Watch how far Pixar's skill in animation has come over the past 30+ years, from their initial shorts to the nearly photorealistic animation in last year's The Good Dinosaur to Finding Dory.
It's incredible how dated the original Toy Story looks now. It's going to look positively prehistoric in 20 years and it'll be impossible for anyone who didn't see it at the time to understand how astounding and groundbreaking it was.
This question is very important for the entertainment industry: does it matter whether you're right, when you're telling a story to entertain? Under some circumstances, I don't think it matters. But with an animated movie about real, living systems, when you use the truth -- their complexity and beauty -- as a springboard for the story, you add a level of gravitas that is vitally important to creating a broad and deep appeal. A young audience is much more sophisticated than you think, and a story informed by a lot of facts alerts them to the presence of real concepts. I got an e-mail from an eight-year-old about Finding Nemo, explaining that characters could not emerge from a whale's blowhole if they were in its mouth, because there is no link between the trachea and the oesophagus.
There are over 100 inaccuracies in Finding Nemo, but Summers says only one is a genuine error. (He doesn't name it, but it might be Mr. Ray, who lists names of classes in his song about aquatic species.) Everything else, from the whale's blowhole to ignoring clownfish's ability to switch between male and female (although what if Marlin does become female, but just never spawns again?) is an intentional gloss or omission for storytelling purposes.
Or aesthetic ones. "The claspers -- external, stick-like sexual organs on sharks -- were cut off Bruce the great white shark," says Summers, "not because of family values, but because he's spherical, and when you add a bunch of sticks to spherical sharks, they look really stupid." Noted.
Summers admits there's also just a lot about the species in Pixar's fish movies that nobody really knows.
They did ask me some questions about the biology of whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) that we just don't know the answers to. It's the largest fish in the sea, yet I think there's just one record of a pregnant female, which revealed that they can have more than 300 pups at a time. That's not much to know about the reproductive biology of such an iconic fish.
Charlie Jane Anders of io9 has a great preview of Pixar's upcoming film, The Good Dinosaur, including some juicy details on how the film was made. Because the film uses many big landscape shots, which would have been impossible to render in a timely fashion using their usual processes, the filmmakers needed to come up with another solution. They ended up using real topographical data and satellite images to render the landscapes.
Enter the U.S. Geographical Survey, which posts incredible amounts of topographical data to its website-including the height above sea level of all of the land features, and lots of satellite images. So Munier and his team tried downloading a lot of the USGS data and putting it into their computer, and then using that to "render" the real-life landscape. And it worked: They were able to take a classic Ansel Adams photograph of the Grand Tetons and duplicate it pretty closely using their computer-generated landscape. And with this data, they could point a digital "camera" anywhere, in a 360-degree rotation, and get an image.
Yes, after the success of our first few movies we had a hunch you'd continue to enjoy the wonderfully designed animation and our smart, lyrical writing, but I didn't think we'd create a horde of drooling morons ready to drop everything just to watch a fucking rat cook dinner. Time and time again, though, there you chumps are, lined up around the block with your stupid little kids, eager to have your stupid little hearts filled with whimsy.
Pixar: The Design of Story is an upcoming exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum here in NYC.
Through concept art from films such as Toy Story, Wall-E, Up, Brave, The Incredibles and Cars, among others, the exhibition will focus on Pixar's process of iteration, collaboration and research, and is organized into three key design principles: story, believability and appeal. The exhibition will be on view in the museum's immersive Process Lab -- an interactive space that was launched with the transformed Cooper Hewitt in December 2014 -- whose rotating exhibitions engage visitors with activities that focus on the design process, emphasizing the role of experimentation in design thinking and making.
More details are available in the press release. Definitely going to check this out and take the kids.
For the first time since 2005, Pixar didn't release a movie last year but are doubling up this year with Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur. Here's the trailer for The Good Dinosaur, which looks like much more of a just-for-kids movie than Inside Out.
Psychologists Dacher Keltner and Paul Ekman served as scientific consultants during the production of Pixar's Inside Out. Keltner studies the origins of human emotion and Ekman pioneered research of microexpressions. In this NY Times piece, they discuss the science behind the movie.
Those quibbles aside, however, the movie's portrayal of sadness successfully dramatizes two central insights from the science of emotion.
First, emotions organize -- rather than disrupt -- rational thinking. Traditionally, in the history of Western thought, the prevailing view has been that emotions are enemies of rationality and disruptive of cooperative social relations.
Second, emotions organize -- rather than disrupt -- our social lives. Studies have found, for example, that emotions structure (not just color) such disparate social interactions as attachment between parents and children, sibling conflicts, flirtations between young courters and negotiations between rivals.
I've thought about Inside Out every day since I saw it. Pixar clearly did their homework on the emotional stuff and it paid off.
We went back-and-forth on the top two here, but we ultimately had to go with [Wall-E], the most original and ambitious of all the Pixar movies. The first half-hour, which basically tells the story of the destruction of the planet and the devolution of the human race without a single line of dialogue, is total perfection: It's almost Kubrickian in its attention to detail and perspective, though it never feels cold or ungenerous.
Piece-of-shit Cars 2 is rightly parked at the bottom of the heap, Wall-E is obviously #1, and they correctly acknowledged Up as overrated. I would have rated the original Toy Story lower and Ratatouille higher, but overall: well done.
This is idiotic and obviously written by someone who (A) can't draw and (B) has an axe to grind. The female characters they show have very varied faces. Yes the face shapes are all softer feminine shapes, but they purposely didn't include female characters from those same movies with less feminine faces, like Edna Mode in The Incredibles, or the Witch or the Cook in Brave, or any of the older female characters, like the fairy godmother, or... whatever. All the princes and male romantic leads in these movies have the same face shape as well but NO, she takes old men and villains and comedy relief characters to "prove" how sexist animation is. This is just stupid.
If you want literally dozens of examples of other characters omitted from the list see the other comments below.
Ok, I'm starting to feel better about Inside Out, Pixar's upcoming animated feature that takes place mostly inside the mind of a young girl. The first trailer featured a bunch of gender stereotypes and mostly left me scratching my head, but the second trailer is solid:
2014 is the first year without a Pixar film since 2005's gap between The Incredibles and Cars. The company has two films planned for 2015 and one of them will hopefully do something about one of my long-standingpetpeeves about their movies: the lack of strong women characters. Inside Out takes place inside the brain of a teenaged girl, with her emotions as the main characters.
The film's real protagonist is Joy (voiced by an effervescent Amy Poehler), one of five emotions who steer Riley through life via a control center in her mind that's akin to the bridge from the Starship Enterprise. Joy and her cohorts -- including Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Anger (Lewis Black), and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) -- all work together to keep Riley emotionally balanced, and for the first 11 years of her life, the primary influencer is Joy, as evidenced by Riley's sunny demeanor.
But as adolescence sets in, Joy finds her lead role usurped. Suddenly, Sadness wants to pipe in at inappropriate times -- coaxing Riley to cry during her first day at a new school, for instance -- and as the two emotions jostle for control, both of them fall into the deepest reaches of Riley's mind and have to work their way back. Meanwhile, left to their own devices, Fear, Disgust, and Anger collude to transform Riley into a moody preteen.
"Delight" may be an intangible concept, but it's a useful term to describe Pixar's relationship with its audience, and one that any company can strive for even if they don't make heartwarming cartoons.
It seems counterintuitive that simple pleasure would be a core principle of something as elaborate as a Pixar production, but Suzanne Slatcher says she has translated this idea directly to her new career.
"Food is a bit like cartoons," says Slatcher. "It's not some high-minded thing that people will make themselves like because they think they ought to. The food has to work on that very simple level of just someone is watching TV and they're shoving it in their mouths."
The idea that "everybody deserves quality" is a fundamental Pixar concept that Slatcher applies equally to snack foods.
"Pixar makes amazing, beautiful, hilarious, deep, wise films for kids, and adults can watch them and everybody watches them 25 times if they've got kids, and it's still funny. It's really, really great quality, where most things made for kids are made very cheaply. A lot of time and money is spent making the most accessible thing possible, and that's such an inspiration and so not what you learn at art school," Slatcher says. "The Good Bean could choose to be the darlings of the foodie world, using obscure, exotic spices, trying to be clever, but we'd rather make affordable, accessible food."
Creativity, Inc. is a book for managers who want to lead their employees to new heights, a manual for anyone who strives for originality, and the first-ever, all-access trip into the nerve center of Pixar Animation -- into the meetings, postmortems, and "Braintrust" sessions where some of the most successful films in history are made. It is, at heart, a book about how to build a creative culture -- but it is also, as Pixar co-founder and president Ed Catmull writes, "an expression of the ideas that I believe make the best in us possible."
For nearly twenty years, Pixar has dominated the world of animation, producing such beloved films as the Toy Story trilogy, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Up, and WALL-E, which have gone on to set box-office records and garner thirty Academy Awards. The joyousness of the storytelling, the inventive plots, the emotional authenticity: In some ways, Pixar movies are an object lesson in what creativity really is. Here, in this book, Catmull reveals the ideals and techniques that have made Pixar so widely admired -- and so profitable.
Catmull was a founder of Pixar and while he never got the press Jobs and Lasseter did, he was instrumental in the company's success and is currently president of both Disney and Pixar's animation studios. Fast Company has an excerpt of the book.
Candor could not be more crucial to our creative process. Why? Because early on, all of our movies suck. That's a blunt assessment, I know, but I choose that phrasing because saying it in a softer way fails to convey how bad the first versions really are. I'm not trying to be modest or self-effacing. Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them so -- to go, as I say, "from suck to not-suck."
Think about how easy it would be for a movie about talking toys to feel derivative, sappy, or overtly merchandise driven. Think about how off-putting a movie about rats preparing food could be, or how risky it must've seemed to start WALL-E with 39 dialogue-free minutes. We dare to attempt these stories, but we don't get them right on the first pass. This is as it should be. Creativity has to start somewhere, and we are true believers in the power of bracing, candid feedback and the iterative process -- reworking, reworking, and reworking again, until a flawed story finds its through line or a hollow character finds its soul.
Centuries later, the animals from Brave that have been experimented on by the witch have interbred, creating a large-scale population of animals slowly gaining personification and intelligence on their own.
There are two progressions: the progression of the animals and the progression of artificial intelligence. The events of the following movies set up a power struggle between humans, animals, and machines.
The stage for all-out war in regards to animals is set by Ratatouille, Finding Nemo, and Up, in that order. Notice I left out A Bug's Life, but I'll explain why later.
If you've watched a movie in the past 20 years, chances are you've seen the animation featuring the Pixar logo and Luxo Jr., the company's mascot. Luxo hops in, squashes the I, and takes its place; here's what it looks like:
According to the Pixar wiki, there have been several variations of the logo, including the one where Wall-E comes out to fix Luxo Jr's busted lightbulb:
Others include 20th and 25th anniversary versions, a 3D version that premiered with UP, and versions from Cars 2 and Finding Nemo that incorporate story elements into the logo.
This particular logo debuted with Toy Story in 1995. For the short films Pixar produced before that, they used variations on the not-very-exciting theme of circular indent in beveled square, a shape borrowed from the look of their Image Computer:
Many of the logo animation variations, including the pre-Luxo Jr. versions, can be seen in this video:
Part of the behavior is I don't know the answers. And at first that seems a little bit glib. But after awhile people get that I really don't know the answer to a lot of these things. So we set it up so that the management really doesn't tell people what to do. We discuss, we debate, [but] people start to refer to 'the management', and I say come on guys, there's three of us, we're all in this together, and then we're very open and honest about the problems.
Lasseter and Jobs get all the press, but Catmull deserves more credit than he gets for Pixar's success. (via df)
 I don't know why I put it like this. If something is good or interesting, who the hell cares when it's from? [Shouldn't you just delete it then? -ed]↩
Jonason Pauley and Jesse Perrotta reshot all 80 minutes of Toy Story in live action -- with a Woody doll, a Mr. Potatohead, human actors, and the like.
The pair say that folks at Pixar gave them their approval (sorta kinda) to post it online.
CHARLIE: Have you spoken to Pixar and what have they said? Followup question: Are there unmarked black sedans with dudes in suits outside your house right now?
JESSE: We just got back from visiting Pixar a few days ago. We weren't invited inside, but we were allowed to pass out DVD's of our movie to Pixar employees. We have spoken to one of the lead guys at Pixar on Twitter a little bit, and his attitude was positive towards the whole thing. We never got an official word on if it was okay to put it on Youtube though. And about the sedans... haven't seen them yet, haha!
JONASON: Jesse pretty much covered it. Some of the Pixar employees that we talked to asked if it was online, so I took that as "it should be online" We put it off for a long time because we wanted to make sure it would be alright.
I've been hearing for months that he would come aboard to direct the sequel to Disney-based Pixar's Finding Nemo, with the idea that Disney would give him another shot behind the camera on a live-action film. I'm told he's now officially come aboard the Finding Nemo sequel and has a concept the studio loves.
First, it wasn't multiple terabytes of information. Neither all the rendered frames, nor all the data necessary to render those frames in animation, model, shaders, set, and lighting data files was that size back then.
A week prior to driving across the bridge in a last ditch attempt to recover the show (depicted pretty accurately in the video above) we had restored the film from backups within 48 hours of the /bin/rm -r -f *, run some validation tests, rendered frames, somehow got good pictures back and no errors, and invited the crew back to start working. It took another several days of the entire crew working on that initial restoral to really understand that the restoral was, in fact, incomplete and corrupt. Ack. At that point, we sent everyone home again and had the come-to-Jesus meeting where we all collectively realized that our backup software wasn't dishing up errors properly (a full disk situation was masking them, if my memory serves), our validation software also wasn't dishing up errors properly (that was written very hastily, and without a clean state to start from, was missing several important error conditions), and several other factors were compounding our lack of concrete, verifiable information.
The only prospect then was to roll back about 2 months to the last full backup that we thought might work. In that meeting, Galyn mentioned she might have a copy at her house. So we went home to get that machine, and you can watch the video for how that went...
The lessons are powerful: Jobs matured as a manager and a boss; learned how to make the most of partnerships; found a way to turn his native stubbornness into a productive perseverance. He became a corporate architect, coming to appreciate the scaffolding of a business just as much as the skeletons of real buildings, which always fascinated him. He mastered the art of negotiation by immersing himself in Hollywood, and learned how to successfully manage creative talent, namely the artists at Pixar. Perhaps most important, he developed an astonishing adaptability that was critical to the hit-after-hit-after-hit climb of Apple's last decade. All this, during a time many remember as his most disappointing.
The discussion of the lessons he took from Pixar and put into Apple was especially interesting.
And just as he had at Pixar, he aligned the company behind those projects. In a way that had never been done before at a technology company--but that looked a lot like an animation studio bent on delivering one great movie a year--Jobs created the organizational strength to deliver one hit after another, each an extension of Apple's position as the consumer's digital hub, each as strong as its predecessor. If there's anything that parallels Apple's decade-long string of hits--iMac, PowerBook, iPod, iTunes, iPhone, iPad, to list just the blockbusters--it's Pixar's string of winners, including Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, WALL-E, and Up. These insanely great products could have come only from insanely great companies, and that's what Jobs had learned to build.
You can't believe how excited my four-year-old was at the arrival of this book last night. He read it this morning as he ate his breakfast, quiet as a stone, save for the occasional "daddy, look at this!" outburst.
I wasn't going to watch all twenty-five minutes of this day-in-the-life feature about Pixar's John Lasseter, but I got sucked in after the first two minutes for some reason and couldn't stop. The main takeaway is that Lasseter is a relentlessly upbeat, absurdly rich, hugging, cheeseball train freak.
Watching it, I found it almost impossible to reconcile his cheeseball personality with the kind of movies that Pixar makes, except to note that the Pixar films he's been involved with in a directorial or story capacity (Toy Storys 1-3, Cars 1-2) are the studio's syrupiest (and Randy Newmanest). (via devour)
Think of all the female protagonists in Disney musicals. There are quite a number, almost as many as there are males--Cinderella, Belle, Ariel, Pocahontas, Mulan... the list goes on. Now think of female protagonists in Pixar movies.
There aren't any. Not a single one.
This claim's hedged a little bit, pointing to The Incredibles' Elastigirl and Wall-E's Eve as "strong, memorable female characters." I'd say these two definitely count as protagonists, but there does seem to be something of a two-to-one rule: Finding Nemo's Dory is a great protagonist, but she has to be paired with Marlin and Nemo (and Gill, and Crush...) The Incredibles is almost balanced. Almost.
Note that Stefan is far from the first person to point this out: these are just the links from the kottke.org archives:
The tendency of readers to interpret even gender-neutral animal characters as male exaggerates the pattern of female underrepresentation. The authors note that mothers frequently label gender-neutral animal characters as male when reading with their children, and that children assign gender to gender-neutral animal characters.
Here's a different interpretation. Pixar's movies are usually not just focused on men, but specifically on dads. Finding Nemo and The Incredibles are the best examples of this, but even Up and Ratatouille traffic pretty heavily in father issues, if not fatherhood outright.
Traditional Disney movies were really kids' fantasies, even the ones seemingly targeted for boys, like The Jungle Book or Robin Hood. Pixar seems to have realized that if you can get the dad to come to the movie and love the movie, the whole family will come. Maybe more than once. And they'll probably buy the DVD and the video game, too. That's the formula.
And of course, it doesn't hurt that the people making the movies are largely dads and young men who seem to probably be working out some issues with their dads. Pixar's John Lasseter has five children, all boys.
They're great movies. I love them. But I can't deny that's partly because they're made for me.
Update: As many people have pointed out, Pixar has a forthcoming full-length movie, Brave, about a Scottish warrior-princess. It was slated to be directed by Brenda Chapman (Pixar's first female director), then was replaced by Mark Andrews, with Chapman as co-director.
Also, my friend (and former student) Kaitlin Welborn nails me: I used "protagonist" in its debased modern meaning of "sympathetic character"/"agent for good," not its original sense as the first/primary character of the drama -- which is also just a better definition. In this sense, the protagonist of Finding Nemo is definitely Marlin, The Incredibles Mr Incredible, Wall-E Wall-E, and so forth.
I also agree with Kaitlin that Stefan also overstates how much of a substantive change there's been from the hand-drawn Disney animated films, and Pixar/Dreamworks' computer-animated films.
First, there's the obvious point that the older Disney movies were pretty ideologically screwed-up. I think this is well-known. And well before Pixar came along, Disney was already moving towards male protagonists: Aladdin, The Lion King, Hercules, The Emperor's New Groove.
I'll stick by my main point, which is that 1) an overwhelming number of Pixar movies focus on dads and fatherhood (biological or symbolic) and 2) this is not an accident.
[At Pixar] there is very high tolerance for eccentricity, very creative, and to the point where some are strange... but there are a small number of people who are socially dysfunctional [and] very creative -- we get rid of them. If we don't have a healthy group then it isn't going to work. There is this illusion that this person is creative and has all this stuff, well the fact is there are literally thousands of ideas involved in putting something like this together. And the notion of ideas as this singular thing is a fundamental flaw. There are so many ideas that what you need is that group behaving creatively. And the person with the vision I think is unique, there are very few people who have that vision.. but if they are not drawing the best out of people then they will fail.
The video is embedded in Berkun's post as well. (via sippey)
There is something conservative about much of Pixar's output, but when I say conservative, I mean a small "c" conservative that sees the world along the same lines as Edmund Burke: "A disposition to preserve." I'm going to call this "social conservatism," by which I don't mean the religious or moral conservatism of modern political discourse, but a conservatism that is interested in preserving traditional social features -- in particular, the idea of "family" -- but which sees such preservation as ultimately futile. The family will dissolve, eventually, and so we must do what we can to keep it going as long as possible. It is a worldview based not on progression but on loss.
One of the main arguments always rolled out in favor of conversion is that theaters can charge more for 3-D screenings. Proportionately, theaters that show a film in 3-D will take in more at the box-office because they charge in the range of $3 more per ticket than do theaters offering the same title in a flat version.
But what happens when, say, half the films playing at any given time in a city are in 3-D? Will moviegoers decide that the $3 isn't really worth it? Even now, would they pay $3 extra to see The Proposal or Julie & Julia in 3-D? The kinds of films that seem as if they call out for 3-D are far from being the only kinds people want to see. Films like these already make money on their own, unassisted by fancy technology.
Thompson briefly mentions Pixar as well, saying that they don't seem too keen on 3-D (or at least not as keen as Cameron or Katzenberg). But the zeal with which the 3-D-ness of Up was promoted was tacky and not at all typical of Pixar, a company that spent the last twenty years insisting that their films were not about the technology but about the same things that the makers of live action films were concerned with...real moviemaking stuff. To trumpet this 3-D technology that doesn't enhance films in anything other than a superficial sense seems like a step backwards for them.
In 1980, Boeing employee Loren Carpenter presented a film called Vol Libre at the SIGGRAPH computer graphics conference. It was the world's first film using fractals to generate the graphics. Even now it's impressive to watch:
That must have been absolutely mindblowing in 1980. The audience went nuts and Carpenter, the Boeing engineer from out of nowhere, was offered a job at Lucasfilm on the spot. He accepted immediately. This account comes from Droidmaker, a fascinating-looking book about George Lucas, Lucasfilm, and Pixar:
Fournier gave his talk on fractal math, and Loren gave his talk on all the different algorithms there were for generating fractals, and how some were better than others for making lightning bolts or boundaries. "All pretty technical stuff," recalled Carpenter. "Then I showed the film."
He stood before the thousand engineers crammed into the conference hall, all of whom had seen the image on the cover of the conference proceedings, many of whom had a hunch something cool was going to happen. He introduced his little film that would demonstrate that these algorithms were real. The hall darkened. And the Beatles began.
Vol Libre soared over rocky mountains with snowy peaks, banking and diving like a glider. It was utterly realistic, certainly more so than anything ever before created by a computer. After a minute there was a small interlude demonstrating some surrealistic floating objects, spheres with lightning bolts electrifying their insides. And then it ended with a climatic zooming flight through the landscape, finally coming to rest on a tiny teapot, Martin Newell's infamous creation, sitting on the mountainside.
The audience erupted. The entire hall was on their feet and hollering. They wanted to see it again. "There had never been anything like it," recalled Ed Catmull. Loren was beaming.
"There was strategy in this," said Loren, "because I knew that Ed and Alvy were going to be in the front row of the room when I was giving this talk." Everyone at Siggraph knew about Ed and Alvy and the aggregation at Lucasfilm. They were already rock stars. Ed and Alvy walked up to Loren Carpenter after the film and asked if he could start in October.
Carpenter's fractal technique was used by the computer graphics department at ILM (a subsidiary of Lucasfilm) for their first feature film sequence and the first film sequence to be completely computer generated: the Genesis effect in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The sequence was intended to act as a commerical of sorts for the computer graphics group, aimed at an audience outside the company and for George Lucas himself. Lucas, it seems, wasn't up to speed on what the ILM CG people were capable of. Again, from Droidmaker:
It was important to Alvy that the effects support the story, and not eclipse it. "No gratuitous 3-D graphics," he told the team in their first production meeting. "This is our chance to tell George Lucas what it is we do."
The commercial worked on Lucas but a few years later, the computer graphics group at ILM was sold by Lucas to Steve Jobs for $5 million and became Pixar. Loren Carpenter is still at Pixar today; he's the company's Chief Scientist. (via binary bonsai)
Jim Capobianco's end credits to Andrew Stanton's "WALL-E" are essential; they are the actual ending of the film, a perfect and fantastically optimistic conclusion to a grand, if imperfect idea. Humanity's past and future evolution viewed through unspooling schools of art. Frame after frame sinks in as you smile self-consciously. It isn't supposed to be this good but there it is. This is art in its own right. Peter Gabriel and Thomas Newman's song, "Down to Earth" indulges you with some incredibly thoughtful lyrics and, from the Stone Age to the Impressionists to the wonderful 8-bit pixel sprites, you are in the midst of something special.
Two movies from now, after Toy Story 3 and Newt, Pixar is *finally* releasing a movie with a female main character. The only problem? She's a princess.
I have nothing against princesses. I have nothing against movies with princesses. But don't the Disney princesses pretty much have us covered? If we had to wait for your thirteenth movie for you to make one with a girl at the center, couldn't you have chosen something -- something -- for her to be that could compete with plucky robots and adventurous space toys?
We seek to make great films first. If a great film gives birth to a franchise, we are the first company to leverage such success. A check-the-boxes approach to creativity is more likely to result in blandness and failure.
Invest in Dreamworks for that check-the-boxes creativity, why don't you. (thx, kabir)
Ratatouille: Male rat (Remy) dreams of becoming chef and achieves his goal even though movie sidetracks to cover ludicrous and unnecessary romance between humans part way through. This is the kind of shit that bothers me: Why is it important that the rat have a penis? Couldn't Remy have been written for a female lead? Why not? Collette's right -- the restaurant business is tough for women, especially when even the fictional rat-as-chef barrier can only be broken by a male character. Female characters: Colette, that old lady with the gun, um... maybe some patrons?
More than a Token score: 1/10. ZOMG, we have one female character. We'd better make her fall inexplicably in love with the bumbling Linguini, stat!
Video interview with Pixar's Andrew Stanton, director of Finding Nemo and Wall-E. Among other things, he talks about two things that enabled the success of Pixar: the creative egalitarian dictatorship of John Lasseter and the ability of Steve Jobs to protect everyone from any outside business pressures and just create.
HD version of Presto, the short film shown before Pixar's Wall-E. The shorts shown before Pixar films seemingly have something to do with the next film in the company's pipeline. Boundin' preceded Cars (both were set in the desert Southwest), One Man Band came out before Ratatouille (the former set in Italy, the later in France, but with similar "set" design), and Lifted preceded Wall-E (both featured outer space and spaceships), but I can't figure out what Presto has to do with Up (the teaser's no help).
Life is nothing but imperfection and the computer likes perfection, so we spent probably 90% of our time putting in all of the imperfections, whether it's in the design of something or just the unconscious stuff. How the camera lens works in [a real] housing is never perfect, and we tried to put those imperfections [into the virtual camera] so that everything looks like you're in familiar [live-action] territory.
Wall-E was wonderful...best new film I've seen in a long time. With it, Andrew Stanton joins Brad Bird in Pixar's top tier of directors, with the much-heralded John Lasseter in third place. But I can see where Tyler Cowen was coming from when he stated in his short review that the film was "not recommended for children" and that "some bold genius at Pixar will be fired". Wall-E was funny, charming, and endearing but also subversive, disturbing, and dystopian. That combination that usually doesn't play well at the box office but some of my favorite films ride that fine line between comedy and disconcerting drama.
Some other thoughts and observations:
This was the first Pixar movie to include live action sequences. What, they couldn't 'toon Fred Willard?
Disney is selling all sorts of Wall-E merchandise to go along with the movie, much of which will end up in a landfill somewhere. Just like the movie. It's a full circle. Very clever, Disney.
"We wanted it to have the feeling that it had actually been filmed," says Morris. Using subtle details such as barrel distortion and lens flare, gave Wall.E the feel of the 70mm sci-fi films of the Seventies. For the first time Pixar also brought Academy Award-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins and special-effects don Dennis Muren onboard. "We wanted to get the nuance of a live action film, and actually put mistakes in with zooms and framing to give it a more immediate feel."
Deakins is well-known for working with the Coen Brothers on many of their films. (thx, brian)
"There is an assumption in the corporate world that you need to integrate swiftly," Mr. Iger said. "My philosophy is exactly the opposite. You need to be respectful and patient." Key to the successful integration, analysts say, has been Mr. Iger's decision to give incoming talent added duties. Instead of just buying Pixar and moving on, Mr. Iger understood what made the acquisition valuable, said Mr. Price, the author. "If you are acquiring expertise," he said, "then dispatch your newly purchased experts into other parts of the company and let them stretch their muscles."
It also sounds as though Pixar has loosened their high standards since the acquisition...they're outsourcing some animation, doing more sequels (Cars 2, presumably for the merchandising), and making several direct-to-DVD movies.
In my experience, the thing that has the most significant impact on a movie's budget -- but never shows up in a budget -- is morale. If you have low morale, for every $1 you spend, you get about 25 cents of value. If you have high morale, for every $1 you spend, you get about $3 of value. Companies should pay much more attention to morale.
For all the success, however, there's very little room atop Pixar's food chain. While live-action movie studios might crank out more than a dozen movies annually, the digital animation company built by Apple's Steve Jobs barely makes a film a year -- and had no features at all in 2005 or 2002. What's more, all Pixar movies so far have been directed by an inner circle of animation all-stars: John Lasseter ("Toy Story," "A Bug's Life," "Toy Story 2" and "Cars"), Brad Bird ("The Incredibles" and "Ratatouille"), Andrew Stanton ("Finding Nemo" and summer's forthcoming "Wall-E") and Pete Docter ("Monsters, Inc." and 2009's "Up").
This implies that it should be easy and painless to get from one point to another in the building; it should even promote chance meetings of people. A formal call by Mr. X on Mr. Y is the only way X and Y can develop such a tender thing as an idea -- the social scientists have taught me to use X and Y in that bawdy manner. If the interoffice distances are to be kept reasonable, the building must be compact. It need not be circular; a square is often a good substitute for a circle, and even a rectangle is not bad, if the aspect ratio does not get out of hand.
I was the first person from the group of journalists to arrive, giving me plenty of time to look around the lobby, which is actually a gigantic football-field length atrium, the centerpiece of the entire building.
As it was explained to me later, Steve Jobs originally proposed a building with one bathroom, something that would drive foot traffic to a central area all day long. Obviously, they've got more than one bathroom in the building, but just standing there and watching as everyone arrived to start their day, it was obvious that Jobs had managed the feat.
The mailboxes, the employee cafe, and the common room where all the games are all open into that atrium, and people lingered, talking, exchanging ideas and discussing the various projects they're working on. It seemed like a fertile, creative environment, and I felt like Charlie Bucket holding a golden ticket as I examined the larger-than-life Incredibles statues in the center of the atrium and the concept paintings hung on the walls.
It's impossible to watch "Beowulf" without sensing that the "actors" are being pushed around by invisible forces, not living and breathing on their own.
I noticed the same thing when I saw the trailer in the theater a few weeks ago. I'm stunned that the filmmakers thought it was OK that the whole thing seems soulless and constantly reminds people that, hey, this is fake, you're watching a movie! It's a real testament to Pixar that they're able to stop short of the uncanny valley (they're still obviously cartoons) and still imbue their characters with life and emotion (see Anton Ego's revelation in Ratatouille).
What's been frustrating so far is simply that in many of Pixar's prior films, there's no particular reason why one or another of their characters couldn't be female rather than male -- would Ratatouille have been any less well done if he were a she? Would the rescue of the ant colony be less spectacular if Julia Louis-Dreyfus had voiced Flik against Dave Foley's Prince Atta?
Wall-E is Pixar's next movie, to be released in June 2008. A new teaser trailer is due to be released today at 8pm ET, although a French site has jumped the gun and is displaying it now (much better HD version). Does it make sense even if you don't speak French? Yes, because the movie isn't going to have any dialogue. Says director Andrew Stanton: "I'm basically making R2-D2: The Movie". At least it's not in Aramaic. And talkies are overrated anyway, right?
Pixar has also launched a promotional web site for the film. The site was formerly just a placeholder but is now faux-corporate brochureware for Buy n Large, maker of the Wall-E robot. The site is full of ridiculous corporate-speak like "by visiting the Buy n Large web site you instantaneously relinquish all claims against the Buy n Large corporation and any of its vendors or strategic partners." Check out the Nanc-E under Robotics/Robot Models for a chuckle. (thx, david)
Update:Some more interesting iPhone statistics, including Apple's stock price increase since the iPhone was announced ($32 billion increase in market cap) and that iPhone was mentioned in 1.25% of all blogs posts over the weekend. (thx, thor)
Update:Apple's stock price went down this morning in heavy trading. I guess Wall Street wasn't so over the moon for the iPhone?
Patton Oswalt, who does of the voice of the main character in Ratatouille, shares some details to look for in the film. "Everything that Ian Holm, as the evil Skinner, does -- especially his teetering-on-the-edge-of-insanity rant to his lawyer about that 'rat' that no one else sees but him. The animators I talked to had so much fun rendering his lines -- 'An animator's dream', according to one of the character design staff. Also, the animators used his toque like the shark's fin in JAWS -- you always see it moving closer among the stoves in the kitchen. Hilarious." (thx, martin)
With its latest film, Pixar manages to achieve something that few other big Hollywood films do these days: a convincing reality. The body language & emotions of the characters, the machinations of the kitchen, the sights and sounds of Paris, and the dice of the celery, Ratatouille gets it all right, down to the seemingly insignificant details. As we walked out of the movie, my wife, who has spent time cooking in restaurants (with Daniel Boulud, even), couldn't stop talking about how well the movie captured the workings of the kitchen. To be sure, a G-rated kitchen but a true kitchen nonetheless.
I'm not quite sure how this is possible, but the people in Ratatouille acted more like real people than the actors in many recent live action movies (especially the rats), like they had realistic histories and motivations that governed their actions instead of feeling scripted and fake. The world of the movie felt as though it had existed before the opening credits and would continue after the curtain fell. Systems that have arisen through years, decades, centuries, millennia of careful evolution and interplay with one another were represented accurately and with care. In The Timeless Way of Building, Christopher Alexander writes of the quality without a name:
There is a central quality which is the root criterion of life and spirit in a man, a town, a building, or a wilderness. This quality is objective and precise, but it cannot be named. The search which we make for this quality, in our own lives, is the central search of a person, and the crux of any individual person's story. It is the search for those moments and situations when we are most alive.
Pixar's search for this quality in the making of Ratatouille is impressive. And in a way, necessary. In order to draw the audience into the film and make them forget that they're watching animated characters in an animated world, the filmmakers need to get everything right. Motions too exaggerated, motivations glossed over, plot too uncoordinated, and the whole thing loses its sense of authenticity. People need to act like people, omelettes need to sag off of spatulas like omelettes, and the only woman chef in a haute cuisine French kitchen needs to behave accordingly.
This is an interesting state of affairs. In comparison, the live action movies have become the cartoons. Not all of them, but certainly many Hollywood movies have. Spidey 3, Transformers (I'm guessing), Die Hard 4 (guessing again), anything Eddie Murphy has made since the mid-80s, Wild Hogs, Blades of Glory, RV, etc. etc. I could go on and on. So what are we to make of a cartoon that seems more real than most live action movies? How about we stop thinking of them as cartoons or kids movies or animated films and start considering them as just plain movies? I'd put Pixar's five best films -- Toy Story 2, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, and let's throw Brad Bird's The Iron Giant in for good measure -- among the best big budget films made in the last 10 years, no caveats required.
Oh, and I don't want to give away the ending, but I will say that Ratatouille also has something to say about critics and criticism, a topic that's currently under debate in foodie circles and has been discussed many times in different areas of the blogosphere. It almost seems as though the film's message is aimed partially at bloggers, and for those that care to listen, that message is both encouraging and enlightening.
There's no permalink, but if you go to the Disney home page, they're playing 9 minutes of Ratatouille, the new Pixar movie. There's two clips...one takes place pretty close to the start of the movie and the other a bit later.
Photos from a visit to Pixar. "Whenever they get an idea for a story and there is something that they aren't sure they know how to do yet, instead of putting 250+ people on a project and spend millions on something that they are unsure of, they will put 30 people on it and have them to create a short to see if it can be done."
[Warning, might be some spoilers.] Cars was perfect. The problem is that it was a little too perfect. After seeing the movie on Friday, Meg and I came up with three reasons why Cars missed.
1. Perfection. Some people don't like Wes Anderson's movies because of his emphasis on creating set-driven movies instead of plot- or character-driven movies (ditto George Lucas). With Cars, Lasseter has made himself a perfect world of cars -- the petulant young racer, the lawyer Porsche, the Hispanic lowrider, the hick tow truck -- but it's a world without soul, without surprise. Everything was a little too obvious.
2. Inanimate characters talking. This was the first Pixar movie in which non-human-like or non-animal characters talked. In Toy Story, Buzz, Woody, and even the T. Rex talked, but the TV didn't, nor did the Etch-a-Sketch. In A Bug's Life, only the insects talked. In Cars, you've got these inanimate objects talking to each other, and while they did a great job making them seem human, I just couldn't get into the characters; it felt fake and inauthentic.
3. Unlikable main character. For the first half of the movie, Lightning McQueen is a flat-out jerk with zero redeeming qualities. I remember reading an interview with John Lasseter recently where he was talking about one of the first rough cuts they did of Toy Story in which Woody was too sarcastic. After seeing it, they realized this and tempered Woody's sarcasm with some like-ability, so that the audience would be pulling for him to change his ways, a deep-down good guy that needs to see the light. Lightning didn't deserve redemption...he was just an asshole.
Cars is a fine movie with a lot to recommend it, but it's just not up to Pixar's normal standards. I was disappointed.
Headline writers everywhere are rejoicing the impending release of Pixar's new movie, Cars. As with Apple's release of their Tiger operating system, Cars comes loaded with so many opportunities for puns and metaphors that the media just can't help themselves. A sampling of puntacular fun so far:
With 'Cars,' Pixar Revs Up to Outpace Walt Disney Himself (NY Times)
NASCAR, Hollywood share the fast lane (USA Today)
'Cars' Voices Toot Their Horns (Zap2it.com)
A toon-up for Petty (Orlando Sentinel)
With 'Cars', Paul Newman stays in the race (Malaysia Star)
Newman's need for speed (Toronto Sun)
Cars: Cruising along in Weirdsville, Cartoonland (NY Times)
Cars' Riding on Flat Tires (OhMyNews International)
Shifting gear (The Age)
Pixar's Cars stalls with reviewers (Guardian Unlimited)
"Cars" is one sweet ride (Hollywood Reporter)
Cars rolls along like an animated version of Doc Hollywood (Canada.com)
'Cars' an auto-matic hit (Tucson Citizen)
Great-looking 'Cars' stuck in cruise control (goTriad.com)
'Cars' revs up marketing campaign (Inside Bay Area)
Disney/Pixar revvs up its latest cash cow (Monterey Herald)
Finely drawn characters drive 'Cars' and its director (St. Paul Pioneer Press)
'Cars' wins the race hands down for summer's best film (Press & Sun Bulletin)
Kickin' the Tires (East Bay Express)
Star vehicle veers a bit (St. Petersburg Times)
Pixar's 'Cars' falls a little short of winner's circle (SouthCoastToday.com)
'Cars' just can't get it out of first (Statesman Journal)
'Cars' will take you straight to the dump (Scripps Howard)
Running on Fumes (Village Voice)
Headlines courtesy of Google News. If the movie were getting mostly bad reviews, one could imagine headlines like "Cars a lemon", "New Disney movie is the pits", and "Reviewers to Pixar: Your new film is car-rappy".
Fine interview with Pixar/Disney's John Lasseter, who is quickly becoming a favorite of mine. "I believe in the nobility of entertaining people, and I take great, great pride that people are willing to give me two or three hours out of their busy lives."
Pixar: where are all the women? "To date, there's not a single Pixar film that has a female main character: The Incredibles comes the closest, but even there, both Helen Parr/Elastigirl and Violet are supporting characters, and it's Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible that's the hero." Helen Parr and Dory are my favorite Pixar characters.
The Pixar model of making creative products: "We've made the leap from an idea-centered business to a people-centered business. Instead of developing ideas, we develop people. Instead of investing in ideas, we invest in people. We're trying to create a culture of learning, filled with lifelong learners. It's no trick for talented people to be interesting, but it's a gift to be interested. We want an organization filled with interested people." Pixar University sounds *amazing*.
A brief history of Pixar. "Even with the animation group generating income Pixar was still a money pit. That was about to change. Disney had decided they were willing to give a computer-animated movie a shot."
MoMA just opened their show about Pixar last week and on Friday, we went to a presentation by John Lasseter, head creative guy at the company. Interesting talk, although I'd heard some of it in various places before, most notably in this interview with him on WNYC. Two quick highlights:
Lasseter showed colorscripts from Pixar's films (which can be viewed in the exhibition). A colorscript is a storyboarding technique that Pixar developed to "visually describe the emotional content of an entire story through color and lighting". They are compact enough that the entire story fits on a single sheet and if you're familar enough with the films, you can follow along with the story pretty well. But mostly it's just for illustrating the mood of the film. Very cool technique (that could certainly be adopted for web design and branding projects).
Near the end of the talk he showed a 2-3 minute clip of Cars, prefacing it with an announcement that it had never before been shown outside of Pixar. Some of the CGI wasn't completely finished, but it was certainly enough to get the gist. When the first preview trailer for Cars was released, I was skeptical; it just didn't look like it was going to be that good. Based on the clip Lasseter showed and some of his other comments, I'm happy to report that I was wrong to be so skeptical and am very much looking forward to its release in 2006.
At 15 minutes long, the Q&A session at the end of his talk was too short. The MoMA audience is sufficiently interesting and Lasseter was so quick on his feet and willing to share his views that 30 to 40 minutes of Q&A would have been great.
 For you Pixar completists and AICN folks out there, the clip showed Lightning McQueen leaving a race track on the back of a flat-bed truck, bound for a big race in California. As the truck drives across the US, you see the criss-crossing expressways of the city stretch out into the long straight freeways of the American west, the roads literally cutting into the beautiful scenery. A cover of Tom Cochran's Life is a Highway plays as the truck drives. The world of the movie features only cars, no humans...the cars are driving themselves.
Short article about Pixar on the 10th anniversary of Toy Story. Their work process takes a cue from improv comedy by opening up possibilities with "yes, and..." rather than "no, but..." Gladwell talks about this aspect of improv at length in Blink.