A Dreamer Walking

To My Teacher

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on July 11, 2012

I will be the first to admit I am a Pixar fanatic. I have looked up pretty much every interview, watched or listened to every behind the scenes feature and commentary on Pixar. Few have taught me more about filmmaking and the art of story than Pixar studios. The studio was one of my first and greatest teachers in filmmaking. It is safe to say I have always held them to a higher standard than any other studio in the modern era of film.

I am not the only one who holds Pixar in great regard. There are millions of fans out there who count down the days until the next Pixar premier. Almost anyone who works in animation would consider working at Pixar a dream job. The beauty of creating quality work again and again is: you attract the most ambitious artists. John Lasseter, the president of Pixar Studios, has said several times that he wants people with a passion to tell stories to come to Pixar.

The roots of Pixar are very humble. The majority of its founders were computer programers who the animation industry thought had no business being anywhere close to animation. The rest consisted of artists who were thrown out or rejected from other studios for trying to shake things up or because they were not experts at a particular aspect of animation. When Pixar started making movies they intentionally went against the established mold. They created stories in which the characters didn’t break out in song every ten minutes, nor did they always need a villain. They created original stories that took place in modern day rather then fairytale adaptions that constantly evolved around a princess trying to find prince charming. Their films were conceived and created by the directors. Pixar’s greatest and most unique quality was its stance on being a director driven studio where decisions were made not based on marketing or by a collective but rather because the director of the film had a burning desire to tell the story he or she wanted to tell in his or her unique way.

At the moment Pixar is still extremely successful, at least in the public’s eye. Although Cars 2 came out to mostly critical scrutiny, earning a Rotten Tomatoes score of 38%, it was a hit with the public earning a worldwide gross income of $559, 852, 396. It looks like Pixar’s newest film Brave is going to be a similar success publicly, although like Cars 2 it was not received as well critically. I personally have seen a huge difference in the quality of the last two Pixar films compared to their first eleven. I think anyone who studies story could point out the huge flaws in the last two pictures. The greatest flaw being the two movies seem to have no real soul. Yet, most Pixar fans and most of the people working on the two movies have refused to admit publicly any step down in quality within these projects.

Instead of working on the problems that have surfaced in Pixar’s last few films the studio appears to be choosing to avoid them. They still claim to be more then the typical Hollywood studio. They want to be seen as more. Pixar once showed themselves to be different from typical Hollywood by creating films that were conceived and driven by the director and not settling for mediocrity but rather only letting a film out to the public if it felt like it was living up to its potential. Yet, in the last few years Pixar has come out with Cars 2 a movie that was described by most critics and myself as mediocre. With the movie Brave Pixar had a story that could have completely turned the typical princess tale on it’s head, but half way through production they got cold feet and gave the story to a director who relied on stereotypes rather then personal conviction.

Pixar claims to be the studio that breaks rules and brings us original stories. I saw none of that in Brave or Cars 2. They claim to be a director driven studio that thinks outside the box. Yet,  the first director was taken off of Brave for “story problems” she claims  were actually “creative differences”. Could the problems be she was thinking too far out of the box? One of the things Pixar is most proud of is their Brain Trust. The famous Brain Trust is a group of Pixar directors and producers who watch each Pixar film in production every three to four months. They give the directors of the films notes on what they think is working and what they think needs to change. They are also, from what I can tell, the group who make the decision to change directors if they feel a story isn’t working. In the past I have written about the advantages of the Brain Trust. However, might the Brain Trust be the very thing taking the creative control out of the hands of the directors?

It is interesting that the only directors so far to carry their projects all the way through production are a group of five who have known each other since the beginning of Pixar feature film. Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, Lee Ulrich, and John Lasseter were all key players in the making of Toy Story, Pixar’s first feature film. Brad Bird, the only other Pixar director to carry his film all the way through production, has known John Lasseter, President and co-founder of Pixar, since the 70’s when they went to school together. The rest of the people so far to begin creating a Pixar feature film, Brenda Chapman, Jan Pinkava, Brad Lewis, and Gary Rydstrom, have either been replaced or had their project completely abolished. What this shows me is a lack of trust in anyone new. Yes, it is nice to hear Lasseter talk about how he wants stories that originate from the heart of the director, but he seems very hesitant to give those visions a chance to come to fruition. Lasseter and the rest of the Brain Trust trusted these people to put their heart and soul into creating a story for the studio, yet gave up on them before they could finish their film. With a movie like Ratatouille we still received a very powerful story, yet in the case of Cars 2 and Brave the stories seem full of compromises and half baked ideas.

I have heard many directors at Pixar rave about visionaries like Walt Disney and Hayao Miyazaki. However these two artist did not have a “Brain Trust” who approved their every step. They made their movies the way they wanted to make them and risked the chance of failure with the public. Some of Walt Disney’s greatest masterpieces were not accepted by the public until years after their release. If John Lasseter and the rest of the Brain Trust want to have visionaries like Disney and Miyazaki, they need to risk giving their directors true creative control. To prove they trust other directors they need to not only allow them to come up with and develop new stories they need to continue to  trust them to bring their stories to fruition. Lasseter has said in the past he would not allow a mediocre film out of his studio. Well, it is hard to describe movies like Cars 2 and Brave as anything other than mediocre. Pixar must not be like every other studio and run away from this fact. There will be mediocre stories that come out of every studio. The question is whether or not those in control at Pixar will still hold the trust of their visionaries as sacred or throw them under the bus?

Here is where I come in. I am an ambitious artist who has a burning desire to tell the stories I want to tell. John Lasseter himself said that is what he most wants in the people directing films at Pixar. I am not the greatest artist but I am a great storyteller. I can thank Pixar for helping me become a great storyteller. The problem is at the moment I would be afraid to share my stories with the studio. You don’t know how hard and deeply upsetting it is for me to say this. Pixar was my teacher, inspiration, and dream. However, my stories are greater then any amount of gold, fame, or success. They all represent part of who I am and my unique journey. I will only share these stories with people I trust. Right now I can not trust Pixar with my burning desire to tell stories.

Pixar, you might be getting money, fame, and public success, but I fear you are losing out on something far more valuable.

Brave- Review

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on July 1, 2012

Pixar’s Brave is the first movie the studio has produced with a main protagonist being a woman and it was going to be Pixar’s first film directed by a woman. The story was actually inspired by the director Brenda Chapman’s relationship with her own daughter. However about eighteen months ago Chapman was taken off the project. In her place came Mark Andrews. Andrews brought to the project a deep understanding and love for Scotland and an ability to make big and decisive changes in story. What I believe was lost when Andrews came on board was the intimate understanding of the bond between a mother and a daughter.

The bond between Merida and her mother Queen Elinor is the key to the whole story.  But what Pixar creates is caricatures of the mother and daughter, rather then well rounded characters. Brave is the fairytale version of Freaky Friday. The only real difference is a change in location and time period. The film does not really try to have us understand why the characters are the way they are. It is as if Andrews thinks the flat stereotype of a self consumed teen and an all knowing mother is enough to impact and inspire his audience. In one scene Elinor talks to her husband and Merida talks to her horse while we cut between the two explaining their positions. The problem is they really don’t say anything we haven’t heard a hundred times before in other films. Merida is doing what she is doing because she wants her freedom. Elinor is doing what she is doing because she loves Merida. We never see how Elinor making Merida be proper and get married is loving. We never see Merida understand the value of freedom. Because the characters are not explored thoroughly as individuals, the eventual bond between the two feels artificial. We see the same themes of Brave in movies like Finding Nemo and How to Train Your Dragon. However the individual exploration of the characters in Finding Nemo and How to Train Your Dragon is what makes those movies worth going back to again and again. In Finding Nemo the father Marlin needs to face his own insecurities in order to let his son Nemo take risks and explore the world. In How to Train Your Dragon young Hiccup needs to dessert his need to live up to his Viking roots before he can find his own voice and really appreciate the leadership and sacrifice of his father.

The change Mark Andrews said he made was with the stuff holding the story back. With Brave we get a very fast paced story which lasts just slightly over ninety minutes. I have heard more then one Pixar director explain their love for director Hayoa Miyazaki and his brilliant ability to celebrate the quite moments in film. Well, there were really no quite moments in Brave. The score was over used. The key development scenes in the movie were accompanied with songs. Although the songs were well written and well performed, they felt like cop outs, easier than making the director and artists take their time and find visual ways to express their points and explore the characters development. With Andrews came action. He said in a recent interview he was the one who really made the evil bear Mor’du a key character in the film. Yet, Mor’du seems to be little more then a device to scare the audience. Whenever the movie seems to be slowing down Andrews throws in some kind of energizer, whether it is a song, an action sequence, or just a sight gag. He seems scared to death to just let the audience come to their own conclusion without any kind of music or piece of drastic action forcing them into it, and thus he does a huge disservice to the story. He has mentioned many times in interviews about how proud he was that Pixar and Disney let him go darker with this movie. However, Andrews idea of “darker” is little sequences designed to raise the audience’s heart-rate. My idea of “darker” would be a story where there is  consequences of feeling real loss. There is not even a scare at the end end of the movie to remind us what the characters needed to go through in order to learn their lessons. At the beginning of the story Merida’s father King Fergus fights a bear and we learn that the bear took one of his legs off. Yet, through out the rest of the movie Fergus with a peg leg can move just as easily as the rest of his men. There is no mention of it hurting, no real body language to tell us he had this devastating thing happen to him, it is more played for comic relief.

The humor in Brave is a bit choppy and many times quite shallow. I was fine with Merida’s triplet brothers adding some humor with their adventures through the castle, giving the maid trouble and always trying to get their hands on any kind of goodies from the bakery. We also see some brilliantly animated sequences and some clever wordplay that will get the audience bursting out laughing more then once. Some of the comic relief we get from King Fergus and the three other tribe leaders, along with their children who are shooting for Merida’s hand, is quite funny. Yet, the humor seems to come at a great cost. Each one of the young men shooting for Merida’s hand are played for comic relief. By doing this, these men are romantically appealing to no one. Rather then create one or two men who actually look interesting and are legitimate suitors for Merida, Pixar takes the easy way out through making all of them seem completely unreasonable. By doing this Pixar belittles the stance Merida makes when she refuses to be betrothed to any of them.  There are no men in this movie that even try to represent serious adulthood. They are all played for comic relief, and after a while it gets old. It seems like Pixar was trying to impress us with the women of the movie through dumbing down the men. Well Pixar, I am not impressed.

Brave has awe inspiring visuals. It is filled with marvelous animation. There are times where Andrews’ fast paced and to the point directing style is completely necessary. The animation and pacing for the sequence where Merida shoots for her own hand at the end of the first act is worthy of appreciation and study. We meet some fun characters and Pixar brings into the story a lot of charm. Yet, in the end Brave seems like a powerful idea that was hollowly realized. Pixar’s “clever” take on the traditional fairytale is to have no prince charming. But what they do is trade out one cliche for another and end up saying nothing new. For children the movie will be a lot of fun and adults can defiantly be entertained by it. This might be quite enough for most people, just not me. Judging from Pixar’s last two movies it seems like the studio that once showed themselves to be out of the box and director driven are sloping down to becoming the typical Hollywood studio– who likes to imagine themselves as much more then they really are.