film is, which is Lost and Found." So I went back and rewrote it from that perspective and made the little kid that was the thing underneath all of it his own character, which was this kind of bully character who didn't really know how to interact with kids. And once I split those two things out and made LOU just a lost and found box, it's like, "Oh! There it is. That's the idea." And it was kind of obvious at that point.

How long did it take to turn LOU from an idea into a finished product?

Mullins: It's funny, because shorts actually take a long time. And it's not because it takes a long time to make shorts. It's because you have to fit [them] into these little pauses between the bigger productions — the features — and there's just not that many pauses. I got green-lit in early 2013, [but] I didn't get to really start storyboarding it until the end of 2013. Then I got about 6 months to work on it, got the story approved, and then I had to go and work on Inside Out. And so I just kept on having these little 6-months stints that I could work on it. I'd say, all in all, it was probably about a year and a half or so, but in [terms of] actual production [time] it was maybe 9 months to a year.

How did your experiences working on previous Pixar titles benefit or maybe challenge you when it came to creating LOU?

Mullins: Working with these directors, they are so thoughtful of their films. You're spending every day with them, they're talking about their philosophies — about what makes a great story, what makes great characters, what makes animation interesting, what sets Pixar apart. And that really inspired me. So when it came to making LOU, I knew I wanted this character to kind of run around and change shapes and do all this other stuff.

I knew that was going to be the big challenge, and once we started working on it, where we wanted to put all our money was into the two main characters, which was J.J. and especially LOU, to make sure that he really lived up to this thing that I haven't really seen before — a character made out of all this different stuff — but [was] also really appealing and [had] a lot of heart. And it was really tough for the animators to animate the character; there were 26 or 27 different pieces they had to animate by hand.

You mentioned John Lasseter and the other people at Pixar were very supportive. Did they give you any advice that you really took to heart when you were making the movie?

Mullins: Definitely, all the time. You know, Pete Docter and John Lasseter were both my executive producers, which meant that I would have these milestone reviews where I would work with them, and they would give incredible advice. I learned so much on the film. At one point, we were trying to get the story reels up and trying to convey as much emotion as possible, [and] I actually was doing the voice of LOU. And, you know, there is no voice to LOU in the final cut.

And John said, "Hey, you know what? Can we just play back the edit without the vocalizations in there?" And we played it back, and I was surprised; it was so much better, because it was just the noises and twangs and sounds. And so [John]'s passing all that knowledge onto all of his filmmakers, and it was just amazing learning these things. Dana Murray, who's a producer, and I, we both look at it like a crash course kind of film school. And man, what a great learning experience it was.

What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers hoping to one day write or direct their own short?

Mullins: My advice would be: do not give up. If you want to do it, go and do it. Just know that the first thing that you write, the first thing that you draw, you're going to feel like it sucks and [that] it's not great and it's not worthy. And you just have to keep working at it until it gets better. Filmmaking, I feel, is really about just keeping at it until you can make it match what your tastes are. Because I feel like, as artists, our tastes are very, very high. We have a very, very great aesthetic. But it's really the process of learning what makes a movie great, what makes a character feel emotional.

And so, for beginning filmmakers, I'd say the most important thing you can do is make it. And continue to make films. And the more you make it, the better you'll get. And that's really what it's about; you have to do it over and over again. I pitched short film ideas from 2005 until 2012, and every time I pitched, every time I re-storyboarded, every time I rewrote, the stories got a little better and a little better, until I came up with LOU. And so that would be my advice to beginning filmmakers, is just don't give up.

What's next for you? Do you already have the idea for your next short film, or are you maybe looking at directing a feature?

Mullins: Yeah, I would love to direct a feature. That's definitely my goal. Right now I am supervising animation on Incredibles 2, I'm currently writing, and I'll always be pitching ideas at Pixar. But yeah, that's the goal, to direct a feature film.

LOU and Cars 3 are now available to own on Digital HD, 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and DVD.

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