A Dreamer Walking

WALL-E – Old Vs. New

Posted in Animation, Film and Filmaker Studies, Personal Philosophy by Jacob on September 16, 2014

Wall-E #2

With Pixar’s WALL-E director Andrew Stanton wanted to create a sort of look that made one think the movie was filmed in the 1970’s.  This honestly was a tough goal to set since animated movies are not “filmed” they are shot in a computer, and to be honest there weren’t very many computers in the 70’s. Film is so loved by so many because of it’s inherent flaws. Things like lens flairs, grain in the image, and scratches on the celluloid are all technically flaws in film yet are now considered some of what makes it so special. It’s loved so much in-fact the leading edge in digital technology tries to reproduce the same kinds of “flaws” in their newest cameras. Stanton had a whole team try to reproduce the filmic look for his movie WALL-E. He even went as far as recreating actual live action footage of certain scenes they were doing in the computer so the technicians could see the difference between the imagery captured in camera with celluloid and that shot in the computer.

The story of WALL-E lends itself to this idea of bringing a classic look to a new medium. In the movie we follow an eight hundred year old robot, Wall-E, around his world where his main function is to pick up trash. Everything about Wall-E’s design and texture represents an old fashion look which is directly contrasted with his love interest, Eve. As you can see in the image above Eve has a oval design with very few mechanisms. The true magic of this relationship is how well Stanton and his team were able to make the two opposites seem so perfect for each other. You need to go no further then the scene where Wall-E introduces Eve to his home to see just how well these opposites work cinematically.

Some have called WALL-E an anti technology movie with a preachy message about saving the environment.  However, I believe Andrew Stanton when he says he only went the environmental route because that’s where the story took him. His goal was not to make people hate the new and love the old. His objective was to create a story where two very different perspectives met and found balance. In fact it took something new coming into Wall-E’s life for him to find meaning. But more on that in another post.

Stanton went farther back then just the 1970’s for inspiration for his movie. He and the Pixar artists would watch old silent classics from the early 1930’s and before. They studied silent comedians such as Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and of course Charlie Chaplin. After studying these great filmmakers Stanton said he realized Pixar didn’t know anything. The idea that some of the best stories in our history were told without sophisticated special effects, flashy cameras, or sound blew the Pixar artists away. They made it their goal to recreate the magic they saw in the best silent films. In the first act of WALL-E there is hardly a line of dialogue heard. Rather, we discover Wall-E’s soul through a magnificent set of sound effects produced by Ben Burtt, who is best known for his work on the original Star Wars trilogy, and by the masterful work of all the Pixar animators who took the silent movies Stanton showed to heart.

In the end we have a movie in WALL-E that not only makes us laugh but also makes us care. We don’t care about seeing the environment around Wall-E change because of some liberal agenda, we want it to change because we get a glimpse of what “unplugging” and cherishing our world could do for the health of our personal souls. Those who think WALL-E is anti technology seem to forget the movie stars two robots. The best of Pixar is about balancing the new with the old. Pixar is known for being the leading edge in digital technology. They are famous for creating the first computer animated film in history, Toy Story (1995). However, the majority of their films are special because the technology is only there to enhance their stories. And, their stories revolve around themes that are as old as time itself.

A big debate is going on in the film industry today about the transition from film to digital technology. Celluloid is going extinct. There are fewer and fewer companies around who are able to process the film so it could be projected on the big screen. Some filmmakers, such as the famous Quentin Tarantino, have threatened to quite the film profession altogether if true “film” is taken away. The bottom line however is filmmaking is bigger than the stuff you use to shoot the picture. And as I said at the beginning of this post, the companies making cameras today have not overlooked the public’s love for the look that comes from the old classics of the 1970’s and before. Just like Wall-E and Eve, eventually the film industry will find a balance.

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.

 

 

Toy Story 3 – Film Study – Color and Lighting

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on May 25, 2014

Toy Story 3 #1

Many call it the last great Pixar movie. I personally think Toy Story 3 is a fantastic completion of a wonderful trilogy. And, though you could make an argument Toy Story 3 is a little repetitive and less original then the first two movies, I think the film stands out as the most visually bold film of the trilogy. Simply put, Pixar was running on all cylinders when they made this film. From the refined Pixar storytelling skills to the huge advancements in technology Toy Story 3 was able to expand its universe while keeping a firm grasp on what made the first two films so loved by the first generation of Toy Story fans.

Let’s talk about the color pallet used to tell the story of Toy Story 3. Toy Story has had a  distinct pallet from the beginning. The colors are usually extremely saturated and there are few scenes where you see the whole gambit of the color wheel. Instead, each scene usually consists of one to three key colors to establish an atmosphere. The goal isn’t to be subtle with the colors, but rather use color to drive the emotional arc of the movie. With Toy Story 3 the brilliant art director Dice Tsutsumi took the helms of this beloved franchise and gave us a pallet of colors unmatched in animation. He was in charge of creating the color script for the movie, which consists of dozens of impressionistic paintings plotting out the general emotional arc of the movie through the use of color and lighting (check out part of his color script here). Dice Tsutsumi said, “The color script sets the tone of the film: how color and atmosphere and lighting will carry the story and the characters throughout the film”. The color script is started towards the very beginning of pre-production and isn’t finished until lighting for the movie is finalized. I believe Toy Story 3 is the best example I have ever seen of the emotional impact color and lighting has on a film. The actual images you will see here comes from the final film. The director of photography for Toy Story 3 was Kim White and she and her team were responsible for bringing Dice’s paintings to life. Animation is the ultimate collaborative medium. The sad part is though most of the artists go unnoticed. So, though I will mostly reference Dice Tsutsumi and Kim White in this post the results you see are made possible by the whole Toy Story 3 team. I am using eleven images from the film. As Dice said in an interview, “One of the things Ralph (the original Toy Story art director) said was to pick ten or fifteen key moments and see if you can describe the color flow of the movie with just those images”. This is my attempt to describe the color flow of the movie with just a few handfuls of images.

Toy Story 3 #3

Most will recognize this shot from the intro of the film. As you can see there is a complementary color scheme at work here, blue and deep orange/brown. Not only does this really make things stick out, it establishes Woody and his owner Andy’s relationship. Andy has always been represented with blue in the Toy Story movies. Woody is dressed in mostly worm colors and is a cowboy which makes this terrain fit perfectly with his character. He also has blue jeans which connects him visually to Andy. The shot here comes from a high stakes adventure taking place in Andy’s imagination. There is a tremendous amount of open space. The creators want to create a world here where you believe anything is possible (I mean come on, there is a huge Pig Ship taking up a chunk of the screen). We are at the height of Andy and Woody’s relationship reflected vividly through the deep saturated blues and oranges. Through out the film you see Art Director Dice Tsutsumi save deep colors for solid emotional connections.

Toy Story 3 #5

This is defiantly Andy’s room, reflected by the overwhelming amounts of blue in the image. The moment takes place after Andy has grown up and is about to go to college. The colors are less rich then the last frame and Woody doesn’t seem to belong as much. Woody and the rest of the toys’ marginalization is seen in specific and broad strokes. The Buzz Lightyear poster is mostly covered up in the corner. Woody is the only toy in sight. And, the stars representing Andy’s childhood are almost completely covered by posters and other “grown up stuff”. One other thing I want to point out in this image is the outside colors. The bright green colors you see from the outside actually look much more inviting then anything we see inside. This green actually represents someone we will meet later on in the film.

Toy Story 3 #9

Wow look at the difference here. This looks like a place where toys belong. Here is the first of several images I will post of the Nursery, where most of the movie takes place. The next few images will express just how much control the Pixar artist have over the power of lighting and creating atmosphere for a scene. Andy’s toys left Andy’s house and found themselves here in Sunnyside Daycare. This is the first time the toys are introduced to this nursery where in just a few minutes kids will come and play with them. Andy’s toys are excited because this will be the first time in years they are played with. You can’t get much more inviting then this. It’s clear the artists want to create an attractive environment for audience as well as  the toys. Look at the designs of the objects you see in frame. I guarantee you the nice comfy chair and beanbag were strategically placed to help soften the imagery. Round designs are always more inviting then designs with sharp angles. We also see Director of Photography Kim White use soft lights to create an inviting environment. There are no harsh shadows and the nursery almost seems to glow. An analogous color scheme is at work here, ranging from light red to light green. There are no deep colors either, which might be a sign from the creators that though this is an inviting environment it has little depth to it. Unlike with Andy there are no owners in a nursery. As inviting as this might be within minutes the nursery seems to be transformed into a completely different environment.

Toy Story 3 #12

Yes this is the very same place you saw in the last frame. Look, you can see the nice soft chair and beanbag at the top of the frame. However, they don’t look as inviting now for some reason. This moment in the film takes place after the toys have been brutally played with by toddlers who Andy’s toys quickly realize are not old enough to handle them properly. The environment goes from a paradise to a foreign wasteland. The feeling of uneasiness is only enhanced by the extreme angle director Lee Unkrich’s uses. He places the camera so it looks directly down at the setting. We are not used to seeing images from this kind of position and it helps to established the discomfort of the situation. The toys are meant to look pathetic from way up here; as if the environment has completely overpowered them. Also, check out the lighting. There are no more soft lights in this image. Harsh shadows stream across the frame making for a much more menacing composition. And finally, we get to the color. The shades of red do more then anything in terms of changing the environment to a uninviting place. Red has always been used to represent danger and destruction and we are only getting a taste of it compared to what we see at the climax of the film.

Toy Story 3 #15

The nursery has gone from an unfriendly environment to an out-and-out prison. This shot is from the same environment as the last two yet looks like a completely different location. This is an example of the power animation has to push lighting to extremes in order to enhance the emotional impact of a scene. The character Andy’s toys once thought was good, Lotso, has shown his true colors and locked Andy’s toys up. Look at the light source here. The shadows are extremely defined and most of the color is actually sucked out of the picture. There are no round objects in sight and the picture is framed from a straight on angle which helps create a formal mood. It’s as if all the humanity has been sucked out of the Toy Story world and all we have left is a evil pink teddy bear who is determined to stay on top. So where is our hero? Where is WOODY?!

Toy Story 3 #11

There he is! Woody was picked up by a girl from the nursery named Bonnie. Just like the original nursery image, this feels like a inviting environment. Again Kim White uses soft lights to take away the shadows. Here we see a pretty broad analogous color scheme at work with a good amount of green. Wait, didn’t I talk about the color green before? That’s right! This is the character I was talking about earlier. Through out the movie Bonnie is represented by the color green and her room reflects this. However, Woody can’t stay in a wonderful place like this when his friends are stuck in a daycare prison. He returns to the daycare and helps break Andy’s toys out of Sunnyside. The problem is he doesn’t find himself in any better of a place.

Toy Story 3 #20

Well shoot! This takes place toward the climax of the film and art director Dice Tsutsumi begins to use monochromatic color schemes. Doing this he is able to overwhelm the image with a singular mood. Woody and the rest of Andy’s toys find themselves at the dump and director Lee Unkrich pushes the imagery to the max in this sequence. The lights shoot directly into the face of the audience. Unlike in Sunnyside we no longer have the claustrophobic feel of a prison, rather we get a wide angle shot of trash as far as the eye can see. It’s a different kind of hell we find ourselves in. The yellow green gives the environment a sickly look and we are deeply worried for Woody and the rest of the toy’s well-being.

Toy Story 3 #22

Well, things haven’t seemed to get any better. Woody and the rest of the gang are looking into an inferno and there seems to be no way of escape. The screen is completely devoured by red. In fact, the red light source is so strong it has seemingly changed the toys colors to shads of red. This shot represents the most dyer situation in the movie. Director Unkrich doesn’t want anything to get in the way of our connection with the toys here. He uses a shallow focus and makes sure there are no distractions in the background. There is only one light source in this shot and it is completely overpowering. The creators want us to think this might be it for the toys. The sequence is sort of a rebirth for Woody and the rest of the toys. In this moment all of them embrace each other and are ready for the next chapter in their lives.

Toy Story 3 #24

Lets just thank the gods the next step wasn’t incineration. Woody and the rest of Andy’s toys survive and are taken by Andy to Bonnie’s house. Here we see Andy giving Bonnie his toys. Andy is in his classic blue clothing and the rest of the frame is consumed by Bonnie’s green. We can see the storytellers are embracing Bonnie here by using deep green colors. We see just as vivid of greens as we did blue at the beginning of the movie. The visuals are supporting the idea of the passing of the torch. Andy’s story is done but we have new adventures to look forward to with Bonnie. This is beautiful imagery. It almost feels as if we have been transported into a wonderful memory. For the last time Andy plays with Bonnie and his toys before he leaves. His blue fits wonderfully with Bonnie’s green.

Toy Story 3 #26

The movie ends with this shot. I think it is a wonderful salute to Andy’s story. A blue sky filled with clouds is what the very first Toy Story movie opens with and it’s only fitting we end with it as well.

Pete Docter – Director – Up

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on May 20, 2014

Up #3

Few companies can tell their stories better visually then Pixar. Specifically director Pete Docter puts a huge amount of time towards figuring out how to tell his stories in visually rich ways. Animation is a unique medium in terms of visuals because it is less bound by reality. In fact, it’s when trying to make an animated movie look like live action film when filmmakers get into a lot of trouble (just look up the term the uncanny valley or read about director Robert Zemeckis’ misfires in motion capture). Pete Docter maybe more then any other director I know has embraced the power of animation. Each one of the characters in his movies are designed not based on realism but emotion. He wants the audience to understand who his characters are just by looking at them. Docter then creates a world that supports the inner conflicts of his characters. He uses design, music, and color schemes to say something about the story he is telling.

Lets take a look at this shot from Pete Docter’s Up. This is the beginning of the first act of the film. We had a very touching prelude where we watch Carl and his wife Ellie grow old together. This moment is about life after Ellie, yet we can still very much feel her presence. Docter and the other Pixar artists used simple shapes to represent both Ellie and Carl. With Ellie the circular shapes were used and with Carl the shapes are rectangular. The creators also used violet purple to represent the presence of Ellie. In the scenes we see her in she is usually wearing some kind of violet clothing. The badge she gives Carl as a kid is also made from a bright purple bottle cap. The color lingers through out the film including in this shot. You can see light shines on half of the bed Ellie used to sleep on. There are just the smallest hints of violet in the light, cast on the bed and wall behind. Notice the table and lamp on Ellie’s side of the bed, they both have a circular design. There is also Ellie’s picture bordered by a round frame.

This is a wonderful introduction to the post-Ellie Carl. We are introduced to him in a very unglamorous way. I mean you usually are not shown characters just waking up from sleep. Docter wants to hit the audience with a hard dose of reality after the touching marriage montage in the last sequence. We immediately feel restricted with this shot. If you watched the movie in 3D you would notice the extra dimension just added to the feeling of being confined. Notice how none of the light touches Carl. The little touch from the sunlight outside is not meant for Carl. Rather it’s a reminder of Ellie’s absence. It is kind of tough to have the marriage montage just before and then be introduced to an empty half of a bed. From here and through out most of the rest of the film Carl will wear very subdued clothing. However, what really adds to Carl’s closed-off demeanor is his shape. Quite literally everything about him is square. From his unrealistically large square head, to the rest of his body, and the objects surrounding his side of the bed; everything has a rectangular design to it representing Carl’s fatal flaw of being disconnected with the rest of the world. Heck, his bed cover even has a square design. The bottom line is Pixar’s Up will be studied for years to come because the creators made sure every composition spoke to the meaning of the story. This is the only time we see Carl’s bedroom in the movie, yet the artists took the time to deliberate over every detail you see. I guarantee you even the fact that the picture of Carl is slightly tilted was intentional and done to contribute to the story. Now that is what I call dedication.

To My Teacher

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on July 11, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brave- Review

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on July 1, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

Suspense 101: The Unexpected

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on April 6, 2012

Hitchcock says after you tell the audience the bomb is going to go off it must never go off. If the bomb goes off and the character your audience cares about ends up dead the audience will be displeased and might even walk out on you. At least, this is how the movie going audience was in Hitchcock’s day. Today it is a bit different.

We have a job as filmmakers to satisfy our audience. We must satisfy them enough for them to want to come back again. This does not mean we need to give the audience everything they want. The audience member has come to expect a happy ending. They have begun to understand our tricks. Suspense is not as strong in film anymore because the audience knows in the end everything will be alright. Today, film must not be so predictable. Loss is needed to keep the suspense in film alive. If you have a small bomb go off and kill some key characters in the middle of the film your audience will be more worried about the bomb at the end of the film.

Audience members want to believe in what they see. For them to believe, our stories must feel real. They need to have all the joy and pain we see in everyday life. Everything does not go just right in our own life, neither should it go just right in film. The key element in both suspense and mystery is wonder. We don’t know what will happen. Keep the wonder alive and you will keep the audience on the edge of their seats. Even if a “happy ending” is eventually going to happen don’t give in until the last possible moment. Andrew Stanton (writer of Toy Story 1 & 2Finding Nemo, and Wall-E) talked about the importance of suspense in the Pixar films. In the first Toy Story movie Woody is given a match toward the beginning of the third act. At the end of the act Woody and Buzz are chasing Andy’s van when the battery of the remote control car runs out. All is lost until Woody realizes he has the match and could set Buzz’s rocket on fire and catch up with the van. He lights the match and is about to light the rocket when a car drives over them and extinguishes  the match. The surprise, dread, and heartbreak created in every 3rd-8th grader was priceless. Eventually Woody lights the rocket and get to Andy’s van, but there was a tremendous amount of entertainment generated by the creators of Toy Story not giving into the audience’s expectations right away. Pixar just got better after the original Toy Story. They had Woody save Jesse in Toy Story 2 only to have the plane door close right before they were able to jump out. They had Lotso Hugging Bear get up to the “stop” button only to not press it and doom the whole toy gang to be terminated in the furnace in Toy Story 3. Only when all hope is gone and the audience truly begins to wonder if the Pixar creators are really going to let these toys, we have come to love, die does “The Claw” come and save them.

Filmmakers must walk a delicate line. If you draw the suspense out for too long you will exhaust the audience. If you go against what the audience wants you run the risk of pissing them off. Great film is created when the creators get the little details right. I think the most important thing is to go with your gut. As Frank Capra (director of It Happened One Night, and It’s a Wonderful Life) said, “There are no rules in filmmaking. Only sins. And the cardinal sin is dullness”. Your story will be dull if the audience knows what is going to happen. Keep them guessing. Tension is only created when the audience does not know what is going to happen next.

Here are links to the rest of my Suspense Series:

1. Suspense 101

2. Suspense 101: The Unexpected

3. Suspense 101: Technique

4. Suspense 101: Creating Meaning

Andrew Stanton – An Observation – Writing Screenplays

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on January 17, 2012

I have started several screenplay’s in my life and have pretty much been scared off of all of them. Of course I tell myself I am going to come back, but usually I never do. I think a lot of it has to do with my insecurity as a writer. I don’t think I am good enough. I don’t think I can ever be smart enough to write for several different characters all of whom have different perspectives and intellects. I can never do enough research. I can never express myself in the poetic way I see so many other fine writers express themselves.

One of the writers I look up to is Andrew Stanton. He helped write the majority of the Pixar films. His stories are superbly structured. Everything is preparing the audience for the punch line. He knows how to put us in suspense through doing the unpredictable. He knows how to create characters with depth.  And his stories are always imaginative and unique while also being reflective of undeniable truths we see in everyday life. He has created two masterpieces himself in Finding Nemo and Wall-E while also helping directors like Pete Docter, Lee Ulkrich, and John Lasseter set their stories in the right direction. I don’t think anyone at Pixar would deny that Stanton is a great writer, except perhaps Stanton himself.

Knowing that Stanton is one of the lead writers for one of the most creative studios in Hollywood, you would most likely be surprised to hear that Andrew Stanton has said himself that he doesn’t really like to write and doesn’t consider himself to be very good. He dreads the time his screenplays are read out loud and he never feels like they are finished. He did not go to school for writing. His only experience has been on the job. The only way he feels it is good enough is through rewriting; not just once but rather dozens of times.

Stanton has never treated screenwriting like it was a piece of art. To him it is just a step to something great. When we treat writing as though it is just another step we are freed up to really try our best and fail miserably. Stanton has described screenplays as the screen authority that commands to be followed. It is a cinematic direction manual. It is not for the audience to see, it is for the people who are making the movie to see. His philosophy is to get something onto paper so he can begin to rewrite and refine his work. Once Stanton gets his work out there others are able to help. Pixar happens to have some of the best story helpers in the business. The Brain Trust is not afraid to be blunt with their writers and directors. They help Stanton’s writing go from good to great.

When starting a screenplay the only person you should try to satisfy is yourself. Create the story you want to create. You can read all the books there are on screenwriting, you can do months of research, and you can spend all your money on the most state of the art writing equipment. All of this however is not going to guarantee confidence. The value of writing is that it allows us to put what is in our head onto paper. Don’t treat screenwriting as anything more then a way to get your ideas out there, in a structured way, so you can improve them. After you have something you are able see and show others, you can start to refine. You will never know how good you are until you start doing it.

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.