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The Pixar Way -- Part II: Lessons Learned

The Pixar Way -- Part II: Lessons Learned

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Okay, I admit it: I left you hanging and took forever to come back with this installment. But hopefully it'll be worth the wait. I know sitting all day long listening to the folks from Pixar was worth every minute for me.

All the comments about the first part of the series were wonderful, but I did want to clear up a few things before we move on. Basically while Andrew Stanton presented some "rules" for Pixar, know that this is a company that thrives on innovation, not on rigid guidelines set in concrete. Bald Melon Tim (who was also present at the Expo) was right on when he talked about John Lasseter saying "The best idea in the room is the idea that wins." It truly is and the example Tim mentioned of a production assistant was none other than Kiel Murray, one of Pixar's newest writers who co-wrote the movie "Cars."

Photo by Sean Kennelly

Now I don't know John Lasseter personally nor have I ever met him. But whatever he has done at Pixar has paid off and I have to think a lot of the philosophies that Andrew Stanton and others presented at the Screenwriting Expo had input and approval from Mr. Lasseter. Of course we could endlessly debate all this. But I have to say that the ideas I heard at the Expo revealed a lot about Pixar and why they continue to churn out moneymakers for the folks at Disney. So … Where were we? Oh yeah, the continuing Pixar saga or as Andrew called it, "What We Didn't Know".

"Toy Story" was a huge success and put Pixar on the Hollywood map in a big way. But how would the makers of "Toy Story" match their first feature? Not easily. For out of all the Pixar films, Andrew Stanton felt that "A Bug's Life" was the hardest to tame.

At first the story featured a guy named Red, red ant who runs a small carnival show (similar to P.T. Flea), who convinces his performers to pose as warriors to get food and shelter. The problem was Red had little motivation to help the ant colony. Why should he care? If things got dicey, he could just walk away. Of course we all know the solution that Pixar came up with: How a little guy named Flik, a lowly worker ant seeks to save his colony with the help of some bugs posing as warriors.

And it helped that Pixar continued to seek fresh creative minds such as Dave Reynolds, one of late-night funnyman Conan O'Brien's writers. In fact, Dave (who spoke at a later panel) recalled how Andrew Stanton screened the birthday scene of "Toy Story" and then turned to him, saying "We want you to help us do this with ants." So Dave added his own brand of humor to the mix along with the rest of the crew at Pixar in a combined effort to make their projects the best they can be, something they refer to as "plussing". You see, Pixar never leaves an idea alone as long as they can add to it or "plus" it. As John Lasseter puts it: "Films are never finished, they're just released." And thus the rich worlds of Pixar movies are always being improved until the film literally leaves the building.

But there are certainly more than just writers and animators plussing their work. Though they are often the last artists brought on to a Pixar project, actors bring their own creative energies to the projects and are chosen in a most unique way. Rather than audition an actor for a role, an audio clip from one of their film roles is selected and animated using characters from the current project to see what they might bring to the role.

Some of you are probably aware that Pixar took the "wagon wheel coffee table scene" from "When Harry Met Sally" to audition Billy Crystal for the role of Buzz Lightyear (who was later cast in "Monsters, Inc."). But the laughs were huge for clips Andrew Stanton showed of Al Pacino followed by Alec Baldwin each cursing a blue streak in the role of "Hopper" from "A Bug's Life" to dialogue from what was obviously a very un-Pixar-ish movie. The room was just rolling to say the least. I'm not sure what films they took the clips from, but I have to say it was some pretty hilarious stuff.

Someone in the audience actually asked why they didn't create more adult fare like this. The reason Andrew gave: Pixar makes movies they would want to see. As Andrew explained, the people at Pixar have fond memories of going to the movies with Mom & Dad as children, and they want to continue that legacy. Still, Andrew was very quick to point out that they don't make movies specifically for kids. They're movies for everyone.

At the end of the day (or its box office run), "A Bug's Life" did not top the gross of "Toy Story" but still managed to earn a very respectable $162 million. But it was the next film, "Toy Story 2" that nearly broke Pixar. Wanting to increase their output, a second team or "B" team was brought on to work on "Toy Story 2" while the "A" team finished up "A Bug's Life." So as the "A" team came off "A Bug's Life," they began looking at the work that had been done on "Toy Story 2" and found … a nightmare in the making.

Much of what had been done was unusable and immediately the "B" team was assimilated into the "A" team and they all began feverishly working through the problems as well as plussing the good stuff. As Andrew recalled, about 75% of the existing work was rewritten and changed. What's amazing is that not only did they pull it off, but they managed to make a better film in months instead of the years it took to put together the first two films ("Toy Story" - 36 months, "A Bug's Life" - 38 months). And it was during this intense production that elements such as the Round-up Gang were fleshed out into the characters we know and love. Each character represented the aspects of not being played with. Jessie, the "bi-polar Ellie Mae", was afraid. The Propector was bitter. And Bullseye, he was the innocent child.

Yet while all this symbolism makes perfect sense now, it's not always so obvious in the midst of a hurried process. Again, my hat's off to Pixar for turning what could have been a lemon into lemonade. I dare say most Hollywood production companies or studios would be hard pressed to come up with such well-executed entertainment in so short a time.

Still whenever Andrew gets stuck with his characters, he turns to one of his favorite idea books, Edgar Lee Masters' "Spoon River Anthology." Filled with over 200 epitaphs revealing the secret lives of dead citizens of a fictional township (which can be found online for free at Bartleby.com), Andrew says he often mines the book for character ideas. In his words, "storytelling is meeting people" for he believes a quote that Fred Rogers (of "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood") carried around in his wallet attributed to a Benedictine nun, Sister Mary Lou Kownacki of Erie: "There isn't anyone you couldn't love once you've heard their story." With such guiding ideas, is it any wonder that Pixar is known for great characters?

Photo by Sean Kennelly

Andrew then capped his previous statements on character by quoting Philip Roth's "American Pastoral."

"You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick; you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong.

You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you're anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you're with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception.

And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on instead a significance that is ludicrous, so ill-equipped are we all to envision one another's interior workings and invisible aims? Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people that we mangle with our ignorance every day?

The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It's getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful consideration, getting them wrong again. That's how we know we're alive: we're wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that - well, lucky you."

And we are lucky, because Pixar takes us on those rides over and over. We're constantly meeting new people (or toys, or bugs, or monsters, etc.) and they consistently entertain. But in part 3 we'll get to see a few of the philosophies that keep them on top and more of the inside scoop on your favorite Pixar films.

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  • Great article, Sean :)

  • That wasn't suppose to happen. I typed much more.. Well, a short second one then.

    I also see the strength of Pixar to develop movies that are based around a solid script. But while I found Toy Story, Toy Story 2, A Bugs Life and Cars, movies that stand out as an example to other animation studios about how to bring a story to life, I wasn't thrilled about The Incredibles. It's a good movie, but I find that the script relies too much on the special effects, and too little on character development. Monsters, Inc. is my favorite Pixar feature, when it comes to story. That movie has the best story, in my opinion.

  • "So Dave added his own brand of humor to the mix along with the rest of the crew at Pixar in a combined effort to make their projects the best they can be, something they refer to as "plussing". You see, Pixar never leaves an idea alone as long as they can add to it or "plus" it."

    Hmmmmmmmmmmmm ... where have I heard that word before? Plussing ... sounds familiar ...

    Oh yeah!!! That Walt guy used to say it all the time!!

    Sounds like the folks at Pixar are following in exactly the right footsteps. Too bad the rest of the company hasn't caught up to them yet.

  • sad to see this was never completed...

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