Inside the Pixar dream factory

Critics will love “Up”, Pixar’s latest brilliantly realised animation, but will children be drawn in, too?

(The Times, May 9, 2009)


Pixar presents "Up"

Next Wednesday, when the Cannes Film Festival rolls out its red carpet for the grand opening film, no actress will flash her megawatt smile. For the first time in its 63-year history, it has chosen to open with . . . a cartoon. Mon dieu! And not just a cartoon, but an American cartoon — in 3-D. Quelle horreur! Has this most intellectual and auteur-orientated festival lost the plot?

Courage, mes braves, this is the tenth animated film from Pixar, the computer-animation studio that seemingly can do no wrong. Its previous releases, from Toy Story to WALL-E, have grossed nearly $5 billion. Critics love them as much as parents. Up, an unlikely fable about a 78-year-old grouch who fulfils a childhood dream by attaching balloons to his house and floating it to Peru, should be no exception.

Up is a perfect opening film,” says Thierry Frémaux, the festival’s artistic director. “Light, moving, innovative, often funny, a good way to start a festival in a year of world crisis. That it’s an animated film is noteworthy because it’s the first time, but the important thing is that it’s an excellent film in its own right.”

“There is a feeling,” says one French film journalist, “that recently the festival has made some poor artistic decisions for the sake of headlines — The Da Vinci Code? But the French media is very happy with this choice. Pixar films are real auteur films.”

Auteur films? Each Pixar flick now requires about $150 million and years of teamwork from hundreds of people. Can they really be bracketed with Truffaut and Godard? And even if so, what of the Disney deal? Pixar was bought three years ago by Disney for $7.4 billion. Won’t this destroy the magic? Only one way to find out.

To get to Pixar Studios you need either to attach 15,000 balloons to your house or cross the Oakland Bay bridge from San Francisco. To your left, the old island prison of Alcatraz rises from the fog. Beyond it, the Golden Gate. Ahead, the dream factory that is as rare to gain access to as Willie Wonka’s, and just as thrilling.

The front gates still carry a giant Pixar logo — no mention of Disney. A 15ftsculpture of Pixar’s mascot stands guard: it’s Luxo, the white Anglepoise lamp that won an Oscar nomination for Pixar’s first (1986) short, and announced that the cinematic landscape was about to change for ever.

Grinning replicas of Mike and Scully, the stars of Monsters, Inc, welcome visitors inside. Mike is 7ft tall, with big blue eyes and blue fur. Scully is a cyclops: he must be baffled by the 3-D revolution. A tropical waterfall has been built in the centre of the huge atrium, in honour of Up. A little toy house floats overhead, borne this way and that by multicoloured balloons.

You’ve heard stories about working life at Pixar: how it has its own pool, football field and yoga classes; how screenings of rare films are held in its own theatre; how workers in Hawaiian shirts roll from meeting to meeting on scooters. It’s all true, and more: almost everyone you interview in connection with Up has been with Pixar for more than a decade.

“Why would you ever want to move on?” asks Scott Clark, the supervising animator. “I just saw a great film by a bunch of New York students in our screening theatre. Yesterday a group of animators all shaved their heads into mohicans. Kind of a spontaneous group bonding thing, I guess. On Ratatouille there was a moustache-growing contest. It feels here like the old Disney, or like Termite Terrace at Warner Brothers — where all the animators would play jazz together in a band, and Chuck Jones and the guys would play tricks on each other. But though it looks like we’re just playing, it still is work. We’re very serious about making fun things.”

That could be Pixar’s official motto: “serious about fun”. Over two busy days, story-boarders and animators, techno-boffins and gag-writers eagerly lay bare the secrets of Pixar’s toy cupboard. It’s fascinating to see how a rough sketch becomes finished film. A four-second sequence typically takes two weeks to animate, but that’s only after the script has been written (up to three years of development) and the characters designed (another year).

For Up they had to invent a new feather system for a mythical 13ft Peruvian bird called Kevin, and work out how to make 15,000 balloons, each with its own string, interact believably. But more importantly than that, much more importantly, they had to work out how to make the story resonate emotionally with an audience.

The film, finished three weeks ago, is shown in the Pixar screening theatre. When the room goes dark, the ceiling lights resemble stars. With typical attention to detail, some begin to move — shooting stars. Ten minutes in, at the close of a wordless montage of scenes from the old man’s life, you are in tears. For an animated film to carry such a kick is quite extraordinary. Without giving too much away before the Cannes premiere, it absolutely makes you believe the fantastical premise that this pensioner would float his house off to Peru.

Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, who co-wrote and directed the film, are as surprised as anyone at how it’s turned out. The film began as a visual image — a sad old man holding a colourful balloon — and an inchoate yearning to escape society. It took years of brainstorming before the plot emerged, which now includes an eight-year-old stowaway, a dog with a collar that gives hilarious voice to his thoughts, a crazed explorer and his lethal pack of hounds, and that mythical bird named Kevin. More Miyazaki than Disney, it is surreal but believable, hilarious and sweet.

“Animation can capture life,” explains Docter, who resembles a cartoon character himself: two perfectly semicircular ears sprout at right angles from a rectangular head. “But it can be more than life. Like in a restaurant, where you get a reduction sauce: animation can be so pure and concentrated that it speaks louder than life.”

So, after Pixar had spent the past two decades making computer animation more and more realistic, Docter had them chuck it all out and start again. Old man Carl is very stylised and made of squares. His portly young stowaway is essentially a circle. “It’s a film where a house floats into the sky,” Docter says. “You want an animation style that’s simple and poetic.”

Or, as art director Ricky Nierva puts it: “If you want photo-realism, just go make a live-action film. It’s not about being realistic, it’s about making this world believable.”

The result is an artistic triumph, but its commercial success is less assured. However off the wall previous Pixar projects have been, their premise has been easy to market. Toy Story? Yes, on one level it’s a poignant existential meditation on the nature of identity, but it’s also, you know, a story about toys. Monsters, Inc? A company of monsters, generating power from screams. Cars? You guessed it: talking cars. But Up resists the simple sell. “It’s an action-adventure starring a 78-year-old man,” says the producer, Jonas Rivera, when pressed. You can see the problem. You want auteur? This may indeed be the world’s first $150 million art movie. Word of mouth will make or break it.

According to The New York Times, Wall Street has the jitters after one Up-sceptic analyst downgraded Disney shares. Thinkway Toys, a longstanding merchandiser of Pixar spin-offs, is not producing a single item from Up. Does it matter? Consider this: Cars attracted the only poor reviews in Pixar’s history, yet made $5 billion in merchandising. That’s a lot to sacrifice for art.

“We don’t have to worry about all that,” Rivera insists. “John Lasseter [the founder of Pixar] always says, ‘Just make a movie you’d be proud to show your family’. ”

But if Rivera need not worry, Lasseter must. When Disney bought Pixar, Lasseter was appointed creative director over both companies. The stakes are tremendous: with rival studios stuck in a funny-animal groove, it’s not just Disney/Pixar’s future that hangs in the balance, but the soul of animation itself.

“Quality is the best business plan,” booms Lasseter down the phone from his second office at Disney’s animation studio, 400 miles and a whole world away in Los Angeles. “I believe so strongly that if you do it right, our movies last for ever. They continue to do well on DVD, and what I love about Disney is they have so many ways to keep movies alive — theme parks, publishing, the online world, video games.”

He sounds remarkably unruffled for a man who, as one Pixar employee ruefully observed, is now harder to get an audience with than the Pope. Lasseter began as a Disney employee, but the company didn’t share his enthusiasm for computer graphics. (Tim Burton, a contemporary, was also too far-out for Disney’s taste.) Instead Steve Jobs, the recently ousted founder of the computer giant Apple, believed Lasseter was the future, and Pixar was born.

Lasseter’s staff speak with reverence of his managerial style: he favours Hawaiian shirts over ties (he will make a rare exception for Cannes, about which he is “beyond thrilled”), and although he encourages comments and criticism from all, he gives the director enormous creative freedom. The home of Mickey Mouse, meanwhile, became so unpleasant to work in that it was nicknamed “Mauschwitz”. Aside from a brief renaissance in the early 1990s under Jeffrey Katzenberg, before boardroom squabbles led him to set up the rival Dreamworks, Disney was creatively bankrupt.

“I’m so proud to be back,” Lasseter says. “I’ve wanted to work at Disney since I was a kid. But a studio is not the building, it’s the people. The one thing we brought from Pixar is that it’s film-maker-led, not executive-led. Pixar was the only one, and now Disney is the second.”

Lasseter set up sweet and cereal dispensers in Disney’s central atrium to help animators to mingle. More practically, he hired and fired, and introduced a policy of “no mandatory notes” — notes being the soul-destroying changes demanded by any one of a dozen executives, sometimes with little real understanding of the script or desire to do anything other than justify their existence. Disney’s notes, he maintains, at one point nearly derailed Toy Story.

“Even the notes that I give aren’t mandatory,” he insists. “Film-makers in that environment lose their compass, all they’re worried about doing is fulfilling the notes. But these executives, few of them are trained in story or animation or directing. They’re lawyers, or accountants.

“I mean, would you get on a plane and fly to Japan, or would you go to a hospital and get an operation, knowing the doctor was an agent who through politics got control of the hospital? Why would you let these people make creative decisions?”

Lasseter has vision all right, but he has smarts, too. He has stepped up production to one film every year, and will alternate new experiments with dependable sequels. His slate includes Toy Story 3 in summer 2010, Newt in 2011, and after that Cars 2 and a fairytale, The Bear and the Bow. Lasseter has also embraced the 3-D technology that Disney has been developing. He ordered the Up team to go 3-D halfway through production, and has remastered the first two Toy Story films as a 3-D double-feature for October.

There are sound business reasons: 3-D movies can’t be pirated with a camcorder, and it’s a cinema-only flourish that competes with the plasma screen in your home. But animators worry that it’s gimmicky.

“Yes, there are good business reasons,” Lasseter says, “but for me? Yay. I love 3-D.” His wedding photos (he has five children) were in 3-D; so was his 1989 short, Knick Knack. “I couldn’t even watch it for about 16 years because there weren’t cinemas with the equipment.” Thierry Frémaux is another fan: “3-D films are the next adventure. I like to have Cannes always connected with its times, and it’s good to send a sign like that for the opening night.”

So far 1,000 US screens and 100 in the UK have been fitted for 3-D, and 3-D films are busting out all over. The trend works especially well for Pixar. “We pioneered holography and lenticular imagery,” says Lasseter, “and always felt we were building a 3-D environment inside the computer and it was a shame viewers could look at it only in 2-D. But in the end, it’s just another tool. It’s never the technology that entertains the audience, it’s what you do with it.”

In other words, Pixar fans can rest easy. It’s not the Cannes opener that counts, but what’s inside the tin.

The world premiere of Up is at Cannes on May 13. It is released in the UK in October