A Dreamer Walking

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.

Joe Ranft: Part 3: A Friend and Mentor

Posted in Animation, Film and Filmaker Studies by Jacob on November 10, 2010

This third and final part of my Joe Ranft series is to explain why Joe is one of the greatest influences in the history of animation. As I have explained in my last two blogs about Joe (here is Part 1 and Part 2), he went through many struggles and was able to push through them to become a very good artist. His special touch is seen through all the films he has worked on. However, what inspires me the most about Joe is not all the struggles he was able to overcome. Nor was it the magnificent art he was able to produce. Joe’s true gift was in his ability to affect those around him. His influence on film was limited to his own skill with a pencil or even the time he had on this earth. Joe had a quality that lasts even through death. Joe Ranft was a friend and a mentor to all those he worked with and because of this he will never be forgotten and he will never stop influencing the world through the people who were influenced by him.

Joe was moved by the teachers he had in CalArts. He was not only influenced to create great art from them, but also to spread the ability to do art to others. The goel was always to find the best idea possible and to do that Joe would involve everyone around him. He was far from being a solo man like his idol Bill Pete. He liked working as a team and was always open to new ideas no matter who the idea came from. Joe thought if diverse artists could work together without killing each other they could accomplish great things.

In 1987 Joe returned to CalArts to teach storyboarding. Two students Joe influenced the most was Brenda Chapman and Pete Docter. Pete Docter is now a director at Pixar and was the visionary behind both Pixar’s Monsters Inc. and Up. Brenda is now known as one of the great storyboard artists of her generation and she helped co-direct Dreamworks The Prince of Egypt. In John Canemaker’s book Two Guys Named Joe, Brenda said, “I would not be who I am, what I am, if it were not for Joe,” (page. 50).

Joe seemed to be a natural teacher. He made his students study Chaplin and Keaton films, and really concentrated on how to communicate ideas and story points through body language and the physical expression of emotions. The “meaning of the pose” was always important to Joe so he taught his students how to stage their drawings and think deeply about the pose being created so they could communicate as much as they could with their drawings. Here are a few of Joe’s rules on storyboarding from the book Two Guys Named Joe (Page 50):

  • Show rather then tell.
  • Communicate one idea at a time.
  • Stage it so the audience can see it clearly.
  • Clarity In the shot composition.
  • Clarity in staging the acting or pantomime
  • The Story drawing’s idea is to communicate: an idea feeling/emotion, mood, an action
  • Imply animation in your drawings (through caricature, use of animation principles, I.e., stretch and squash exaggeration, etc.)
  • Imagine ourselves in our character’s shoes/place.
  • Leave an impression, an impact (Visual and emotional) That effects the viewer.

These were all rules Joe pounded into his students. He wanted each one of his students to be the best storyboard artist they could be. The students always had someone to talk to in Joe. He was always there to talk about an idea or way to go about telling their story. He was known for being able to deal with anyone. Unlike so many teachers today, Joe did not force his way of thinking onto his students. Rather, he helped them develop their own way of telling a story.

When Joe went to Pixar and became head of story for Toy Story and A Bugs Life he became a leader everyone looked up to, including the directors of the films he was working on. He was the first man to show up and the last person to leave. After A Bugs Life Joe took a step down from the leadership position to become more of a mentor to the Pixar studio. In their most desperate hours Joe was able to help guide first time directors like Pete Docter on Monster’s Inc and Andrew Stanton for Finding Nemo. Joe was able to crack the sequence at the end of Monsters Inc. where the main protagonist Sully is leaving his dear friend Boo for what he thinks will be the last time. Andrew Stanton, the director and screenwriter for both Finding Nemo and Wall-E said, “Everything I learned about storyboarding a film and rewriting scripts was with Joe Ranft on Toy Story” (Two Guys Named Joe, page 73).

The artist’s Joe took under his wing and helped mentor are now some of the most sought after people in the animation industry. Joe had a gift, a powerful gift. He was able to make others believe in themselves. Joe had a joy for life and his art form that could not help but rub off on others. However, this heart for helping others did not just stop in the field of animation.

Being successful while others suffered in the world was not comforting to Joe. He joined community outreach programs helping at prisons and in tough neighborhoods. He even helped convince Steve Jobs to donate computers to the Watts organization. Staying involved in the community was important to Joe and he stayed involved up to the day he died. He was killed in a traffic accident on his way to a retreat in Mendocino, California.

Andrew Stanton said this about Joe;

He was just a great listener. Probably the best. And he had a real sixth sense for when people needed it, even if you weren’t looking for it. And that I’ll miss more then anything else, is the random knock at the doorway and just going, ‘Ah. It’s Joe.’

Joe Ranft was a friend and mentor. He was there for others when they most needed him. Through the talent and the fame, it was Joe’s friendship everyone valued. And this is why Joe Ranft will never be forgotten. Friendship is his contribution that will never die.

 

(Here is a tribute to Joe Ranft, made by one of Joe’s good friends John Musker)

The “Brave” Situation

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on October 22, 2010

Well I thought I might as well throw in my two cents about this whole thing that is going on at Pixar concerning the up and coming film Brave.

First, for those who don’t know. The first woman director for Pixar, Brenda Chapman, was scheduled to make her directorial debut with the film Brave. Brave is a original fairytale written by Brenda Chapman about Pixar’s first main female protagonist Merida, who is of royalty and has ambitions to become an archer against her mother and fathers will. It has been in production for several years now and was personally the movie I was most looking forward to seeing on the Pixar slate. A few days ago CartoonBrew posted a blog claiming that Brenda had been replaced at the helm by Mark Andrews (Co-Director of Pixar’s short One Man Band). This news has become HUGE and there are many people who are not happy about it. There is already 200+ comments on the CartoonBrew post and the majority seem to be quite disappointed, some to the point of being quite vulgar.

I can only imagine how hard it is to leave a story after several years of being its main authority. From what I know of Brenda, I like. She has been proclaimed by many to be an excellent story artist who is devoted to her art form. Brenda was part of the Disney story department that brought both Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King to life. She also was a co-Director for the Dreamworks film The Prince of Egypt. The reasoning for the change is yet unclear. All Disney has said so far is that the change was made for “creative reasons”. Many speculate that the movie just was not conventional enough.

There was one person particularly who I have come to very much respect, that has voiced his frustrations with the change. His name is Floyd Norman, he is a retired Disney/Pixar artist who worked with Walt Disney himself in the late 1950’s through the 1960’s (you can see the blog I did on him here). Floyd says on his blog , “[I call] this decision another bone-headed move that will send Walt’s wonderful company further down the rat hole”, when talking about the demotion of Brenda Chapman. As the closest insider I know and trust, I find this very concerning.

Pixar has long since proclaimed that they are a director driven studio. They claim to make movies that they want to see themselves. Pixar’s Creative chief, John Lasseter,  claims that “Story is king” at Pixar. Why then would they be getting rid of a critically acclaimed story artist? Floyd and a few others on CartoonBrew have claimed that they have watched the rough cut of the film and thought it was going in a marvelous direction. Yet the fact remains that Brenda is not in charge anymore.

The reason this brings up particular frustration with me is because I have ambitions of joining Pixar and sharing the stories that I have developed. I do not want to join a studio however that does not put the story first. I do not want to have my stories be taken away from be purly on the reasoning that they are “not conventional enough”. The question is, is this true? Has Pixar gotten rid of Brenda Chapman because they wanted to “play it safe”? I guess the bottom line is that I need to rely on what I know about Pixar so far.

I have done much study on the Pixar studio and those who work in it. I have found them to be full of vision. It was very comforting to hear Brad Bird, when he first came to make The Incredibles (2004), talk about Pixar’s dedication to protecting story. A good question now in 2010 would be does Pixar still put story first?

I personally do still think Pixar puts story first. At the moment I still think that Pixar’s heart is in the right place. And, at the moment I do not think Pixar deserves the criticism they have received from many of the people I have seen comment on the “Brave” situation. Pixar has made directorial changes before and they were on two movies that turned out to be two of the greatest films Pixar has ever created, Toy Story 2 and Ratatouille.  Pixar has shown time and again that they are artistically driven, creating some of the greatest films of this decade.

Those who claim Pixar is about playing it safe, seem to forget how Pixar became famous. Computer generated animation was a whole new field of unknowns when Pixar’s first full length feature Toy Story was being created. Nobody knew whether or not Toy Story would be a success and it was a movie that went against the typical animation story style of it’s time. The more recent Pixar movie Up had their two protagonists be a eight year old boy and a seventy plus year old man. Many people claimed that Up would not get a strong teen audience and would fail at the box office. However, this did not stop Pixar from creating the film and it did not stop Up from being a giant success. A movie about Rats or a film where the main protagonist was a garbage robot, probably didn’t sound like very safe storytelling either. However, that still did no2t stop Pixar.

We will have to see about Brave. As confused and even frustrated as I am at the moment about Brenda Chapman being demoted, I still have trust in Pixar. I still have ambitions at working at the Pixar studio and still think that John Lasseter and Ed Catmull (Presidents of Pixar animation) put story above everything else. We will see what happens with the movie Brave. I am hoping that Brenda’s voice is not extinguished and she stays to do great things for Pixar animation. I also hope that Pixar continues to be a artistically driven studio. Pixar should know by now the power of putting the film first. It is not fame or money that makes great movies, it is dedication to story.