A supervising and directing animator who has been with Pixar from Monsters, Inc. through the upcoming Incredibles 2, Dave Mullins has always nursed the dream of directing a film of his own, pitching shorts to Pixar since 2005, and spending his nights and weekends in pursuit of his goal. Finally, in 2012, Mullins sold Pixar CCO John Lasseter and Oscar winner Pete Docter on LOU, a charming short with a unique central character and an anti-bullying message of which all parents can approve.
Preceding Cars 3 in theaters, LOU emerged fully-formed from Mullins’ life, as he watched his kids being bullied by their peers. The director dreamed up an “antagonist/protagonist situation” between a playground bully and a Lost and Found box come to life, who teaches the young boy a certain selflessness that warms the heart.
Below, Mullins details his long journey toward directing, discussing what he has learned about storytelling in his time amongst the most creative minds working in his artistic form.
You’ve been working at Pixar for almost 20 years, and Disney before that. How did you come to direct your first short with LOU?
Through a lot of perseverance, and not taking no for an answer when you pitch ideas that don’t necessarily go. I’ve been pitching ideas here at Pixar since about 2005 and it finally took hold around 2012. At the same time I was a directing animator and a supervising animator here, I’ve worked on films on nights and weekends, and write, and pitch when opportunities came up. I just kept doing that and learning from John Lasseter, Pete Docter, and all the great directors and writers here—just kept honing those skills, through a lot of trial and error.
How did the idea for this short come about?
A lot of times with our films, we look at our own lives to have a point of reference, or an emotional core for a film. For me, when I was a kid, I moved around a lot, and when you’re the new kid at school, you feel awkward, and sometimes you want to hide, or you feel invisible.
I was thinking about that sort of thing, like, What would it be like to have a character that’s on the playground that nobody can actually see? And I came up with this character that can kind of hide in plain sight.
After a couple iterations of the story, there was the idea of a kid that also wanted to be accepted, but hadn’t been totally socialized yet. His moral compass wasn’t really set. So, you take those two ideas of a character that can hide in plain sight—that’s like the lost and found box—like, “Oh, what if he’s the guardian, and he comes alive and protects the kids, and this kid starts stealing?” It was the perfect kind of antagonist/protagonist situation.
Once I had those two lined up, I felt that there was a really strong story there about: You have to stand up for yourself. Also, bullying is a big part of what my kids are dealing with, so all those things kind of lined up for me.
How did you arrive at the film’s visual style and pitch that to the Pixar team?
The character, LOU, was really interesting from an animation perspective, right off the bat. It’s this character that can take any shape, but he was made out of stuff that already existed. I don’t know if I’d really seen that before. I’m sure it exists somewhere, but I just thought, “Wow, this is going to be really cool.” I remember pitching it to Lasseter, and my wife had made the maquette of LOU—he’s in my office right here. When I pulled the sheet off of the maquette, Pete Docter and John Lasseter both rolled up their Aran chairs to the maquette and started playing with it, and we all got really excited, talking about what we could do with it.
What were the first steps taken in the making of this short?
In my earlier pitches, I would write it and board up the whole thing, and pitch that as a completed idea, which kind of cuts people out of the creative process a little bit. As I started to work on other ideas, I would keep my pitches shorter and shorter—because it is a short film, anyways. I would draw up some of the art of the characters, I would come up with a short pitch for it, which was a few minutes. You don’t want it to be longer than the actual film’s going to be, and you get people to buy into the character, and what the theme of the film is about.
For me, this character that gives himself away was really crazy cool. From an animation perspective, Lou’s such a cool character, so once you do that and get a green light to go into development, you start really fleshing it out, and writing, and boarding everything out.
LOU is, in large part, a silent film. What was appealing to you about that mode of storytelling?
It’s something that a lot of short films do—they kind of have no dialogue, and I felt like the whole film could be told without dialogue. If you don’t need it, it is a visual medium, and you want to show it that way. I never really considered dialogue. Being a first-time director, it’s good to be able to get your visual chops up—your visual storytelling—and if you can tell it like early silent films, I think it shows off your ability to at least communicate visually.
Then, you get this script and dialogue; that’s a whole other level of artistry that’s involved. So I think it makes it easier for you to communicate.
It’s interesting how Pixar shorts are always so distinct, while somehow feeling very much within the Pixar brand.
Yeah, the thing that’s really appealing for me about Pixar film is that they’re stories that are kind of universally accepted. You could be a four-year-old watching it, or an 80-year-old—whatever your age range is, there’s a way to relate to it. I think that’s one thing that Pixar specifically does really well, is make it appealing to a wide audience. I think it’s because there’s sort of a mixture of things that work on different levels. There’s a fun visual element to it, which is animation, which draws in kids.
We don’t really like mean films here—we like films that make you feel good, that have warmth. You have characters that are flawed and they grow, and when you get those arcs in a film and you really focus on that, that’s where the warmth comes from. We feel like those are the more important stories.
Pixar films also tend to really have something to say—Coco talks about death in an approachable way, while your film tackles bullying.
Yeah, strong themes. When I boiled down LOU, both of my kids were dealing with bullies at school, and we were dealing with them in different ways. You realize that these are young kids and they’re not fully formed people yet. They’re learning and they’re growing, and a lot of time’s there’s reasons for what they’re doing. So, sometimes you can talk your way through it, sometimes you have to take action, and for me, thematically, LOU was a little bit of both. LOU had to stand up to this bully, which I thought was really important, something to pass on to my kids.
But also, when he did turn and start doing the right thing, LOU accepted him. That was really the thing—he wanted to be accepted, and he was just going about it all wrong.
Was it daunting to be suddenly holding the reins on an entire project?
It’s kind of like getting the keys to an F1 and you’re like, “Oh my gosh, this goes fast! Help me!” I’ve directed commercials before, but not written and directed my own story. It’s great because I have great relationships with the people here. I come from the animation department, but I’ve also worked with the other departments, and being able to call the shots, the way I see the film, that’s really exciting—and nerve-wracking. I’m not sure I slept really well at any point on this film. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
What have you learned as a storyteller in your time at Pixar?
The great thing about animation is we have something that no other medium has. We can actually do anything we want. A lot of times, you’ll see animation studios do exactly what they want, and everything’s perfect. We were in dailies today with Brad Bird on Incredibles 2, and he was saying, “In some of these action scenes, they always stick the landing, and it’s 100% perfect. We need to be more live live action, where if you’re going through this conflict, going through action, you don’t stick the landing. You overshoot.” You’re constantly readjusting,and it makes it feel more real.
There’s probably 1000 elements like that that go into making a film, and really it’s kind of like, What is your taste? I think the thing that’s great about the creative leadership at Pixar is that they have really impeccable taste.
Are you looking to one day direct a full-length feature for Pixar?
That would be a dream come true—maybe a nightmare and a dream all wrapped into one. The directors here are so incredibly talented, and you see what they go through, and it’s like, Oh, do I want that? But that’s definitely the goal. That’s the dream, and I’m just trying to work up to that.
Do you feel any more prepared to take that on after this experience?
Well, maybe falsely, a little bit. Because it’s my first time out of the gate. But I listen to the other directors here, and they all say, “Every story’s different. You think you’ve got something figured out, you go into your next story and it’s like, Oh my God. It’s a whole new set of challenges.” “It never gets easier,” is what I’ve heard consistently. It doesn’t get easier, especially if you care about it.
We’re lucky that we’re in a studio that will continue to work on the story until it’s right, and not give up on that. I feel really fortunate about that.
What are you working on now?
I’m a supervising animator on Incredibles 2 and we’re working like gangbusters to make that movie come to life. I’m having a great experience on that. It’s really fun working with Brad and the team here. Beyond that, I don’t really have any clear plans, but I’m definitely interested in directing—so we’ll see what happens.