Pixar’s LOU is the latest in the studio's long line of wonderful animated shorts, but its journey to the screen was anything but easy. For animator turned first-time director Dave Mullins, this was a labor of love. ““I’ve been pitching short film ideas since 2005,” the short’s Director recalls, “And nothing really took hold at the studio.”
The old adage “Write what you know” certainly applies to how LOU took shape. “Then I thought about my childhood. When I was a kid, we moved around a lot. My dad was very ambitious which meant that he was always getting promoted, getting sent to a new location. We had to move every year or so. And being the new kid, it was tough to leave old friends behind and make new friends at the schools. At times, you’d either feel invisible or you wanted to feel invisible because you didn’t know anybody.”
That experience and the concept of feeling invisible lead Dave down the path of creating a character, a boy who surrounded himself with stolen toys so nobody could see him, which once again got turned down (despite concept art containing toys from Toy Story and Star Wars characters). But Dave didn’t give up on the idea and went back to the drawing board, splitting the two concepts apart: an invisible character that finds joy from reuniting kids with their lost toys and his natural enemy, a boy who steals them.
“I thought about that experience and it gave me an idea for an invisible character who could hide in plain sight at an elementary school and was longing to be accepted by other kids. Something kind of funny and kind of creepy, I wanted to kind of balance those things at the same time.”
One of the many ways that LOU stands out from every short that has come before it is the design of the title character. “I enlisted my wife, Lisa, who is a stop motion animator, and asked her to build an actual LOU maquette. I fell in love with it and we discovered this very cool thing about using real objects. You can get expressions just from turning the baseballs, so if you turn them in you’ve got an angry expression, you turn them out he’s kind of surprised. This is when LOU really started to come to life.”
Dave brought the maquette to his next pitch and after revealing the figure, both John Lasseter and Pete Docter got close and began to play with it. Dave recalls Lasseter’s immediate reaction: “This looks like a pain in the ass to do, we’ve gotta make this!”
A pain it certainly was! Since LOU is comprised of various objects that can come apart and be rearranged to create different shapes, the entire character had to be animated by hand. However, the creative team was able to save time elsewhere, with most of the school yard populated by kids from background scenes in Finding Dory and even the bully, J.J., being an altered student from Riley’s class in Inside Out.
“A secret thing about J.J. is that the initials stand for Joyce Jean, which is my mom’s name and she was like ‘David, do you think I’m a bully?’ I was like, ‘No, mom, it’s an homage,’ but every time she sees it she asks me that question.” While J.J.’s name is an in-joke for Dave and his family, he also inserted a few homages to some of his favorite filmmakers. “There’s references to Brad Bird films, there’s references to Spielberg, there’s a lot of stuff in there. My favorite reference is probably E.T., him looking like E.T.” While Dave didn’t clarify further, LOU typically uses a red sweatshirt to take form, which is reminiscent of the one Elliot wears in the film.
The most interesting thing I learned was that the short has actually been in the can for over a year. In fact, it experienced a production delay when The Good Dinosaur needed help from the LOU animation unit. It makes you wonder what other Pixar shorts are completely finished and awaiting release (and if any are further delayed by Olaf’s Frozen Adventure debuting with Coco). But I think we can all agree that LOU is a fantastic short and that Dave Mullins deserves another chance at directing.