By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
David H. Tanaka’s resume reads like a list of the most popular films of the past 20 years.
Not surprising, considering that his last employer was George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) and his current employer is Pixar.
The UC Berkeley graduate, whose latest credits include “Toy Story 3” and “Cars 2,” lives in Marin County and commutes across San Francisco Bay to Pixar’s studios in Emeryville. While with ILM, he lived in the East Bay and commuted west to Marin.
Tanaka joined ILM in 1990, starting out as first assistant to the head art director on “Hook” (1991), a live-action sequel to “Peter Pan” starring Robin Williams.
Tanaka moved up to visual effects editorial coordinator on such films as Steven Spielberg’s dinosaur epic “Jurassic Park” (1993) and the Jim Carrey comedy “The Mask” (1994), then assistant visual effects editor on “The Abyss” (director James Cameron’s cut) and “Forrest Gump” (1994), among others. The effects in the latter film included inserting Tom Hanks into footage of historic figures like Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon.
After serving as visual effects editor on “Jumanji” (1995), which featured a stampede of computer-generated animals, Tanaka became lead visual effects restoration editor on Lucas’ “Star Wars: Special Edition” trilogy, in which all of the visual effects in the original “Star Wars” movies were redone. He did similar work on the re-release of Spielberg’s “E.T.” and the DVD release of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
He was senior visual effects editor on “Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace” (1999) — which featured characters that were entirely CGI — as well as “101 Dalmatians” (1996), “Space Cowboys” (2000), Tim Burton’s “Planet of the Apes” (2001), and “Men in Black II” (2002), to mention a few. He worked closely with animators, compositors, and live-action picture editors.
Tanaka then joined Pixar, becoming one of the few to have worked at both companies.
“Considering that Pixar is approximately 1,200 employees total now, the percentage of those persons who have worked at both ILM and Pixar is rather miniscule,” he noted. “There are so many talented artists out there from so many diverse backgrounds and companies that it really surpasses the ‘Bay Area scene,’ and Pixar is very respectful and very much in tune to the global market, gathering such incredible talent from all over the world, which is one of their key strengths.”
Working with WALL•E
Tanaka said he moved to Pixar because “I felt that my 15-year growth at ILM as a visual effects editor was quite complete by 2005. I was able to evolve from an art department production assistant to an editorial coordinator to an assistant visual effects editor to finally a senior visual effects editor over those 15 years, and in the process really contribute to some ground-breaking feature film projects in regard to the digital revolution. By 2005, I felt really good about my contributions to the company, but at the same time felt that I should really challenge myself in other feature film mediums as a professional editor.
“In addition, my two sons, Mitchell and Benjamin, were 2 and 4 at the time I was contemplating joining Pixar, and I thought they would really have a fun time with Daddy working with Buzz and Woody (from ‘Toy Story’), Remy (‘Ratatouille’), Sully (‘Monsters Inc.’), WALL•E, Lightning McQueen (‘Cars’), etc.”
At Pixar, Tanaka serves as the lead for all editorial services regarding trailers, music videos, international releases and marketing needs for the entire studio. In that capacity, he acts as a co-editor and post-production supervisor for all trailers shown in theaters.
“For international releases, we have a very meticulous production pipeline procedure in which our feature films are constantly reviewed and re-reviewed to determine what graphical signage in the movie needs to be translated from English into a different country’s language in order for the narrative to still be just as effective in a foreign territory,” he explained.
“Because all of our content is ‘virtual,’ replacing English text — say a spy computer readout from ‘Cars 2,’ or Ellie’s ‘My Adventure Book’ from ‘Up’ — can be accomplished. However, it is a very detailed process which takes a lot of time and resources in a very compacted amount of time, requiring a lot of editorial ‘checks and balances’ in order to one day have an audience member in, for example, Russia say, ‘Wow! This movie’s in Russian. They must’ve made it just for me!’ ”
He added, “The ‘checks and balances’ aspect to the post-production process is very akin to what I did at ILM as a visual effects editor.”
In the area of marketing, Tanaka is responsible for editing special Pixar projects as they come up. For the 2009 Academy Awards, he put together a montage in which WALL•E looks at scenes from the “Best Animated Feature” nominees (based on the scene where the robot watches an old video of Hello, Dolly”). For this year’s Oscar ceremony, Tanaka assembled scenes from “Toy Story 3” that were projected behind Randy Newman as he sang a song from that movie, “We Belong Together.”
“Fortunately, both ‘WALL•E’ and Randy Newman won Oscars those respective years,” Tanaka said.
He also does assorted editorial support tasks for Pixar’s Theme Park Division, servicing attractions at the Disneyland Resorts.
Tanaka is already promoting Pixar’s latest, a fairy tale set in ancient Scotland with a female protagonist.
“Currently I’m working on a preview trailer for our next animated feature film, ‘Brave,’ which comes out next summer in 2012,” he said. “I love working on Pixar trailers, for they are quite challenging in very unique and specific ways — you’re very restricted by running time, around 2½ minutes in length, and you’re trying to give the general audience a ‘sense’ of the movie’s story, but not too much.
“You want to preserve some suspense, curiosity and anticipation in the months leading up to the film’s release and, on top of all of that, you’re trying behind the scenes to piece together animated footage which may take months to complete; created footage which has to be animated and rendered over hundreds of processing hours, involving hundreds of crew members.
“It’s not like you can just pick up a camera or use some footage that was shot ‘on set’ or ‘on location,’ like from a live-action feature film. Instead, it all has to be virtually created. Because of that, there is a lot of collaboration between the Pixar ‘Brave’ production crew, my department, Pixar Creative Film Services, Disney Studios and also Skywalker Sound, who does all of our sound mixing.
“We’re putting the finishing touches on the first official ‘Brave’ preview trailer right now for this fall and I’m very excited to see how moviegoers will respond to it!”
Reflecting on his career up to now, Tanaka said, “Computer graphics have certainly evolved over the 20-plus years I have been in the entertainment business, and I feel very fortunate to have been a part of the digital revolution in the early ’90s, when it really all came together at ILM on such films as ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day,’ ‘Jurassic Park’ and ‘Forrest Gump.’
“The important thing to remember, however, is that in the end the CGI medium is simply a tool for hopefully conveying a thought, a creation, a story, an artwork, an imagination, etc. locked in an artist’s head to hopefully be shared with a larger audience. What’s great at Pixar is that they certainly acknowledge and embrace that way of looking at the medium, and I’m amazed at how the studio strives first and foremost to make the best stories possible with the CGI animation art form in service to that end.
“Take for example Pixar’s short film ‘Day & Night’ from last year, intertwining CGI and traditional sketch animation to tell a story about acceptance and companionship. The CGI plus 2D animation execution for that production would simply be a gimmick if not for the story which audiences can relate to and embrace.”
On the side, Tanaka is a directed studies advisor for the Academy of Art in San Francisco (www.acaemyart.edu) and an advisory committee member for Ex’pression College for Digital Arts in Emeryville (www.expression.edu/), helping students and instructors with thesis projects as well as professional advice on the state of the industry as it relates to the up-and-coming next generation of digital artists.
“The importance of CGI in relation to a project’s intention is exactly what I am reinforcing to students and instructors all the time,” he said.
In addition, Tanaka is the San Francisco/Northern California sectional chairman for the Visual Effects Society (www.visualeffectssociety.com), a consortium of professional visual effects artists from around the world. There are also sections in Los Angeles, New York, Vancouver, London, New Zealand and Australia.
“Much of what we discuss in the VES revolves around the ‘state of the industry’ … not only the art of visual effects, animation and computer graphics, but more specifically, the ‘profession’ as it now relates to computer graphics,” he explained. “So there’s also that side to the CGI revolution as well — how you actually make a living as a CG artist, be it at a visual effects house or an animation house. There are a lot of changes over the last few years in regard to unions, the global market, outsourcing, tax incentives domestically as well as abroad. In that regard, the business of producing computer graphics has changed drastically.”
As a filmmaker, Tanaka has produced public service announcements for non-profit organizations and also entered video contests with his wife Dorianne, their kids and other family members taking part. In a 2009 Star Trek fan film contest, the family beat 75 other entries and won a trip to the Hollywood premiere of J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek.” Son Mitchell, who played Mr. Spock in the family’s video, got to meet the original Spock, Leonard Nimoy, and the new Spock, Zachary Quinto, both of whom starred in the movie.
The family has also entered contests to produce the best commercial for Doritos, Klondike Bar and Nestle’s Quick, as well as an “Obama in 30 Seconds” competition during the 2008 presidential campaign.
“I’m always up for a fun video contest challenge, especially with my family involved,” Tanaka said.
Currently, he is helping Mitchell with his own video production. “He’s a huge fan of the movie ‘Inception’ and has written a short film script based on the ‘Inception’ premise, which we’re having a grand time shooting with his friends and editing.”
His kids will definitely have a leg up if they decide to become part of that up-and-coming generation of digital artists.
On the Web: www.pixar.com