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Interview: David Tanaka on ‘Pixar in Concert’!

Note: This Q&A was conducted by contributor Leo Holzer.

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The following is an email interview I had with David Tanaka, the Creative Editor of Pixar in Concert. I’d like to thank Tanaka for his detailed answers and Chris Wiggum at Pixar for arranging the interview.

Q: Please tell me about the process. What prompted the Pixar in Concert idea? How easy was it to get everyone on board and how long did it take from idea to this past weekend’s event?
Tanaka: The entire process for Pixar in Concert actually took around two-plus years, starting in 2010. Show produces Brice Parker and Laurel Ladevich and myself were in constant communication with Pete Docter, Jonas Rivera, and John Lasseter over that period of time, as we sharpened the conceptual approach to the concert, reached out to all the Pixar directors, producers, and music composers, and refined the evolving edited musical suites for each of the Pixar movies to be featured in the performance.

It really all started with a simple, "What if we did a concert on the music of Pixar?" from Brice Parker to Pete Docter. Pete, whose mother is a music instructor and has a strong musical background himself, loved the idea. Based on his interest in the proposal, I started editing a few "sample cuts" on some of the Pixar films in accordance with the base idea. I believe the first few edits included UP, Finding Nemo and the first two Toy Story movies.

After review with Pete and Jonas Rivera, the results were then shown to Disney Music Publishing’s Chris Montan and Tom MacDougall. They in turn embraced the idea and encouraged us to continue to pursue the project.

A few edited iterations and additions later and we had a formal presentation to show to John Lasseter in one of Pixar’s screening review rooms. John also loved the idea and agreed that the concert should really be only about the music – no dialogue at all from the Pixar movies to interrupt the audience’s pleasure listening to the musical scores, very limited sound effects only to enhance the point of the music if need be, and imagery directly from the movies themselves with no additional "bonus material" such as behind-the-scenes conceptual artwork or crew photos.

This would instead be "all about the music", as it relates to what the audiences members themselves experienced when they first enjoyed the Pixar movies through the years.

With this set of parameters understood and agreed upon, a constant stream of editing was produced and sent to Pete and John as our creative executives over the coming months. Given both individuals’ busy schedules and other company commitments, this often resulted in a lot of QuickTime movie files generated and many "iPad" reviews. They in turn would give Brice Parker, Laurel Ladevich and myself cut content feedback via email or voicemail, with occasional formal review get-togethers wherever possible.

We would also arrange for individuals such as music composer Michael Giacchino to stop by my Avid Media Composer edit suite from time to time to review certain cuts (specifically The Incredibles, Ratatouille and Up in Michael’s case). Michael in particular was very gracious with his time, offering great suggestions not only with musical selections, but also pointers on how, for example, to rhythmically transition from low melodies to extremely fast-paced scores and vice-versa in certain cases.

Q: What was your role as creative editor?
Tanaka: My role as Creative Editor entailed performing all edits for the entire set of Pixar musical concert suites, from the first rough-cut conceptual passes to final online polishing. The process involved collaborating with all of the Pixar directors, producers, and music composers to ensure that my personal selection of music and related animated imagery jibed with their expectations for each of the 13 Pixar animated features to date.

Q: Tell me more about the selection and order of clips to support the underlying music.
Tanaka: I was pretty much left to my own accord regarding how to initially approach musical selection and accompanying Pixar picture content. With the amount of creative control I was given, I thought it best to approach the editing process by simply asking myself as a moviegoer, "What are my fondest memories from each of the Pixar movies?" For that reason picture and music were often cut together, directly from each Pixar movie as they were synced for original feature film release, as a starting point.

(But) we had two major challenges throughout the editorial process regarding edited content:

1 – Core Narrative Theme Per Film: Since this concert project is to celebrate the music of Pixar, we don’t necessarily want to re-tell the entire story of each movie, from start to finish, in some kind of condensed cut version. We knew we could pretty much assume that persons paying for tickets to experience this concert had seen most of the Pixar movies, if not all of them. Therefore, from an editorial standpoint, the challenge became how to craft one’s favorite moments from the films into some central narrative core theme or message per movie.

In the case of Ratatouille, for example, it was Remy’s "joy of cooking" over, say, Linguini’s romance story with Collette or his butting heads with Sous Chef Skinner. For Finding Nemo, it was the father/son relationship between Marlin and Nemo despite how entertaining the banter between Marlin and Dory was to watch. For Up, it was — no question — all about Carl Fredricksen’s love for his best friend and wife, Ellie, despite his newfound relationships with Russell, Kevin the bird and talking dog, Dug, in the movie.

In making these clear cut decisions to focus on specific narrative themes, it helped shape the direction of my edits further away from just being "best of" or "highlights" montage reels.

Adhering to this approach of conveying narrative themes as best as possible, however, sometimes meant breaking with the actual chronological unfolding of events as originally presented in the movies.

For Monsters, Inc., for example, to tell the story of Sully’s caring for Boo we needed to first explain how the factory "scare floor" actually worked, with its access to children’s multiple bedrooms. To show how sad it was for Sully to leave Boo behind before he reopens her bedroom door at the end of the movie, however, I decided to introduce the characters’ sad parting scene in "flashback", right before Sully opens the door. Such an arrangement deviated from the feature film, but gave the best emotional payoff possible for the concert audience while at the same time complementing Randy Newman’s underlying score.

Another example is WALL-E in which it was decided early on that we would focus on the romance between the little trash compacting robot and E.V.E, as opposed to the story of "humans in space". Such scenes struck an emotional chord with moviegoers and also offered some of the most beautiful scores Thomas Newman created for the film. In order to center on the romance theme, however, we felt we needed to remind audiences of WALL-E’s personality first – his humor and sense of awe. Again breaking from original feature film release narrative order, I decided to first showcase scenes in which WALL-E comically sifts through trash in his "day job", as well as when he takes in the wonders of the universe upon leaving Earth. Although WALL-E first meets E.V.E. before leaving his home planet, presenting concert audiences with his tour of the universe first made for a better understanding as to why WALL-E is so awe-inspired by E.V.E.‘s ability to fly (when she was introduced on Earth) and how easy it was to immediately fall in love with her.

2 – Concert Performance Time Constraints: The other challenge to editing this concert was purely logistical: time. Working closely with San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall, we determined that a concert event of this type should run approximately 90 minutes in total length, with a 20-minute intermission included. With 13 Pixar feature animated motion pictures to account for, that roughly determined that each of my edited suites should run for as short as four minutes to as long as seven or eight minutes, but no longer. Given the adherence to highlighting particular narrative themes per movie and the ability to shift scenes out of sequence, I could cut in accordance to such time constraints, and as a whole deliver edited concert material within the requested 70-minute total running time.

In the final stages of production, my job as Creative Editor also entailed final video projection quality checks with Brice Parker and Laurel Ladevich prior to the actual live performances at San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall, connecting with Disney Music Publishing’s team of Johnathan Heely and Ed Kainins to go over technical concerns regarding smooth video projection playback rates and cross-comparing conductor versus audience synced video footage, and also communicating with Music Arranger, Mark Watters, regarding any last (minute) questions or suggestions during rehearsals with Conductor Sarah Hicks and the Davies Symphony Orchestra.

Q: I found it interesting that the music wasn’t shown in chronological order starting with Toy Story and ending with Brave. Knowing Pixar, I knew there was some thought given to the program arrangement. Can you tell me more about the decision-making?
Tanaka: It was such an interesting selection process to go through regarding concert program arrangement, for we definitely had several key points of criteria to consider. Right from the start, however, the one fact we knew didn’t make any sense to adhere to was the chronological order in which the Pixar movies were originally released. "So what," right? As personal fans of cinema ourselves, our love of movies really has no bearing on compartmentalizing feature films to what specific year they were shown to the public for the very first time. (We just love them!)

Bryond starting the concert with Pixar’s first film Toy Story as sort of an homage to "the little film company that could", the program arrangement of the other movies came down to other factors. Those factors included:

  • who the Pixar director and music composer were for each production
  • if that particular production was a Pixar sequel
  • and, the resulting overall tone of the piece I ended up editing to represent each movie.

We really felt that the specific movies per each of our five Pixar directors (Andrews, Bird, Docter, Lasseter, and Stanton) should be equally spread across the program as opposed to being clumped together since there may be aesthetic similarities if we group one filmmaker’s body of work one after another. Why not instead spread them out?

Similarly, we felt that our four Pixar music composers (Doyle, Giacchino, R. Newman and T. Newman) should also be separated across the entire concert so their composing styles could be best appreciated played in contrast to one another, as opposed to being performed one after another.

In addition, it only made sense that Pixar sequels (such as sequels for the Toy Story and Cars sagas) should be separated from one another in the program so they could be appreciated on their own merits, and not unfairly condensed down as if to imply that they together represent just one story and individually nothing more.

Lastly,, the final edited suite I created for each Pixar movie was then assessed for content and the resulting overall tone that was created. For example, The Incredibles and Cars 2  suites I cut really celebrated the action adventure spirit contained in each of those films, therefore they should perhaps not be placed next to each other in order to give the audience variety spread across the entire concert.

On the other end of the spectrum, Finding Nemo and Up evolved into offering two of our most dramatic and emotional suites for the evening, therefore they should intentionally be set apart from each other for optimum audience appreciation.

David Tanaka then volunteered some "closing thoughts":

As mentioned, the entire process lasted for (more than) two years, with much collaboration and back and forth communication from all involved. It was truly a fun process for myself and everyone involved, all in the name of our love of musical scores.

In addition to the satisfaction of representing our Pixar movies, directors, music composers and movie soundtracks as best as possible, having audience members experience and enjoy Pixar’s 13 movies through music and just in the span of a mere 90-minute concert performance was an extremely rewarding experience for me as the project’s Creative Editor, and hopefully for the audience as well!

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Have you experienced Pixar in Concert?

One Response to Interview: David Tanaka on ‘Pixar in Concert’!

  1. Anonymous says:

    How are you doing today?

    Here’s my other email address: helenscott025@gmail.com

    No, I haven’t seen Pixar in Concert yet, but I hope to see it soon., On the same note, the ideas continue to assemble towards my 60s musical idea for the Disney Hollywood, California theme park. The outline is finished, and the structure is together. In all, I have four separate issues for television.

    In the early stages of tv development, it will be a push for new viewership. In the form of a introductory musical and photo presentation, adding some ‘World of Color” tidbits, and other segments, will bring forth something unique and different to ABC. And this could branch out to other Disney channels.

    And when it comes to the movies, the sky is the limit. I guess you all are prepping for Monsters, Inc., it will be good. I’m trying to get this video together to send, and it should be ready by tomorrow. I have to use someone else’s equipment. I’m looking forward to an update from Disney.

    Sincerely,
    Helen Harris-Scott

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