In the final instalment of a three-part article on the phenomenally successful animation studio, Trevor Hogg details Pixar’s merger with entertainment powerhouse Disney and continued critical and commercial success… be sure to read part 1 and part 2.
Fostering a creative rapport between co-workers is something that Pixar goes out of its way to achieve. “We work hard on culture here,” explained the animation studio’s co-founder and president Edwin Catmull. “When you go into other studios, you’ll find that most are either artistically driven or technically driven. We’ve tried hard to make sure that our technical people and creative people are peers. We’ve found that when the technology is strong, it inspires the artists. And when the artists are strong, they challenge the technology. The result is that our artists and technical people appreciate each other talents.” One of the ways the animation studio sets about establishing a sense of camaraderie is through education. “Another thing we do when people [artists and technicians] come on board is send them to Pixar University,” revealed Catmull. “This is a ten-week classroom program to teach people how to use our tools and to cross-train them. So we’ve got classes in filmmaking, sculpting, drawing, painting, and improvisation.” The benefits of the unique initiative have proven to be indispensable. “One of the effects Pixar University has on the culture is that it makes people less self-conscious about their work and gets them comfortable with being publicly reviewed.”
Breaking from his normal routine of promoting internal candidates, the Pixar’s co-founder and creative wizard John Lasseter decided to hand over the directorial reins of the next project to his former CalArts classmate Brad Bird. Recalling the animator who was responsible for the critically praised The Iron Giant (1999), Lasseter stated, “Brad would hang out all night taking about Scorsese [Raging Bull] and Coppola [The Conversation] and how he could do what they do with animation.” Pursuing his career ambition of moving beyond the children fairy tales and producing stories with a more adult sensibility had not been an easy one for Brad Bird. “I kept having these movies get on the runway, then they would never get cleared for takeoff,” recalled Bird. “My guy would get fired. Then, of course, the new guy wouldn’t want to deal with something the old guy had done. Or a film that was vaguely like something I was working on would tank at the box office.” The frustration caused the independent-minded animator to seek out an organization known for developing and producing its own pictures. “I think the thing that made me want to come to Pixar was not the technology, but the fact that they protect their stories. They want original stories and they allow you to develop them without focus grouping stuff to death, or making you take out everything that is interesting. It’s a little pocket of sanity in a crazy business.”
Whereas previous Pixar films had made use of multiple contributors, Brad Bird adopted a singular approach to his scriptwriting and directing for The Incredibles (2004). Creating a movie about a family of superheroes was a risky proposition for the company. “It is a totally different challenge,” remarked Edwin Catmull. “The humans in our previous films were not the strongest element.” Rather than recreating the minute details of human skin such as pores and hair follicles, the decision was made to render the main characters in a stylized cartoon manner. “The hardest thing about The Incredibles was that there was no hardest thing,” declared supervising technical director Rick Sayre. “Brad ordered a heaping helping of everything on the menu. We’ve got it all: fire, water, air, smoke, steam, explosions, and by the way humans…Getting hair to work at all and to move, and clothing, and then doing for it for a big ensemble cast. It’s a Pixar compendium.”
Brad Bird devised a tale about a superhero in the witness protection plan who attempts to recapture his glory days, only to find himself in need of being saved by his wife and his children. “The dad is always expected in the family to be strong, so I made him strong,” explained Bird. “The moms are always pulled in a million different directions, so I made her stretch like taffy. Teenagers, particularly teenage girls, are insecure and defensive, so I made her turn invisible and turn on shields. And ten-year-old boys are hyperactive energy balls. Babies are unrealized potential.”
Following the tradition of Pixar employees providing some of voices for the animated characters, Brad Bird made a memorable appearance as the pint-sized fashion designer with a Herculaneum ego, Edna Mode. Comparisons with Watchmen, a graphic novel by Alan Moore, which also featured exiled superheroes who were hunted down and killed, caused Bird to respond that the similarities were coincidental since he had never read the book.
Aided by the voice talent of Craig T. Nelson (The Killing Fields), Holly Hunter (Broadcast News), Samuel L. Jackson (The Negotiator), Elizabeth Peña (Lone Star), and Jason Lee (Almost Famous), the picture grossed $261 million domestically and $631 million worldwide. At the Academy Awards, The Incredibles won for Best Animated Feature and Best Sound Editing, and received a nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
One Man Band (2005), a short film about a street performer named Bass who competes with a rival for a large gold coin, features no dialogue, only music; it received an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Short.
Buoyed by Pixar’s growing reputation for producing quality and commercially successful films, Steve Jobs was determined to obtain autonomy for the animation studio. “The truth is that there has been little creative collaboration with Disney for years,” declared Jobs. “Not even Disney’s marketing and brand could turn Disney’s last two animated films, Treasure Planet  and Brother Bear , into successes.” The threat of an impending divorce sparked Disney shareholders to revolt which led to the ousting of Michael Eisner as CEO. The departure of Eisner set the groundwork for a momentous deal which occurred on January 26, 2006. A stock swap between the two companies saw Disney agree to acquire Pixar for the amount of $7.4 billion. Edwin Catmull was installed as the president of the new animation organization while his colleague John Lasseter was rewarded with the position of Chief Creative Officer.
Taking inspiration from a cross-country road trip with his wife and five children, John Lasseter went about developing the next project for Pixar. In Cars (2006), a hotshot racecar gets lost in a rundown town called Radiator Springs on its way to a major competition at the Los Angeles International Speedway. Featured in the cast of characters are actual racecar drivers Paul Newman (The Sting), and Richard Petty. The protagonist Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) was named in honour of supervising animator Glenn McQueen who had died in 2002.
To create Radiator Springs some research was conducted by the likes of production designer Bob Pauley. “Typically, we’d go into a town and we’d hear all these wonderful stories from the locals. We’d soak it all in while getting a haircut at the barbershop, or enjoying a snow cone, or taking the challenge to eat a 72-ounce steak at the Big Texan.”
When designing the various vehicles, Pauley was given very specific instructions. “From the beginning of this project, John Lasseter had it in his mind to have the eyes be in the windshield. For one thing, it separates the characters from the more common approach where you have little cartoon eyes in the headlights. For another, he thought that having eyes down near the mouth at the front end of the car feels more like a snake. With the eyes set in the windshield, the point-of-view is more human-like, and made it feel like the whole car could be involved with the animation of the character.”
Cars received a mixed reception from the film critics. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer wrote that the picture was “one of Pixar’s most imaginative and thoroughly appealing movies ever”; while Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times declared, “The movie is great to look at and a lot of fun but somehow lacks the extra push of other Pixar films.” Even with accusations that the imagery had hijacked the story, Cars accumulated $244 million in domestic box office receipts and $462 million worldwide. At the Academy Awards, the picture received Oscar nominations for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Song.
The short film Lifted (2007) was written and directed by seven-time Oscar winner Gary Rydstrom (Saving Private Ryan). To pass his examination, a young alien must abduct a sleeping farmer. Incorporating his experience as a sound editor and mixer, Rydstrom based the spacecraft’s control panel on a sound mixer’s console. The five-minute-long story received a nomination for Best Animated Short.
A problematic script about a rat named Remy who desires to become a French chef led to the story’s originator Jan Pinkava being replaced by Brad Bird. “When the heads of Pixar [Lasseter, Jobs, Catmull] came to me and said, ‘We’re in trouble here. The curtain is ready to go up on production of Ratatouille  and we’ve got to get this story solved,’” recalled the movie’s director and co-writer. “I dropped what I was planning to do and jumped in to help out because I have a huge respect for those guys, and this really amazing company they’ve created.’
Bird found himself drawn to the main character. “I think we all have impossible dreams and we do what we can to pursue them – and Remy’s dream might be the ultimate impossible dream of them all.” Though enamored with the theme of the movie, the director diverged significantly from the initial concept. “The emotional core of the original story was not to [Bird’s] liking,” explained Pinkava, who subsequently left Pixar. “The character of Remy changed profoundly. He became more self-assured and straight-forward, confidently following his talent and passion for cooking, and working to overcome the obstacles to his dream. Left behind were the complexities of character: Remy’s own struggle with his identity as a rat, his betrayal of his family’s values, his awareness of the craziness of his desire to be part of an enemy world, his yearning for acceptance and frustration with living a lie in a kitchen, all culminating to his final ‘coming out’.”
When asked on how he would portray a city which has been the setting for countless films, Brad Bird answered, “Paris has been seen [in] many different ways, but never from a rat’s point-of-view.” He went on to add, “If we’re going to capture Paris, we aren’t trying to perfectly reproduce the actual Paris; we’re trying to reproduce the feeling of being in Paris.” As for the overall tone of the picture, Bird replied, “We were after a lush-looking film that was kind of sensuous, which is not what you connect with animation usually.”
Among the voice talents staring in the movie were actors Patton Oswalt (Magnolia), Lou Romano (Monkeybone), Ian Holm (Chariots of Fire), Peter O’Toole (Venus), Brian Dennehy (Presumed Innocent), and Janeane Garofalo (Cop Land). At the North American box office, Ratatouille grossed $206 million, while globally it made $624 million; the picture was awarded the Oscar for Best Animated Feature and received an Academy Awards nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
Maintaining its interest in producing short films, Pixar released Presto in 2008. Originally meant to be about a rabbit who suffers from stage fright, the tale was reworked to make the fury creature an uncooperative participant in a magic show. The five-minute-long story received an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Short.
“There was this lunch we had during Toy Story around ’94 and we were batting around just any idea we could think of to try and come up with what the next move would be,” explained Andrew Stanton, Pixar’s executive producer and chief screenwriter. “One of the sort of half-brained sentences was ‘Hey, we could do sci-fi. What if we did the last robot on Earth?.’” At the time, the concept was dismissed for being too arty because of the lack of dialogue. Stanton never abandoned his luncheon suggestion and in 2005 development started on what would become known as WALL-E (2008). Left alone on a garbage-strewn Earth, a waste disposal machine has an extraterrestrial encounter with a visiting female robot. Smitten, the title character hides onboard a luxury spaceship that takes his true love away.
“I’m not one of those people who comes up with a theme and then writes to it,” stated Stanton, the creator of the ninth picture for Pixar. “I like to go with natural things that seem to be firing, and then somewhere halfway I realize what the theme is. I realized that [what] I was pushing with these two programmed robots was their desire to try and figure out what the point of living was, and it took these really irrational acts of love for them to discover how they were built. And I said, ‘That’s it. That’s my theme. Irrational love defeats life’s programming.’”
Providing the otherworldly ambience for the movie was sound designer guru Ben Burtt, who gained international acclaim for his work on the Star Wars franchise. For a more nostalgic feel, Stanton added the classic song Hello, Dolly! to the opening sequence. “I always loved the idea of putting an old-fashioned song against space. I always loved the idea of the future against the past juxtaposed, and I just thought that was a great intro into the movie.”
When Andrew Stanton set about crafting the script, he was influenced by the unconventional format adopted by screenwriter Dan O’Bannon for Alien (1979). “He [O’Bannon] would do little four-to-eight-word descriptions and then sort of left-justify it and make it four lines each, little blocks, so it almost looked like haikus. It would create this rhythm in the readers where you would appreciate these silent visual moments as much as you would the dialogue on the page.” Stanton also referenced films made by Charlie Chaplin (The Great Dictator), Buster Keaton (The General), and Harold Lloyd (The Freshman) to aid in the cinematic storytelling.
The lack of dialogue did not diminish the box office reception for WALL-E; the picture earned $224 million domestically and $521 million worldwide. At the Academy Awards, the movie was honoured with the Oscar for Best Animated Feature and a nomination for Best Original Screenplay. However, not only the film was lauded at the prestigious Hollywood event; Edwin Catmull received the Gordon E. Sawyer Award, “for his lifetime of technical contributions and leadership in the field of computer graphics for the motion picture industry.”
Peter Docter relied on a simple human emotion when devising the tenth, but first 3-D feature to be produced by Pixar. “There are plenty of days when you hate humanity, you’re so sick to death of everybody and you want to get away – and at the end, you realize…what really makes the world go ‘round is human connection.” Up (2009) stars an embittered widower, Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner), who attaches a series of helium balloons to his home in an attempt to fulfill a dream that he and his late wife once shared – becoming explorers like the famous Charles F. Muntz (Christopher Plummer). A complication arises when Carl discovers that he is not alone on his journey to South America; an overeager Wilderness Explorer named Russell (Jordan Nagai) is stranded on the front porch of the airborne house.
“It was fun playing with this sort of misanthropic character,” stated Docter, “but then trying to ask yourself the question ‘How did he get that way?’ and ‘What’s leading him to do what he’s doing?’” To enable audiences to better understand Carl, the movie starts with an emotional dialogue-free sequence which details his life with his beloved Ellie. To create the potent montage, Docter and his head writer Bob Peterson culled the experiences from their own married lives. “It’s funny, because a lot of people point at that [a grumpy old man] and say ‘Hmm, I don’t know if that’s relatable,’ but we’ve rats as main characters. We’ve had big hairy beasts with horns as the main character. We’ve had some pretty wild stuff, and it really comes down to creating something where you see a little bit of yourself in those characters.”
Interestingly, it was not the action scenes in the Amazon jungle which posed the biggest problem for Pete Docter. “There was one [sequence] called ‘Muntz’s Lair’, which is where Carl has dinner with [the] Charles Muntz character. We must have rewritten or re-storyboarded that thing at least 50 times from scratch.” He went on to say, “That was our chance to really, in a very short amount of time, to explain…his back story.”
When he composes a screenplay, Docter adopts an open mind. “You start with ideas that appeal to you, and then as you work back and forth through the film you always find ways to set them up and pay them off and hopefully do it in a subtle enough way that as an audience member you’re not aware of that.” Then there is the matter of the unexpected. “There’s always a big surprise, some curveball that the story throws at you. It seemed like you totally knew what you were doing, and now you have no idea. But that’s the fun of it. If we knew what we were doing, then I don’t think the movies would be as good.”
Setting the right tone proved to be quite a challenge for the production team. “It was tricky, especially, shift gears from where you go from the scene where Carl and Ellie have their life together and then you transition into more comedy stuff,” mused Peter Docter. “How to get from one to the other without stepping on the other is really tricky but that’s something I think we really needed.” Docter does not make use of a singular vision when developing his movies. “I talk more generally about ‘he’s really thirsty – he hasn’t had a drink in three days,’ and other information they need to know about the scene, and let the animator bring his own acting choices to it and really make the picture much more rich because of it.”
With growing box office receipts of $293 domestically and $507 million worldwide, Up is favoured to win Best Animated Feature at the next Academy Awards.
Attached to the theatrical release of Up is another potential Oscar candidate for Pixar, the short film Partly Cloudy (2009). A lonely grey cloud is given the responsibility of creating animals which turn out to be belligerent; they are passed to a stork who delivers them to earth.
Fourteen years after gracing the big screen, Toy Story (followed by its sequel Toy Story 2) was released in the 3-D format. “We’ve all been big fans of 3-D over the years,” remarked Lee Unkrich, the supervising editor who assembled both Toy Story movies. “And really, until digital projection came into its own, just in the past few years, there was really no way, economically, to exhibit 3-D very effectively, have it look very good, or have it be cost-effective. And now, because so many theatres have digital projection, for the first time, we really can do it. That’s why you’re seeing so much 3-D stuff out there.” There is also another reason for the Pixar double-bill. “We want to build excitement for [Toy Story] 3 coming out. A lot of our audience has never seen the films on-screen in theatres.”
Scheduled to be released in 2010, Toy Story 3 has Lee Unkrich taking on the directorial responsibility for the highly anticipated sequel. “I remember when we were making A Bug’s Life, John Lasseter used to have his kids come in…and they were really little guys. And now one by one, he’s sending [them] off to college. So, a lot of that is informing, just emotionally, what we’re doing in Toy Story 3.” As for why Pixar is producing a third picture with the characters of Woody and Buzz Lightyear, Unkrich answered, “We were only making this now because we thought we had stumbled upon a good story to tell, and we wanted it to be as emotionally rich as possible. So when we arrived at the notion of having Andy grown up and about to head off to college that seemed like the perfect life event [in which] to place our story.”
The toys of the college bound Andy are accidentally thrown away; they find themselves being the playthings of careless pre-school children. Woody (Tom Hanks) attempts to rescue his friends from the local day-care centre only to have Buzz (Tim Allen) damaged in the escape attempt. “We’ve been working with these characters for so long in our lives, for the last 15 years, we feel like we know them,” replied Lee Unkrich. “And it’s really fun to take them and put them in a situation where we don’t necessarily know how they’re going to react.” Along with the new situations are new cast members. “All of the main characters are back and we’ve added into that mix quite a few new characters. We actually have more characters in Toy Story 3 than in any film that we’ve made at Pixar.” Unkrich was tight-lipped about identifying the new toys with the exception of one – the Ken doll to be voiced by an actor who played Chick Hicks in Cars. “Michael Keaton [The Paper] came to us very early on, when we started to think about who would be the perfect voice of Ken. We were really thrilled that he was on board with the idea of doing it.”
Toy Story 3 is not the only picture on the production slate for Pixar. In 2011, the animation studio will be producing its first fairy tale The Bear and the Bow, and the sequel Cars 2: World Grand Prix. Accompanying the two pictures into movie theatres will be newt, a story about the last two members of a species who are forced to mate in a laboratory. Writer and director Gary Rydstrom surmises, “newt is smart but he’s never had to think for himself and [he] is pampered. Brooke on the other hand is streetwise and not to be messed with. It’s fair to say it’s about as bad as first dates can get.”
Tentatively set for release in 2012 is Monsters, Inc. 2. In the same year, Andrew Stanton will break new ground as he is being “loaned” to Disney to produce a live-action animation version of John Carter of Mars written by Edgar Rice Burroughs. The series of eleven fantasy novels details the adventures of an American Civil War veteran who finds himself mysteriously stranded on the red planet. Stanton has no worries about making the transition from directing animation. “It’s exactly like being a live-action director; it’s just that all the tools everybody uses to do their jobs are computers.” Not to be outdone, Brad Bird is directing a live-action disaster picture being partly financed by Pixar; 1906 (2012), which is based on the novel by James Dalessandro, describes the events prior and during the devastating San Francisco earthquake that occurred at the turn of the twentieth century.
Edwin Catmull does not believe that Pixar will become just another major movie studio motivated by the balance sheet. “In the corporations there is certainly the mentality of playing the numbers. If you put out 20 films, you hope that a number are successful. It’s like human reproduction versus frog reproduction. Frogs produce thousands and hope a few succeed. Humans don’t produce many babies but put a lot of energy into them; which is kind of where we are. They still don’t always succeed but you try a lot harder.”
The emphasis on producing quality rather than quantity is paying off. Five of the Pixar directors: Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille), John Lasseter (Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Cars), Peter Docter (Monsters, Inc., Up), Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E), and Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3), on the behalf of the animation studio, accepted a lifetime achievement award at the 2009 Venice Film Festival.
Describing the attitude Pixar takes when developing a project, Andrew Stanton said, “We’re not trying to second-guess what the demographics are, or trying to second-guess who our audience is. We’re going to make a movie we want to see.”
If the past is any indication of the future, one would have to conclude that film lovers around the world will continue to be a receptive audience.
Be sure to vote in our Pixar Poll, and you can also check out our review of Pixar’s latest, Up.