Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘DreamWorks

So what happened to Cars 2?

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On Saturday afternoon, at my insistence, my wife and I ended up in a theater full of excited kids and obliging parents at a screening of Cars 2, which had already received the worst reviews in the history of Pixar. Rather to my surprise, my wife enjoyed it more than I did, and the kids seemed okay with it as well (aside from the one who kicked my chair repeatedly throughout most of the last twenty minutes). Yet the film itself is undeniably underwhelming: a bright, shiny mediocrity. Cars 2 isn’t a bad movie, exactly—it’s watchable and reasonably fun—but it’s a disappointment, not only in comparison to Pixar’s past heights but also to a strong recent showing from DreamWorks, which includes How to Train Your Dragon and the sublime Kung Fu Panda series. And while Pixar can take comfort in good box office and decent audience reactions, I hope that the negative critical response inspires some introspection at the studio as to how things went wrong.

It’s important to note that it wouldn’t have taken a miracle to make Cars 2 a better movie. While the original Cars struck me as somewhat misconceived, the basic elements of the sequel are all sound: the shift in tone from nostalgic Americana to international thriller is a masterstroke, and the underlying story and premise are fine, although never particularly involving. The trouble is that the script, by writer Ben Queen, never really sparkles, at least not by the standards we’ve come to expect: there are some laughs, but only a few hit home, and the movie seems content to coast on the level of cleverness rather than taking the leap to really inspired comedy or action. Cars 2 is constantly on the verge of breaking through to something more engaging, but never quite makes it, when I suspect that another pass on the screenplay, and some honest notes, would have made all the difference.

This brings us to the second big problem: it’s hard to give notes to the man who founded the studio. John Lasseter is undeniably a genius—he’s the rare example of a great creative artist who has also demonstrated a willingness to tackle the practical problems of building a major corporation—but it was probably too much to ask one man to oversee Pixar, Disney animation, and a movie of his own. A recent New York Magazine profile makes it clear that the process left Lasseter pressed for time, which would have made it hard for him to address his own movie’s more glaring flaws. Even more importantly, it seems likely that his status as a Pixar legend and founding father prevented him from receiving the feedback he needed. Just a glance at the history of movies reminds us that the heads of studios can make remarkable producers—just look at David O. Selznick—but that even the greatest directors can’t operate entirely without accountability.

I’ve talked about Pixar’s singular culture before, in a much more comprehensive post, so I won’t repeat the same points here. But it seems clear that Pixar’s previous excellence was due to a process that allowed its central brain trust to mercilessly criticize and improve the studio’s works in progress. For Cars 2, this process seems to have broken down, partly because of Lasseter’s deserved stature, and also because of his personal attachment to the Cars franchise. (Pixar has famously canceled other projects, such as Newt, deep into the planning stages because of quality concerns, something it’s hard to imagine happening to Cars 2.) Judging from the outcome, Lasseter needs to return to what he does better than anyone else alive: overseeing the work of the world’s greatest animation studio. If not, he will end up with a legacy more like that of George Lucas than Walt Disney. And that would be a shame.

Written by nevalalee

June 27, 2011 at 10:05 am

Posted in Movies

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The Pixar problem

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A week ago, in my appreciation of Hayao Miyazaki, I wrote the following about Pixar:

Pixar has had an amazing run, but it’s a singularly corporate excellence. The craft, humor, and love of storytelling that we see in the best Pixar movies feels learned, rather than intuitive; it’s the work of a Silicon Valley company teaching itself to be compassionate.

Which I still believe is true. But the more I think about this statement, the more I realize that it raises as many questions as it answers. Yes, Pixar’s excellence is a corporate one—but why does it strive to be compassionate and creative, when so many other studios seem ready to settle for less? Faced with Pixar’s historic run of eleven quality blockbusters in fifteen years, it’s easy to fall into the trap of saying that Pixar’s culture is simply different from that of other studios, or that it has a special, mysterious genius for storytelling, which, again, simply avoids the question. So what is it, really, that sets Pixar apart?

It’s tempting to reduce it to a numbers game. Pixar releases, at most, one movie per year, while the other major studios release dozens. This means that Pixar can devote all of its considerable resources to a single flagship project, rather than spreading them across a larger slate of films. If every studio released only one picture a year, it’s nice to think that, instead of a hundred mostly forgettable movies, we’d get a handful of big, ambitious films like Inception, or even Avatar. Of course, we might also end up with a dozen variations on Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. So I suspect that there’s something else going on here that can’t be explained by the numbers alone.

And as much as I hate to say it, Pixar’s special quality does, in fact, seem to boil down to a question of culture. So where does culture come from? Two places. The first, more accidental source is history: studios, like artists, tend to be subconsciously defined by their first successful works. In Pixar’s case, it was Toy Story; for DreamWorks, it was Shrek. And the contrast between these two films goes a long way toward accounting for the differences between their respective studios. Because its first movie was a classic, Pixar was encouraged to aim high, especially once they saw how audiences responded. If the first Pixar movie had been, say, Cars, I don’t think we’d be having this conversation.

The second factor is even more important. For reasons of luck, timing, and corporate politics, the creative side of Pixar is essentially run by John Lasseter, a director of genius. And his genius is less important than the fact that he’s a director at all. Most studios are run by men and women who have never directed a movie or written a screenplay, and as talented as some of these executives may be, there’s a world of difference between receiving notes from a Wharton MBA and from the man who directed Toy Story. The result, at best, is a climate where criticism is seen as a chance to make a movie better, rather than as inference from overhead. As a recent Wired article on Pixar pointed out:

The upper echelons also subject themselves to megadoses of healthy criticism. Every few months, the director of each Pixar film meets with the brain trust, a group of senior creative staff. The purpose of the meeting is to offer comments on the work in progress, and that can lead to some major revisions. “It’s important that nobody gets mad at you for screwing up,” says Lee Unkrich, director of Toy Story 3. “We know screwups are an essential part of making something good. That’s why our goal is to screw up as fast as possible.” [Italics mine.]

In other words, it isn’t true that Pixar has never made a bad movie: it makes bad movies—or parts of movies—all the time. The difference is that the bad movies are reworked until they get better, which isn’t the case at most other studios. (And at Pixar, if they still aren’t any good, they get canceled.) And because the cultural factors that made this climate possible are as much the result of timing and luck as intentional planning, the situation is more fragile than it seems. A real Pixar flop, with its ensuing loss of confidence, could change things overnight. Which is why, in the end, what I said of Miyazaki is also true of Pixar: if it goes away, we may never see anything like it again.

Written by nevalalee

January 14, 2011 at 12:02 pm

The Legend of Miyamoto

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For reasons known only to itself, The New Yorker has evidently decided that the best way to write about video games is to assign these stories to writers who emphatically have no gaming experience. This approach, which wouldn’t be tolerated for any other art form, high or low, has already resulted in this notorious article by Nicholson Baker—one of my favorite living writers, but clearly unequipped to say anything interesting about Red Dead Redemption. And now we have Nick Paumgarten’s disappointing profile of Shigeru Miyamoto, which is a huge missed opportunity, in more ways than one.

Miyamoto, the creator of the Mario and Zelda franchises and the greatest video game designer of all time, has often been compared to Walt Disney, an accolade he shares with his fellow genius Hayao Miyazaki. (Miyamoto and Miyazaki also share a deep nostalgia for the forests and villages of rural Japan, an abiding affection that shows up throughout their work.) Miyamoto is an artist, a storyteller, an engineer, and a visionary, and he’s exactly the sort of creative force that the readers of The New Yorker ought to know more about. The fact that Paumgarten scored only a brief interview with Miyamoto, which he pads out to feature length with pages of unenlightening digressions, is only the most disappointing thing about the profile. A single glimpse of one of Miyamoto’s sketches for Zelda would be more interesting than anything on display here.

Still, there are a few moments worth mentioning. Here’s Miyamoto on calibrating the difficulty of a game, and how important it is to incorporate quiet moments alongside every challenge:

A lot of the so-called action games are not made that way…All the time, players are forced to do their utmost. If they are challenged to the limit, is it really fun for them?…[In Miyamoto’s own games] you are constantly providing the players with a new challenge, but at the same time providing them with some stages or some occasions where they can simply, repeatedly, do something again and again. And that can be a joy.

This is especially good advice for writers in genres, such as suspense, that place a premium on intensity. A few strategically timed breaks in the action, which give the reader a moment of breathing room, can make the rest of the novel read much more quickly. The key, as Miyamoto knows, is putting yourself in the position of a person approaching a work of art for the first time:

I always remind myself, when it comes to a game I’m developing, that I’m the perfect, skillful player. I can manipulate all this controller stuff. So sometimes I ask the younger game creators to try playing the games they are making by switching their left and right hands. In that way, they can understand how inexperienced the first-timer is.

Similarly, once a writer has internalized the plot of a novel, it can be hard to see it with fresh eyes. One solution is to set the book aside for a month and read it again once the memory of the story has faded. Another approach, which I’ve done a few times, is to read a sequence of chapters in reverse, or at random, which often reveals problems or repetitions that I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.

Finally, here’s Paumgarten on one of my favorite topics, the importance of constraints as a creative tool:

Mario, [Miyamoto’s] most famous creation, owes his appearance to the technological limitations of the first Donkey Kong game. The primitive graphics—there were hardly enough pixels to approximate a human form—compelled Miyamoto to give Mario white gloves and red overalls (so that you could see his arms swing), a big bushy mustache and a red hat (to hide the fact that engineers couldn’t yet do mouths or hair that moved), and a big head (to exaggerate his collisions). Form has always followed functionality. The problem now, if you want to call it one, is the degree of functionality. [Italics mine.]

This is a nice, crucial point. And it applies to more than video games. The limitations that made Mario so distinctive are the same ones that led to the look of Mickey Mouse, among so many other stars of early animation. One problem with the recent availability of beautifully rendered computer graphics is that character design is becoming a lost art. Even the best recent Pixar, Disney, and DreamWorks films have suffered from this: they can render every hair on a character’s head, but can’t make the character itself a memorable one. (Kung Fu Panda may be the last computer-animated movie with really distinctive character designs.)

So are video games art? Paumgarten glances at the subject only briefly, but with all due respect to Roger Ebert, there’s no doubt in my mind that the best video games are indeed art. At least, that’s the only explanation I have for something like Super Mario Galaxy, which is one of the few recent works, in any medium, that has filled me with something like my childhood envy for those who get to spend their lives telling stories. (The J.J. Abrams reboot of Star Trek is another.) Miyamoto’s great skill, as the article reminds us, is to bring us back to the best moments of our childhood. And while not all art needs to aspire to this, the world definitely needs art that does.

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