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Innovation lessons from Pixar: An interview with Oscar-winning director Brad Bird
November 27, 2012 8:49 AM   Subscribe

The implication is, you’re making it for a group that you are not a member of—and there is something very insincere in that. If you’re dealing with a storytelling medium, which is a mechanized means of producing and presenting a dream that you’re inviting people to share, you’d better believe your dream or else it’s going to come off as patronizing. Innovation lessons from Pixar: An interview with Oscar-winning director Brad Bird (PDF) or (HTML, registration required)
posted by shivohum (24 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

I have been suspicious of the word "innovation" coming from people in suits ever since Microsoft co-opted the word back in the early 90s - overnight, every interview, every press release, every speech, every advert mentioned Innovation.

But then I don't people in suits much anyhow.
posted by Celsius1414 at 9:03 AM on November 27, 2012

This was interesting. Thanks.

I watched a TV documentary about Pixar over the weekend. It covered how exhaustively the Toy Story script had been reworked - even after production was underway.

Brave needed that and didn't get it. Deepening my fear that the Golden Age of Pixar is over.
posted by Egg Shen at 9:09 AM on November 27, 2012 [4 favorites]

Deepening my fear that the Golden Age of Pixar is over

I think with the announcement of Finding Nemo 2 it is pretty clear Pixar has jumped the shark.

posted by schwa at 9:12 AM on November 27, 2012 [6 favorites]

Toy Script was Pixar's Star Wars, Brave was its Empire Strikes Back.: a maturation and growth combined with a difference in tone, even the latter strove to keep certain elements from the former youth.

Lovers of the first will weep and caw, but life will gloriously go on.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:15 AM on November 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

There's a sentence in the PDF (that I can't copy and paste because PDF copy protection is lame) about not playing it safe. With all these sequels coming out of Pixar these days I wonder if they are indeed playing it safe now. Brave really wasn't that interesting (apart from the hair animation). The Incredibles was really the last interesting thing to come out of Pixar in my opinion.
posted by schwa at 9:20 AM on November 27, 2012

Brave strikes me as its Return of the Jedi - still the same entity that you loved way back when, but tweaked to include elements that appeal to a stereotypical "younger audience," and arguably cheapened in the process.

Between Toy Story 2, the Incredibles, Ratatouille, WALL-E and (the first five minutes of) Up, Pixar had a long string of Empires.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 9:24 AM on November 27, 2012 [8 favorites]

I'd go as far as saying that the majority of Pixar's output is not going to stand the test of time. They, like Disney before them, have almost no sensibility for creating distinctive, memorable characters - the exception being the characters from the Toy Story series (who were completely rehabilitated after awful test screenings of the original script).

Like Disney, Pixar will occasionally stumble upon an interesting supporting character (like Dory), but with all their talk of "story" this and "story" that, most of the time their characters are bland generic pawns who exist only to be strung along the plot points. UP was particularly guilty of this - what can you tell me about those characters that can't be reduced to blurbs? "Cranky-yet-lovable old man" and "annoying-but-loyal little kid?"

I loved Ratatouille and saw it several times in the theatre, but when I look back on it, it's similarly shallow and loaded with cheap stereotypes. I enjoy watching the movies themselves, but only the Toy Story movies really captured my heart, and I think it's because Woody and Buzz Lightyear have very distinct personalities, the way iconic movie characters ought to. The characters are what give a movie staying power.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 9:37 AM on November 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

The characters are what give a movie staying power.

I saw Wreck-It Ralph over the weekend, and that was one where the story was cliche but some of the characters were subtle and surprising in a way I wasn't expecting from an animated film. Not sure how much staying power that'd give it, but it was memorable, anyways.
posted by onwords at 9:55 AM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Wreck-It Ralph was not a Pixar film, it was made by Disney's own in-house 3D animation studio.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 9:56 AM on November 27, 2012

Brandon Blatcher: "Toy Script was Pixar's Star Wars, Brave was its Empire Strikes Back.: a maturation and growth combined with a difference in tone, even the latter strove to keep certain elements from the former youth."

Maybe, but I still think it could have used a few more drafts. There are seeds of a great movie in there.
posted by brundlefly at 10:00 AM on November 27, 2012

overeducated_alligator: "what can you tell me about those characters that can't be reduced to blurbs? "Cranky-yet-lovable old man" and "annoying-but-loyal little kid?""

You mean the cranky-yet-loveable old man bereft over the death of his wife whose unfulfilled dreams of grand adventure he endeavors to live out? In the course of which he becomes a surrogate father to the annoying-but-loyal little Asian kid wounded by the emotional absence of his own father?

Sorry, but Up was probably the worst example you could have chosen for that argument.
posted by Egg Shen at 10:07 AM on November 27, 2012 [6 favorites]

Brave really wasn't that interesting (apart from the hair animation).

In all seriousness, I would have enjoyed a 90-minute making-of featurette about the hair animation more than the movie itself.
posted by Egg Shen at 10:13 AM on November 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Bird sounds like a great guy to work for, though the hours would probably be long.

But talk about missing the point: "The Quarterly: Do angry people — malcontents, in your words ..."

The interviewer isn't really listening — they keep asking about innovation, and Bird keeps answering morale.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:15 AM on November 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

Egg Shen, you've recounted the backstory events surrounding those characters, but what can you tell me about their personalities?

For example, I can tell you about a foolhardy man who constantly gets into trouble by his desire to try different jobs and different identities, and who has a strained relationship with his own wife and children, but who ultimately redeems himself in the end.

(I'm talking about Homer Simpson, but if you know Homer you know that description doesn't really tell you anything about who he is and how he acts.)

The details of the character's life history aren't the same thing as the personality of the character. The guy in Up has a bunch of motivations on paper, but in the movie itself, all he expresses is a sort of long-suffering determination. Could you do an improvised impersonation of him and have people say, "Hey, you're doing _______?" He has no substance outside of the events of the plot.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 10:20 AM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

In the future, a few cars will gather at the drive-in to watch what remains of our film heritage. Even after decades of study, they can understand only a little of what they sense of the strange world from which theirs has emerged. Afterwards they discuss and debate their theories. Only a little of what they've recovered seems to speak of their world, but what there is is fascinating in contradictions. Everyone tries to avoid talking to a chatty tow-truck.
posted by wobh at 10:24 AM on November 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

I, too, was impressed with Wreck-It Ralph. Now that Lasseter is in charge of Disney animation in general, I wonder if he's draining away some of the talent and energy away from Pixar into the general Disney pool. I imagine that's why Disney spent so much money on Pixar. I'm becoming a little less eager to see the newer Pixar movie, but I'm becoming much more open to seeing the next animated Disney movie.

Pixar was going to eventually run into problems. No one can keep up a run like that forever. Except Miyazaki (and Ghibli without him is going to be a shadow of itself. Arriety was great, but Miyazaki still wrote the script and had oversight.)
posted by rikschell at 10:29 AM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ever since the Raj Ratnaratnam scandal, McKinsey has been reduced to a series of magazines.
posted by parmanparman at 10:31 AM on November 27, 2012

Not sure it's useful to compare a 20 year old character vs a two hour one.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:33 AM on November 27, 2012

overeducated_alligator: "I'm talking about Homer Simpson, but if you know Homer you know that description doesn't really tell you anything about who he is and how he acts."

To date, there have been 514 episodes of The Simpsons. At 24 minutes an episode, that's 205 hours of television. Even after factoring in clip shows and screen time in which Homer doesn't appear, we're probably talking 100 hours of Homer's personality on display.

And even so, unless you imitated the Castellaneta voice or quoted a scriptwriter's line, what likelihood would there be of someone identifying your impersonation as Homer Simpson instead of Random Stupid Guy?
posted by Egg Shen at 10:38 AM on November 27, 2012

I didn't mean to bring up Homer to compare to a movie character, only as a way of showing how backstory doesn't reveal personality.

If you prefer to compare apples to apples, how about Walter Sobchak, Annie Hall, Tyler Durden, or Eliza Doolittle? Characters who essentially only exist in a single work, but whose personalities are specific instead of generic.

After the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, the character of Jack Sparrow was completely realized, enough that people wanted more of him. The "story" of Pirates 1 is all well and good, but the character of Jack Sparrow is what made that movie a hit, and the character succeeds because he seems to have a life of his own.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 10:55 AM on November 27, 2012

I'm not sure what your point is. Carl worked for me as a character and his mannerisms displayed personality.

Tyler Durden is the only one I can clearly recall from your list and he was a manipulative asshole. Nothing particular sticks out as a person, but Carl seemed very real to me, even though he was just rendered 1's and 0's.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:17 AM on November 27, 2012

I don't think you give Pixar enough credit. They, for the most part, try to imbue their main characters with some depth. They may not be memorable personalities to some, but to others they are quite remarkable. Our main character in Ratatouille, isn't just a rat that likes to cook, but is someone passionate about cooking and also attempts to distinguish himself from his rat kindred. He walks on hind legs, refuses to eat typical rat fare, but tries to share and explain whats remarkable about the act of cooking to others. He also can be petty at times, getting angry when someone else takes too much of the credit for his work, and is loaded down with father issues. Mickey Mouse is a simple line drawing compared to that rodent.

What are the great characters of cinema? It's a question that obviously is plagued with disagreement between individuals. Tyler Durden, for example, I'd argue by default has to have a level of depth to personality because the movie's principal plot twist concerns personality. I agree about Jack Sparrow definitely, but I fail to see how he is any more deep a character than Carl from UP. Jack, after all, might be easily explained as "That self-interested lackadaisical pirate with eye shadow," no? (To the same degree that Carl is just a grumpy old man).

Jon Lasseter's touch is definitely changing Disney Animation for the better, ironic in the sense that it was the same company that fired the young animator years ago when he tried to push it toward the impending boom in computer animation. I'm not concerned yet on its impact on Pixar, outside of the fact that in Disney's acquisition of the company, it demanded the sequels that will be forthcoming. An independent Pixar wouldn't have done Cars 2 or Monster U or etc, etc. I think the original ideas will still be great and the lesser ones, at least good. Wreck-it-Ralph had a telling give at the end of the credits, a thank you to the Pixar Brain Trust. There is a blending, but I think it's only for the better. After all, before Lasseter, there would never have been a Paperman short (which is AMAZINGLY awesome).
posted by Atreides at 11:35 AM on November 27, 2012

Miyazaki had his ups and downs as well.

This argument amuses me a bit because Homer Simpson has his storytelling lineage back to Fred Flintstone as a daddy and Jackie Gleason's Ralph as a graddaddy, with a long line of marital conflict comedy stretching back before them. And in that kind of comedy the use of running jokes, trademark catchphrases, and expressions provides an anchor from episode to episode, and performance to performance if we go back to vaudeville. So of course, there are hooks for impersonation. It's not a worse type of writing, but it is a different type of writing. (BTW: Wynn->Mad Hatter -> King Candy.) Sparrow and Sobchak are clowns. Doolittle comes from musical theater which has different standards of character development.

Carl is entirely realistic to me because I've seen that same conflict in my own family where love, memory, and unrealized dreams get bound into an obsession about place. It was part of a big extended-family discussion over Thanksgiving, after all. And sure, the same setup was used by Warner Brothers for a Bugs and Elmer spat, but that's about all that happened with it. That Carl is an understated everyman is more of a feature than a bug in my opinion. I think Miyazaki's a bit of an influence here in giving us animated characters who read well as ordinary people first, in fantastic circumstances second.

That's not that any style is bad, just that they're apples and oranges and grapes and pears. Greater variety in the kinds of animation that gets produced strikes me as a good thing.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:58 AM on November 27, 2012

You can dismiss any character you like if you keep the description to about 5 words.

And Brave didn't appeal to guys as much as it did to women. The story is about mother-daughter relationships, and traditional ideas of femininity (a ladylike power behind the throne) vs taking on traditionally masculine characteristics (a tomboy) vs forging a new path altogether. Guys don't usually have to concern themselves with this stuff, and often don't watch many films with female main characters full stop. But every woman I know who's seen it felt that the issues facing Merida were real ones they'd faced themselves, knew someone like Merida or someone like Elinor. My mother enjoyed animated movies and often watches them when babysitting her grandkids, but is rarely moved by them. She cried during Brave and rang me afterwards to make sure I was going to see it.

Brad Bird is great and that interviewer was so pedestrian. Or maybe he was used to pedestrian interviewees: most companies would say that to innovate you need to know what your customer wants. Henry Ford pointed out the problem with that - if you ask your customer what they want, they'll say they want a faster horse, not a new invention.
posted by harriet vane at 4:12 AM on November 29, 2012

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