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Tue. Jul 16th, 2024

Why Anxiety from ‘Inside Out 2’ is Relatable

By meerna Jul11,2024
Why Anxiety from ‘Inside Out 2’ is Relatable

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When Louise Smythe was a kid, she would draw picture-perfect portraits of the Lion King and other Disney animated characters on her Etch A Sketch, to the delight and dismay of her proud parents and other relatives.

Dismay? Yes, because after sharing the picture, Louise would shake the board, blithely erasing the proof of her talent. “I’ll just do another one,” she would say.

Today, things are different. Today, Smythe’s artistry is indelible.

As lead story artist on “Inside Out 2,” Smythe was a crucial contributor to the Pixar sequel that is the top movie of 2024, to date — a smash hit that has earned the approval of critics; more than $1.2 billion at the international box office; and the gratitude of a motion-picture industry eager to prove that audiences haven’t abandoned moviegoing.

“It’s really important to us that it’s resonated with a lot of people,” said Smythe, 36, in a phone interview from her office at Pixar headquarters in Emeryville, California.

Smythe worked particularly closely on the development of the computer-animated movie’s key new character, Anxiety (voiced by Maya Hawke), a gremlin of nervous energy with free-floating eyebrows, a wobbly mouth and a fireworks spray of red hair. Anxiety arrives loaded with suitcases — a visual pun on “emotional baggage” that was one of Smythe’s contributions to a clever story in which characters trekking across the environment of the mind encounter such hazards as a “brainstorm,” a “stream of consciousness,” an “avalanche of bad memories” and the “sar-chasm,” a canyon that transforms echoes into insults.

Although Anxiety causes a crisis within the mind of a 13-year-old girl, Riley (Kensington Tallman), who is just entering puberty (in the first film, from 2015, Riley was 11), the movie presents the distressing new emotion as an overprotective friend rather than as a monster, even as her frenetic agitations disrupt the status quo of stability established by such veteran emotions as Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith).

Smythe said that because anxiety is “something we all experience on some level,” the new movie “has made a really strong connection to a diverse audience.”

Pre-teens and teenagers may be especially troubled by anxiety, she said, so for them “it’s helpful to see a movie that puts a visual or a language into something as complicated as their emotions.”

In addition, “I could relate right away,” Smythe said. “Riley’s transition from middle school to high school, trying to fit in and make new friends, and putting too much pressure on herself to succeed were all the things I dealt with in my own life. The personal connection was instantaneous. And just the experience of Being a teenage girl was something I could bring to the table, remembering what that was like.”

The oldest of three artistically inclined children (brother William Smythe writes, while sister Mary Claire Smythe is an actress whose credits include the Anne Rice-inspired AMC series “Mayfair Witches”), Louise Smythe grew up in Central Gardens with an immediate attraction to and instinct and talent for art that was encouraged by her parents, Hamilton Smythe IV and his wife, Julia. In fact, “I have her very first drawing, from when she was 2 years old,” said Julia Smythe, 65. “It’s a little scrap of paper. It’s literally a scribble, but it’s a beautiful scribble, so that’s why I kept it.”

Louise’s aunt, Katie Smythe, founder of New Ballet Ensemble, remembers that one time young Louise drew a large-scale picture in colored chalk on the driveway of her home that appeared to be abstract or surreal. “You couldn’t see it when you were on ground level, it was too large, but when you went up to the third floor and looked down, it was the Lion King. I don’t know how she did it.”

A 2006 graduate of The Hutchison School, Louise Smythe originally had a career in illustrating children’s books. Despite her childhood obsession with Disney, “I didn’t really understand that animation was a viable career.”

She learned different once she began watching the behind-the-scenes features on Disney DVDs. These revealed a possible career path. “They showed how they made ‘Aladdin’ and ‘The Lion King’ and ‘The Little Mermaid’ and all these movies I loved when I was a kid. My mind was blown. Drawings coming to life at 24 frames a second, I was like, ‘That’s exactly what I want to do.'”

In addition to art, Smythe’s interests included film and theater, and storytelling in general. “I realized in animation, you get to do all those things — writing, acting, designing. It’s a really a cool combination of all those art forms, rolled into one.”

After Smythe earned an art degree at Washington University in St. Louis, she worked as a freelance artist, doing some book illustrations and even some character design for a “Scooby-Doo” project at Warner Bros. But her Disney-style “When You Wish Upon a Star” dream didn’t begin to materialize seriously until 12 years ago, when, after multiple applications and rejections, she was accepted for a “story internship” at Pixar.

“It’s kind of like a storytelling boot camp,” she said. “College on steroids.” But not only did Smythe thrive in this fun but intense environment, she was hired as a fulltime Pixar staff member.

Smythe’s first Pixar project, in 2012, was a short film, “Toy Story That Time Forgot.” After that, she worked at increasing levels of responsibility in the art and story departments of such feature films as “The Good Dinosaur,” “Cars 3,” “Toy Story 4” and “Onward.”

“Story,” in animation parlance, does not mean “plot” or “script.” “Story” is short for “storyboard,” but the story department does more than create the comic-strip-style sequential drawings that “storyboard” a film’s action.

The story department essentially translates the film’s narrative into visuals. As “lead story artist” for the first time, Smythe pitched designs and drew storyboards that provided guides for the animators, while also helping to supervise a staff of story artists. She met regularly with the film’s braintrust — including director Kelsey Mann, a longtime friend who had worked his way up through the Pixar story department — and hash out the development of such new characters as Lance Slashblade, a hunky videogame refugee, and Pouchy, a garrulous fanny pack.

“In the story department, we kind of work on everything,” Smythe said. “What I would often do is be in the writers’ room with the writer and producer and director, sometimes six hours a day, putting (the narrative) down on cards, and breaking it down structurally. So you’re thinking about story structure , storytelling, but you also draw.

“We take those script pages and literally draw the movie almost like a comic book and we stitch ’em together and put on (temporary sound), and then we watch it in a test screening before we animate anything. Every few months we tear it down and redo it,” to make it better. Smythe usually works digitally, but just about every type of artist’s medium is involved at some point in the Pixar process: pencil, ink, sculpture, software, and so on.

The production of “Inside Out 2” took four years. “Once you’re on a project, you’re in it for the long haul,” Smythe said. Such painstaking perfectionism is typical at Pixar, she said, but the standards are inspiring rather than frustrating.

Audiences, apparently, noticed the care that went into “Inside Out 2.” Only the third Pixar feature to receive an exclusive theatrical release since the COVID pandemic of 2020, “Inside Out 2” cost about $200 million to produce but set a Pixar record by earning close to $300 million worldwide in the first weekend of its June 14 release . Described by Variety as “a box office juggernaut” and “a box office phenomenon, the likes of which the industry hasn’t seen since ‘Barbie’ almost a year ago,” the film collected more than a billion dollars in its first month. According to Box Office Mojo, it’s already the sixth highest-grossing animated film of all time.

In other words, Anxiety is in the house, but Joy is once again in control at Pixar. Smythe finds them useful companions. “They’re my dynamic duo,” she said, “driving my console, though a little more harmoniously now than when I was Riley’s age.”

John Beifuss covers entertainment, pop culture and features for The Commercial Appeal. He can be reached at [email protected]

By meerna

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