In the second of a three-part article on the phenomenally successful animation studio, Trevor Hogg details Pixar’s incredible transition to feature-length movies... be sure to read part 1.
On July 12, 1991, The Hollywood Reporter published an article with the headline: DISNEY, PIXAR PACT ON 3-D ANIMATION; the news item announced that the companies had signed a three-picture deal. Steve Jobs was quoted as saying, “Working with Disney to make the first full-length computer animated film has been a dream of ours since we founded the company in 1986. Now our dream is realized and we couldn’t be more excited.” To obtain the landmark partnership, Pixar had cowered to the major movie studio. Disney held the right to abandon any picture at any time, had complete creative control, maintained 100% ownership of the film, and had “sole discretion” when it came to the making of sequels, remakes, television shows, and direct-to-video productions.
For the first project produced under the contract, John Lasseter handed Jeffrey Katzenberg (the head of Walt Disney Studios) a treatment with the working title Toy Story. The one-man band Tinny, from Tin Toy, is shipped off to a toy store where like a puppy, he eagerly waits to be bought. Tinny is purchased by an owner who accidentally leaves him behind at a gas station. The misplaced toy encounters a ventriloquist’s dummy that mimics a cowboy; after a series of adventures, the two of them happily end up as playthings in a kindergarten classroom. Katzenberg instructed Lasseter to reshape the tale in the vein of 48 Hrs. (1982) and The Defiant Ones (1958) in which two polar opposite men must put aside their hostility in order to survive.
To rectify the situation, John Lasseter and one of his co-writers, Pete Docter, attended one of screenwriting guru Robert McKee’s three-day seminars. Adopting McKee’s belief that conflict leads to compelling storytelling, the trio of Lasseter, Docter, and Andrew Stanton went about retooling the project. “The reason we picked toys was that we could do them,” explained Pixar’s co-founder and president Edwin Catmull. “They are made of plastic. We were at the hairy edge of what we could do.” Supervising animator Glenn McQueen shared the same sentiment as Catmull. “As a concept, I think Toy Story was probably the most interesting because it had never been done – and none of us really knew what we were getting into. There was sort of a sense of adventure as we were working on it. We really did feel like we were all fighting the good fight.”
After studying movies such as Midnight Run (1988) and Thelma and Louise (1991), and utilizing the writing talents of Joss Whedon (Serenity), the screenplay was seriously overhauled. Woody, a pull string-cowboy doll, and spaceman action-figure Buzz Lightyear battle for the attention of their owner and must band together to escape the clutches of the toy-destroying kid next door. When assembling the picture, supervising film editor Lee Unkrich stated, “What we decided early on in Toy Story was that rather than look to animation for guidance, we would instead look to the live action.” Since creating a single frame of animation is very time consuming, Unkrich wanted to avoid the making of any unnecessary footage. “It becomes critical for me to be very involved in the animation stage to make sure that the animators are doing work that is going to cut together, and that the purpose of any given shot is coming through.”
Released in 1995, Toy Story featured the voice talents of Tom Hanks (Apollo 13) and Tim Allen (Galaxy Quest). Within twelve days, the movie had earned $64.7 million, and the acclaim was not confined to theatre audiences. Kevin MacNus of The Washington Post wrote, “For once reality lives up to hype. With Toy Story, gigantic superlatives become appropriate, even necessary.” The computer animated picture would go on to become the highest-grossing film of the year amassing $192 million in box office receipts in the U.S. and $362 million worldwide. At the 1996 Academy Awards, the picture became the first animated movie to be nominated for Best Original Screenplay, and John Lasseter was presented with an Oscar for special achievement.
Despite the accolades, not all was rosy at Pixar. “After our fantastic success with Toy Story, I was shocked to realize that we had a whole group of people who did not want to go on to the next film,” revealed Edwin Catmull. “I was shocked because amidst all the excitement, I had missed that there were problems. It turned out that during the high-pressure process of making Toy Story, people were bottling their complaints because they were so committed to the project and the people they were working with. But when the project was over, they were ready to disband. Well, we listened to their issues, and addressed the problems. The lesson. Beware of being blinded by your own success.”
The next project on the agenda for Pixar was a return to its short film roots. Geri’s Game (1997) centres around an old man who displays multiple personalities as he plays chess against himself. One of the goals for the production was to “take human and cloth animation to new heights.” Director Jan Pinkava stated that Geri was a combination of himself, his elderly relatives, and in particular his grandfather who loved playing the game of chess. For Geri’s Game, Pixar was awarded its second Oscar for Best Animated Short, and the production was attached to the theatrical release of the computer animation company’s follow-up feature length picture.
A Bug’s Life was co-directed by Andrew Stanton, who has nothing but respect for the man responsible for hiring him. “I had never touched a computer in my life before I came to Pixar,” confessed Stanton, the animation studio’s executive producer and chief screenwriter. “That just shows you how much John [Lasseter] was a forward thinker, in the sense he said, ‘We should hire people who are good at their talents. We can teach them programming or any kind of computer skills over a matter of months, but I can’t teach them how to be a good entertainer.’”
Combining Aesop’s fable of the grasshopper and the ants with the classic Seven Samurai (1954) by Akira Kurosawa, the film is about a group of circus ants mistakenly hired to protect an ant colony’s food supply from a band of marauding grasshoppers. Realizing that movie audiences would have difficulty identifying with a cast of insects, the physical attributes of their animated counterparts had to be modified. “We took out mandibles and hairy segmentation yet still tried to keep design qualities and aspects of texture that made you feel like you were looking at bugs,” explained Andrew Stanton, who co-wrote the screenplay. “We wanted people to like these characters and not be grossed out by them.”
Hired to be one of the voice talents was a performer who is considered to be Pixar’s “good luck charm” for he has been in all of their feature films. John Ratzenberger, best known for playing the encyclopedic postman in the American television series Cheers, loves his role as the circus ringmaster. “P.T. Flea’s my favourite because he’s so irrationally volatile,” chuckled Ratzenberger. “And I always just laugh at people like that. It’s almost like there’s some chemical imbalance. There is no gray in their emotional scale. It’s either off or it’s a hundred percent on. He just makes me laugh when I watch him.”
Assembling the picture was the man responsible for cutting its predecessor. “When I’ve done my job really well, nobody knows that I’ve ever been there,” remarked Lee Unkrich. “My job is to create the most entertaining experience possible and the most visceral. Part of why I love filmmaking is the notion of creating something out of nothing. You take these little bits and pieces that have no relation to each other, yet you somehow find that alchemy…that way of mixing them together, and suddenly you’re eliciting emotion in the audience. That’s exhilarating.”
Complications ensued for Pixar when the company discovered that the newly formed movie studio DreamWorks SKG was producing an animated insect picture called Antz. The revelation caused John Lasseter to tell an interviewer, “It’s sad, because they clearly stole the idea from us.” Antz was released on October 2, 1998, and A Bug’s Life followed a month later on November 25th. Pixar emerged triumphant; the company’s sophomore picture grossed $163 million domestically and $363 million globally, while its rival made $90 million and $172 million respectively.
Originally meant to be a direct-to-video release, the third feature for Pixar was inspired by the desire of John Lasseter’s children to play with the toys he had stored away in boxes. A toy collector steals Woody from a garage sale, which causes Buzz Lightyear and the rest of the toys to embark on a rescue mission. “Toy Story 2 in terms of how an idea was implemented I think would be my favourite,” declared Glenn McQueen. “From the onset, people were flat out saying, ‘Aw, no. We’re not going to do it. We’re not going to do a sequel. Pixar doesn’t do sequels.’ After awhile, they’re such great characters, you think, ‘Aw, what the hell? Why not do a sequel? There’s definitely a great story in there – we just have to find it!’ Going back to these same characters and having it not be tiresome. It was almost like going to a high school reunion where you met all your old pals.”
Expanding the project into a theatrical release, the animators found themselves turning to story ideas discarded from the first Toy Story; the originally planned opening sequence of a Buzz Lightyear cartoon playing on the television became instead a video game. In the eyes of Glenn McQueen, the rush to meet the tight release deadline did not diminish the quality of the work. “You look at the montage for Jessie’s song in Toy Story 2; the animation is really good, but the lighting has this nice, really warm honey colour and everything has a little bit of bloom to it. That really helps nail the emotion of that sequence. That’s a great example of lighting telling a story just as much as the animation, and the song worked really well.” Reflecting on the intense pressure that surrounded the project, Lee Unkrich stated, “Even though Toy Story 2 really killed us in a lot of ways – it was really, really, hard – I probably look back on that film most fondly just in terms of how we all came together and did this impossible thing.”
During negotiations involving profit and cost sharing, Steve Jobs learned that the sequel would not count as one of the five films stipulated in the renegotiated Disney contract he had signed in 1997. To qualify, the picture would have to have been an original production.
Upon the release of Toy Story 2 in 1999, The Hollywood Reporter wrote, “Instead of essentially remaking an earlier film and deeming it a sequel, the creative team, lead by director John Lasseter, delves deeper into their characters while retaining the fun spirit of the original film.” With worldwide box office receipts of $485 million, Pixar had produced the second highest grossing animated film of all-time.
For the Birds (2000) was another short film about a group of small birds; while perched on a telephone wire they are disrupted by the arrival of a much larger bird. The three minute creation would go on to win the Oscar for Best Animated Short. In time for the 2001 film year, the Academy Awards made a significant change by instituting the category Best Animated Feature. Up until this point, the only animated feature to be nominated for Best Picture was Beauty and the Beast in 1991. There were those who believed that the new trophy would bring much needed prestige to the animation industry, while others felt it was a tactic to make sure that the movies would not be nominated for Best Picture.
After turning down the part of Woody, comedian Billy Crystal (When Harry Met Sally) decided to rectify his mistake by voicing the eyeball creature nicknamed Mike in Monsters, Inc. (2001). A company located in Monstropolis sends off monsters to scare human children. Mike’s partner-in-crime is the horned-headed sasquatch Sulley; the character, voiced by John Goodman (Sea of Love), caused Pixar to develop a new software program. “We never go into these things thinking about what we’re going to technically solve,” remarked Andrew Stanton, “because that’s the least sexy thing that’s going to make you work for four years. You don’t go, ‘Hey, let’s go solve fur!’ It’s like, ‘Lets make a cool movie about monsters!’ And invariably, when you make a story you haven’t seen, or it has things in it you haven’t done before, you’re going to, by natural process, solve some things you haven’t solved before.”
Legal trouble arose for the production when Pixar was sued by Lori Madrid for copyright infringement; she had composed a similarly themed musical called There’s a Monster in My Closet. A court hearing took place a day before the movie was to be released. The judge, in announcing his decision as to whether or not he would allow the film to be screened stated, “I suspect that there are a lot of little kids all over the country who would regard me as the worst kind of judicial monster if I were to do [prevent] it.” Monsters, Inc. appeared in theatres as scheduled; it went on to replace Toy Story 2 as the second highest grossing animation film of all-time, amassing $255 million domestically and $525 million worldwide. At the 2002 Academy Awards, Monsters, Inc. was nominated for Best Animated Feature and won for Best Original Song.
The litigation involving Lori Madrid was brought to a close on June 26, 2002 when the charges were dismissed; the disputed ideas were ruled to be a staple of children’s stories. Eleven months later another copyright infringement lawsuit was filed in regards to the design of the characters; four years later the dispute was settled out of court.
Mike’s New Car (2002) was included on the DVD for Monsters, Inc.. Mike proudly shows off his new six drive vehicle to Sulley which results in the automobile having a series of chaotic malfunctions. The four minute story went on to be nominated for Best Animated Short at the Oscars.
“I kept thinking about what story I’d want to tell in an underwater setting, and I remembered this dentist’s office that I went to as a kid,” revealed Andrew Stanton as to the origins of Finding Nemo. It had a tank in the lobby, and I used to think about whether or not those fish wanted to go home, and what it must be like to be in this tacky little tank with a treasure chest, and a scuba diver.” Stanton did not rely entirely on his childhood for inspiration. “At the end of A Bug’s Life I was very, very busy, and I wasn’t seeing my family much. I felt like I needed to spend some special time with my son, who was five at the time, and just take a walk to the park. During the walk to the park I spent the whole time going, ‘Don’t touch that! Watch out for cars! You’re going to poke your eye out! You don’t know where that’s been!’ I just stopped myself and realized that I was so afraid of something bad happening that I was eclipsing any chance to connect with him in the moment. I was struck by that and I came up with the premise that fear can deny a good parent from being one. And then I thought about how vast and unpredictable the ocean is and how just to enter it is a risk. That was really when things gelled together.”
Finding Nemo (2003) revolves around an overprotective clownfish named Marlin (Albert Brooks) who desperately searches for his abducted son with the assistance of Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), an ever-forgetful regal tang. For an audience to better comprehend the neurotic parent, Andrew Stanton decided to abort a series of five flashbacks and open with a barracuda attack which results in the death of the aquatic creature’s wife. “Boom, you suddenly care about Marlin. I didn’t have to change any lines. I didn’t have to change any readings. He suddenly wasn’t annoying anymore. He was somebody you could empathize with.”
As to whether or not there is a spiritual relationship between Marlin and Dory, Andrew Stanton answered, “The protagonist’s battle was to overcome fear by discovering faith, and certainly Dory represented the angel, or the helper who showed him how to let go and not to be consumed by his worries.” Stanton went on to add, “My personal view is that if you go into things on a pulpit or with an agenda in the creative world, it can easily get in the way of your creativity and quality.”
Creativity was not found only in the storytelling but also in the software used to make the computer animated picture. “Each time the tools are allowing us to put more in there and build better worlds,” said Edwin Catmull. “The lusciousness in Nemo is unlike anything in the other films. “It’s important to put in things that you wouldn’t even notice, that might please the experts. You never do just enough.”
The 2003 picture was able to accomplish something that neither Toy Story 2 nor Monsters, Inc. were able to achieve – displace The Lion King (1994) as the highest-grossing animated film of all-time with $864 million in worldwide box office receipts. Along with being nominated for Best Original Screenplay, Finding Nemo became the first Pixar picture to win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature.
Also, lauded with an Oscar nomination at the 2004 Academy Awards was the Pixar animated short film Boundin’ (2003). A sheered sheep regains it confidence by learning how to “bound” with the help of a jackalope. What set the project apart from its predecessors was that Boundin’ had vocal performances incorporated into the soundtrack.
With five consecutive box office successes and two pictures left on the Disney contract, Steve Jobs decided it was time for a new deal…
Read part 3.
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