A Dreamer Walking

The Storm

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on September 28, 2011

In almost every Pixar film there has been a time where the film looked like crap. I have heard both Pete Docter and Andrew Stanton talk about their storms during the production of their movies. Maybe the most notable storm in Pixar’s history was during the production of Toy Story 2 when John Lasseter looked at the movie nine months before is was supposed to be released and thought it was below Pixar’s standards and needed to be completely redone. During the storm the director is usually the one who is the most emotionally attached to the project, so he or she has the most to lose if the storm destroys the ship. Yet, the decisions made during the storm are the most crucial to its success. It is easy to do well when everything is going your way. However, the great directors are the ones who are calm in the storm and lead their crew to the destination on the other side.

As a director when starting a project you need to make sure your ship is in shape to survive the journey. I am using an analogy obviously, but think about the ship as the studio or investors supporting your project. You and your financial support need to be in agreement on what your movie is going to be about so you both know exactly what you are getting into. If the red lights begin to flash before you begin your journey, that may be the time to bail. There have been many great directors who have been out of work for a long while because they did not feel their ship was ready for the journey he or she wanted to take. Peter Weir (director of Dead Poets Society and Master and Commander) has left Hollywood because none of the studios he brought projects to in the last half of a dozen years or so have been in sync with his vision.

When you get a good ship it is time to find a good crew. Usually filmmakers try to stick with the same key members of their crew all the way through their careers. Steven Spielberg is an excellent example. John Williams has been doing the music for Spielberg since Jaws (1975), Michael Kahn has helped cut Spielberg’s movies since Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and Janusz Kaminski has been the director of photography for Spielberg since Schindler’s List (1993). With this core staff of followers came understanding and commitment to Spielberg. Yes, everyone will follow when things are looking good. But, it is during the stressful times when you are trying to capture a shot all day, trying dozens of times to hit a key note during a high budget recording session, or working until the very last minute with hardly any sleep to get the rhythm of your film just right, that you need those people who you know are 100% committed to you and your vision.

So, you have a good ship and you are confident in your crew, now it is time to go on the journey. Making a movie is no easy task. You might need to work with a lower budget then you originally expected, you might run into really bad weather during production, or you might run into a problem with the script and completely change the story. The storms come in all shapes and sizes. The director is the key man when it comes to making it through these storms. He is the captain of the ship.  The director might have the most to lose but he needs to stay calm. Andrew Stanton pointed out that when he as the director is calm during the storm the rest of the crew doesn’t freak out. The last thing you want to do is create a ripple effect. When one person freaks out another is sure to follow. Being calm allows for clarity and clarity is what is needed to get out of the storm. You can solve almost anything if you are calm and are able to work together with the rest of the crew.

The storms in filmmaking give us perspective. How can you really appreciate the good times if you have not experiences the bad? It is important to understand that the storms will pass. The question is, will your ship survive? Rebooting Toy Story 2 nine months before the release date was a daunting task. Yet, the Pixar crew believed in their director John Lasseter and were up for the task. The movie opened to both public and critical acclaim. Pixar made a statement with Toy Story 2. They showed they were willing to face the storm head on and proved they were able to come out on the other side with the vision still intact and thriving. What it required was a studio that was willing to invest in the crew, a crew who was dedicated to the leader, a leader who was devoted to a vision, and a vision that was worth the journey.

Failure!

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on September 24, 2011

Film is a tricky medium. There is no formula on how to make a successful movie. You could think you did everything right and can still get bashed at the box office and by the critics. Worse yet, you can think you are giving your project all you got and still be personally disappointed with the final outcome. We work in a medium where failure is just part of the business. As filmmakers it is important to embrace failure. We all make mistakes and we all make pieces of art that we are not as proud of. We can learn from our mistakes and use the criticism of others to create a even better film the next time around. However, this doesn’t stop the fact that criticism usually hurts. As filmmakers we are asked to express our hearts with the images we put up on screen, yet people usually don’t think twice about criticizing us if what they see doesn’t match their standards. It is important to know when to stick to your guns even if you come out with something that is not accepted right away. There have been many great films that were hardly noticed until many years after their release. In the film business “failure” is sometimes up for interpretation. One man’s trash can be another man’s treasure.

One of the reasons I am so interested in studying the past and listening to extra features and interviews on other movies is because I want to learn from their experiences. I am not interested in just the good parts of filmmakers careers. I am just as interested in the low parts of people like Frank Capra, Walt Disney, and Steven Spielberg’s careers. If I can learn from their failures I won’t need to make the same mistakes myself. Looking into a lot of successful filmmakers lives is usually a very humbling experience. They almost always have one or two movies that were not very good. Even the directors themselves talk about regrets in their careers. It is important to understand how popularity can cloud a filmmakers judgment. Steven Spielberg has talked several times about how easy it is to stop working for the story and start working for the audience. When you stop thinking about what you want and start thinking about what your fans want you need to think about changing professions, Spielberg warned at Inside the Actors Studio.

Just because a movie fails in the box office and with the critics does not always mean it was a bad film. Great movies like Bambi, Citizen Kane, and It’s A Wonderful Life, were all bashed publicly when they first came out and were not recognized right away by the critics as being the masterpieces we see them as now. For both Orson Welles, director of Citizen Kane, and Frank Capra, director of It’s A Wonderful Life, the immediate failure of their masterpieces represented a fall from glory in their careers. Welles was never given complete control over a film project again and Capra seemed to lose his inspiration for the big screen. Neither of these filmmakers could have done much better in the creation of their films. However, we can still learn from their failures after the fact. Because Orson was never willing to work with Hollywood and create a more commercially oriented movie, he was never given as much artistic freedom again. Frank Capra allowed the worlds disappointment for It’s A Wonderful Life effect his creativity. There are times where we are going to need to kiss some butt in order to get more artistic freedom. And, there are times where we will be shunned by the public and still need to push on.

If we truly believe in the movie we have made, we will be willing to listen to criticism. We can only learn from failure if we understand the reason behind it. I personally don’t understand why many directors are not willing to listen to critics. Usually the critics who are getting payed to judge movies know something about filmmaking. I have found critics like Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times), Todd McCarthy (The Hollywood Reporter), and Drew McWeeny (HitFix), have informed and thought provoking opinions to why they like or dislike a movie. I don’t agree with everything they say, but they do give me a perspective I would not have without them. There are many people in this world who claim to know the right way of doing things and use that as an excuse not to be open to anyone else. This does not represent a confidence in their personal opinion, but rather a insecurity of potentially being wrong.

Ignorance will corrupt creativity. You must understand other perspectives if not for the sole reason to know why you stand against them. Usually the critics and the public can inform you about your film and show you it’s flaws better then you can. It is possible to get so consumed with your work that you can’t see the big picture. You might fall in love with a scene because you know how difficult it was to shoot. However, the audience comes in not knowing anything about production. They don’t care how hard it was to shoot the scene they just care about how it contributes to the story.

The bottom line is, it’s crucial to understand criticism and failure. Sometimes the failure is your fault, sometimes it’s not. Don’t let it destroy you. Remember, you need to play by the rules of the film business at times. We don’t make movies just for ourselves, we make them for everyone to see. Failure can build up strength in a filmmaker. Convictions are more often built through failure then they are through success. Hollywood will be angry if you give them the finger, but sometimes that is exactly what you need to do. Don’t do it out of ignorance. Be willing to listen and learn. But, what is just as important is being willing to stand on your convictions, even if some might not understand.

The Rewards of Taking Away

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on September 19, 2011

When an executive producer looks at a film and thinks it is not working usually what first comes out of his mouth is, “We need more!”. More visual effects, more duologue, more sound effect, and more cuts. It is a typical impulse for us to think our film needs something added when it isn’t working. The problem is more is not always better. Executive producers know very little about the art of film. They are usually part of the project because they want to make money. When you have a non creative person calling the shots you usually get a film packed FULL of worthlessness. Stuffing more stuff into a movie when it is not working is like telling a kid to eat more cake when he or she complains about feeling sick. In reality, if you truly feel you have a good theme for your story and it is still  not working thematically, the problem usually has more to do with things that are in the film that should be taken away.

Films don’t need nearly as many visual effects, sound effects, cutting, complex camera moves, music, or  duologue as we often think they do. Great artists know the art of taking away. Charlie Chaplin did it with many of his movies, specifically his film Modern Times (1936). In Modern Times Chaplin uses sound effects extremely selectively, only when he is trying to make a point. Because all but the essentials are taken away we as an audience are more aware of the sound we do hear. In 1993 Steven Spielberg came out with Schindler’s List. For some reason the movie was in black and white. Obviously Hollywood had converted to making their movies in color a long time before Schindler’s List, yet Spielberg felt there was a benefit to taking the color out of the film. Spielberg was also known for using the camera in many complex and playful ways, giving us vast crane shots, huge special effects sequences, and flashy cuts. Yet, in Schindler’s List Spielberg took almost all his signature film style away. He took away the steady cams, the crane shots, and the zoom lenses, to give us a more realistic feel. He simplified everything so we had a very realistic and very straight forward look at the Holocaust.

Another benefit to taking away is the emphasis that comes with putting what you took away back in. Because Spielberg gets the audience use to seeing Schindler’s List in black and white he is able to use color to really emphasize one of his key points of the film. There is one key scene in Schindler’s List where among a huge amount of destruction we see a girl with a red coat walking through the ghetto. While dozens of Jews are running around in the streets getting gunned down by German soldiers we see this girl in red walking through the city unharmed. The only color on screen was the red coat. Spielberg drew us into the movie and immediately connected us to the character because he used color so sparingly.

You can make greater statements in your film if you use the big effects, complex camera moves, and grand scale music sparingly. If you have a film full of action all the way through, none of the action will likely stick out. With each film you take the audience for a ride. You do not want to go a hundred miles per hour all the way through. Like any good roller coaster ride you need to have times of quietness and suspense in order to make the huge drops and triple loops feel more satisfying.

An important thing to understand is that many elements of cinema can just be distracting. First you need to understand the essence of your scene and then you need to know what tools to use and what tools to leave out in order to emphasis that essence. Will the scene work better with several cuts or just one master shot? Is music needed? Is even sound needed? Take out whatever needs to be taken out in order to draw the audience closer. Let the audience connect some of the dots themselves.

Pixar’s Up does a fantastic job with their beginning montage where we see Carl and Ellie go from childhood friends to an old and happily married couple. In the montage the director Pete Docter took away the dialogue and sound effects. This allowed us as the audience to give our complete attention to the music and visuals. The visuals and music gave us everything we needed. We were able to fill in the blanks. We as an audience understood their emotions without needing to know exactly what they were saying. We fall in love with Carl and Ellie in the first sequence and it sets the rest of the film up perfectly.

There is a danger in taking away. When you take something like sound, dialogue, or music away, you need to make sure you are using the other elements of cinema to perfection. In the movie Wall-E director Andrew Stanton said he knew making the main character not be able to speak English was risky, especially for a film that kids would watch. He knew he needed to put more emphasis on expressing the character Wall-E through sound and acting. They looked into all the Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin films of the silent era. They studied how these two legends expressed their story with no dialogue and usually no sound. What taking away forces you to do is be more creative. You need to figure out how to express more with less and that is always risky. And, I admit there are times where you do need all the elements of cinema to express your point. You need to walk a fine line as a filmmaker. The audience will get bored if they are always told what to think and not given the opportunity to connect the dots. However, they will leave if you don’t give them enough information to see how the story connects.

It is not good enough to just take risks. You need to know what you are doing. You need to know the rules in order to break them. Know the benefits of sound before you make the decision to take it away. Know what you can communicate with a medium shot and close up before you choose to just stick with the master shot. We have more tools then we ever have had before in cinema. We shouldn’t be afraid to use them if needed. However, with all the technology and high quality visual effects we have now I do not think you could make a movie like Steven Spielberg’s E. T. (1982) any better. I don’t think I could enhance the quality of Frank Capra’s 1939 black and white film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, with the technology we have today. There are simply times where less is more.

Compromise

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on September 16, 2011

Compromise can be seen in two lights, negative and positive. Some people try to fight compromise as much as possible through being extremely detailed in their work and making sure they have the resources to stick to their original vision. However, even David Fincher, who takes much longer then the average filmmaker to shoot his films with usually a solid budget, has complained more then once about filmmaking being full of compromise and settling for imperfections.

Unlike David Fincher, Steven Spielberg has talked about compromise sometimes being a filmmakers best ally. He warned the students at Inside the Actors Studio to never let their vision or dream get in the way of making the movie better. Spielberg has shown his brilliant ability with compromise in movies like Jaws, E. T., and Jurassic Park. Originally Spielberg wanted to reveal the shark in Jaws at the very beginning of the film. The problem was that the mechanical shark they made for production wouldn’t work for the first half of production and it wasn’t too believable even when it did work. So, Steven needed to change his vision for the project. What he created instead was something that feels far more scary and malicious. Spielberg used the music and point of view shots to represent the presence of the shark. He waited until we were far into the second act of the film to reveal the shark. Yet, even then he only showed us a few seconds. He knew that if we saw the shark for too long it would look unbelievable and lose it’s maliciousness.

These days filmmakers have the ability to create whatever they want, the computer can literally bring anything to life. Yet, this unlimited ability to express whatever we want on screen is not always a good thing. Spielberg realized the power of limitation in the process of making Jaws. He found that compromise lead to a creativity that required limitations to work. Spielberg left a lot of the terror of the shark to the audience imagination. He knew the audience’s imagination could create a far more terrible creature then anything he could actually show on screen.

Filmmaking is a collaborative process and no matter if you are making a film independently or through a studio system, there are compromises. There are compromises made because you don’t have enough money, because you are trying to get a curtain rating, because you need to make decisions as a team, and the list goes on. What we need to do is run with the compromises. We need to learn how to use the compromises to stretch our thinking into creating something even more thought provoking and entertaining. The strict definition of compromise is settling for less then you wanted, however I think this does not need to be the case when it comes to filmmaking. If we are willing to work together as a team we can dream far greater visions then any one person could. If compromise is needed from one person in order to create a greater whole then the individual must be willing to sacrifice.

The time when compromise must be fought is when non-creative people try to influence your story. You will not always win, the budget will be cut and the story might be changed, however you must not let the business part of filmmaking destroy your creativity. If you feel your vision is being diminished you must know when to throw in the towel. Peter Weir (director of Dead Poets Society, Witness, and Master and Commander) worked on four projects from 2003 to 2010 and he only ended up making one. When asked about the projects he left Peter said he was glad he didn’t make them because he and the studios couldn’t come to agreement and share a vision together. Peter compared getting ready to write and direct a film to getting ready to fly a plan through a storm; if a bunch of red lights pop up before you even get into the storm that is a good sign to bail out. There is a huge difference between making compromises because of creative differences and budget/technical restraints, and needing to compromise because your financiers are not ambitious enough.

I am not telling you to ignore your convictions. However, filmmaking doesn’t work with just one person, it is a collaborative effort. It is impossible to have one man’s vision translated completely accurately onto screen. My suggestion is to embrace this fact and see if you can use the people around you to create a even greater vision. You are not exactly in a better position with a big budget or more time to shoot a film. Even though David Fincher usually has a greater budget and much more time to shoot a film then someone like Clint Eastwood, I do not consider him a better filmmaker. It all depends on what you do with the compromises that come with the medium of film. You can let compromises destroy your vision and your film, as I said sometimes you have to know when to bail out. However, most of the time you can take those compromises you encounter during the filmmaking process and let them boost your creativity and make something far greater then you could have imagined.

No Arc?

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on September 14, 2011

Is it okay for the main character in your story to have no arc? An “arc” in storytelling is the change you as the audience member see the characters go through.  Whether it is learning to share, getting a lesson in responsibility, or understanding what it means to truly love, there needs to be some kind of journey or arc in your film that makes the movie experience worth while. The arc does not always need to be oriented toward a good result. An arc could be represented through showing the corruption of innocents in someone. It is sometimes even more thought provoking when you make the arc of a character point to evil. Usually the character that changes the most and goes on the greatest inner journey in any given story is the protagonist. He or she is usually the character the audience gets most attached to. However, not always is it the case that the protagonist of the story changes the most. There have been some great movies where the protagonist has had no real arc.

You do not need to have every character in your story change. Usually you need to have one or two characters that represent a solid foundation. In most stories there usually are characters who are already developed. These characters represent a solid belief in order to change the characters around them. Most villains in the movies don’t go through much development, their job is to test the protagonist of the story. A good example of this is the Joker in Batman Dark Knight. The Joker represents chaos. He has this foundational belief, if pushed enough everyone will drop all morals in order to survive. The Joker tests the protagonist Batman to the limit. Batman is forced to go through a change and understand who he is because of the solid belief the Joker holds.

There is usually a good character with no arc in stories. Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid is a good example. Other examples are Sam from Lord of the Rings, Izhak Stern from Schindler’s List, John Keating from Dead Poets Society, and almost every secondary character in the Disney Animation movies. I am not saying these are character who don’t feel emotion or go through trauma, but they all have foundational beliefs that usually end up changing the protagonist of the story. Usually the characters with no real arc are the characters we enjoy the most. It is comforting to know exactly who a character is from beginning to end without needing to worry about his or her arc. This is one of the reasons so many secondary characters in Disney movies are so endearing. They are confident in who they are and they only have two jobs, guide the protagonist in their journey and entertain the audience. It is always risky for a storyteller to have a quality that the audience likes in a character be taken away from the character in order to create an arc. Many people would say for example they liked Buzz Lightyear in the Toy Story franchise more when he was under the delusion of being space ranger then when he actually realized he was a toy. This is one of the reasons why the toys in Toy Story 2 run into another delusional buzz, and why Buzz is changed back into a delusional Buzz in Toy Story 3.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post not all stories have the protagonist change. There are some movies where we see no real arc in the main character. It is alright to have these types of protagonists as long as they are able to create an arc for the characters around them. Two great movies that represent main characters with very little inner arc are Forrest Gump and Wall-E. I find it interesting that these two films both have the main character represented through the title. It might be because the characters are so well liked. Both Forrest Gump and Wall-E are characters audiences through out the world have come to love. Both represent a very innocent point of view on life and both characters connect immediately with the audience. They represent perspectives and hold beliefs that are already developed and can’t help but change the characters around them. Forrest for example brings about a change in almost all the characters he interacts with. His story concentrates on two character changes in particular; One with Forrest’s love interest, Jenny, and and the second with his lieutenant, Dan. Dan is saved from dying in battle by Forrest, the only problem is Dan loses his legs and is angry at Forrest because he wanted to die. Dan is ashamed of how people look at him but eventually finds strength in Forrest’s consistent love for life. Jenny is an emotional train wreck and feels she is unworthy of love, yet Forrest’s love for Jenny is strong and consistent all the way through the film, and at the end his love wins Jenny over and brings her clarity.

Characters should be created to tell a good story. They shouldn’t be created to flesh out your world or because you just find them interesting. They need to drive the arc of your story. You shouldn’t worry about making all the characters change. It is usually good to concentrate on the arc of just a few characters. Better to have the audience really buy into one character arc then be half sold on several. A story like A Christmas Carol is just about one man changing, all the other characters have no arc. Yet, this does not make the other characters the main character Scrooge encounters less enduring. We like the secondary characters, like the ghosts Scrooge runs into, because we can see the change they are making in Scrooge. Wall-E is one of those characters we ended up liking all the more because he had this solid belief in love and life all the way through the movie. I personally liked him because he helped give me joy and change my perspective. All the way through the story Wall-E’s only goal is to find love. Because of his unwavering dedication he finds love at the end and brings joy to all of us.

Walt Disney Vs.The Brain Trust

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on September 6, 2011

Both Walt Disney and the Pixar Brain Trust represent two foundations in my education. One consists of a single genius whose sole vision carried a whole studio. The other consists of a group of artists perfecting their art form by working together.  I personally think Walt Disney’s vision was magnificent. There were many artists who believed in Walt’s vision and would go to great lengths to bring it to fruition. Walt’s artists might not have gotten as much credit as they deserved and they were never the ones to call the shots but through following Walt, the Disney Studio made movies and created theme parks that have entertained and inspired generation after generation. With The Brain Trust we see a team of artists who truly rely on each other to keep their films at a high standard year after year. No one person has the vision for where the Pixar studio is heading, they find their strength by building a vision that consists of the best of each one of them. The Brain Trust’s goal is to keep creating movies that will last for generations to come. They want to be a community where when one great artist leaves another takes his or her place.

I have been doing a lot of thinking about what philosophy is better. Do you make better films through sole rulership or by committee? I bet most would say the Brain Trust has a better philosophy. I might agree as long as they stick completely to plan. If each one is putting their art form first no telling where they might go. And unlike Walt, the Brain Trust can last much longer. See, Walt’s vision died when Walt died. The Disney studio quickly become a company whose main focus was to keep a good revenue. The Brain Trust has the potential to work for centuries to come. They can keep on pushing the envelope and create movies that not only push the ideas of family entertainment but of film in general. Yet, even now I can see a slight tilt in the Brain Trust’s ideals and ambitions. Based on the very commercially oriented Toy Story 3 and Cars 2, I feel story is slowly being over taken by commercialism. I am not saying Walt’s movies were not commercially oriented. However, I think they were commercially oriented because Walt believed in family values and wanted to create movies that could connect to the whole family. Through the stories Walt wanted to create came popularity and appeal for product. However, Cars 2 seems like a perfect example of a movie that never needed to be made but was perfect for raking in money.

As I stated before, Walt was in the process of building cities when he died. Walt kept on pushing the envelope and even though he was told again and again that what he wanted was impossible, he pushed through. To have a group be as ambitious and single focused as Walt I think is impossible. Walt had the power through his sole creative ownership of Walt Disney studios to do truly crazy things; like create the first full length animated cartoon or build amusement parks based on movies he created (something that was unheard of at the time). Walt put the whole studio on the line multiple times to bring his dreams to reality. Something I can never see Pixar doing.

Walt Disney’ greatest strength was linked directly to his greatest weakness. When you are as ambitious as someone like Disney was, letting someone else make decisions is hard to do. Walt needed to have control over all the movies in development. Many of the animated movies during the 50’s and 60’s suffered because of this. There was even a time period of four years where a Disney animated feature was not made, from 1955’s Lady and the Tramp to 1959’s Sleeping Beauty. Pixar however makes films each year. Most of the films are ambitious works of art. Unlike Walt, the Brain Trust has several directors all of whom are allowed to make decisions for their individual projects. The Brain Trust does not take complete control over a project. They are a group that makes suggestions and gives advice, but allows the director to make the final decision… or so they claim.

Let me explain….

As John Lasseter, head of Pixar and Disney animation, has said multiple times, “Pixar is a director driven studio”. However, the director is not always allowed to stay. There have been several times in Pixar’s history where the director of a project has been forced to step down and another has taken his or her place. The first two times this happened was for Toy Story 2 and Ratatouille. Both these films ended up being box office and critical successes.

I personally do not think Pixar is a director driven studio. If it was a director driven studio the director would be allowed to have the final say and be allowed to stay on the project to its end. However, I do not know if it is wrong for Pixar not to be a completely director driven studio. I mean, both Toy Story 2 and Ratatouille are two of my favorite animated films of all time. It could very well have been a necessity to take the directors off those films and put someone else on. The answer to whether taking the directors off was legitimate or not all has to do with the question “why?”. Why did they switch directors for Toy Story 2 and Ratatouille? Why did they not make sure the directors were capable of their position before they had them invest their souls into those projects?

The last Pixar movie that had a director switch was for their upcoming film Brave. Brave was originally being directed by Brenda Chapman. It is an original fairytale that Chapman said was inspired by her own life. The heroin of the story is actually based off her own daughter. Now, she was allegedly working on the project for six plus years before she was forced to step down. I personally can’t imagine putting my heart into a project for that long only to be told it is not mine anymore. However, I trusted the Brain Trust’s decision. When Brenda stepped Pixar had not yet come out with a bad film. All their films had been praised both publicly and critically…..that is… until a few months ago.

Pixar’s 2011 Cars 2 has been one of Pixar’s worst films in the box office and their worst film critically. I watched Cars 2 and was tremendously disappointed (You can check out my review of the movie HERE). The movie changed my whole perception of Pixar and the Brain Trust. I began to question everything I knew about Pixar. The more I looked into it the more I felt the Brain Trust wasn’t exactly a community of people with equal say putting the story first. Pixar has started to look more and more like the studio of John Lasseter.

John Lasseter has said with regard to the Pixar movies, “I want the ideas to come out of the soul of the director”. Yet in every interview I have watched where Lasseter is talking about Cars 2 he has said it was inspired by his journeys into other countries while doing press for other films. The problem is John Lasseter wasn’t the one directing Cars 2 until just over a year before it came out. Brad Lewis was the movie’s original director. Lewis has been known for liking cars, but the idea did not originate with him. He was given the task because Lesseter was busy being president of both Disney Animation and Pixar Studios. Lasseter is also is in charge of the development of rides for Disney’s theme parks. The problems for Cars 2 became so big Lasseter needed to step in and help co-direct the film. Yet, he did not seem to make the movie much better. Why wasn’t he fired? If Pixar is truly ruled by committee, then why did they not express to Lasseter the movie’s problems and have him step down? I have too much respect for some of the artists at Pixar to think they thought Cars 2 was a film that met the Pixar standards. There are many problems with the movie that needed to be addressed and the whole genesis of the film seemed to be more based on money then ” this burning desire to tell a story that they want[ed] to tell”, as John Lasseter has put it in the past. Merchandising has had a heyday on both Cars and Cars 2. But by no means does merchandising make a film great.

The reason why I have talked at length about my problems with Pixar making Cars 2, is because I think it represents a great flaw in the Brain Trust. The Brain Trust only can work well if everyone is willing to work together for the sake of the story. The members of the committee all need to be treated as equals. If someone isn’t willing to work together and listen to the group, he or she must be taken off the project. This very well could have been the case with all the directorial changes in the past. However, the fact remains that the very mediocre Cars 2 was allowed to come out. This puts the whole Pixar philosophy in doubt. I have began to wonder if it’s story Pixar is worried about or making sure they make money. Is the Brain Trust making the final decisions as a community or is it John Lasseter who really has the final say? I know one thing, John Lasseter is no Walt Disney. Lasseter has qualities that are very admirable. The enthusiasm he shows for his job and the love he shows for the people who work around him seem quite authentic. Yet, John Lasseter seems too comfortable to be a Walt Disney. He seems to be too in love with what he has already created to be willing to put it all on the line to fulfill an even greater dream.

I have never personally met any of the Brain Trust. It would have been quite impossible for me to ever have met Walt Disney, since I am only 21. However, I have dedicated countless hours researching who these people were and are. I think Walt was one of the greatest visionaries of the 20th century. Pixar has been a pinnacle for entertainment and art in the 21st century. Yet, Walt’s vision died when he died and Pixar is slowly slipping from it’s pinnacle. We can learn from both Walt Disney and the Pixar Brain Trust. It is just as important to understand their flaws as their virtues. As Walt Disney has shown, if you truly have a vision you believe in you can do the impossible. As the Brain Trust has shown, humbling yourself and being willing to listen to others can improve the vision you already have. Your vision won’t last if you don’t share it with others and you can’t work as a team if everyone is not willing to treat each other as equals. I personally want to have as great a vision for my life as Walt had for his. But I don’t want my vision to die when I die. I want it to spread. I want to see others take my vision farther then I could have imagined. Both Walt Disney and the Brain Trust has helped me understand this.

Action, Reaction, and the Secret Ingredient

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on September 3, 2011

There are times where storytelling gets way too complex. Sometimes creating a world, making a compelling plot, and developing characters gets way too overwhelming. I am sure there are times with every writer where they ask themselves, “Why did I ever think I could do this”.  When you are in the process of writing a story and find your head is about to explode because your story is getting too complex, my suggestion is to step back and realize the simplicity of what storytelling is all about. All storytelling is about is action and reaction. Something happens to the protagonist of the story and he is forced to make a decision based that event. After he acts out his decision his world produces a reaction which keeps moving the story along. However, there is one more thing the storyteller should have to make his or her story worth watching. See, life is all about action and reaction yet some lives can be extremely boring with just those two things.

The protagonist of your story drops some coffee on his good shirt, so he gets a new shirt. Your main character is feeling claustrophobic inside a small room, so he goes outside. The protagonist is deeply in love with the girl next door, so he asks her out. All these examples are of action and reaction, yet they would be very boring to watch if left alone. Storytelling should never be boring. Storytellers need to throw in a extra ingredient that makes writing worth all the hardship and struggles. The extra ingredient is Conflict. Conflict is the key ingredient to good storytelling. There should be no easy path to take for your main character. Your main protagonist needs to take a journey before he can learn his lesson. A journey is not a journey without conflict. Without conflict you have no entertainment and you give the audience little reason to stay in their seats.

The protagonist of your story drops some coffee on his last good shirt. He needs to be at his internship in ten minutes and he can’t be late. Your main character is feeling claustrophobic so he goes to open the door to get outside only to find out it’s locked. The protagonist is deeply in love with the girl next door but she is already going out with Billy, the childhood bully. All these are examples of throwing in a little conflict to heighten the entertainment of your story.

In storytelling conflict represents the war that you need to fight to earn your freedom, the strait “A” rich kid you need to rise above to win the girl, and the haunting past you need to overcome in order to accomplish your dreams. Through conflict comes the arc of the character and the arc is the reason the audience stays in their seats. You need to give your story actions that have the potential to produce several reactions. We can’t know exactly what the protagonist will do. In the movie Up the main protagonist Carl is conflicted between staying with his house and going to save his friend Russell. When he finally abandons the house to save Russell the audience is even more connected with Carl because they understand how hard the decision was.

The conflict in your story does not need to be huge. It does not need to involve aliens from another planet trying to destroy the earth. It does not need to be about one man taking on an army. No, the conflict just needs to be genuine and needs to help develop your main character. When having trouble with a story think of an action or reaction that will help strengthen the plot and give the audience a deeper understanding of where your characters are at. Sometimes the answer is to simplify the plot. You might find you have some actions and reactions that are not needed. It is important to always have an idea of the overall arc of your characters so when your are deep into the story you have the ability to step back and know the type of conflict that is needed to create an action and reaction that will drive your characters and story forward.

Brad Bird- An Observation- Character Animation

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on September 1, 2011

Brad BirdAll the Pixar films have moments of brilliant animation. However, I am always blown away by the animation I see in Brad Bird’s films. Bird’s films have an appeal and timing that gives the old silent greats, such as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, a run for their money. Because of his animation background Brad tries to create scenes for his films he would like to animate himself. The legendary Disney animator Milt Kahl mentored Brad Bird. Bird was also lucky enough to work at Disney when Ollie Johnson and Frank Thomas were there. These great animators helped develop Bird’s eye for quality animation. I believe Bird is the best animator out of all the Pixar directors, and because of this most animators love to work for him. Bird pushes his animators to think outside the box and he knows the techniques of animation so well he is able to give his animators the kind of criticism that allows for them to create their best possible work.

Bird’s first project for Pixar was his original story The Incredibles. The Incredibles was a risky story to tell for multiple reasons. The movie required the Pixar artists to dive into an extremely challenging type of animation, human animation. Humans have always been some of the hardest things to animate. We observe how humans move constantly in everyday life so if the animator makes a mistake with animating a human character the audience will know. Yet, Bird felt the Pixar artists were up to the task and he gave them colorful characters to enhance their animation.

The Incredibles is about an over the hill superhero in Mr. Incredible who wants to relive the glory days. There are five Incredibles total and the whole family has superpowers. Bird’s genius was making the superpower for each Incredible directly reflect who the characters were on the inside. Mr. Incredible is the man of the and feels he has the responsibility to provide for the family, so Bird gave him super strength. Mrs. Incredible main purpose is to keep the peace and she feels stretched through trying to satisfy all the members of the family, so she is given the ability to be super flexible. The Incredibles oldest child Violet represents the “unconfident teen” who does not want to be noticed and creates barriers so she won’t get hurt by what someone says or does, so she has the ability to disappear and create force fields. Dash, the Incredibles middle child, is a ball of energy who is set on being the best in whatever he competes in, so what better superpower to represent him then super speed. And finally we have the baby Jack. Jack is a big “?”, he is too young for us to know what he will end up being. His powers reflect who he is by being miscellaneous. He can turn into metal, burst into fire, or transform into a demon, all depending on his mood at the time.

The next film Brad Bird directed and wrote for Pixar happens to be one of my favorite animated films of all time, Ratatouille. The animation in Ratatouille is phenomenal. The whole premise of the movie relied on getting the audience to believe a rat could cook. This was no easy task yet Bird executed the idea perfectly. Here is a great example of Bird’s brilliant direction in the movie:

Understand first the animation is all being driven by the personalities of the characters. This is actually the main reason the scene is so wonderful to watch. We have the human character Linquini who does not have a clue what is going on. You can see it through his facial expressions when Colette is reading off the ingredients and even more so when she leaves frame to set the dish up. We are also given a shot of Remy thinking about the ingredients Colette is reading off. These are very subtle pieces of animation but they are setting up the cooking scene. When the cooking starts Remy takes charge and the music begins. Notice how well the music blends with the animation. Each movement seems to hit curtain beats – Linquini reaching for the first spices, Remy bending Linquini to smell the sauce, Linquini going to get more ingredients. The more involved Linquini and Remy get with cooking the more expressive the music gets. There is a delicate balance between us realizing Remy is the one making Linquini cook and Linquini trying to maintain some kind of control. The humor actually comes from the battle for this balance. All the efforts Linquini makes – saying “thank you” to the cooks, telling them he needs some of their material, and trying to explain himself to Colette – make the scene all the more entertaining. Follow Linquini’s facial expressions while he is controlled by Remy. The animation is all about action and reaction on Linquini’s end. Also, notice how Bird and his animators do not hesitate in getting Linquini physically involved with the things around him. One of the hardest things to do in computer animation is have characters interact with other objects or people. Yet, Linquini is grabbing and moving objects around and he is reaching through a cooks arm to grab some things behind him. Linquini also hits some brilliant extreme poses in the scene. Animation is all about extreme poses and exaggerating movements not possible to do with live action acting. The animators need to make sure Linquini moves like a human, but they also have the responsibility to exaggerate his poses so they are easy for us to read. Linquini reaching for the spices, lifting his leg to start his walk around the kitchen, and reaching his arm out to stop Collete, are all examples of great poses where the animators are pushing their animation to the limit in order to communicate to the highest potential the action and essence of the character.

Brad Bird has never shied away from risky storytelling. He believes in the characters he creates and the animators who bring them to life enough to push the storytelling to the limit. It was no easy task to make a film about rats cooking. Before Bird came onto the project the artists shortened the rats’ tails and made them walk and act far more like humans. The Pixar artists did this because they were afraid an audience would be too appalled with more realistic rats. However Bird believed the idea of rats cooking would only be believable if the rats looked realistic. So he made the artist lengthen the tails, study the anatomy and the rats’ movements so they looked and acted in a more realistic way. Realize Bird did not make them look completely realistic, they do have a much softer design and more colorful look then real rats, but they were changed enough for the audience to buy into the illusion. The result was a movie that on paper looked like it could never work (I mean who in their right mind would like to see a rat in the kitchen, let alone cooking?) yet through brilliant character animation and subtle design changes we not only become okay with Remy the rat cooking, we ended up rooting for him to succeed.

Bird’s films make me realize how phenomenal the medium of animation really is. The characters Bird creates could not possibly be expressed in as complete a way in any other medium. How the animation reflects the character within is what is most important. Bird’s animation sticks out because the animators are on top of their game when working with him. Bird is a very enthusiastic and dedicated man. One of his sayings is, “Film is forever; Pain is temporary”. Bird is not the easiest director to work with. He will ask for a lot. But I believe most of his artists see the results are well worth it. I believe the artists working with Bird know he has conviction in the characters he creates. They are real to him and he will not stop pushing his artists until he sees the heart and souls of his characters come alive on screen.