February 10, 2011  |  Collection & Exhibitions, Film
Leonardo: Da Vinci at MoMA

Still image from Leonardo. Directed by Jim Capobianco. 2010

People often ask me, “How do you discover new films for acquisition for the MoMA collection?” This is a good question that mines the basics of curatorial work, but one that is also impossible to answer in a concise manner. Our collection is growing all the time, and each work has its own unique origin story. Here’s one of them.

In 2009 my colleague, Film Collections Manager Katie Trainor, and I saw Leonardo, an extraordinary animation short directed by Jim Capobianco (American, b. 1969), at the Newport International Film Festival. The Festival had invited MoMA to present a program of preserved films from the collection, and Katie and I, along with Associate Curator Josh Siegel, organized a series that focused on works made in New York, including East Side, West Side (1927), Little Fugitive (1953), On the Waterfront (1954), and Taxi Driver (1976)—all strong examples of New York on screen. When I arrived in Newport, it was raining very hard, a true summer storm. My expectations for a sunny weekend in this historic city were momentarily put on hold as the thunder cracked around me. What to do? Go to the movies!

I headed to the main venue theater and saw an interesting documentary called Pop Star on Ice (2009) about the American figure skater Johnny Weir. I didn’t know much about Weir other than that he was a flamboyant character on the usually staid figure skating scene. By the end of this informative documentary I’d learned that Weir prefers to speak Russian with his trainers, likes designer clothing, and has a BFF named Paris—no, not that one. With the storm still meaning business outside, I went into another theater in the multiplex and saw a second documentary: Prodigal Sons (2008), about Kimberly Reed, a transsexual who returns to a small Western town after her sex change operation to attend her high school reunion. Prodigal Sons was riveting—a complex family drama that speaks to issues of gender bias, forgiveness, and tolerance. After a long train ride and nearly four hours of continuous movie watching, I was tired. I ran out into the rain, had a bite to eat, and then headed to the B&B where I was staying for the weekend.

On Saturday morning, the rain had stopped and the sun was out. I was trying to juggle my schedule so that I could be present for the introductions that were on tap for the MoMA programs as well as tour one or two of the historic Gilded Age mansions along the coast in my free time. My first appointment of the day was to head over to the theater and see the program of short films organized for a youth audience. (I’m always interested in film programming for young audiences, as I work closely with MoMA’s Education Department on screenings for Watch This! Films for Tweens and Free Teen Nights.) Along the way I bumped into Katie, who said I must see a film called Leonardo. Since Leonardo was on the morning program, I was excited to see it and meet the animator, Jim Capobianco, who was also in attendance.

Leonardo blew me away!

A Pixar animation artist for many years, Jim Capobianco worked on the teams that created favorites such as The Lion King (1994), Monsters, Inc. (2001), and Finding Nemo (2003). He cowrote Pixar’s Ratatouille (2007) with Brad Bird, and also directed the short My Friend the Rat (2007). Yet Leonardo could not be any further from the computer-generated animation that is Pixar’s hallmark. The subtle, delicate, expressive, and purposeful hand of the artist brings this tender animated short to life. The story is simple: Leonardo, the eminent Italian inventor, is testing out a pair of wings he hopes will allow him to fly like the birds that sing in the trees near his old stone house. Sadly, man is rooted to the Earth. But the beauty and sweet song of a single bird–Leonardo’s uccellino—allows him to dream big and succeed.

What moved me so about this film was not only the content, but the form. Jim inserted his working process into the mix by including his handwritten notes, crossed-out drawings, rough sketches, and even the simple doodles made by his children. In one poignant scene, Leonardo’s complex drawing devolves into a single, unadorned line. The line is one of the true, essential components of drawing—Leonardo knew that, and so does Jim Capobianco. As part of the current film exhibition On Line: Drawing and Film, Curatorial Assistant Esther Adler and I included Leonardo in programs on January 12 and 23, 2011.

I was as enthusiastic as Katie about this film, and after the screening watched the children in the audience follow Jim out into the lobby so that he could sign their Leonardo posters—he was like the Pied Piper! I waited my turn to meet him, and he was warm and engaging; by then, both Katie and I wanted this inventive film for the collection. MoMA has been collecting Pixar films since our 2005 exhibition, so it seemed logical to support the work of this Pixar animator whose excellence of technique resonates with the iconic hand-drawn animation of Winsor McCay, Walt Disney, and Ub Iwerks—an artist both traditional yet thoroughly contemporary. The acquisition of a 35mm print of Leonardo was approved by the Film Committee in 2009.

If you are interested in learning more about Leonardo, visit Jim’s Aerial Contrivance Workshop.