Toward More Pixar-esque Cinema

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I walked into a theater on the opening day of Wall-E wondering if this would finally be the Pixar film that didn’t measure up. I didn’t want it to fail, mind you, it’s just that I have a mounting sense of dread that after so many fantastically enjoyable films that the odds are getting higher and higher that the next one is going to be a stinker. Two hours later when I walked out of the theater I was amazed once again that Pixar managed to put out something wonderful, something extraordinary, something that should shame the rest of the Hollywood machine.

Wall-E is a great film. Nearly half the movie is devoid of dialogue leaving the visuals to do the storytelling, as it should be (this is cinema, after all). It’s romantic, it’s ironic, it’s funny, and it’s just gosh-wow amazing from beginning to credit sequence. I didn’t want it to end. So on the drive home I got to thinking about how this one animation studio manages to consistently defy the odds and produce not only passable cinema but cinema par excellence. Sure, some of their films are better than others, but there isn’t a one of them that you can point to and say, “what were they thinking’.

What secret have the folks at Pixar stumbled onto that eludes the rest of the movie-making world? I think part of the equation is that Pixar as a studio so highly regard their ‘brand’ that they pick and choose very specific projects to develop and then have the clout to see those few projects through to excellence.

But that begs the question, why does a studio like 20th Century Fox not achieve the same sort of success with live action films? Could the answer be that Pixar’s animated format eliminates the variables of actor performance, lighting, stunt work and all the other baggage that comes with live action film production and places 100% of control within the hands of the creator’s themselves, the animators, the writers, and director?

I don’t have enough knowledge of the film industry to figure this out but I certainly hope there are people in an office somewhere scratching their heads and trying their level best to learn Pixar’s secret. The world could do with a few less bad movies.

Profile photo of Pete Peterson

Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he's the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.


37 Comments

  1. Chelsey

    I think another reason is that they don’t come out with as many movies. While other studios are pumping out multiple movies a year, sometimes Pixar only produces one. But it’s a GOOD one.

  2. matt

    quick disclaimer: I am completely liberal in most of my political beliefs. I even saw An Inconvenient Truth three times – twice in the theater. But when we walked out of Wall-E, my first comment was, They might as well have called that An Inconvenient Robotic Truth.

    I hated this movie.

  3. Tony Heringer

    Pete,

    My daughter (14) and her friends loved this movie. Alas another parent took them, so I’ll have to catch it on DVD. But, I’m sure it will do just fine without my $10.

    It is a fact that family friendly movies do well at the box office. Pixar has that reputation and therefore they get the largest target audience. Other movies just lose market share due to competition and also content which cuts down on potential viewers.

    That doesn’t seem to bother one of the most confusing enterprises in America. There are other reasons it is called “Holly-weird,” but what baffles me is why they generally don’t get this message (Pixar gets it, Walden Media gets it, to name two). Make quality films that everyone can see and people will show up. Sounds easy, but I too am not in that business. So, I’ll leave that up to those that are paid to figure that out and save my capital for the few decent films that do make it to a theater near us – even then, at $10 a pop it better be great.

    Cheers!

  4. Peter B

    Could the answer be that Pixar’s animated format eliminates the variables of actor performance, lighting, stunt work and all the other baggage that comes with live action film production and places 100% of control within the hands of the creator’s themselves, the animators, the writers, and director?

    Short answer: No (see Beowulf).

    They care about the characters and the story. The lack of this care is what characterizes Shyamalan’s descent into “what the heck was that”-ness. Sure, their technical excellence is beyond compare, but that’s just the expression of their devotion to the movie… in the same way that the fruit of the Spirit is not the reason we belong to Christ, but rather a result of our belonging (that’s right, Theolovision is alive and well).

    I can’t wait to see this film… even more so because I think it will be the first time we get to take our two daughters to a movie, and I look forward to creating a wonderfully memorable experience with this apparently fantastic piece of cinema.

  5. Charlotte

    I do have to say, though Wall-E wasn’t my favorite Pixar movie, it did have some great moments, (My personal favorite being the humans “waking up” so to speak… :)) and it had one great thing I forgot to mention in my other comment- it was CLEAN! I think that’s so great, that Pixar can make great movies that are really family friendly. We need more of those.

  6. Profile photo of Russ Ramsey

    Russ Ramsey

    @russramsey

    I remember taking my son to see The Incredibles in the theater. He was maybe 5 at the time, and I took him, in part, because I wanted to watch him watch a movie. Incredibles was such an excellent movie in every way, and it reminded me of how genius Pixar is with the details, like how the “Incredibles” undercover name was “Parr.” Nice.

    Anyhow, I watched him watch the movie, and he slowly began to lean forward in his seat as trouble ensued on the Island. Then came the scene when the “bad guys” started chasing the kids through the jungle. And I’ll never forget as Dash ran toward the water and then just skimmed across it because he was going so fast, my little guy jumped to his feet yelling “Go! Go! Go!”

    A couple days ago I took him to Wall*E, and got to watch him watch this one too. Pixar seems to believe in its own stories so much that they don’t need to use potty humor for laughs of body shapes simply for comic relief. What they did with body shape in this film was parabolic. I loved the subtle way we learned it wasn’t that the people were willful gluttons, but a generation that inherited gluttony and knew nothing else.

    I love how Pixar isn’t cheap in their pursuit of my approval. They seem to know the quality of their work stands on its own. And for that, I found myself wanting to go and take my son to a movie about two robots who fall in love and end up saving all the fat people. And this on the heels of a rat who loves to cook.

    Thank you, Pixar, and may you never, ever cast Robin Williams!

  7. Profile photo of Jason Gray

    Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    Two thoughts – I’m with you Pete! I loved WALL-E. This movie in particular I just sat there amazed at Pixar & Co.’s ability to tell a story. Their storytelling is so well crafted and I think it’s this that sets them apart. I’m pretty jaded, but I was amazed to even find tears in my eyes a few times – what the heck?!! why do I care about this? I had no idea and was startled (and grateful) to be moved. I can’t explain it. Also, I thought of the movie Happy Feet and how that movie turned me off because I thought it felt bogged down by an agenda and that ultimately it was preachy. WALL-E ventured into the territory of environmentalism, but I never felt like it was preachy, dogmatic, or like it had an agenda (though Matt may disagree with me here). Instead, it seemed like the film capitalized on a national conversation and put it to good use for an entertaining story. I think they even had fun with it. If anything, it was more social commentary than it was environmental – addressing our addiction to convenience and the consumerism that accompanies it.

    I loved, loved, loved too how as the credits rolled and Peter Gabriel’s song played that we see the progression of humanity on earth in the form of hieroglyphics on cave walls! It’s the prehistoric period of the future! Again, great story-telling right up through the credits.

    All that said, I will say something in defense of non-family movies. I love Pixar and am grateful for clean wholesome movies, but I’m equally grateful for movies like “The Shawshank Redemption”, “Magnolia”, and “Into The Wild” among others. I’m grateful that other movie studios don’t rush to only make “family films” (many of which are pretty vapid) because they make money. I do get what you’re saying, Charlotte & Tony (and I’m not starting another fight! ; – ), I’m just clarifying that I think there are some good R-rated films (amidst the detritus of all the other R & PG-13 rated garbage that gets made).

    The beauty of Pixar’s output is that they are more than just family films that are clean enough for you to take your kids to. At the end of the day they are just good stories told well with equal parts commercial savvy, commitment to quality, and most of all: heart.

  8. Profile photo of Jason Gray

    Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    One other thing – Russ, I feel dumb, but what’s the significance of “Parr” as the undercover name – I’m dying to know!! I must have missed something…

  9. Profile photo of Russ Ramsey

    Russ Ramsey

    @russramsey

    Yeah, that play on incredible vs. par (average) and the compact car and cubicle dwelling job and pint-sized boss. Everything in Mr. Incredible’s world was too small for him. And they did an excellent job of expressing how frustrating that was, again, with images and facial expressions, and less with words. It’s those kinds of things that make me feel like I’m getting some additional “free stuff” as I’m watching the film- as if the ticket I bought for that movie was somehow a better deal than the one I bought for the other more formulaic wanna-be’s.

  10. Profile photo of Russ Ramsey

    Russ Ramsey

    @russramsey

    Oh, and Jason, don’t feel too dumb. You did, after all, use the word “vapid” in a sentence. So that’s gotta count for something. I’m gonna go look it up now.

  11. Profile photo of Russ Ramsey

    Russ Ramsey

    @russramsey

    vap·id –adjective

    1. lacking or having lost life, sharpness, or flavor; insipid; flat: vapid tea.

    2. without liveliness or spirit; dull or tedious: a vapid party; vapid conversation.

    In a sentence: When Jason defends R-rated movies, the result is often anything but vapid.

  12. Profile photo of Russ Ramsey

    Russ Ramsey

    @russramsey

    de·tri·tus –noun

    1. rock in small particles or other material worn or broken away from a mass, as by the action of water or glacial ice.

    2. any disintegrated material; debris.

    Nicely played, Mr. Gray.

  13. Profile photo of Jason Gray

    Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    I’m grateful for any day I can use the words vapid AND detritus in one post! (Actually, detritus is a word I love to use, but rarely get to… it’s one of those words that to me sounds like what it is…)

    Thanks for explaining the “Parr” reference – hadn’t caught that. I thought maybe there was some character in literature, history, or super hero lore with the name Parr and I didn’t know the reference.

    JG

  14. Profile photo of Jason Gray

    Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    In case you’re interested, too, and at the risk of sounding self important… I don’t mean to sound presumptuous, but I think I have a pretty decent vocabulary and people tell me I pull out random 50 cent words from my back pocket from time to time. I’m no vocabulary rock star, but what words I do know stem from my stuttering problem I think. I can tell what words I’m going to get hung up on, so at the last moment I look for an alternate word to use. Over the years I think it’s helped me expand my vocabulary so that I have more words to reach for me when I’m stuck. Hence detritus : – )

    I’ve been thinking about this for a few years and thought it was an interesting part of my development, how our handicaps force other compensations in our lives. Just a random thought, hope it didn’t come off as self-important.

    Okay, back to topic – sorry to talk about me me me.

  15. Josh

    Whoa Jason, was that last sentence a Toby Keith reference? On the one hand if it was then it’s pretty funny (mainly cause that guy should only be spoken of in the context of a joke). On the other hand, if it wasn’t then I am just prominently displaying my shameful, though totally second hand, familiarity with such a not good entity.

  16. Profile photo of Russ Ramsey

    Russ Ramsey

    @russramsey

    Pete, Jason, et al.

    Jason got me musing. Do you suppose 500 years from now our generation’s great “classic characters” will be more from the domain of the silver screen than the printed page? Will our Captain Ahab be Benjamin Linus and our Robinson Crusoe be Tom Hanks (from Castaway)? In other words, will our films today have the staying power in the imaginations of our great, great, great grandchildren that the literature of our great, great, great grandparents has on our culture today?

    Maybe fodder for another post? Maybe a fools errand? But hey, what is there to lose, since no matter what we postulate, none of us will come anywhere close to living long enough to eat our words.

    To tie this back into Wall*E, Chelsey made the astute observation that part of Pixar’s genuis is that they don’t saturate the market, but only give us a little bit, and have been surprisingly restrained in taking the cheap “sequel” route, (though when they did Toy Story 2, it was, in my opinion as a dad who has had to watch it 100 times, every bit as rich and fun as the first.)

    Anyhow, is there a link between longevity and quantity? (Does a film that opens the same week as eight others, and the same year as 300 others have a shot at becoming memorable to any generation but its own?) Is there a link between quantity and the ability to recognize and appreciate quality? (Does a media saturated market have room for art appreciation?) It just seems to me that Pixar has, at least for now, some concern about this.

  17. Chris Slaten

    Pete, agreed. Since they are the most successful movie making company in the history of film (not just because of the money), it is worth the time ask what makes them tick, particularly for anyone who is interested in telling their own stories.

    There are a few things that I have picked up on about Pixar’s creative process, just from reading interviews, etc. Some of these have already been mentioned:
    – They are movie geeks: They are movie geeks before they are movie directors. They watch a lot of movies. Instead of trying to create something that they think their audience will want to see they make movies that they would want to watch over and over. They didn’t care that a rat in the kitchen wasn’t very marketable (the merchandise didn’t do sell to well for that movie and they didn’t really seem to expect it too), because they just wanted to see a good movie.
    – They are life-long students: In order to create intimacy between robots they studied the way Gus Van Zandt creates intimacy with hand held cameras (In case your thinking of Saving Private Ryan, there’s a difference in the way hand held cameras are used to generate excitement in war movies, than how they are used in his films or a Lars Van Trier film.) Roger Deakins, the cinematographer from No Country for Old Men, was brought on for Wall-E as a consultant to teach them about lighting and framing beautiful shots. During their lunch breaks they devoured every Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton film they could get their hands on as a way of learning how to communicate as much as possible without speaking. Though they are the groundbreakers of modern animation they spend a lot of time at the feet of their predecessors. This is likely a big reason why other filmmakers will be sitting at their feet for years to come (not just animation students).
    – Story: I read in one interview that when they began to work on Toy Story, they knew that because it was the first feature length computer animated film it would draw attention. So, instead of focusing on how to pull that off, they first spent a majority of their working hours only working on the story. They wanted to use the attention as a way of beginning a new way of telling stories through animated movies, particularly trying to break away from Disney’s good guy vs. bad guy formula. Also, they don’t let dazzling animation step ahead of the need for a good story. I think that was also the case in terms of the environmental agenda/setting of Wall-E. Any thing that started to look preachy took a back seat to Wall-E and Eve’s own story.
    – Time: It takes them at least four years to make each film. Stanton was writing the script for Wall-E while he was directing Finding Nemo. Also, because it takes so long they make sure that they have a subject that they can spend four hard years with and still love.
    – Collaboration/Synergy: If you watch the credits of any of the Pixar movies you’ll see that all of the
    directors have their hands all over each others work.
    – Attention to detail: as was mentioned earlier, their attention to detail sets them pretty far
    beyond their competitors. Like Ron posted a while back while talking about the War of Art, an
    amatuer gets caught up on the mystery of the process and can thus be mystified when they hit a road
    block. A professional focuses on detail and technique, steadily whittling away at the particulars to
    meet the final goal with precision and depth.

    About the family film thing. Andrew Stanton’s next Pixar movie doesn’t like it is going to be perfectly family friendly. He’s working with John Favreau (Iron Man, Swingers) on a film version of John Carter of Mars, due to come out in about four years. Has anyone read that? I haven’t. I’ve read that that series was part of the inspiration for the Out of the Silent Planet series.

    They are also about to start releasing two films per year instead of one, but the company has grown a lot so hopefully that doesn’t mean the quality will diminish.

  18. Peter B

    Fantastic discussion. I was just musing the other day about how to pronounce the word “detritus” (that’s the upside of writing; it takes longer, but you don’t have to worry about whether you can pronounce things).

    However, I have one small request:

    PLEASE put spoiler warnings on your posts if they’re warranted! Many of us haven’t seen the film yet.

  19. Profile photo of Jason Gray

    Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    Great insights Chris!

    And Russ – the best scene from Reign Of Fire was when we see in the burned out future of the world, in the great oral tradition they are passing down the mythology of Star Wars. That was fun, and I think Star Wars is an example of a mythology that will be remembered and referenced for years to come.

  20. Tony Heringer

    Jason…You knew I’d post at least one retort as your arch nemesis. 🙂

    I’ve seen Shawshank uncut and cut. The story translated quite well without the graphic stuff (language and other naughty bits — to quote Python). Same for BraveHeart and that is a film I love and find more inspiring than “The Passion of The Christ.”

    I think it is a cop out to say that we enjoy these movies and leave it at that. We need to demand more of film makers. When the Catholic Church controlled movie ratings, even though film makers hated it, it forced them to work within the boundaries of good taste. This made it possible for the average moviegoer to enjoy films without having their conscience assaulted.

    Don’t take this to mean that all films should be Disney-like. I’ll give an R-rated example to make my point. Ridley Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven” was an excellent film and I have the director’s cut to boot. It is violent, but not near the level of Braveheart. It is restrained, but not insipid. The audience gets the point, no need to pile on the carnage (wish he would had the same eye in Blackhawk Down).

    There is a love scene in the film as well. He could have given us all a vouyeristic look at these two good folks having sex, but again, it was restrained. The point was made without being gratioutous.

    All I’m advocating and asking you to consider is putting your box office vote towards films that challenge our senses but don’t attack them. If you walk the halls of an average high school you will hear and see the fallout from this lack of restraint. And that my friend is the target audience for Hollywood. So, those of us who are mature need to not only make better film choices, we need to teach our youth to do the same. That brings me to…

    Russ…my hope so answer to your question is no. That’s because there a ton of books that get translated to film. However, given the growing decline in readers my realistic answer is yes — at least in America (see this study done by the National Endowment of the Arts http://www.nea.gov/research/ToRead.pdf a very sad commentary). And if the answer is yes, I’d say your character choices are much nobler than the ones are culture at large will recall.

  21. Profile photo of Pete Peterson

    Pete Peterson

    @pete

    At the risk of simply sounding contrary…

    The edited versions of Shawshank and Braveheart are completely
    unwatchable to me. Braveheart especially. I also thought Kingdom of
    Heaven was a gutless waste of film stock.

  22. Charlotte

    Ok, so true, Jason. I agree. I don’t really watch R-movies… mainly because I’m not going to watch them if they’re R for sex, and I just can’t handle the violence, but I agree, there definitely are some good R, and PG-13 movies made. I also agree that even if the movie’s “clean” it still can be a waste of time, or it can even push bad agendas, things like bad relationships between children and parents, rebellion being acceptable, and support of homosexuality and immorality. Not to sound too preachy… I love movies as much as the next person, I just find it a little scary what can be pushed in a “kid’s” movie. (Oh… and I just have to add, I do love star wars! :))

  23. Profile photo of Andrew Peterson

    Andrew Peterson

    @andrew

    OOPS! I was just pruning the spam comments and accidentally deleted a new poster’s comment in this thread. Sorry! If it was you, post again and I won’t delete you. I liked what you had to say, promise.

  24. Profile photo of Jason Gray

    Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    You know, I was thinking about Tony & Charlotte’s comments. A friend of mine wanted me to watch Will Ferrell’s “Old School”, and to be honest – and you can all flame me if you like – I waited until it was on TV so that it would be an edited version. (I still didn’t care for it very much…) With comedy’s, I’m often grateful for edited versions because more and more I appreciate the art of a good comedy well executed, but am often forced to wade through a lot of garbage just to get a few good laughs. In fact, watching comedies that employ copious amounts of profanity and sex as a cheap gag takes a toll on my heart after awhile. (mind you, it has to do with context for me – for instance, Arrested Development was full of sexual humor and even clever uses of profanity, but it was rarely cheap and was never glorified and in fact usually used in service of portraying the family’s dysfunction. I LOVED Arrested Development and could justify my enjoyment because the world view it portrayed wasn’t necessarily much different from mine.)

    While Language, sex, violence, etc bother me in comedies, they don’t bother me in dramas where it’s used in service to the story. I have a difficult time enjoying a comedy where I have to wade through that stuff and actually enjoy it more – even if I miss a few jokes – when it’s edited. I can see where some people might feel the same way about dramas or any other genre of film.

    Back to the thread, though, one of the things I’m SOOOO grateful for in Pixar is that they give us good films that aren’t dumbed down that we can all enjoy as a family. It gets harder and harder for me to send my boys upstairs so we can watch even great films like Pan’s Labyrinth, Into The Wild, or Magnolia.

  25. Tony Heringer

    Jason/Pete,

    Here’s a link that may be a meeting of the minds on this issue. I did not see Bella, but I love what its star says about this film, his craft and a desire to make quality art that will be welcomed by a broader audience and allow the artist themselves not to have compromise either (another thorny thread to tackle sometime).

    http://stevebrownetc.com/podcasts/steve-brown-etc/bella-eduardo-verastegui-on-sbe/

    By the way, this show Steve Brown Etc. is awesome. Check out these two as well:

    Interview with the author of The Year of Living Biblically

    http://stevebrownetc.com/podcasts/steve-brown-etc/the-year-of-living-biblically-aj-jacobs-on-sbe/

    Interview with the author of The Shack

    http://stevebrownetc.com/podcasts/steve-brown-etc/the-shack-william-paul-young-on-sbe/

  26. Rick Mounce

    Can’t wait to see this movie! Pixar hasn’t failed me yet… Cars was my least favorite, but by no means a loser. The Incredibles has made it to one of my top 5 movies of all time. The funny thing is, a number of Pixar’s previews have come across as boring. I remember thinking the same of the Monsters Inc. and Ratatouille previews. Maybe they don’t want to give too much of the story away, but the Wall-E previews (before the film came out), although stunningly beautiful, looked extremely yawn-worthy.

    I came across an interview on how Pixar maintains quality in their films (will have to try and find that link), but it showed how they are not afraid to push back a movie’s release date and totally rethink a concept, rather than put out an inferior product. They had Brad Bird step in (right after directing Incredibles) who scrapped most of Ratatouille and pretty much started over. That shows their focus on STORY and how little influence the dollar has on their decision making. Something the other animation (and film!) studios could learn from.

  27. Chris Slaten

    For any interviews or info about pixar this site is the most up to date. Seems like they post one or two things daily. If you scroll through the old blog interviews you’ll see lots of links to interviews and updates etc.

    http://pixarplanet.com/blog/

  28. lyndsay

    subliminal messages. it hit me the other day while chris and i were talking about pixar. (it’s all we do when one of their new movies comes out! can’t you tell we’re both fans?) why are they so successful? why do they seem to have an edge on making high quality yet so simple movies? subliminal messages. all throughout they’re whispering to you “you’re accepted!” “you are well-liked by your peers!” “you will accomplish great things!”

    and in wall-e, they ventured out and made it part of the actual movie (“that look suits you! you’re gorgeous!!” -the make-up robot) because they’re afraid people are starting to catch on. i’m telling you…

  29. Chris Slaten

    I know this is a delayed reply, but in case somebody interested in this topic still checks this, there is a fascinating article on Pixar and how they manage a creative enviroment in the Harvard Business review. Cliick below and it should direct you there.

    http://harvardbusinessonline.hbsp.harvard.edu/hbsp/hbr/articles/article.jsp;jsessionid=CQZ2V2BFQ5AGIAKRGWDR5VQBKE0YIISW?ml_action=get-article&articleID=R0809D&ml_issueid=BR0809&ml_subscriber=true&pageNumber=1&_requestid=233512

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