Since 1999 Ted Mathot has been one of the stalwart creative forces at Pixar. Starting as a story artist on classics such as Cars, Ratatouille and WALL•E, moving up to be story supervisor on the Incredibles 2. Like Brad Bird Mathot traces his career back to The Simpsons, injecting that trademark wit and levity into the work he does to shape these mighty projects.
For the home release of Incredibles 2 Mathot was able to take the reigns as director, helming the animated short Auntie Edna. A brisk look at the night that the baby Jack Jack spent at the fashionista Edna’s home, this adventure in babysitting adds some delightful additional content to the film’s home release.
We spoke to Mathot about his wide ranging career and how he’s seen the artform change over the last few decades.
What might the average audience member misunderstand about the role of a story supervisor when it comes to animation?
Basically I’m a sounding board for the director in terms of the story. I also have a team of artists that I supervise creatively and they’re the ones that produce the drawn version of the film that we use for our testing purposes within the studio. I’m also responsible for having the whole movie in my head, where we’re at, where we’ve been and where we’re going. If anybody on the production has questions, they can come to me to answer. A director is a level up generally from story supervisor, or head of the story as we call it sometimes, so who oversees the heads of all the departments.
You started doing boards, and for animation this seems particularly critical How are you doing things differently than you do when you direct? If you’re on set, you’d be basically doing, as the French say, the metteur en scene, the placer in the scene, but as storyboard artist in the visual medium, I would think that you’d basically have, for that one scene, directorial control. It seems to me in animation that your jump from being a story artist to a story supervisor to a director isn’t quite as dramatic as it might be in live action.
Yeah, that’s a good observation. As storyboard artists we are like mini directors because we will get the script, and we’ll place the cameras and do at least the initial acting for the characters for the story reel.
Perhaps it’s sort of like a TV series director still has to deal with the supervising producer…
In animation it’s very specific to the director as well. As a director and head of story or story supervisor communicate and collaborate, it’s different from show to show and director to director. Working with Brad Bird is very different from when I’m working with Pete Doctor, for example.
Can you articulate that difference?
With Pete the head of story is with him in the editorial process a little bit more. With Brad, he’s pretty much by himself and the editor in the editorial process. On Incredibles 2 that freed me up to be drawing a lot more.
Which is, I assume, is on some level really satisfying, but on other you’re maybe shaping the film on a different level?
True. I like drawing when I’m supervising because I can set the bar for the rest of the team, so that they know what’s expected. I also get to pitch the scenes so they can see how Brad likes the scenes to be pitched in. So it’s a good learning experience for people on the show who might be a little bit greener.
You worked on The Simpsons in traditional 2D animation. Are finding as somebody who bridged the worlds between traditional animation and CGI that Pixar that as the tools improve there’s no creative limitation necessarily on the CGI front? Or is there still
I remember from my first week at Pixar, I was boarding a scene for Monsters, Inc., and it’s Mike and Sully having a snowball fight in the Himalayan snowstorm, and David Silverman, who was a co-director, who I’ve known for a number of years…
…Another Simpsons guy
Yeah, exactly! I asked are they going to come and get me, like rough me up for drawing this? And he’s like, “no man, story first!” Our technical people are so good, they’ll find a way to do it. That’s how it’s always been for me, from the very early days at Pixar. It’s always about story. In terms of storyboarding and live action and everything, a movie screen is flat, and so is a piece of paper. So, if it can be on a screen, we can draw it.
You’re essentially doing lens selection and everything when you’re doing storyboarding, how does the cinematography affect your choices?
With Photoshop we can actually simulate different lenses using the blur tool. I love that you brought that up because I didn’t think of it – When we’re doing boards, especially for someone like Brad, he will call out focal lengths on lenses for storyboard artists and that’s not common. He’ll say I want a really long lens on this and we have now depth of field. In Photoshop we can blur out the foreground and the background and you get that feeling. For example, on the family dinner scene he’ll say I want to pull the camera back and put a longer lens on it. If you’re boarding for Brad, you have to understand what that means and how to draw that.
In one of your interviews you mentioned that Bird asked to not the difference between a John Landis take and Cohen Brothers look. Is part of working for Brad Bird just making sure that you’re up on his cultural references?
Absolutely. That was when we were working on The Simpsons together and it just stuck with me. I love both of those directors, all of those directors equally, it’s just that the stylistic choice that he wanted to see in that particular shot. He’ll call out directors all of the time, he’ll call out specific things in films, he may call out a specific piece of business the character is doing in a film. You kind of have to be up on that stuff, it’d get to a point where he’d call out one too many and I realized I had to knuckle down and start watching some more films.
Are you watching live action and thinking oh, interesting compositionally, and then incorporate that into your own stuff?
All the time. Yep. Always learning. We have libraries of shots in our heads that we pull from, and I feel like the more films we see, especially the good ones, the bigger the library gets, and then those shots can inform other shots.
Would you say that there’s a particular reservoir that you draw from more than others, and one that might surprise us?
Not particularly. I’ve been doing this for so long now, 25 years, that I have my own reservoir that I pull from and it just happens to be added to periodically now and then. If I see a film that does something in a slightly different way, or tells a particular story beat that’s common or familiar in a new way…
Then you draw from it.
In terms of making your short film and the development of that, could you talk about the challenges and the thrills of doing that.
There’s two kinds of challenges. One is the time and the budget challenge, because these DVD shorts don’t have the kind of latitude that our theatrical shorts do. We have to work in a time frame and a budget that’s roughly half and forces us to be more creative with what we have already built. The Edna short was like that. They asked me to keep everything within the lab. I pushed to have a shot of the kitchen in there. We couldn’t have any new characters. WE couldn’t have any new costumes or anything like that. So that’s a limitation where we need to stick to this as much as we can. Having worked with Brad so many times over the years, you have to push for certain things, and that’s what we did. Jack-Jack having new powers was not something that was originally on the table, but we pushed for it and we got it and that’s essential in being a filmmaker. It’s something I picked up from Brad – Know which battles you want to fight and which ones you want to just let go.
Is there a specific career path within the world of Pixar? I know the shorts traditionally were excellent ways to develop new technology, that the short would be a way to develop stuff that would be used later. Does the theatrical short lead you to do a feature, or does it not work that way?
It doesn’t work that way anymore. I’ll be honest, I’m not 100% sure what the trajectory is now. I think that’s something that’s kind of in flux at this studio, because as you said it was a place to test that new technology at one point, it was a place to get experience and training for new directors. We seem to be a little bit more all over the map on that these days, so I think that’s in question right now, what the purpose will be.
I’m sort of dancing around some of the changes at the top, but explicitly, you’ve been in and around Pixar for so long, if you could talk about the general sense of continued adventurousness, of continuing to push at the envelope at the studio, and how that’s reflected in your own work?
What I love about Pixar is that they’re not going to shy away from an idea that’s unusual. Pete Doctor is the driving force in doing stuff that’s extremely challenging. Inside Out for example – we’re going to do a movie about a child’s emotions! It’s incredibly difficult to pull off, especially at the level that we achieved. I think Pete’s going to continue to innovate in that way, and that’s awesome.
Was there a particular film or a particular work that first got you excited about animation and are there other elements, other types of animation or visual media frankly, that maybe directly influence your work but might not get incorporated in your work? Something like Miyazaki that you would never necessarily compose that way, but something that you actually admire tremendously?
The earliest animation was probably, the old Warner Bros. Saturday morning we would watch Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett from back in the day. I loved the way things moved and that was probably the earliest fascination. You talk about Miyazaki – when I went to art school, it was the early days of anime entering our portfolio, but also as an art form. You’d go to the comic shop and they’d have fan subs, VHS tapes of Japanese animated. And of course there were video games like “Cliffhanger”, which was basically The Castle of Cagliostro cut into pieces and turned into a game, so those were probably the earliest influences. And then of course, Disney movies growing up!
Was there ever a sense when you started that you thought CGI would not be the way that you wanted your artistry to go? Were you ever an analog purist?
Oh, absolutely. My first job was the Ren and Stimpy show and I was die hard 2D animation fan to the core. A friend of mine who was working at Disney dragged me literally kicking and screaming to Toy Story. I went and I was blown away, and that changed me forever in how I looked at it and here I am!
It was obviously an aesthetic transition, but on a technological basis, was it a challenge? Were there moments where it was like, oh, goddammit I just want to be able to do this with a piece of paper and a pencil, but I’m having to deal with all of this tech level frustration? A the directorial level, on the top level that you’re at now, whether there are moments that you have something in your head that you know you can accomplish in a relatively straightforward way with a pencil and a piece of paper, that just with CG is just not able to come across?
In terms of the Edna short, no. Not at all. We just feel so fortunate, we have so many of the best people in the world. We have the best actors in the world, and our animators, and anything that I threw at the team, they were able to pull off, and they were able to pull off amazingly well. So in that instance, no.
Thank you so much for your time, it’s a thrill to speak with you, and I look forward to your next projects. I hope it does lead to whatever you want to do, taking some of your magic and translating it to the big screen wouldn’t be so bad at all.
It would be awesome. Thank you!