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.

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.

Cars 2- Review

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on July 4, 2011

Cars 2 is mediocre. It is the kind of film I thought John Lasseter swore he would never release let alone help direct. I have heard Lasseter talk constantly about story being the most important thing in his films, yet Cars 2 seemed more influenced by a man’s boyhood fantasies of seeing his cars actually shoot missiles and blow thing up than by any beckoning of the heart to show us a story that absolutely needed to be told. In fact, in Cars 2 we see John Lasseter often sacrifice story and character development for more chase sequences and gun shooting. I can’t help but think the reason why Cars 2 was so mediocre was because John Lasseter is the big boss at the studio now. Could it be that the Brain Trust does not have a great influence on Lasseter because he does not need to worry about losing his job if he does not listen to them?

It is through constant revision that a great piece of art is made at Pixar. The flaws of Cars 2 seemed quite obvious to me. The plot was more oriented toward action then character development. The film was introducing too many new characters and locations. We had so much to concentrate on and it was all going by so quickly we could hardly appreciate any of it.  The new characters such as Finn Mcmissile and Holley Shiftwell were underdeveloped. Both expressed a great deal of secret agent skills and they of course had a lot of cool spy gadgets, yet both had very few character traits that made them feel unique or relatable. Pixar has shown they are willing to give their movies time to mature, to go from being good to great. John Lasseter said in a interview that the development time for Cars 2 was about three years, yet at times Pixar has had films in development for more then a half a dozen years. Why was Cars 2 not given any more time for revision?

Maybe Cars 2 was exactly the kind of film John Lasseter wanted it to be. If this is the case I am very concerned. The overall storyline seemed to completely dismiss the lesson learned in the first movie. The first Cars movie was about taking the time to appreciate the small things in life. In the first film the race car Lightning McQueen was so concentrated on racing he did not know what it meant to have a relationship or find enjoyment in the calm parts of life. In Cars 2 McQueen wants to take a break from racing yet is convinced against doing so by the same friends who taught him the necessity of slowing down in the first film. We saw Lightning McQueen go through three races in Cars 2 and he wasn’t even the main star of this film.

The star of Cars 2 was Lightning McQueen’s best friend Mater. Mater is a rusty old tow truck who has a heart of gold. However, when Mater goes out with Lightning to experience the world he sticks out like a sore thumb. The great lesson of the movie seemed to be something like “don’t be afraid to be yourself no matter where you are“. However the theme is a bit weak sense “being himself” gets Mater into a lot of trouble. In the movie Mater somehow gets mistaken as a American spy pretending to be a tow truck. We go through situation after situation of Mater about to be killed and barely getting away through other agents saving him or blind luck. Mater is also part of McQueen’s cockpit crew but gets distracted and loses the race for McQueen. There is a point where we begin to think as audience members Mater needs to stop being “himself” and grow up or he is going to get himself and many other people hurt. The Pixar people seemed to have a hard time balancing Mater’s role as the main source of humor for the film with the need for him to be a multi-dimensional character who carries the film emotionally. We also don’t see how “being himself” really influences the characters around him. Mater did not hang out with McQueen enough for us to see how McQueen’s perspective changed through Mater’s influence. Mcmissile and Holly Shiftwell, Mater’s spy buddies, give lip service to Mater’s effect on them but very little is seen visually. Mater was too busy doing spy work to have a great effect on Mcmissile or Holly. There was a effort by the filmmakers to have Mater show some knowledge for car mechanics, which impresses Mcmissile and Holly, yet these character traits seemed to do little in effecting the characters deep down.  At the end the two characters come briefly to thank Mater for all he has done and then fly off on their next mission.

The humor for this film seemed to also be lacking. A lot of the jokes went over my head, like when Mater says “Is the Popemobile Catholic”. The film seemed to be in a constant “hurry up” mode so the audience could hardly appreciate any of the punchlines of the jokes Mater told or situations Mater was in. If we were given half the action and twice the amount of time to appreciate the beautiful scenery and characters I feel the movie would have been much more fulfilling. It should not be about, “How much action can I pack into this movie”, it should be about getting quality entertainment out of the action you have supporting the story. When the action is used to support the characters’ development and theme of the story, we begin to get interested. Mcmissile has several daring action scenes in Cars 2, however the audience is never really given a reason to invest in Mcmissile. He is a one dimensional character with no background and no reason for why he does what he does. Are we supposed to like Mcmissile because he is voiced by Michael Caine? Or because he is a cool looking car model? Those things lose value with time and can only take an audience of this generation so far.

In Cars 2 it is obvious that Lasseter wanted to create a spy movie. The movie is packed with action sequences where the main characters barely get away again and again and again from evil “lemon cars” (cars with mechanical defects). The lemon cars mission is to destroy all the fuel resources not connected to them so they can have a monopoly on the world’s fuel. The secret car agent Mcmissile will go to any extreme to spoil the enemies’ plans. We literally see Mcmissile kill several dozen cars in this movie. I guess since all the cars he kills are “bad guys” its okay. However, a “G” rating seems to be very irresponsible for all the gun shooting, exploding, and killing that goes on in this film. We are given the premise that these cars are living and breathing characters. With this premise there should come some responsibility. Why should we value these cars if John Lasseter and the crew are not willing to do so?

Pixar has created eleven strait box office and critical hits. With their twelfth feature film they created a dud. Cars 2 is hardly worth watching. I have long been an advocate for Pixar. Pixar has long been a place where I envisioned starting my career. Through all the director changes I have read about and management criticisms I have heard, I have stood behind Pixar because at the end of the day I believed they had the most dedicated artists and produced the most quality films of any studio in Hollywood. Many of my storytelling and filmmaking foundations have come from Pixar. I keep on thinking about what effect Cars 2 has had on my concept of Pixar and my future ambitions to work for the studio. I am sure Cars 2 will make a lot of money, I just never felt Pixar put money above good storytelling. I wonder if they are beginning to let the business side of Hollywood corrupt their creativity. As I said at the beginning of this review, I feel like Cars 2 was the movie John Lasseter said he would never let out of the studio. Now that he has I wonder what is next?