A Dreamer Walking

Pixar Was My Dream

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on July 22, 2014

As soon as I heard John Lasseter, creative head of Pixar Animation Studios, speak these words, “I want someone who has this burning desire to tell a story that they want to tell”, I knew he was talking directly to me. I spent countless hours learning from the heads of Pixar. I took notes on all the Pixar movie commentaries and looked up countless interviews online. I bought books on Pixar and have religiously gone to every one of their movies. The studio sounded like a dream land where artists could ride around on scooters, play volley ball and ping pong, and were given a free breakfast with every brand of cereal imaginable. I had created an image of a studio without flaws. A studio who treated everyone fairly and would do anything for the sake of creating a great story.

Then the ideal image I had of Pixar began to crumble. It’s what every child goes through when they create an idol out of  flawed human beings. Little by little I began to realize the studio I came to love was not the great haven I had dreamed of. In 2006 Pixar was bought by Disney, a company who had shown numerous times they cared about profit more then anything else. The studio who had always claimed to be “director driven” began to replace more and more of their directors. The people who had birthed ideas such as “A rat who wants to cooks” or “A young girl who isn’t interested in conforming to the typical princess mold” were taken off of their projects and replaced with other artists. The main reason given for making these changes was because Pixar was not willing to settle for the mediocre. But then they produced Cars 2 which I and almost every critic out there believed was a full buffet of mediocrity. Key artists began to leave Pixar. Jan Pinkava, Brenda Champman, and Doug Sweetland are a few of the big name artists to go other places with their award winning talents.

Lasseter’s quote keeps flashing in my head, “I want someone who has this burning desire to tell a story that they want to tell”. See, I have a burning desire to tell stories. They are my most valuable possessions. With this quote Lasseter is saying he wants me to share my greatest desires with him. However, in order for me to share these desires with Lasseter, Pixar’s president Ed Catmull, and the rest of the leadership at Pixar I must first trust them.

I know Lasseter understands the power of trust. See, Pixar would not be Pixar if it weren’t for a group of rebellious artists who were willing to go all in with each other. For the first ten years of owning Pixar Steve Jobs lost money, yet he trusted Lasseter and his storytelling abilities to consistently write checks to him so he could continue to make animated shorts, which eventually lead to Lasseter directing Pixar’s first full length feature, Toy Story. John Lasseter trusted two artists with no directing experience, Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter, to helm the first Pixar movies not directed by him, Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo. And at the pinnacle of their success the heads of Pixar trusted a director who had just come off of a box office flop, Brad Bird, to completely shake up the studio’s routine and make the first Pixar movie to star humans and earn a PG rating, The Incredibles. Yet, in recent years trust seems to be hard thing for Lasseter to find. The last three Pixar movies had different directors at the beginning of their production. The movies ended up keeping their usual quality look but suffering from unoriginal storytelling.

Though Lasseter and the other creative heads are struggling to trust their artists it’s clear they still want their artists to trust them. The two main leaders of Pixar, John Lasseter and Ed Catmull, have continued to claim the most important thing about their studio is the artists. However, one of the greatest lessons I have learned from Pixar is words are cheap. In his most recent book, Creative Inc., Ed Catmull talked about the illusion of value that comes with curtain sayings. When Pixar began to create numerous successes one of their greatest sayings was, “Story is king”. However, Catmull found Pixar was not the only one saying story was the most important thing. Everyone was saying it. Catmull realized words were cheap when it came to talking about what creates success. What would separate Pixar was the walking out of the things they said.

A few weeks ago a story by the site PandoDaily came out detailing Ed Catmull’s involvement in the illegal activity of trying to fix employees’ wages. People whose net worth are in the hundreds of millions, such as Ed Catmull, John Lasseter, and Steve Jobs, were working to make deals with other studios in order to keep their employees’ wages at a minimum while assuring artists would not jump ship in pursuit of better deals. In a more recent development PandoDaily showed how Ed Catmull was actually a ring leader for this illegal wage-fixing activity. This evidence shown in the article spits in the face of Catmull’s claims to be a studio for the artists. Instead of paying his artists what they were worth he adamantly tried to get as many studios in the region to agree to not pursue each others employees. And when Sony Animation refused to follow the guidelines Catmull was enraged. As soon as Sony began going through a hard time and was selling part of their special effects division Catmull advocated for “aggressively going after Sony people”.

The studio has officially fallen from the great pedestal on which it once comfortably sat. The artist seems to only be as useful as his ideas. The quote that once inspired me, “I want someone who has a burning desire to tell a story they want to tell”, now feels more sinister then encouraging. In the last two weeks there has been no response from Pixar to the PondoDaily articles. All the fan sites who claim to be news sources for the Pixar Studio, such as Pixar Times, Upcoming Pixar, and Pixar Post, have neglected to even mention the controversy; most likely out of fear of repercussions from the company. The truth is this story probably will just go away. The majority of the world will never know about Pixar management’s involvement in these illegal wage-fixing activities.

I am writing this post however to tell Pixar I know. And I am ashamed of you. You were my teachers. You gave me a passion to tell stories and created the foundations of my views on filmmaking. My dream was to tell my stories at Pixar. I didn’t want to tell these stories for the sake of fame, acclaim, or money. What drove me and what drives me still is the same thing that drove Ed Catmull to want to make the first full length computer animated feature 20 years before anyone else thought it was possible. It’s the same thing that drove Lasseter to stay at work and sleep under his desk in order to finish animation for the first full length animated short The Adventures of Andre and Wally B. It’s the same thing that drove the artists working at the studio to create an unbelievable streak of eleven box office and critically acclaimed films in a row. What drives me is this burning desire to tell the stories I want to tell. And I will tell them with or without Pixar. Everything depends on if the studio can regain the thing that drives creative collaboration the most, our trust.

 

 

The Piano – Scene Study – The Beach

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Screenshot Series by Jacob on July 6, 2014

Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) is a dark and complex tale which had a hard time connecting with a broad audience. I however found the film to be full of interesting dynamics. The film was also beautifully shot. I especially appreciate director/writer Jane Campion’s unwillingness to simplify the narrative in order to be more politically correct. In essence we are given a love story without a prince charming. There are two men who fight for the main character Ada’s affection and both characters are full of flaws and bring to the for front the kind of sexism woman have struggled with since the beginning of humanity.

The Piano was chock full of wonderful scenes where the visuals were constantly used communicate narrative and emotional points. I wanted to concentrate on one of the scenes I believe best expresses just how much meaning Campion was able to imbue into each one of her shots.

This scene takes place during the transition from the first act of the movie to the second. The main character Ada and her daughter are able to convince George Baines to go back to the beach so she can play her piano. George is falling in love with Ada despite her already being married. It’s here where we truly get a feel of George’s affection and begin to understand just how much the piano means to the story.

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We first have this master shot with music playing in the background. The shot starts out with Ada and her daughter Flora walking from screen right to the piano. The emphasis is put on Ada’s need to play the piano. However, a second or two later George walks into frame connecting him to Ada and her piano. I think it would be easy to compare George to the rock on the horizon line; an object that is quite distant from the mind of Ada at the moment.

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The second shot is a pan starting first on the piano and then quickly revealing Ada playing the music we have been hearing in the background. This of course directly links the piano to Ada. Also the close up of the hands is a key element; making a point that the hands are what is making such beautiful music. Ada’s hands become a crucial plot point in the third act of the movie and they already being set up here. By having this be the second shot after the master Campion is communicating Ada’s playing is the focus point of the scene.

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This is part of the same pan shot. Campion is  directly connects George to Ada and her piano playing. This is one of the first shots showing George’s obsession of Ada and the piano. It helps to set up the idea of him wanting her to play for him later in the movie.

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The pan cuts to a close of Ada alone. It is key that the shot starts alone because it gives clarity to exactly what George is looking at. However, shortly after we see Ada’s daughter Flora run into frame and hug her mom. This moment represents Ada at her happiest. A long time goes by before we see her close to as fulfilled as we see her here.

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This cut of the daughter dancing expresses the spiritual connection between Ada’s music to her daughter. Jane Campion holds the shot for a good amount of time, trying to show how in-sink the two are at this point in the story.

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We have this cut to medium close up of George who in his own way is going with the music. The key is to show how Ada’s music is effecting George emotionally.

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This is one of the most interesting shots of the scene. Campion breaks the rule of thirds and frames Ada so the head is in the middle of frame. This is a wonderful example of a closed frame; nothing is important but what we are seeing in frame. The shallow focus stops the background from interfering in the shot; Campion wants us to only be seeing how Ada is reacting to the music. The rest of the world and all other sounds have faded away.

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I show two frames from this shot because the action inside the shot is what is really important. We first get this look from George as if he is entranced with the way Ada is being moved by her music. However, by turning his back George is in a sense denying that allure.

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Yet, in the end he turns back, unable to resist his need to see Ada playing. This is a wonderful foreshadow of what is to come between Ada and George.

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Here is another close up of Ada’s hands. Again, driving home the idea Ada’s hands are what are giving us this powerful music. The other important factor is seeing Flora playing with Ada. Right now in the story the two are working together, both are being physically and emotionally connected to each other with this shot.

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This is from the same shot, Campion goes all the way from the close up of both Ada and Flora playing to this wide where we get a feeling of a sort of distance between the two characters. I feel like Campion is making a comment about things to come.

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This last god’s eye point of view shot might be the most telling of the whole scene. It expresses the journey of the story. We first have Ada walking her own path. Flora quickly fallows and George contemplates for several long seconds before he chooses to follow suit. The shot is communicating whose story this is and the rout of some of the main characters who end up going on the journey with her.