Posts Tagged ‘Pixar’
A few weeks ago, Pixar announced that Toy Story 4 is officially in production, with the dream team of John Lasseter, Pete Docter, Lee Unkrich, and Andrew Stanton advising the writing duo of Rashida Jones and Will McCormack. (I don’t doubt the talents of the latter two, but I still smile a little at the thought of that meeting: I’d like to think that it consisted mostly of four big, nerdy guys in Hawaiian shirts being inexplicably charmed by Jones’s pitch for the franchise.) Like many fans of what I’ve come to see as the best series of children’s films ever made, I’m tickled, but cautious. It’s not so much the fear that a mediocre fourth movie would undermine my feelings for the first three—heck, I’ve been through that process before. Rather, it’s the fact that a perfectly fine arrangement already exists, in the form of the animated shorts about these characters that Pixar has continued to produce. I’m not sure I need to see Toy Story 4, but I’d happily accept a run of shorts that went on forever, if it means we get more miniature masterpieces along the lines of Partysaurus Rex.
The nice thing about the Toy Story shorts is that they meet a particular need while leaving our memories of the movies untouched. Much of the appeal of these films comes from their almost frightening emotional resonance, and while it’s unfair to hold a short cartoon to the same standard, I love these characters so much that I’m glad just to be treated to a few brief vignettes of their lives. As we learned from Cars 2, cleverness alone can’t sustain an entire feature, but it’s more than enough to fill six minutes, and the format of the animated short allows Pixar to revel in a few crucial aspects of the franchise—its ingenuity and humor—while not having to strain for the intensity of feeling that the movies achieve. In that regard, it’s revealing that the longer specials, Toy Story of Terror and last night’s Toy Story That Time Forgot, tend to hit beats that we’ve seen before: the villain in the former feels more than a little like his counterpart in Toy Story 2, and the latter introduces an army of toys who don’t know that they’re toys, of which Buzz drily notes: “Incredible, isn’t it?”
More than anything else, this is what gives me pause at the prospect of Toy Story 4. The first three movies seem almost inevitable in the emotional ground they cover: the series gradually became a meditation on growing up, and now that Andy has gone off to college, it’s hard to envision what remains to be told. Still, I’ve been surprised before, and if anything, Toy Story That Time Forgot serves as a reminder of how much feeling can still be plumbed from these characters and their situations. For most of its length, it’s a cute diversion, maybe a notch below the best of the shorts so far. (It lost me a little during its long middle section, which takes place entirely within the plastic world of the Battlesaurs: a lot of the fun of these stories arises from the element of scale, with the toys’ adventures set against the baseboards and table legs of the larger everyday world, and we lose this when the action unfolds in artificial surroundings.) Yet by the end, I was unexpectedly touched by its message, like that of The Lego Movie, which implies that toys find their greatest meaning when they surrender to a child’s imagination.
Obviously, it’s hard to separate my response from my own experience as a father, which is a fairly recent development—my daughter wasn’t even born when Toy Story 3 was released. And I see a lot of Bonnie in Beatrix. She’s just arriving at the age when she starts to tell stories involving her toys that I couldn’t have anticipated: she’ll sling her Hello Kitty purse over her shoulder and announce that she’s taking the train to work, or explain that Mr. Bear needs to have his diaper changed, and she’s already beginning to spin private narratives using the figures in our plastic nativity set. And even if my feelings have been shaped by where I happen to be in my own life, I can’t help but think that if there’s one last region for the series to explore, it’s here—in the strange closeness that emerges between a child, her toys, and her parents. (So far, the series has only given us hints of this, notably in the form of the intriguing clues, which can’t be dismissed, that the little girl who gave away Jessie the Cowgirl grew up to be Andy’s mom.) Toy Story has a lot to say about small children, but it’s been oddly indifferent so far to families. That’s the fourth movie I’d like to see, and I’ll tell this to anyone who wants to listen, even if it means I have to take a meeting with Rashida Jones.
Note: I seem to have come down with a touch of whatever stomach bug my daughter had this week, so I’m taking the day off. This post was originally published, in a somewhat different form, on August 9, 2011.
As technology advances, rendering time remains constant.
Why isn’t writing easier? Looking at the resources that contemporary authors have at their disposal, it’s easy to conclude that we should all be perfect writing machines. Word processing software, from WordStar to Scrivener, has made the physical process of writing more streamlined than ever; Google and Amazon have given us access to a world of information that would have been inconceivable even fifteen years ago; and research, editing, and revision have been made immeasurably more efficient. And yet writing itself doesn’t seem all that much less difficult than before. The amount of time a professional novelist needs to spend writing each day—let’s say three or four hours—hasn’t decreased much since Trollope, and for most of us, it still takes a year or two to write a decent novel.
So what happened? In some ways, it’s an example of the paradox of labor-saving devices: instead of taking advantage of our additional leisure time, we create more work for ourselves. It also reflects the fact that the real work of writing a novel is rarely connected to how fast you can type. But I prefer to think of it as a variation on Blinn’s Law. As graphics pioneer James Blinn first pointed out, in animation, rendering time remains constant, even as computers get faster. An artist gets accustomed to waiting a certain number of hours for an image to render, so as hardware improves, instead of using it to save time, he employs it to render more complex graphics. This is why rendering time at Pixar has remained essentially constant over the past fifteen years. (Although the difference between Toy Story and Cars 2, or even Brave, is a reminder that rendering isn’t everything.)
Similarly, whatever time I save by writing on a laptop rather than a manual typewriter is canceled out by the hours I spend making additional small changes and edits along the way. The Icon Thief probably went through eighteen substantial drafts before the final version was delivered to my publisher, an amount of revision and rewriting that would have been unthinkable without Word. Is the novel better as a result? On a purely technical level, yes. Is the underlying story more interesting than if I’d written it by hand? Probably not. Blinn’s Law tells us that the leaves and grass in the background of a shot will look increasingly great, but it says nothing about the quality of storytelling. Which seems to imply that the countless tiny changes that a writer like me makes to each draft are only a waste of effort.
And yet here’s the thing: I still needed all that time. No matter how efficient the physical side of the process becomes, it’s still desirable for a writer to live with a novel, or a studio to live with a movie, for at least a year or so. (In the case of a film like Frozen, that gestational period can amount to a decade or more.) For most of us, there seems to be a fixed developmental period for decent art, a minimum amount of time that a story needs to simmer and evolve. The endless small revisions aren’t the point: the point is that while you’re altering a word or shifting a paragraph here or there, the story is growing in your head in unexpected ways. Even as you fiddle with the punctuation, seismic changes are taking place. But for this to happen, you need to be at your desk for a certain number of hours. So what do we do in the meantime? We do what Pixar does: we render. That’s the wonderful paradox of efficiency: it allows us, as artists, to get the inefficiency we all need.
Breaking Bad may be over, but last night, my wife and I watched what emphatically ranks as a close second in our most highly anticipated television events of the year: Toy Story of Terror, the first of what I hope will be many Pixar specials featuring the characters from my favorite animated franchise. Not surprisingly, I loved it, even if I’d rate it a notch below the sublime Partysaurus Rex. It’s constructed in the usual shrewd, slightly busy Pixar manner, with complication piled on complication, and it packs a startling amount of plot into a runtime of slightly over twenty minutes. A big part of the appeal of the Toy Story franchise has always been its narrative density: these aren’t long movies, but each installment, especially the latter two, is crammed with ideas, a tradition that the shorts have honored and maintained. And although it may not rank among the greatest holiday specials ever made, it gave me a hell of a lot of pleasure, mostly because I was delighted, as I always am, to see these characters again.
I’ve spoken frequently on this blog about the power of ensembles, which allow a television show to exploit different, surprising combinations of characters, but I don’t think I’ve really delved into its importance in film, which operates under a different set of constraints. Instead of multiple seasons, you have, at best, a handful of installments, and often just one movie. A rich supporting cast can lead to many satisfactions in the moment—think of the ensembles in Seven Samurai, The Godfather, L.A. Confidential—but it also allows you to dream more urgently of what else might have taken place, both in the runtime of the movie itself and after the story ends. When a great ensemble movie is over, it leaves you with a sense of loss: you feel that the characters were doing other things beyond the edges of the frame, pairing off in unexpected ways, and you wish there were time for more. (It’s no accident that the franchises that inspire the most devoted fanfic communities, from Harry Potter to Star Trek, are the ones that allow fans to play with the widest range of characters.)
And I don’t think I’ve ever felt this so keenly as I have with the characters from Toy Story. Over the course of three films and a handful of shorts, the franchise has created dozens of memorable characters, and it’s remarkable how vividly even briefly glimpsed figures—Wheezy, the Chatter Telephone—are drawn. Part of this is due to the fact that toys advertise their personalities to us at once, and you can mine a lot of material from either underlining or subverting that initial impression, as in the case of Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear, who stands as one of the most memorable movie villains of the last decade. But it’s also thanks to some sensational writing, directing, and voice acting in the established Pixar style, as well as the ingenuity of the setting and premise itself. At its best, the franchise is an adventure series crossed with a workplace comedy, and much of its energy comes from the idea of these toys, literally from different worlds, thrown together into the same playroom. Andy’s bedroom, or Bonnie’s, or any child’s, is a stage on which an endless number of stories can be told, and they don’t need to be spectacular: I’d be happy just to watch these toys hanging out all day.
That’s the mark of great storytelling, and as time goes on, I’ve begun to suspect that this may be the best movie trilogy I’ve ever seen. I’ve loved this series for a long time, but it wasn’t until Toy Story 2 came out that it took up a permanent place in my heart. At the time, I was working as an online movie critic, and I was lucky enough to see it at a preview screening—I almost typed “screaming,” which is a revealing typo—packed with kids. And I don’t think any movie has ever left me feeling happier on leaving the theater, both because the film itself was a masterpiece, and because I knew that every child in the world was going to see it. Ten years later, Toy Story 3 provided the best possible conclusion to the central story, and I don’t think I want any more movies, as much as I want to spend more time with these characters. But the decision to release additional shorts and specials was a masterstroke. For any other franchise, it might have seemed like a cash grab, but I can’t help but read it as an act of generosity: it gives us a little more, but not too much, of what we need. And it makes me a little envious of my own daughter, who, if all goes according to plan, will grow up with Woody, Buzz, Rex, and the rest, not just as beloved characters, but as friends.
Over the past few days, I’ve been engaged in a long conversation with my younger self, using what Stephen King has rightly called the only real form of time travel we have. Years ago, when I left my job in New York to become a professional writer, my first major project was a long novel about India. I spent two years writing and revising it in collaboration with an agent, only to abandon it unpublished in the end for reasons that I’ve described elsewhere. It was a bittersweet experience at best, one that taught me much of what I know about writing, while also leaving me with little to show for it, and as a result, I haven’t gone back and read that novel in a long time—more than four years, in fact. Now that I’ve finished Eternal Empire, however, I’ve got some time on my hands, and one of the first things I wanted to do, since I no longer have a book under contract, is go back and look at that early effort to see whether there’s anything there worth saving. And the prospect of reading this novel again after so long filled me with a lot of trepidation.
In some ways, I doubt I’ll ever have this kind of experience again. This first novel represents the very best that I could do at that time in my career: I lavished everything I had on it for two years of my life, and so it would be surprising, at least to me, if there wasn’t at least something worthwhile there. But I’ve changed a lot in the meantime, too. When I sat down to write my first book, it largely to prove to myself that I could do it at all: I’d never written an original novel before, unless you count the science-fiction epic I cranked out in the summer between seventh and eighth grade, and I’d suffered through several unfinished projects in the meantime. Today, the situation couldn’t be more different: I have something like 350,000 words of professional work behind me, and I’ve gone through the process of writing, cutting, and revising a manuscript with an editor twice, with a third time just around the corner. I’m a better, smarter writer now, and this is probably the only chance I’ll have to confront the best work of my early days with the detachment that four years of distance affords.
And while reading the novel again, I discovered something fascinating: this manuscript, which is the final version of a book that went through countless edits, revisions, and iterations, is basically as good as the first drafts I write today. It isn’t a bad novel by any means: there’s a lot of interesting material, some exciting scenes, and many extended passages of decent writing. But it’s clearly the work of a novice. Most chapters go on for longer than they should; I spell out motivations and subtext rather than leaving them to the reader; and, much to my embarrassment, I even have long sections of backstory. At the time, this was the novel I wanted to write, and since then, my tastes have changed and developed in certain ways, which is precisely how it should be. Yet here’s the funny thing: I still write chapters that are too long, spell things out too explicitly, and tell more than I should about a character’s background. The difference now is that I cut it, usually before I’ve even printed out a copy to mark up with a red pencil. And whatever mistakes that remain tend to be made, and addressed, more quickly.
Which gets me to an important point about progress. There’s no such thing as real progress in the arts, at least as far as storytelling is concerned, but there’s certainly room for an individual author to grow and improve over time—and the best thing that a writer can learn, as they say at Pixar, is that you need to be wrong fast. Sometimes I’m wrong only in my own head, while I’m working out a scene in my mind’s eye, and I’ve corrected the mistake long before I begin to type. More often, I need to write something out first and change it once I realize it isn’t working. But the fact that my first drafts now are as good as my final drafts of a few years ago implies, if nothing else, that I’ve accelerated the process, which is about all a writer can ask. I’m still fundamentally the same person I was when I wrote my first novel, but a lot more efficient, and I’ll be happy as long as I can continue in the same general direction. As David Belle, the founder of parkour, says: “First, do it. Second, do it well. Third, do it well and fast—that means you’re a professional.”
At first glance, it’s hard to imagine two movies more different than Flight and Wreck-It Ralph. The former is an emphatically R-rated message movie with a refreshing amount of nudity, drug and alcohol abuse, and what used to be known as adult situations, in the most literal sense of the term; the latter is a big, colorful family film that shrewdly joins the latest innovations in animation and digital effects to the best of classic Disney. On the surface, they appeal to two entirely separate audiences, and as a result, you’d expect them to coexist happily at the box office, which is precisely what happened: both debuted this weekend to numbers that exceeded even the most optimistic expectations. (This is, in fact, the first weekend in a long time when my wife and I went to the movies on two consecutive nights.) Yet these two films have more in common than first meets the eye, and in particular, they offer an encouraging snapshot of Hollywood’s current potential for creating great popular entertainment. And even if their proximity is just a fluke of scheduling, it’s one that should hearten a lot of mainstream moviegoers.
In fact, for all their dissimilarities, the creative team behind Flight would have been more than capable of making Wreck-It Ralph, and vice-versa, and under the right circumstances, they might well have done so. Flight is Robert Zemeckis’s first live-action movie in years, after a long, self-imposed exile in the motion-capture wilderness, and the script is by John Gatins, who spent a decade trying to get it made, while also slaving away for two years on the screenplay for Real Steel. It’s a handsome movie, old-fashioned in its insistence on big themes and complex characters, but it’s also a product of the digital age: Zemeckis’s Forrest Gump, whatever its other flaws, remains a landmark in the use of unobtrusive special effects to advance the story and fill in a movie’s canvas, and their use here allowed Flight to be brought in on a startlingly low budget of $31 million. At his best, Zemeckis is one of the most technically gifted of mainstream directors, and in some ways, he’s an important spiritual godfather for Wreck-It Ralph, whose true precursor isn’t Toy Story, as many critics have assumed, but Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Similarly, Wreck-It Ralph is the product of a canny, often surprisingly mature set of sensibilities that only happens to have ended up in animation. Along with the usual stable of Pixar and Disney veterans, the creative team includes Rich Moore and Jim Reardon, a pair of directors whose work on The Simpsons collectively represents the best fusion of high and low art in my lifetime, and they’ve given us a movie that appeals to both adults and kids, and not just in the obvious ways. It’s full of video game in-jokes that will fly over or under the heads of many viewers—a reference to Metal Gear Solid represents one of the few times a joke in a movie had the audience laughing while I was scratching my head—but this is really the least impressive aspect of the movie’s sophistication. The script is very clever, with a number of genuinely ingenious surprises, and there are touches here that go well beyond nerd culture to something older and weirder, like Alan Tudyk’s brilliant Ed Wynn impression as the villainous King Candy. (The cast, which includes John C. Reilly, Jack McBrayer, and Sarah Silverman, all of them wonderful, is a modern version of the Disney trick of recruiting old pros like Ed Wynn and Phil Harris to bring its characters to life.)
It’s tempting to say that it all comes down to good storytelling, but there’s something else going on here. Last year, I predicted that the incursion of Pixar talent into live-action movies would represent a seismic shift in popular filmmaking, and although John Carter was a bust, Brad Bird’s work on Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol indicates that I wasn’t entirely off the mark. This weekend’s top two movies are a sign that, at its best, Hollywood is still capable of making solid movies for adults and children that come from essentially the same place—from good scripts, yes, but also from studios and creative teams that understand the potential of technology and draw on a similar pool of skilled professionals. This is how Hollywood should look: not a world neatly divided into summer tentpole pictures, Oscar contenders, and a lot of mediocrity, but a system capable of turning out mainstream entertainment for different audiences linked by a common respect for craft. The tools and the talent are there, led by directors like Zemeckis and backed up by studios like Pixar and Disney. This ought to be the future of moviemaking. And at least for one weekend, it’s already here.
Note: Spoilers follow for Brave.
It pains me to say this, but there’s no other way: I no longer fully trust Pixar. While I’m aware that this may not be a popular opinion, Brave strikes me as their weakest movie of any kind, weaker even than Cars 2. As I said at the time, Cars 2 had big problems, but it was only a rewrite or two away from being a entertaining movie. Brave, by contrast, comes off as fundamentally misconceived, and in ways that raise troubling questions about Pixar’s vaunted storytelling skills. There’s no doubt Pixar takes its storytelling very seriously, and as we saw with the recent list of narrative tips shared by artist Emma Coats, it’s developed a formidable bag of tricks. But in the case of a movie like Brave, such tricks amount to smart tactics in the service of no strategy whatsoever. Much of Brave works fine on its own terms—it’s consistently beautiful, ambitious, and rendered with a lot of love. But the more I think about it, the more it looks like a story that could only be fixed by being thrown out and radically reconceived.
At its heart, Brave‘s story is startlingly simple: a teenage princess, Merida, annoyed by her mother, Queen Elinor, casts a spell that turns her mother into a bear. This isn’t a bad premise in itself, but as handled by Brave, it suffers from three major problems: 1. Neither Merida nor her mother are strongly developed enough as characters to make the latter’s transformation meaningful. We don’t really know Queen Elinor before she’s transformed and can no longer speak, so the long sequences with Merida and Elinor as a bear can’t build on anything that came before. 2. Elinor’s metamorphosis is supposed to bring mother and daughter closer together, but there’s nothing in the situation that reveals anything new about their relationship. It’s just a generic crisis that doesn’t cast any light on the central conflict, which is that Merida is smarting under her mother’s expectations. 3. The movie’s treatment of magic is casual at best, with Merida essentially getting her spell from a witch who dispenses plot points, and the rules are never really explained, which undermines any narrative tension, especially near the end.
It isn’t hard to think of a version of this story that would have worked better than the one we’ve been given. We could make Elinor, not Merida, the central character, which automatically makes her transformation more interesting. We could turn Elinor’s father, the king, into a bear, and have mother and daughter work together to save him. We could have Merida take a rebellious interest in magic, and be drawn to a witch—not the witch we see here, but perhaps someone more like Maleficent—as an alternative mother figure in place of the queen, with disastrous consequences. Or we could even keep the story we have and approach it with a lighter touch, as Miyazaki might have done. Totoro barely has any plot at all, yet the grace of its conception makes it seem elegant rather than half-baked. Brave‘s technical splendor actually works against it here: it’s so visually compelling that it takes us a long time to realize that we’ve been given a rather simpleminded children’s movie, and that the studio gave less effort to exploring Merida’s motivations than it did to developing her hair.
In the end, we’re left with a deeply muddled movie whose constant harping on themes of destiny only makes its confusions all the more clear. Merida, for all her talk about fate, doesn’t seem to have any particular sense of what she wants out of life, and neither does the movie around her. (Just repeating the word “fate” over and over won’t convince us that you have anything interesting to say on the subject.) And the result is a film that seems less like an ordinary misfire than a tragic waste of resources. It’s possible that the change of directors was to blame, or the fact that, contrary to what the filmmakers have said, the studio was so intent on making a movie with a female protagonist and a fairy tale setting that it forgot to make either distinctive—or to see that Tangled had already done a better job. If I’m being hard on Pixar, it’s because it’s capable of far more, and I’m afraid it may see Brave as the best it can do. But it isn’t: it’s the work of a great studio that has lost its way. And only time will tell if Pixar can manage to change its fate.
Earlier this month, the Siskel Center in Chicago began presenting a loving retrospective of the work of Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki, the Japanese animator who, as I’ve argued before, may be our greatest living director in any medium. Of all the contemporary directors whose work I revisit on a regular basis, Miyazaki may be the one who fills me with the most awe, and he’s also the one whose mastery I find hardest to explain. His best films are totally accessible to viewers of all ages, and some, like My Neighbor Totoro, stand out for their apparent simplicity. But while the Pixar style of storytelling can be taken apart and analyzed—at their best, Pixar’s films are beautiful machines of narrative—the work of Miyazaki resists easy explanation. A set of narrative rules tweeted by Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats recently made the rounds online, and they’re full of good advice: “What are the stakes?” “Give your characters opinions.” “Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it.” But what would the rules look like for Miyazaki?
As one possible way in, I’ll start by noting that Miyazaki’s work falls into two different categories, one of which is significantly greater than the other—although I know that a lot of fans would take issue with this. His best work, to my mind, has always been about children: My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, and Ponyo are among the best animated movies ever made, and they’re all significantly different in tone, style, and mood. Totoro is a perfect tone poem about a child’s life in the satoyama, or Japanese countryside, with the gentle rhythms of a bedtime story; Spirited Away is a dense, superbly organized epic of fantasy seen through a child’s eyes; and Ponyo is sort of a hybrid of the two, with scenes of intense joy, humor, and lyricism paired with strange, goofy fantasy. Compared to these three, I find his work centering on older characters—such as Nausicaa, Princess Mononoke, and Howl’s Moving Castle—to be rather less interesting. These movies are often brilliant and visually distinctive, but Miyazaki has many rivals here, while there’s no one who matches him at capturing the inner lives of children.
Spirited Away is my favorite Miyazaki movie, but after watching Totoro again last night, I wonder if it might not be the greater accomplishment. I’ve spoken before about the American need to make movies centered on restless movement—on action that breaks out, to use David Thomson’s words. Spirited Away is almost like a Pixar film in this respect, although infinitely weirder and more graceful: it’s packed with incident, action, and spectacular images. Totoro, by contrast, takes its time. It contains only the tiniest sliver of plot or conflict. For most of the film, its magical creatures are offstage: Totoro himself appears for only a few minutes, and most of the movie is devoted to an idyllic but comparatively realistic depiction of the lives of two little girls. And yet the entire movie is riveting and magical. I can understand how Spirited Away works, but Totoro is beyond words. Ponyo lacks Totoro‘s clean lines, but it, too, is full of gorgeous moments that are impossible to explain but indisputably right.
And the childlike perspective here is crucial, because it allows the film to slow down and take in the world with the eyes of a child to whom everything is interesting. What impresses me the most about Miyazaki these days aren’t his flights of fancy but his attention to the small details of everyday life. In Totoro, he notices how an old door or window sticks slightly before you open it for the first time, or how a girl of ten sleeps more or less like an adult while a girl of four sleeps in a tangle of blankets. Ponyo, in turn, mines poetry out of making ramen or starting a generator after a storm. That kind of perspective, when channeled through years of artistic experience, is truly precious, and I watch Miyazaki’s films again and again just for the chance to relive those moments. The craft on display here isn’t the kind that can be easily taught: it requires a good eye and steady hand as well as a generous heart. It can’t be reduced to a set of rules. But if it could, it wouldn’t be magical, would it?