Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Shrek

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

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