What Makes Pixar Work?

Deborah Coleman/Pixar

A modern-day Walt Disney, John Lasseter, along with Steve Jobs and Ed Catmull, has overseen 11 straight blockbusters (and is hoping for a 12th in Cars 2) thanks to a tight-knit creative culture and superb technology that doesn't get in the way of the 'small-town values' that put story first.

Six decades ago, Walt Disney had a vision.

He would build a kingdom of his own, impervious to the outside world, in which children and families and fellow believers could revel in the kind of fantasy and small-town American values -- real or not -- that he so loved.

Now, John Lasseter has done the same.

Step into the vast wood-and-steel atrium of Pixar Animation Studios' headquarters in Emeryville, Calif., the company Lasseter co-created some 400 miles north of Los Angeles, and you leave reality behind.

Images and characters from Pixar's movies dominate the place, just as they do at Disneyland. Dizzyingly cheerful workers rave about the subsidized food and free classes on everything from clay modeling to Pilates. Two subtly controlling publicists steer this reporter around, careful never to let me uncover a voice of dissent -- though it would probably be impossible to find one.

This is the epicenter of Pixar's universe, the base of a company that has delivered 11 back-to-back global hits, defined a new era of American animation, earned more than $6.5 billion at the box office and is celebrating its 25th year. And it's very much Lasseter's creation.

"I love it," he says. "I know, going to work every day, I'm going to see something I have never seen before. Twenty-five years at Pixar, and it's been f--ing great."

The loosey-goosey vibe, however, is something of an illusion. Creativity is free-flowing here, discipline more so. On the premises, some areas are actually blocked off, with signs warning visitors not to enter. This is where Pixar's ultra-secret future projects are developed. The company's parent, Disney, recently announced that a Pixar film will be released Nov. 27, 2013 -- and no details were given. Not a single one leaked out.

At the helm of this enterprise is Lasseter, 54, a self-proclaimed "geek" with a wife and five sons, who dresses in omnipresent Hawaiian shirts and jeans.

Sandy-haired and bespectacled, with just a hint of a Western drawl (he grew up in Whittier, 25 miles outside L.A.), he looks like the kind of guy perpetually ready for a neighborhood barbecue rather than the founder of a company (with Ed Catmull and Apple's Steve Jobs) that sold to Disney for $7.4 billion five years ago.

Now a power player at Disney, where he heads all theatrical animation while also serving as chief creative officer at Pixar, Lasseter has far-reaching influence. He executive produced the $591 million grosser Tangled and has even been brought in to advise on theme park rides and live-action projects. Along the way, he has played a role in movies that have won a combined 29 Academy Awards.

For Disney Studios chairman Rich Ross, Lasseter's importance is self-evident. "Clearly, [Disney president and CEO] Bob Iger bought this company with the idea he was buying the best," he says.

Lasseter has stamped his vision on films that blend futuristic technology with an almost 1950s view of America. You could call it part two of the Walt Disney fantasy, just with better equipment. And now, with the June 24 release of Cars 2, the first movie he has directed since its 2006 predecessor, he has created one of his most visually ambitious ventures.

The complex plot -- which reunites race car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) with rustic tow truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) in an international series of races with a spy story as subplot -- was rendered using 14,500 computer processors, three times as many as used on Toy Story 3. Reps for Pixar won't reveal the cost, estimated at around $200 million.

The film comes at a crossroads for animation. Recent disappointments have ranged from Mars Needs Moms to Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole, and 3D, which many regard as a savior, has entered the "terrible twos," in the words of Jeffrey Katzenberg, head of rival DreamWorks Animation. And nearly every studio, from Katzenberg's to 20th Century Fox, is fighting for a chunk of what used to be Disney's domain alone: children's movies.

Despite this, Pixar is unique in its perfect record of hit after hit -- especially in the global market, where revenue for Toy Story 3 was $648.2 million, compared with $415 million domestically. The Cars franchise alone has generated $10 billion in retail sales worldwide, according to the studio's general manager, Jim Morris. And Lasseter's easygoing manner shouldn't disguise the force that has brought this about.

Eddie Izzard, who plays the villainous Sir Miles Axlerod in Cars 2, says Lasseter's style is definitive: "He'll say, 'This is what I want; this is what's going to happen,' as opposed to, 'I hope this works well.' "

Everything for Lasseter starts with story -- "story is king," you'll hear over and over from the "Pixarians" who repeat his mantras as if he truly is a modern-day Disney. The plot for Cars 2 originated with Lasseter himself, the son of a Chevrolet parts manager, who conceived it during an international tour for the first film.

Unlike live-action movies -- where, ideally, the screenplay is locked down before preproduction gets under way -- at Pixar, the story, technical issues and images are developed in unison. Thus, as Lasseter refined the script, production designer Harley Jessup was already creating sets and artists were preparing storyboards to be cut together into rough reels with preliminary dialogue.

These reels would be dissected by Pixar's "brain trust" -- its top directors and producers -- until they all agreed the story was right.

Later, two directors of photography would handle the layout and lighting: Jeremy Lasky would arrange how each sequence was staged and broken into shots; Sharon Calahan would supervise lighting for each grayish image as it was given to her by the animation artists, effectively painting it to add color and depth, helped by a staff of 58.

Research is crucial to Pixar's process, and here it involved two trips: a 2007 outing by Lasseter and three others, who went to the Italian Grand Prix then drove to the Frankfurt Auto Show; and a second in 2008, when a team of eight traveled to the key locales that would be used in the film, including Tokyo, London and the Italian Riviera.

Screenwriter Ben Queen soon moved into "the story room with all the story artists, so everyone was working in collaboration," says Lasseter.

Equally important was the special effects team that would forward Pixar's dazzling technical work, especially creating realistic water for an opening sequence in which a James Bond-like car discovers a series of vast oil rigs at sea. That necessitated "fluid simulation," says supervising technical director Apurva Shah, referring to a computerized rendering of how water would operate in certain circumstances, put in place by a Pixar staffer with a Ph.D. on the very subject of fluid simulation -- one example of the lengths to which Pixar goes to perfect its products.

Shah notes, "He spent three months on that shot alone, which lasts maybe six seconds."

The 3D aspect of the film was relatively easy -- a much simpler task in animation than live action, and one to which Lasseter remains passionately committed. "I've always been a big fan of 3D," he says. "I got married in 1988 and even took our wedding photos in 3D."

But moving forward, the question of 3D is less important than a larger one: whether Pixar has fallen back on sequels at the expense of originals.

Insists Lasseter, "The culture of Pixar is really a culture of pioneering."

Perhaps. And yet there are ways in which Pixar has failed to pioneer: It has been called out for the relative absence of women from its movies and executive ranks -- "Next time, could you add a girl?" Salon.com quipped -- though a rep for the company notes its next three films will be produced by women.

It's hard to ignore the fact that the only woman named to helm a Pixar movie, Brenda Chapman, last year was fired from Brave, its first film with a female lead. That was rapidly followed by Reese Witherspoon's exit as the lead.

What happened to Chapman remains unclear. Catmull, now Pixar's president, says "she is still working with the company" and will share directing credit but adds that they "got someone else to take it over the finish line." Lasseter declines to comment, except to cite "creative differences."

Darla K. Anderson, who produced Toy Story 3 and is a member of Pixar's brain trust, says the problem reaches beyond the company. Partly, she says, it's due to how slowly women have entered animation; partly, "It's this vicious cycle: In the world of filmmaking, we have an overarching issue with getting women comfortable in the driver's seat, and I don't think that's particular to Pixar."

Lasseter himself has been guided by at least one strong woman: his mother, an art teacher who encouraged him to pursue animation when he enrolled in the California Institute of the Arts' brand-new character animation program in 1975.

The only person to win two student Academy Awards for best animated short, he soon landed as an animator at his dream destination, Disney (he also worked on Disneyland's Jungle Cruise ride), but was fired in 1984 after questioning the stultifying procedures.

"I've always loved all things Disney," he says now. "It's why I do
what I do."

Luckily, Lasseter's reputation preceded him, and Catmull, a computer scientist who had pioneered CG and was working with George Lucas at Lucasfilm, asked him to join them.

When Lucas decided to unload his computer graphics division in 1986, Apple founder Jobs bought it for a mere $5 million. He renamed it Pixar. Together, Jobs, Catmull and Lasseter would head the new venture, whose computer work was expected to be lucrative in the medical field, rather than animation, because data from two-dimensional CAT scans could be turned into rotatable 3D images.

It's intriguing to discover just how involved Jobs has been with Pixar.

Director Pete Docter remembers running into him in Hawaii when Docter was wrestling with the creation of Monsters, Inc. "He said: 'Do you have a minute? Let's go for a walk.' I thought he was going to tell me how wonderful I'm doing. Instead, it was the opposite. He said, 'I'm not sure this is working out, and you need to pull things together.' After that, I didn't sleep the rest of the vacation!"

Lee Unkrich, who directed Toy Story 3, recalls a time when Jobs was presented with marketing ideas for the film. Jobs cut straight to the chase. "Just use the number 3 [in the posters]," Jobs told him. "That says it all."

"Back in the days when he was around the company more," Unkrich says, "we had a screening of A Bug's Life, and Steve came to that. We were all sitting around the table and Steve said, 'Look, I've got this one note: I'm not caring about this character.' There was some tension. But once we got past that, it was a good note. It led us to talk about the issue and figure out how to fix it. When Steve gave creative notes, they were very simple and from a very high level."

Despite this, the years that followed Jobs' purchase were anything but easy. It soon became apparent that a key element of Pixar's business, the high-end computer for the medical community, wasn't generating the necessary revenue, so in 1990 Pixar abandoned it, focusing solely on animation.

For years, though, the company remained on the brink of collapse, saved by Jobs' money alone, until Disney agreed to fund its first release, 1995's Toy Story, as part of a three-picture deal. Fifteen years later, Toy Story 3 would gross $1.06 billion worldwide, earn five Oscar nominations and take home two.

On June 18, Lasseter walked the red carpet for Cars 2. Just before the premiere at Hollywood's El Capitan Theatre, he showed a trailer for Brave and a short based on the Toy Story franchise that will screen in theaters as an opener for Cars 2.

Shorts are integral to Pixar's process; they're where new directors and ideas are honed. And Lasseter's own short Luxo Jr., the first film made by Pixar in 1986, not only gave life to an inanimate desk lamp that now features as part of its logo but also showed the world just what computerized animation could do.

What Pixar does moving forward will be seen when Cars 2 opens June 24, followed by Brave in 2012 and Monsters University -- along with the yet-to-be-identified project -- in 2013.

But even as it expands its releases from one annually to three every two years, Pixar is going to have to figure out how to embark on its next 25 years with the much-reduced presence of a pivotal player.

Jobs, the man Lasseter calls a "brother," is nowhere near as involved as he was, both because he's on Disney's board and because of the health problems that have bedeviled him. But Lasseter's own mission remains clear.

"[Steve]'s the one who was the visionary, businesswise," says Lasseter. "He saw how this could be. He had his hand on the rudder of the ship. He only asked one thing of me: to make it great."            

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