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.

 

 

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.

The Pixar Story

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on October 10, 2011

You will have to forgive me for being so lazy with this blog for the last week and a half. I really don’t have much of an excuse but I promise you I will get back on top of things soon. I found a video that I think is very much worthy of posting. The video is the Leslie Iwerks documentary The Pixar Story. Leslie does a fantastic job with this documentary. She really captures the magic of Pixar and does a great job telling the story of how Pixar has become the studio it is today (or the studio it was in 2007 when the documentary was made). The movie concentrates on the three real founders of Pixar, Ed Catmull, John Lasseter, and Steve Jobs. These three people all had a united vision that they would not give up on. Through constant struggle and overcoming they were able to create a studio that has come out with an unprecedented string of both box office and critically acclaimed successes. Enjoy the documentary and be inspired.

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.

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?

Was that Funny?

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on February 3, 2011

Humor in the media these days seems to be full of belittling and mockery. It is an appeal to the lowest common denominator of our society. As if we are still kids who can’t feel strong unless we put someone else down.

I saw an article on CartoonBrew yesterday that really frustrated me. It was a phony letter that The Onion posted of John Lasseter, the chief creative officer of Pixar animation, basically insulting everyone who considers Pixar to be a great studio. The title of the article was Commentary: I’ve Got you Dumb Motherfuckers Eating Right out of my Hands. I still do not understand how this article is accepted as being “funny”. Has our conscious really gone that far down the toilet?

I originally said on the comment section that it might just be my inability to understand the kind of humor represented in The Onion. But after thinking about it, I have realized that is not the case. I understand the humor. I have been part of both sides, the person mocking and the person getting getting mocked. To be honest I usually laughed no matter what side I was on. I have news, just because someone is laughing does not mean that someone thinks it’s funny.

In most cases, if a child is getting mocked, he tries to avoid any more attention then he has to. Thus, laughing along with the bully settles the bullies need to feel superior and the bully leaves, at least for a little while. But if you are getting your high from the belittling of someone else, you are never really satisfied. The bully always comes back and usually the insults become more intense.

Why are there bullies? Why is the kind of humor that puts others down okay these days? It partially has to do with the abused inability to stand up for himself. Usually the case is that the abused just takes the abuse and eventually becomes the abuser to someone else. But, the key reason why verbal insults and mockery keeps on spreading is because the type of abuse has a audience. We keep on laughing.

Belittling and mockery is the easy way out. Anyone can put someone down and sadly that is what most comedies rely on these days. But the comedians and movies that rely on belittling and mockery for humor, will not last. That kind of humor is easy to come by. It does not take much talent to push someone down, anyone can do it.

The bottom line is that the audience chooses what stays and goes in the entertainment business. If we are okay with the bare minimum, we will be given the bare minimum. If we start to stand up for something greater the industry will be forced to produce higher quality work.

Let’s not laugh just because the canned laughter ques us to laugh. We need to look at humor in a different way. Even with humor you need to think about what you are getting out of it and why you are laughing. Humor has the power to reveal truths about the society we live in and the kind of people we are. Humor can even help us examine those truths. Humor has the power to strengthen the insecure and reveal injustice. Humor has the power to lift our nation up rather then push it down. It is our choice!

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.

The Disney Problem!

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on September 11, 2010

There has been a lot of controversy around Disney animation lately. The next Disney Animation movie Tangled seems to be looking shallower and shallower every day. The reason is “safety”. The executives at Disney, have changed the title of the upcoming animation movie from, “Rapunzel Unbraided” to the much safer “Tangled”. Also, after watching the last few trailers for Tangled, it seems that Glen’s Kean’s (The original Director who recently needed to stepped down) original vision of a artistically unique film has turn into a more dazed “Traditional Disney” style of a film, where the color schemes and character designs are similar to many animated movies we have seen in the past, such as Dreamworks Sinbad and Disney’s Treasure Planet and Bolt. Also the only advertising I have seen for the movie seems to be built entirely on gags, where the characters do not seem to have any depth and the “entertainment” comes from characters getting beat up or from pop references that will be forgotten in five to ten years.

The problem is Disney is playing it SAFE. There are still many good artists at Disney, however the artists are not the ones calling the shots the executives are the ones calling the shots and they are all business majors with hardly any artistic background. Money is the top concern for the decision makers at Disney. To be guaranteed good money you need to have a reliable formula, the only problem is there is no formula to good film making. So instead of good films we get mediocre films, where metaphorically, some of the top chiefs in the world are reduced to cooking hot dogs. The artists at Disney are capable of so much more then what they are doing now.

A similar kind of thing happened in the late 1970’s and 1980’s. There was a whole slew of talented artist that had just began to graduate from the school CalArts. CalArts was founded by Walt Disney (the actual man) and taught by mostly old Disney artist who worked during the Golden Age of animation in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Students who are now looked up to as masters at animation such as John Lasseter, Joe Ranft, and Brad Bird, were taught in CalArts to keep on pushing the limits of animation, to always strive to be unique and look at storytelling in different ways, so they could push the animation medium forward. These CalArts students had some big visions and wanted to apply their visions to the Disney Studio.

The Disney studio did not want to push the medium of animation forward in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The graduates from CalArts were extremely disappointed. Brad Bird, Tim Burton, Joe Ranft left the Disney Studio. John Lasseter was fired because he had too high of ambitions.

The Disney heads denied people like John Lasseter and Brad Bird, because John’s and Brad’s ideas were not “traditional Disney”. The heads of Disney wanted to have a reliable formula they wanted their workers to create reliable movies like the ones done in the late 1930’s through the mid 1960’s. However, the reason why the movies from the 1930’s through the 1960’s, were successful, was because the artist were always striving to do something new. It was the people who taught John Lasseter, Joe Ranft, Tim Burton and Brad Bird, that created the masterpieces in the 1940’s, such as Pinocchio and Bambi. The way the artists created those masterpieces was through NOT following a formula but instead taking risks and driving the technique of storytelling forward.

How ironic it is that the executive heads of Disney are using “traditional Disney” as a excuse to stay the same. Walt Disney was one of the first people to try new things and push his medium forward. The Disney problem is that those in charge, are no longer interested in traditional Disney. The heads of Disney need to play it SAFE and by doing that they are slowly dying away. Their movies don’t last as long anymore, there has not been a huge hit at Disney animations sense the Lion King and the great artists at Disney are given less and less freedom. Creativity requires risk. A risk seems to be exactly what Disney is not willing to take.

The Brain Trust

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Personal Philosophy by Jacob on May 18, 2010

Pixar has this small group called The Brain Trust. This group consists of the  Pixar directors and a few of their best artists. The Brain Trust is one of the greatest reasons why Pixar is on the top of the pedestal when it comes to animation and storytelling. The success of Pixar does not come from one man’s mind, it comes from the best of several master filmmaker minds, all of whom have their own unique qualities when it comes to making a movie.

Every 3 to 6 months each director at Pixar has to show the project he or she is working on to The Brain Trust. After showing the film (in its unfinished form) The Brain Trust tears the film apart in the form of critique. The Brain Trust is brutally honest on what they think of the film they are critiquing. The fact that the director might have been working on the projects for a few years now is irrelevant. The fact that the director showing the film might have already won several awards in the past is irrelevant. The fact that one of the suggestions might be (and has been in the past) to restart the project from stage one is a suggestion the director must be able to take seriously and be able to handle. “You need to leave your ego at the door”, says Pete Docter, the director of Monsters Inc. and the Academy’s best picture nominee UP.

Pete Docter talked about the power of The Brain Trust and how important it is to have fresh eyes look at your project every once in a while, especially when you are in the middle of a four or five year project. Usually the director gets so involved with his or her film that he or she loses perspective. Once you hear a joke for the hundredth time it stops being funny.  Because the director knows the story he is telling in such depth it is easy for him to assume the audience knows more then they do. The Brain Trust helps bring perspective to the people who are in the middle of a project. They see the film with new eyes, catching the things that either are not explained enough or over explained.

One of the keys to The Brain Trust’s success is the ability to openly criticize. The people critiquing the film must not feel that they will be punished if they say something wrong or say something too extreme. The Brain Trust needs to come to each other at a even playing field. No matter the kind of success one person might have had from another each director and artist needs to be open to what the other person is saying. Ego can very easily get in the way especially with the success Pixar seems to have had. The Brain Trust is a true test of humility.

Another key to The Brain Trust’s success is the control that the directors have for their films. Even though the director and his or her team must be open to The Brain Trusts comments, it is the director that has the final say to what stays and what goes out of his or her film. Brad Bird, director of The Incredibles and Ratatouille, has a much different style of filmmaking then someone like Pete Docter. Both directors can look at something from a very unique angle, both might have great ways to communicate a curtain idea, it is the job of the director who is in charge of the project being shown to figure out what works best for the story and what doesn’t. It is the directors personal vision that is the driving force for a Pixar movie. This is what makes Pixar a director driven studio.

The main key to The Brain Trust’s success is the ability to put story first. Both the director showing the project and the Brain Trust needs to have their first priority be answering the question, “what is best for the story?”. As popular and critically acclaimed as some of the members of The Brain Trust are they have not yet forgotten that they are servants to the story they are trying to tell.

It is amazing to see a group of people from completely different backgrounds and with completely different styles of film making, come together to help each other succeed. It is hard to look at a movie with unbiased eyes and criticize it. It is even harder to open yourself up to criticism. But, through the power of constructive criticism you can accomplish things that seem to be impossible, as Pixar has already proven.

(The Picture consists of five of the key people in the Brain Trust. They all have either directed or are in the process of directing Pixar films. From left to right, Brad Bird, Andrew Stanton, John Lasseter, Pete Docter, and Lee Ulrich)