The other day, I was talking with some friends about the idea that Pixar Animation Studios has changed. Some people have been disappointed with their recent work, while others find that it lives up to their best films. One friend went so far as to say there was an “Old” and a “New” Pixar.
I happen to be in the camp that believes, as I said during the discussion, that Pixar is Pixar. That is, there hasn’t been a change.
I know what you’re thinking. “Jordan, what does this have to do with storytelling?” Bear with me and I’ll get to some takeaways for storytellers from how Pixar works, but first I need to explain why Pixar hasn’t changed.
First and foremost, Pixar is still a company run by the same people. They have a core group of storytellers who are called the “Pixar Brain Trust.” These are the people who have to give every piece of work a stamp of approval, and while Pixar has added some members to this group, many of the original people are still there. And when they add members, it’s because these people have proven themselves on successful films.
Even when Disney bought Pixar back in 2006, the deal was carefully engineered to keep Pixar’s brain trust operative. Rather than meddling with the secret sauce, Disney moved Pixar’s CEO to become the head of its own animation department, making sure that anything Pixar, and now Disney Animation, did was being approved by the man who stood at the helm through all the previous Pixar successes.
In fact, The Disney-Pixar merger has even gone so far as to include “hiring out” the Brain Trust to other Disney productions such as The Muppets, Tron: Legacy, and Tangled. This is a team that is recognized as knowing its stuff, and it’s still quite active at Pixar.
Second, Pixar keeps the same crew members. Unlike most other animation studios that hire all new people for each new film, Pixar’s animation team, story team, and other teams retain the same people for movie after movie. Sure, there’s the usual fluctuation as people join or leave the company, but watch the credits for an early Pixar film (like Toy Story or Monsters, Inc.), then check out the credits from Brave or Cars 2. You’ll see quite a few of the same names.
Pixar does this because they believe that a talented group of people that is used to working together will consistently turn out great stuff. And with a track record of thirteen box office hits, I think they probably have the right idea.
It’s not just Pixar that does this. Many other filmmakers take this approach, including Steven Spielberg. He has a core group of crew members that he always hires. John Williams is always his composer. Michael Kahn is always his editor. Usually, his producer is Kathleen Kennedy. I could go on, but you get the idea. This is a group of legendary filmmakers, and they work together often to make amazing films.
And that brings me to Takeaway Number 1: Work with brilliant people. When you find somebody who is brilliant that you like to work with, see if you can get them involved in everything you do.
I have a core group of people that I try to work with on every project. Sometimes they’re too busy to play a big part. In that case, I see if I can at least get them to test read my work. We might not be as legendary as Pixar or Spielberg, but I know who works well with me and turns out brilliance on a regular basis. These are the people I want to work with. Finding all new blood for each project seems silly when I already have a group of fantastic collaborators.
Back to Pixar for the third reason Pixar is still Pixar: They are still researching their material. This is a studio that has become famous for doing crazy things like taking teams deep sea diving (for Finding Nemo), holding a prison break movie marathon (for Toy Story 3), and going on road trips of mammoth proportions (for Cars, Up, and Brave). One of their core values is researching until they feel the story naturally flowing from what they’ve learned. Every film they’ve done has been approached like this.
Because of this, Pixar has made some films that have lived up to the research into the genre, but not necessarily to the audience’s ideas of what Pixar ought to do. Let’s face it: Pixar has had some amazing films with tons of heart. Monsters, Inc., Up, Wall-E… The list goes on. So what happens when they decide that the proper feeling for their latest film isn’t a tear-jerker?
That’s when you get the situation they created with Cars 2. Following a few movies that made everybody cry, Pixar relaxed and made a movie that was just meant to be a lot of fun. Cars 2 is a throwback to classic action and spy movies, only with cars as the main characters. It’s funny and hits all those beats well. But because it didn’t make them cry like they expected, the critics panned it. Is it still a good movie? Yes! It’s just not the movie everybody expected.
Which brings up Takeaway Number 2: Be true to the feel of your story, whether it mimics your previous work or not. You’re telling this story, not the story you wrote last year. Don’t repeat your previous work if it’s not what your current story needs to be. Allow it to be its own entity. Tell a good story the way it should be told, not the way everybody wants you to tell it.
Fourth, let me deal with the Pixar sequel surge. Some people declare that the clearest sign that Pixar has changed is the sudden turn to sequels. I see it another way. Pixar’s sequels are largely follow-ups to their earliest films: Toy Story 3, Monsters University, and Cars 2. (Toy Story 4 is seriously just a really bad rumor, people!) It makes sense that a studio that prides itself on taking a long time to make movies would have sequel ideas get the green light all at about the same time. They’ve been working on all of them from way back.
If you’ve ever done a sequel, you know how it works. The characters never quite let you go. You try to fight it, but ideas keep coming. Eventually, you think of something great and start developing it. If you’re serious about storytelling, you hang onto it until you’re sure it’s great, then hit it full force. That’s precisely what Pixar seems to be up to. So far, they’ve nailed their sequels, and I believe it’s for that very reason.
Who can blame them? Pixar’s research, storytelling, and world-building have created deep worlds. There was room in almost every one of their films for more, leading to sequel DVD-extra shorts and full-fledged sequel films.
Also, for those claiming Pixar’s doing sequels just for the easy money, here’s a behind-the-scenes news flash: Monsters, Inc. 2, Toy Story 3, and Finding Nemo 2 were all projects that were canceled after the Disney-Pixar merger. Disney was planning sequels without Pixar, but those three films were some of the first things to go when John Lasseter became the head of animation at Disney. The former two have returned only after Pixar’s go-ahead, and Finding Nemo 2 is still just a rumor.
And for those saying Pixar’s gone to sequel land and won’t ever return, take a good look at their longterm release slate. Once Monsters University hits theaters, Pixar has nothing but original stories slated for the next three films, which is as far out as they’ve shown us.
For those wondering where Pixar’s core director talent has gone, give me a break! The studio is allowing other people a chance to play in the sandbox. How nice of them! But again, those three films that will begin with The Good Dinosaur in 2014 are all helmed by Pixar veterans.
And that’s Takeaway Number 3: Let somebody else have a turn. One of the most liberating things I ever did was direct a short film that I didn’t write. I had a chance to take a break from one aspect of the process, giving me time to recharge. Am I writing now? Sure! But I’ve also gotten pretty happy with letting other people be brilliant around me. Remember, you can’t do everything. Plus, it’s rewarding to take somebody under your wing and watch them become great at what you love doing.
So why is Pixar still Pixar? Because they’ve stuck to their core and made the best movie they know how each time. They still believe story is king, and despite critics claiming they’ve lost that value, I can still see the story reigning supreme at Pixar Animation Studios. Count me in for seeing whatever they make next.