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Toon Tuesday -- Why you shouldn't believe all of the bad news that you've been hearing about Pixar's "Good Dinosaur"

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Toon Tuesday -- Why you shouldn't believe all of the bad news that you've been hearing about Pixar's "Good Dinosaur"

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So I'm guessing that you saw this Los Angeles Times' headline last week ...

Pixar Animation yanks director Bob Peterson off "The Good Dinosaur"

... and or the headline that Geeks of Doom used to report on this same story ...

Copyright Disney Pixar. All rights reserved

Director Bob Peterson Pulled Off Of Pixar's "The Good Dinosaur"

... or -- better yet -- the headline that I am Rogue used.

Pixar Kicks Director Bob Peterson Off "The Good Dinosaur"

Photo by Jim Hill

So between all of this yanking, pulling and kicking that's supposedly going on up in Emeryville these days, it would appear that this venerated animation studio has now replaced that oversized Luxo Jr. lamp & ball which they've got out in front of the Steve Jobs Building with a steel cage. In which all Pixar directors are now regularly forced to do battle in order to protect their creative vision.

Yeah. Right.

Look, I know. This is an age where (thanks to the Internet) we all love to snark about things we honestly know nothing about. But here's the hard reality: Making a full-length animated feature is tough work. It can sometimes take 5 - 6 years to make one of these things. Hell, it took Walt Disney Animation Studios almost a decade to get a handle on how to turn the story of Rapunzel into "Tangled ." And sometimes -- even when you've got some of the top talents in the business working on your movie, and these people are putting in all sorts of hours, pouring their very hearts & souls into a project -- it still doesn't jell.

Copyright Disney Pixar. All rights reserved

And "The Good Dinosaur" ... Well, while this still-in-production Pixar film has always had a very intriguing log line (i.e. 65 million years ago, a meteor hit the Earth and wiped out the dinosaurs. But what if that asteroid missed? What would the dinosaurs evolved to millions of years later?), it's also faced some pretty daunting story challenges. With the biggest one being that when your movie is built around two characters -- Arlo, a 70 foot-tall adolescent Apatosaurus and Spot, a 3 foot-tall human child -- how do you then find believable, emotional ways for these very differently-sized beings to connect? Not only with each other but also with the members of your audience?

"Composition, finding ways to bring our two lead characters together in the exact same shots has admittedly been a challenge," said Denise Ream, the producer of "The Good Dinosaur," when we chatted backstage last month at the D23 EXPO. "But we've got a really great crew back at Pixar working on this film. And they've found some fun ways to deal with this issue."

And then there's the issue of what dinosaurs have actually evolved into over the past 65 million years. Not ninjas or space travelers, mind you. But -- rather -- farmers.

Denise Ream and Peter Sohn backstage at last month's D23 EXPO. Photo by Jim Hill

"These dinosaurs are agrarian," explained Peter Sohn, co-director of "The Good Dinosaur." "They're intelligent but staid & stoic. Kind of set in their ways."

Those who saw the concept art and test footage that was shown at last month's "Art and Imagination: Animation at the Walt Disney Studio" presentation at the D23 EXPO reported back that Pixar has found some pretty fun ways to bring this dinosaurs-as-farmers concept to life visually. By -- in essence -- turning each species of dinosaurs into a different piece of farming equipment. With the triceratops becoming bulldozer-like earth movers and stegosauruses using their spiky tails to first mow down and then harvest the crops.

Copyright Disney Pixar. All rights reserved

And as for the apatosaurs ... Well, after the farmland has been properly prepared, Arlo and his family then till this soil by putting their faces down in the dirt and then -- by stretching their necks out -- create all of these perfectly straight rows.

So given the character scale issue and the tranquil setting for the very start of "The Good Dinosaur" 's story, even as an outsider, it's kind of easy to see how a film like this might have been tough for even a Pixar vet like Bob Peterson (who -- let's remember -- has been with this animation studio since the original "Toy Story ." More importantly, has already had some helming experience thanks to his co-directing gig on "Up ") to get his arms around this project. But at the same time, you can also understand why Pixar would have put this particular film into production (As John Lasseter enthused from the stage of the Anaheim Arena during the "Animation at the Walt Disney Studios" presentation : "This is spectacular! Pixar is doing dinosaurs!") while there were still some pretty obvious story issues that had yet to be resolved.

But in the end, I gotta say ... I just feel bad for Bob, Peter & Denise. Especially Bob. Since "The Good Dinosaur" reportedly drew its inspiration from a trip that young Mr. Peterson made to the 1964 - 1965 New York World's Fair. Where the massive prehistoric beasts that were on display in Sinclair's walk-through Dinoland exhibit at the Fair as well as the Disney-built Audio Animatronic dinosaurs that were featured  in Ford's "Magic Skyway" attraction supposedly fired Bob's imagination as a boy and eventually inspired him to come up with the storyline for this particular Pixar production.

Sinclair's Dinoland walk-thru exhibit at the 1964 - 65 New York Worlds Fair

Now some will tell you that removing Bob Peterson as the director of "The Good Dinosaur" is a pretty big red flag. Especially coming on the heels of John Lasseter replacing Brad Lewis as the director of "Cars 2 " and Mark Andrews replacing Brenda Chapman as the director of "Brave ." There are those within the animation community who would tell you that the powers-that-be up in Emeryville have become a little too obsessed with preserving Pixar's winning streak. Which -- what with "Monsters University" having just earned $715 million at the worldwide box office -- now stands at 14 hit films in a row.

But me? All I know is that -- over the past 30 years -- I must have interviewed hundreds of people who've been directly involved in the production of various Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks Animation, Laika, Illumination Entertainment and Sony Pictures Animation films. And what I've heard over & over from all of these animation vets is an endless series of war stories. How their films repeatedly crashed & burned. How they were then forced to throw out hundreds of feet of finished animation footage because their movie suddenly change direction or directors.

So long story short: This sort of thing happens in the animation industry all the time. So why does the entertainment press make such a big deal about Pixar changing directors on one of its movies when an animated feature like "Hotel Transylvania " can burn through five different sets of directors before Genndy Tartakovsky finally came along and then turned that troubled Sony Pictures Animation production into a smash hit and no one says Boo? And the answer is ... Because Pixar has had 14 hit films in a row. And the entertainment press has been dying to write the "Pixar-finally-produces-a-flop" story for over a decade now.

Copyright Sony Pictures Animation. All rights reserved

Well, I'll say this much: Pixar isn't making it all that easy to turn "The Good Dinosaur" 's production problems into a continuing controversy. What with Ed Catmull -- the president of Walt Disney & Pixar Animation Studios -- addressed the Bob Peterson issue last week by releasing a statement that said:

"All directors get really deep in their films. Sometimes you just need a different perspective to get the idea out. Sometimes directors ... are so deeply embedded in their ideas it actually takes someone else to finish it up. I would go so far as to argue that a lot of live-action films would be better off with that same process."

And as to whether Peterson would now possibly exit Pixar, Jim Morris -- general manager and executive vice president of production for that animation studio -- was quick to put the kibosh on that rumor. According to Jim,  

Bob Peterson and Doug the Dog at the world
premiere of Pixar's "Up." Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"Bob is still working at the studio, and we hope he will stay here for the rest of his natural life."

Even Peterson himself got in on the act over this past weekend. Using his personal Twitter account to admit that the past few months had ...

"Been a tough time, but I am good - thankful for family and hilarious friends. On to future projects. Long live TGD. It's gonna be great."

Copyright Disney Pixar. All rights reserved

And being the consummate gag man that he is, Bob even managed to mine some humor out of this obviously awkward situation. Using Friday's surprise announcement that the director of "Paperman," this year's Academy Award-winning animated short, was departing Disney for another yet-unnamed animation studio as an excuse to tweet ...

"And what's with John Kahrs stealing my thunder?!"

So I guess that all us animation obsessives are now going to  have to find something new to snark / gossip about. Like where exactly is John Kahrs now headed? And does this now mean that Walt Disney Animation Studios is going to abandon that terrific 2D / CG hybrid process that was used during the production of "Paperman" ?

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

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  • I appreciate Jim Hill Media very much, but this criticism of people speculating about Pixar seems somewhat hypocritical.  There have been numerous reports on this website about people screwing up on various projects or personnel changes due to political games, so why the snark about people talking about this incident?

    Directors getting fired at Pixar is now not an isolated incident or two, but a regular pattern.  It is natural that people want to know what is going on isn't it?

    EDITOR'S NOTE: Look, the point that I was trying to make here is that there's more to this story than the one note / drumbeat coverage that both the entertainment press and a lot of the online sites had been providing on the Bob Peterson story (i.e., that Pixar has replaced yet another director. So something weird must be going on up in Emeryville).

    The Pixar that I know -- the Company that I've been covering / writing about for 20+ years -- has always been very open about its creative process. They're the ones who honestly don't have any problems with talking about how production of the original "Toy Story" had to be shut down in November of 1993 because that film had some pretty severe story problems at that time. And -- in time -- Pixar began to realize that this mid-production meltdown is pretty much part of that studio's creative process. It happened on "A Bug's Life." It happened on "Toy Story 2." It happened on "Up" & "WALL-E" & "Finding Nemo." All of this animation studio's biggest hits had that moment during their production process where they crashed & burned. Some for only a few days or weeks. Others for months at a time. But eventually the team at Pixar figured out how to fix each of these movies.

    So what's different now? The difference is that -- in this TMZ / Perez Hilton age that we currently live in -- bad news sells. More to the point, because of social media forms like Facebook & Twitter -- bad news now travels faster & further and with little or no context. And in the case of a story like this -- where Bob Peterson was taken off of "A Good Dinosaur" months ago but the news just broke last week AND Peterson has no plans to leave Pixar. He's already developing another project for that animation studio -- this really isn't a story that you can tell correctly using just 134 characters.

    So I guess that what I was trying to do with today's Toon Tuesday column was provide a little perspective. Make people realize that this is not "Brave" / Brenda Chapman revisited. (Speaking of which ... The more people that I talk to about that particular Pixar movie, the more that I hear that Brenda was just too close to her source material. By deliberately deciding to base "Brave" on her relationship with her own headstrong daughter Emma, Chapman then found herself in a situation that every animation director dreads. That she was just unable to "kill her darlings." Cut scenes out of "Brave" that -- while they may have been funny or charming or exciting -- really did nothing to move that movie's story forward. And in the end, where you're the lead director on a full length animated feature, that's your ultimate responsibility. You have to deliver a film with a story that genuinely engages an audience for 90 minutes or so.)

    So my apologies if today's story came across as somewhat hypocritical to longtime JHM readers. It's just that ... Well, I've been writing for animation long enough that -- honestly -- it's harder to come up with a story about an animated feature that DIDN'T have mid-production problems than it is to come up with a tale about an animated feature that's now beloved but still had huge problems while it was moving through the production process.

    I mean, Disney's "Beauty and the Beast." That film's original director -- Richard Purdum -- was let go. And its London-based production office was shut down and moved over to the US so that this Walt Disney Animation Studios project could then be changed into a musical. "Aladdin" ? That too was shut down well into its development process for a complete story overhaul. Aladdin's friends & mother were cut from the film at that time, as was the Genie of the Ring.

    And as for "The Lion King" ... People are making a very big deal about how "The Good Dinosaur" was just nine months away from being released to theaters when Pixar decided to remove Bob Peterson as the director of this movie. If you want to talk about changes that were made to an animated feature very late in the game, go ask Don Hahn about the 10 gags that were quickly developed, animated and then inserted into "The Lion King" 10 WEEKS before that Walt Disney Animation Studios production was released to theaters in June 1994. To hear Don tell the story, those 10 last minute additions made all the difference in the world to this movie. They're what changed "The Lion King" from being an perfectly okay animated feature to the smash hit that we all know & love today.

    So where you see hypocrisy in today's JHM article, Wally, I see an attempt at perspective. Maybe not an entirely successful attempt at bringing some perspective to the "Good Dinosaur" situation. But -- hey -- at least now there's something different online than the "Pixar yanks / kicks / pulls Bob Peterson" stuff that was there before.

  • Thanks for this article Jim...I had not heard or read the headlines and probably wouldn't have known about this but for this article.  I think when people hear that someone as important as a director is replaced then something really wrong must be going on with a production.  But, as you mentioned, this is more the norm than the exception.  Didn't Disney replace directors on Tangled too?  Frankly, with the very special creative environment at Pixar, I am surprised that they don't just start directing these films by committee anyway.  They are all so hands on with the story process.  Anyway, thanks again for this interesting article.  Looking forward to some more stuff from your visit to D23.

  • I'm less concerned with the direction of  "The Good Dinosaur" than I am with the direction of Pixar.

    In no way am I trying to present myself as some sort of "expert" or analyst. I'm just saying this purely as a fan of quality movies.


    The most common knee-jerk defense of Pixar is to recite their list of awards, but to those who don't care about awards then the creativity that drove Pixar seems to have been on a slow leak for the last several years. Just like the never-ending toy box of concept of Disney Infinity then I love the idea of Toy Story movies continuing forever. But Cars? Monsters? Nemo? These are stories that where self-contained but are photocopied because it's easier to retell a familiar joke than create a new one. And what about Brave? The movie whose trailer showed this grand Lord of the Rings sized epic adventure of a strong and powerful female lead turning out to be a tiny story about a bratty kid whose biggest claim to fame was that she's a size 2 rather than a size 0.

    I'm definitely going too long with this rant, but any honest movie fan gets the point. A decade ago Pixar stood head and shoulders above its competition, but their secrets of manipulating heartstrings is out and the competition has caught up.


    Look, you're entitled to your own opinion, Anonymouse. But a quick look at box office totals for the past 5 or 6 years shows that your personal opinion of what Pixar has become doesn't entirely jibe with the ticket buying patterns of the domestic & international movie-going audience.

    Let's go the numbers, shall we?

    2008 -- "WALL-E" -- $223 million in domestic ticket sales / $297 million in international ticket sales for a total of $521 million

    2009 -- "UP" -- $293 million in domestic ticket sales / $438 million in international ticket sales for a total of $731 million

    2010 -- "Toy Story 3" -- $415 million in domestic ticket sales / $648 million in international ticket sales for a total of $1.06 billion

    2011 -- "Cars 2" -- $191 million in domestic ticket sales / $368 million in international ticket sales for a total of $559 million

    2012 -- "Brave" -- $237 million in domestic ticket sales / $301 million in international ticket sales for a total of $538 million

    2013 -- "Monsters University" -- $264 million in domestic ticket sales / $450 million in international ticket sales for a total of $715 million

    That's $4.13 billion in worldwide ticket sales in just six years time. With a box office record like that, most other studios would kill to make animated features that are as boring / popular as you say Pixar's films have now become.

    Now if you said that Pixar was facing increasing competition with other animation studios, that statement I could have bought into. One only has to look at how "Despicable Me 2" did this past summer (i.e., $355 million in domestic ticket sales / $467 million in international ticket sales for a total of $823.1 million. Which is significantly better than "Monsters University" did domestically and slightly better than this Dan Scanlon movie did internationally) to realize that there have been significant changes in the marketplace.

    But to claim that Pixar's movies have become boring, Anonymouse ... I hate to say it. But I think that you've  become like that guy who works in the candy shop and then somehow manages to lose their taste for chocolate. If you want to to talk about the overall quality of Pixar's films, specific story issues that you may have had with individual movies, sure. But to say that Pixar's films have become boring when -- over the past 6 years -- these films have typically placed in the 10 Top for annual box office receipts (And more often than that, in the Top 5), I'm pretty certain that your "Pixar's films have become boring" belief isn't shared by 99.999% of the worldwide movie ticket buying public, Anonymouse.

    Again, I know. You said at the start of this post that you're not an expert or an analyst. But when you look at ticket sales numbers like these, it's hard to realistically argue that a significant portion of the movie going public feels just as you do and now considers Pixar's movies to be boring.

  • Wonderful article that I fully enjoyed reading...in addition to your replies to the below comments :)

  • Wow, that explains a lot about why the Star Wars prequels were such a mess.  George was too close to his own material, and no one could say, "Maybe Jar Jar needs reworking"   Just speaking facetiously, but it makes sense.

    Maybe it's true that you can't argue with Pixar's success, but I still think that movies like Despicable Me (the first one), the Lorax, Ice Age and even Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs are better than most of Pixar's.  I think Pixar makes big box office partly because of it's reputation.

    The Lion King was a huge success, in part IMO because Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, which led up to LK, were so good.  But to me Lion King is weaker than the others.

    Despicable Me 2 was a huge success, IMO because the first one was so good.  It was so good that people wanted to repeat the good feelings.  But DM2 is not as good as the first.

    IMO the same goes for Pixar, they make big money in part because of their rep, I don't think you can judge the quality of a movie by the box office.

  • What Ananymous said was that he felt pixar creativley was declining. He doesn't really care about box office numbers.

    EDITOR'S NOTE: But here's the thing: The Bob Igers of the world -- those guys who sit in the corner offices of these major media conglomerates -- very much care about box office numbers. They're the ones who look miles & miles of spreadsheets and know -- right down to the penny -- how much a particular film made from its theatrical release, from Blu-ray & DVD sales and digital downloads, from Pay per View as well as cable & network rebroadcast rates. They're also keenly aware of how much a movie cost to develop, shoot and promote. Which -- obviously -- effects the return-on-investment that the Studio gets from each of these projects.

    Now I know that Disneyphiles love to quote John Lasseter's mantra (i.e., "Quality is a great business plan"). But don't kid yourself. While it's great when a quality film does well at the box office and/or during awards season, given the choice between a classy project with great production values (EX: "Saving Mr. Banks." Which -- based on what I've been hearing -- Disney execs genuinely believes that this film has a really strong chance of scoring Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor nominations for Tom Hanks, Emma Thompson and Paul Giamatti) and a would-be film franchise like "Twilight" or "The Hunger Games," today's studio execs would ditch class for cash in a heartbeat.

    So when you guys get started talking about subjective things like quality when it comes to animated films, you need that they guys in the corner office like sure things ... Like Pixar's next highly anticipated sequel, "Finding Dory."

  • I don't think that anyone is arguing that Pixar is losing their touch when it comes to making box office successes. it is just disappointing to fans that they aren't taking the kind of chances they used to. Wall-e and Up were ambitious projects that were creative and meaningful beyond your typical family animated film, building on what Pixar had been doing with previous films in terms or quality and vision. In the past few years, it seems that they have been playing it safe with sequels and movies aimed at younger viewers. They are making more money then ever, so by no means am I saying they are stupid, or that they are in any danger of losing their top place, its just disappointing to myself that they don't seem to reach the heights they used to. I hope they do again. Obviously this is one subjective opinion. Others may love Cars 2 and the rest, but there's nothing wrong with fans sharing opinions on the internet about how they feel about a company's artistic direction regardless of its financial success.

  • I cannot wait to see Finding Dory! Boring? nah... People have an emotional connection to these quality characters and want to spend more time with them in the theater. Did I love Cars 2? Not so much. Did I race out and see Monsters University? No. But I know plenty of folks who did and its because different films speak to different people. The claim the studio is boring is just another faceless internet troll wanting to say something negative.

  • As Brenda Chapman has pointed out, in live action pictures this kind of director replacement doesn't happen because they sign a contract to that effect. This allows the director's vision to become that of an individual artist's (with lots of help on the components from the staff). I expect this is why there is no equivalent to Spielberg or Hitchcock in the animation world. The Disney pictures made lots of money, but not nearly as much money after costs as "Despicable Me 1-2". When you can produce animated films for less than 100 million you don't need to spend 10 years in development to have a high likelihood of producing a profitable film.

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