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How the people actually making Pixar movies managed to maintain that level of excellence was a matter of philosophy and forward thinking
In the fall of 1995, shortly after Toy Story was released to huge commercial success and universal critical acclaim, Steve Jobs had lunch with Michael Eisner, the head of Disney, to renegotiate a contract. Pixar Animation Studios, the house responsible for Toy Story and the company Jobs then ran, had just enjoyed a colossal IPO on the strength of their box-office triumph, and Jobs wanted to make clear to Eisner that his studio was no longer dependent on Disney to pay the bills. Going forward, Pixar would front half the money for its movies, and take half the profits. More importantly, it would share equal branding — these would not just be Disney movies, but Pixar movies as well.
For Jobs, this latter stipulation was the real coup. “We want Pixar to grow into a brand that embodies the same level of trust as the Disney brand,” he wrote in a letter to shareholders after the arrangement was made. “But in order for Pixar to earn this trust, consumers must know that Pixar is creating the films.”
“Jobs was known during his career for creating great products,” writes Walter Issacson, in his biography Steve Jobs . “But just as significant was his ability to create great companies with valuable brands.” Over the course of more than a decade, starting with Toy Story in 1995, Pixar did have an unprecedented streak of creative and financial success, again and again making original, delightful animated features full of wit and wonder. The reliable excellence for which the studio was quickly known, though, would have meant little were it not for the branding that distinguished it from Disney and made plain to audiences that when they saw the little hopping lamp logo, they should know what to expect.
How the people actually making Pixar movies managed to maintain that level of excellence was a matter of philosophy and forward thinking. Pixar movies were rigorously refined and recalibrated, fine-tuned at every stage; they would be animated crudely, then picked apart and criticized by the so-called “Braintrust” of executives at the studio, then animated crudely again, and criticized again, a half-dozen times. Whatever wasn’t working about a movie, midway through production, would be honed, clarified or revamped until it did. When most people think of Pixar, they think of fresh ideas and bountiful imagination — rat chefs and robot caretakers, missing-fish quests and monsters in the closet stealing screams. What the studio really excels at, though, is hard work — their ace is discipline.
When Michael Arndt, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter, came to work at Pixar in the late 2000s, he was surprised to find not a well-oiled machine, but a bunch of guys muscling their way to excellence, willing their work to perfection through sheer sweat and determination. “I thought they must have some foolproof system, some big Pixar story machine, but they actually just make it up each time as they go along,” he told The New Yorker , in a profile of Finding Nemo director Andrew Stanton. He quotes an analogy of Monsters Inc and Up director Pete Docter: “Everyone holds hands and jumps out of the airplane with the promise that they’ll build a parachute before they hit the ground.”
This attitude accounted for Pixar’s incredible diligence and attention to detail — the can-do spirit forced everyone working there to give their best all the time, and to strong-arm their struggling projects into a kind of disciplined brilliance. “Get the inevitable bad stuff out of the way and have more time to plus the good stuff,” is how Stanton himself described it. (The Pixar technique of “plussing” is how they refined their movies over and over again.)
But this attitude also explains Pixar’s other former virtue: Its amazing propensity for risk. The studio known for Toy Story and WALL-E would not have made either if it hadn’t been willing to see original ideas through, and indeed to throw themselves fully into something that could have been disastrous; none of the great Pixar movies, from Up to Ratatouille , ever seemed like sure-fire things.
But things changed for Pixar sometime around the turn of the decade.
For a long time Pixar had a strict policy against sequels, and in fact only consented to work on Toy Story 2 , begrudgingly, after Disney aimed to make a direct-to-video one without Pixar’s help. That obstacle having been eliminated, and the results having gone over very well — Toy Story 2 is one of the most celebrated sequels ever made — the studio was free to return to any or all of its original properties. In 2011, following the release of the surprisingly successful and beloved Toy Story 3 , Pixar made a sequel to one of their least acclaimed films, Cars , for reasons at first not entirely clear.
That Pixar head John Lasseter was a lifelong Nascar fan with a lot of personal affection for Cars had something to do with the decision to move ahead with Cars 2 , no doubt. It may have also had something to do with the fact that Cars merchandise was amazingly lucrative.
In any case, it was a strike against the brand that Jobs had made unimpeachable. Worse, it seemed to set a precedent for the studio’s slate to come: In the years following Cars 2 , Pixar made Monsters University , Finding Dory , Cars 3 and Incredibles 2 , before Toy Story 4 , out this weekend. The original films they made during the same period, meanwhile, included several distinct mediocrities, including The Good Dinosaur and Brave — each less successful, less acclaimed, and, looking back now, less fondly remembered than any of their hits from the late 90s and 2000s.
The shift toward sequels as the studio’s bread and butter — the shift away from new original movies and toward Incredibles 2 and Toy Story 4 , guaranteed box-office wins — shows how far Pixar has come in the last decade, and how far the studio has drifted away from its original mandate to try anything and make it work. This is now a studio known not for radical invention but for playing it safe — and ironically the efforts of Steve Jobs to ensure the Pixar name had brand recognition has only guaranteed that we know how bad things are.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019