Pixar perfect: The people at this studio have important lessons to teach

[29 May 2009]

By Christopher Kelly

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

In order to make their sublimely inventive and affecting new film “Up,” the tight-knit team at Pixar Animation Studios embarked upon a painstaking, complicated and, at times, even harrowing five-year journey.

More than a few times along the way, they thought that they had a disaster on their hands.

They closely studied an unusual group of other films, including Ron Howard’s “Cocoon” and a mostly forgotten George Burns comedy called “Going in Style” in order to refine the visual and emotional landscape of the film. They hired Tom McCarthy, the writer-director of adult-minded movies like “The Station Agent” and “The Visitor,” to work on two drafts of the screenplay. For months, they tinkered with and tweaked a shockingly emotional, four-and-a-half minute silent montage that chronicles 70 years in the life of the main character.

And despite a long list of previous triumphs, including “Finding Nemo,” “Monsters, Inc.” and the “Toy Story” films, it was impossible to shake the feeling that this would be the movie that broke Pixar’s lucky streak.

“These films are really bad at certain points,” explains Jonas Rivera, the film’s producer, during a visit last month to Dallas to promote “Up.” At various points in the production, he says, test-screening audiences were getting restless, jokes were falling flat and the characters’ emotions felt thin.

All that worry has resulted in a masterpiece.

Like “Ratatouille,” “Wall-E,” “Finding Nemo,” “Toy Story” and its magical sequel, “Up” turns out to be a one-of-a-kind vision that far transcends the ghetto of “children’s movie.” In this particular case, the film is a heart-piercing portrait of an unlikely friendship between an elderly man and a lonely boy that unfolds with the bizarre dream logic of a David Lynch fantasy. If there is a better animated picture released this year — heck, if there are two or three live-action pictures better than this movie released in 2009 — it will be a small miracle. (Further proof of the company’s boundless ambition: “Up” is Pixar’s first foray into digital 3-D.)

So how do they do it? In an age of endless, soulless blockbusters and cookie-cutter franchises, when so many people — in and out of Hollywood — are struggling to get their work done without collapsing from stress and frustration, how is it that one wonderfully merry band of filmmakers keeps raising the bar?

According to “Up’s” director, Pete Docter, they do so by listening to the audience and working alongside equally ambitious and creative souls. “I think there’s a bit of competitiveness (among the Pixar filmmakers),” he says, “but if anything, it helps. Everybody wants to say something even smarter (than the last person).”

Docter makes it sound easy and, in some respects, it is. Pixar has refined a way of working and living that should be obvious, but that so few other movies — that so few other human beings — are able to follow: Work hard. Surround yourself with the brightest people you know, and put your faith in their opinions. Check your ego at the door.

Above all, always keep trying to make it better.

Indeed, as “Up” stands poised to emerge as the studio’s 10th modern classic in just 14 years, perhaps it’s time to realize that this 850-person animation studio is more than just a peerless movie factory. It’s a way of life to which we should be all ascribing.

John Lasseter. Andrew Stanton. Brad Bird — the directors of “Toy Story, Finding Nemo” and “The Incredibles,” respectively — form what Docter and Jonas Rivera describe as “our Pixar brain trust” — a group of men who work diligently not just on their own projects, but on the projects of other Pixar employees.

And despite the fact that they’ve won two Oscars apiece, ego or competitiveness never seem to get in the way of putting out a singular product.

“We kind of sit with them, and kind of hammer it out together, and we do the same with their films,” says Rivera, of the scripting, film and fine-tuning processes.

“Everybody is very selfless about wanting to make the movies as best they can, even if they’re not immediately involved with them,” adds Docter.

It’s a point that feels especially relevant in a time of collapsing industries and increasing free agency and layoffs. Pixar’s success reminds us that we need to get back to a place where we’ve all got one another’s backs.

Perhaps even more important: This studio truly grasps the importance of listening to the advice of others, and accepting that — no matter how many successes you’ve had in the past — you sometimes need to accept that you don’t know it all. “What we do is set up internal screenings at the studio,” explains Rivera. “We’ll invite different departments. People that aren’t going to critically look at it but react to it as an audience. We literally tell them, send us an e-mail and give us notes.”

The quality is reflected at the box office, where the grosses have ranged from $361 million worldwide (the original “Toy Story”) to $864 million (“Finding Nemo.”) It’s also reflected among critics (last year, “Wall-E” topped a number of nationwide polls as 2008’s best film) and Oscar voters (of the six awards handed out for Best Animated Feature Film, Pixar has taken home four).

But what distinguishes this test-screening process from the ones so many filmmakers disdain? Why doesn’t the Pixar method result in something that feels dumbed-down and compromised?

It’s a simple matter of confidence and belief in what you’re doing.

“I had this idea at school that previews were for sellouts, and why would a studio make you do that?” says Docter, who says he only realized that one of the most critical moments of “Up” wasn’t working when he showed a rough cut to an audience in Portland, Ore.

“But doing these previews that we’ve done ... it’s a great gift as a filmmaker. (You get) to watch the movie with an audience and then go back and make changes.”

At least on paper, “Up” hardly sounds as if it would have the makings of a charming cartoon. It tells the story of a curmudgeonly widower named Carl (the voice of Ed Asner) who is the last holdout in a neighborhood that has been razed by a corporation erecting a state-of-the-art commercial development. Acting out of deep eccentricity or perhaps profound depression, Carl — who made his living as a balloon salesman — rigs thousands of helium balloons to his house and transforms the entire structure into a floating hot-air contraption. His plan is to journey to the Andes, where he had long hoped to travel with his deceased wife.

The only complication is that a young Boy Scout named Russell (voice by Jordan Nagai) happened to be standing on his front porch when the house went soaring into the clouds.

And if you thought “Wall-E,” with its portrait of a post-apocalyptic robot yearning for connection, pushed into new realms of surrealism and melancholy for Pixar, just wait until you get a look at some of this film’s stranger flourishes (a group of talking dogs whose master is an evil explorer, voiced by Christopher Plummer) and more tender exchanges between Carl and Russell.

In fact, keep your eyes peeled for that aforementioned montage, which comes very early in the story. In 4 1/2 breathtaking minutes, “Up” shows the highlights of Carl’s marriage to Ellie, including a miscarriage, a terminal illness and the crippling regret of never having fulfilled their most basic dreams. The anguish and despair on display would make the late Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman proud.

“We’re so focused on the story and what it is,” explains Rivera, “we never really stopped to think: ‘Who is this for, what’s the audience, is this a kids’ movie?’ We want our movies to be for everybody. But the mantra that we’ve set forth is, ‘Let’s just do what we want to do.’ So far, that’s worked.”

And maybe that’s the ultimate life lesson that Pixar can teach us all: Stop condescending and dumbing things down. Don’t be afraid to be bold and to experiment. The people around us, whether they are young or old, whether they’re colleagues or loved ones or complete strangers, are usually much more open to new ideas than we give them credit for.

Indeed, the emotional content of “Up” may be dark and unexpectedly complex. But the themes here — that you’re never too old to begin an entirely new adventure; that life is a journey with just as many “downs” as “ups”; and that friends can emerge from the most unlikely of places — are fundamental and more than a little bit timely.

Like “Wall-E,” which offered up an impassioned screed against the waste and sloth of consumerist America, like “Finding Nemo,” which illuminated the bond between parents and children, like “Toy Story 2,” which chronicled both the glories and the frustrations of lifelong friendship, “Up” is ultimately an examination of the most complicated mysteries of modern life.

It reminds us never to stop challenging ourselves and each other.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/94161-pixar-perfect-the-people-at-this-studio-have-important-lessons-to-tea/