Inside look at Pixar Animation Studios
EMERYVILLE, Calif. — Like Jonah in the Biblical tale, the Pixar Animation Studios has been swallowed by a whale.
But it will be business as usual, even in the corporate belly of the Walt Disney Company, which bought the now legendary Pixar in a $7.4-billion share swap earlier this year.
“I’m not worried,” John Lasseter, the creative heart of Pixar and the director of four of its seven feature films so far, told the Toronto Sun this week.
“It’s funny,” he said at the Pixar Animation Studios in this funky industrial town across the Bay from San Francisco, “I’m the least worried of everybody outside of here because I know these people. I know what this place is built upon. It is built upon this passion — that people love what they do.
“Culture is very important here. I think we recognize that what we do have at Pixar is a unique culture. Frankly, when Disney decided they wanted to buy Pixar, the entire deal was predicated upon the protection of that culture, so Pixar culture could continue exactly that way off into the future.”
That can only be good news for audiences, the families who thrilled as Pixar became one of the most phenomenal success stories in Hollywood history. Like Disney used to be, Pixar is now a guaranteed entertainment brand name in animation. The studio boasts a string of seven all-original features, each a huge hit.
The Pixar films are: Toy Story (1995), A Bug’s Life (1998), Toy Story 2 (1999), Monsters, Inc. (2001), Finding Nemo (2003), The Incredibles (2004) and now Cars (2006), which is coming to DVD on Tuesday. The next theatrical release is Brad Bird’s Ratatouille, due June 29, 2007.
The first seven earned a total worldwide box office of nearly $3.7 billion. The per-picture average is the highest ever (albeit with a limited number of titles compared to other studios). The lowest, by a whisker, is the still impressive $362 million worldwide for Toy Story, the ground-breaking film that was Hollywood’s first all-digital animated feature. The highest Pixar box office tally (second only to Shrek 2 — all-time among animated films) was the $864.6 million worldwide for Finding Nemo. Pixar has generated mega-millions more in DVD sales, although exact figures are not available. But Finding Nemo vaulted into place as the best-selling DVD ever when it was first released.
The first six titles were also all Academy Award nominees, with four winning at least one Oscar each. Cars is expected to generate a best animated feature nomination for 2006. Lasseter is optimistic that Ratatouille will continue the golden streak because Bird, a college buddy who conjured The Incredibles for Pixar, is a filmmaking genius who has fashioned another dazzler. “It’s about a rat who wants to be a fine chef in Paris, France, and it’s fantastic,” Lasseter said.
Working as a wholly owned subsidiary of Disney will not change a single frame of Ratatouille or any other future project, Lasseter promises. Nor will it change the physical environment. Pixar people will remain ensconced in their own studios here. It is a free-spirited place where the breakfast nook has a dozen-plus different cereals, where there is no time clock to punch, where there is no dress code, and where people amuse or refresh themselves in a gym, at a massage centre, at a movie theatre, on outdoor volleyball and soccer fields, in the Olympic-like pool with its swimming lanes, or on walkabout in the acres of green space surrounding the new but retro-built studio.
“It hasn’t changed at all,” Lasseter repeated about the way Pixar does its creative work. “The whole merger was based on (how) the culture here is so special. Everything is protected. It is meant to be exactly the way it is.”
Despite Lasseter’s confidence, the concern over Pixar is legitimate. Disney invested heavily in Miramax, the “indie” mini-major studio founded by Harvey and Bob Weinstein. Disney’s parenting under CEO Michael Eisner proved to be thorny. Censorship intruded on some risque titles. Interference became the norm. The relationship soured. Eventually, the bombastic brothers were pushed out of The House of Mouse and started a fresh enterprise, the Weinstein Company. But Disney now owns the valuable Miramax film catalogue and its clutch of Oscar winners.
In the case of Pixar, the relationship with Disney head office soured long before the merger because of the contentious terms of the distribution deal Pixar had with Disney. While Pixar made its films in splendid isolation, Disney distributed them, took 50% of the profits and owned the sequel rights. Among the hot button issues was Disney’s plan to make Toy Story 3 independent of Pixar. Under Eisner, the distribution deal was also going to end after Cars.
But, when Eisner was pushed out in a palace revolt, which was fuelled among other reasons by the Pixar blowup, the landscape changed. New Disney CEO Robert Iger was eager to find common ground. That became the complicated merger. Some observers believe that, while Disney technically owns Pixar, it is Pixar people who will eventually end up running all of Disney.
Pixar certainly has a huge stake in Disney. Pixar original Edwin Catmull, who joined it when it was still a high-tech computer graphics research group within George Lucas’ empire, is now president of both Pixar and of Disney Studios. Lasseter, who was fired by Disney as a young animator before coming to Pixar two decades ago, is now chief creative officer of both Pixar and Disney animation.
Steve Jobs (famous both as a co-founder of Apple and as the one who revitalized the computer company) is the man who bought Pixar from Lucas in 1986, giving it the Pixar brand name. As a result of the Pixar stock swap, Jobs is now the largest individual stockholder in Disney. So the elements are in place to keep Pixar from going down the slippery slope that doomed Miramax.
Lasseter said he is not in a position yet to make any pronouncements about what will happen at Pixar past Ratatouille, although four other unnamed features are already in production. Nor is he free to talk about what he will do with the faltering Disney animation studio, although he stopped work on the rogue version of Toy Story 3 and is rumoured to have started it up again as a legit Pixar production with Tom Hanks and Tim Allen reprising their roles. The one confirmed Disney animated release is Meet The Robertsons, due next March.
“I’m busy at Pixar and at Disney animation helping with the new movies,” Lasseter said. As for details, he added, “I’m not really ready to talk about that right now.”
On a personal basis, Lasseter is stretched for time, he admitted, but that is nothing new. “Time has always been a challenge for John Lasseter. It’s like, no matter what I do, it seems like there is not enough time.” That made his commitment of a day to help launch the Cars DVD extraordinary because Lasseter has made few media statements about the new world order at Disney and Pixar since the Disney acquisition was first announced in January and then completed in May.
A lot of the Cars animators and artists are true believers in the Pixar culture. In an interview for the Cars DVD, production designer Bob Pauley called the studio zeitgeist “the Church of Pixar — you just have faith.” That means, no matter what problem arises in the making of a film, the Pixar creative team will find a solution, he said. “You just have faith that we’re going to be able to push through it.”
As for the Disney merger specifically, Pauley says he has no fear at all: “No! the biggest fear is that there’s just too many good things to work on. They know. They’re not going to change this, not with John. He cares so much. I’m just so excited because there’s a lot of good stuff happening. We all know we’re very lucky, that’s the thing.”
For Thomas Jordan, the character shading supervisor on Cars, the merger is a positive thing for the artists at both studios. “I think we’ve learned a lot more about each other since the merger. So it’s been fun to learn how to do things and share with them how we do things.”
Part of how Pixar does things is the attention to detail, an exhausting process that takes four to six years on each feature film, from idea to theatrical release. While Disney tried to shave that process to two years, Pixar will not.
Bill Cone, a production designer on Cars, said that Lasseter, the co-director, set the tone on that project. “One of his constant statements on this film was: ‘The devil is in the details!’ And it’s true … It’s because they don’t stop. We get the time.”
One animator spent six months producing the complex lighting for traffic in a five-second scene during which the lead character, Owen Wilson’s race car Lightning McQueen, returns to L.A. at night on the freeway. Another team spent seven months working on dust storms the cars kick up when driving on dirt in Arizona.
“It’s a cultural thing,” Cars effects supervisor Steve May said of the Pixar way of doing things. “We kind of envision ourselves as craftsmen. We want to build things in a way that shows we care…. This studio is kind of unique because it’s built around the directors. I would say that that is the most important thing — and that the studio is creatively oriented, rather than being driven by schedules and monetary goals.”
1979: George Lucas launches the Computer Graphics Group with Edwin Catmull from the New York Institute of Technology as the ideas man. Develops futuristic but not ultimately successful Pixar Image Computer.
1984: Catmull hires animator John Lasseter after he is fired by Disney.
1985: Lucas sells the unit to Apple co-founder Steve Jobs for $5 million and he re-launches it as Pixar, a word that combines “pixel” with “art”.
1986: Lasseter directs his first Pixar film, the short Luxo Jr., which is nominated for an Oscar.
1989: Lasseter’s short Tin Toy wins an Oscar and inspires the development of Toy Story as a feature.
1995: Toy Story, directed by Lasseter, launches the Pixar success story.
2006: Disney buys Pixar in a stock swap valued at $7.4 billion.
Inside look at Pixar Animation Studios