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Reanimating Pixar: How Pete Docter Steered the Studio Out of Scandal

A look into how Pete Docter steered Pixar, the multibillion-dollar Disney-owned wonder studio, away from scandal and saved its soul. 

In June of 2018, then Disney CEO Bob Iger summoned Pete Docter from the Pixar Animation Studios campus in Emeryville, California, to Disney’s corporate headquarters in Burbank — a building fronted by 19-foot sculptures of characters from Snow White — for a conversation that would seem to be a career pinnacle for any modern animator. For Docter, however, the moment was fraught. “I go down there into that giant building with the dwarves on it and push the elevator button,” Docter says. “I had a suspicion of what he wanted to talk about, and it just hit me. I will be honest, there was a little bit of dread.”

For the previous six months, Pixar, the studio Docter had joined in 1990 as its third animator the day after he graduated from CalArts, had been operating without its founding creative leader, John Lasseter. In November of 2017, Lasseter had taken what was being called a sabbatical from the studio after writing a letter apologizing for unspecified “missteps” amid allegations of unwanted touching. In the resulting tumult, Docter was trying to stay focused on directing an ambitious new film, Soul, after Disney had just accelerated the release date by six months, while also serving on a leadership team convened to keep the studio running in Lasseter’s absence. An introvert who had only ever really wanted to sit at a desk and animate since he was 8, Docter realized as he was riding up in the elevator to Iger’s office that day that he was about to be offered an extraordinary opportunity, to step into Lasseter’s job running a studio that has grossed $14.5 billion at the box office, won 21 Oscars and helped revolutionize its art form.

“I did wonder, ‘If I say no, what happens?’ I don’t want to seem too self-aggrandizing here, but I wasn’t sure who else would do it. And so I said yes,” says Docter, 52, speaking by Zoom from his home in Piedmont, California, in mid-December. Since Pixar moved to working from home, Docter has been using his grown son’s old bedroom as his office, and there are artifacts of teen life, including a collection of stickers from burrito wrappers, scattered around him.

Nineteen months into taking the job, Docter is ushering in a new, more diverse generation of filmmakers at the studio, developing a pipeline of projects to feed Disney’s 13-month-old streaming service, Disney+, and grappling with taking the place of the complicated, larger-than-life figure that Lasseter represented at Pixar. More than any studio executive since Walt Disney, Lasseter was personally associated with the movies his company made, projecting a public persona of a friendly genius in a Hawaiian shirt responsible for Pixar’s unbroken string of critical and commercial successes. Lasseter’s departure during the heat of the #MeToo movement punctured that myth and left Pixar employees anxious and adrift. Since taking the job, Docter has been trying to evolve the company while holding on to the principles of creative risk-taking that enabled him to direct some of the studio’s most inventive movies — Inside Out; Up; Monsters, Inc. and Soul, which premiered on Disney+ over Christmas.

Soul, made with co-director Kemp Powers, features Pixar’s first Black protagonist, a jazz pianist who confronts a typically Docterian existential question: What is the meaning of life? Docter first conceived the idea after his success on Inside Out, which made $857.6 million in 2015 and won the animated feature Oscar. “I started wondering, ‘I don’t know if it’s going to get better than that, so why is it that I still don’t feel like everything’s buttoned up and fixed in my life?’ ” he says. ” ‘It didn’t fix everything. Is there something more I should be doing?’ “

Artist Sketch

For all of Docter’s trepidation about taking Pixar’s top job, the animator was always Lasseter’s heir apparent, according to Ed Catmull, the computer scientist who co-founded Pixar with Steve Jobs in 1986 as a spinoff of Lucasfilm’s computer division and retired as president of Pixar and Disney Animation in 2019. “John had picked him as his successor quite a while ago,” Catmull says. “Pete was the next leader, the one that’s highly loved. I don’t think we talked a lot about it, but it wasn’t a secret that Pete was the one who would step in if something happened to John.” Partly that was because over the years, Docter seemed to wear the mantle of responsibility for Pixar in a personal way. “Among everybody, when things were starting to go off the rails, which happens frequently, Pete was the first one in my office concerned about it,” Catmull says. And while some of his peers like Andrew Stanton and Brad Bird also wanted to make live-action films, Docter was an animation loyalist. “You cut Pete open and inside is a ride from Disneyland and a scene from Lady and the Tramp,” says Stanton. “He just fricking loves animation at its very core.”

Iger agreed that Docter was ideal for the job. “Pete is a gifted artist and storyteller,” he said in an email. “He also has a giant heart, whose guiding leadership principles are kindness, empathy and integrity.”

Trent Reznor, Jon Batiste and Atticus Ross

When Docter took over as chief creative officer, Catmull says, the animator was worried that his more deliberative temperament might not be suitable for such a big job. “Pete came to me once after he had the position and he said he didn’t feel right, because he doesn’t have the same kind of presence in the room that John had,” Catmull says. Lasseter was gregarious — with a take-over-the-room style. “I said, ‘No, and you shouldn’t. People look up to you because you’re thoughtful, you encourage other people, you have a different style, and that’s who you should be.’ But his worry was, ‘Can I fill the shoes?’ “

Lasseter had been more than a boss to Docter — he was also a mentor, friend and groomsman at his wedding. Docter says he has communicated with Lasseter since he left Pixar, but declines to say more. Lasseter, who is now running Skydance Animation, which is scheduled to release its first film, Spellbound, in November, declined to comment for this piece. When Lasseter left, according to Docter’s wife, Amanda, “Pete went through what everybody went through. He was confused. He was hurt. He wasn’t sure what to say, wasn’t sure what not to say. Those times were so hot, that it was just best to keep your mouth shut.” Docter describes the period as “scary.” “[Lasseter] had been such a formative part of the studio,” he says. “When he stepped out, everybody was left with our heads spinning, unsure really how to progress.”

To the outside world, Pixar had largely been defined by Lasseter’s influence. Inside the studio, however, many say his role had diminished since Disney bought Pixar for $7.4 billion in 2006 and he had taken on the additional responsibilities of running Walt Disney Animation Studios, which is now headed by Jennifer Lee, and advising the theme parks division. The perception of Lasseter as a great and powerful Oz inside Pixar was inaccurate, say insiders. “It wasn’t completely the truth of how that studio ran all along,” says Stanton. “There were many names and systems and protocols that made something so huge run. It took a hit and it adjusted.”

Still, there were plenty of reasons for Docter to be anxious when Lasseter departed, including the example of Disney after Walt Disney’s death in 1966, when the studio largely abandoned animation for 20 years. “It was uncharted territory,” Stanton says. “When Walt died, they kind of just limped along and then fell apart until the late ’80s. And so, we didn’t have a model to follow. Nobody to advise. The only thing that we all understood was that [the current leadership] is not going to be around forever, so let’s stop trying to make ourselves essential. If we do our jobs, we will become obsolete. It’s almost like smart, healthy parenting. It’s bittersweet, but it’s the right thing to do if you really truly care about the studio itself.”

Among the issues that Lasseter’s messy departure brought to the fore was the unequal role of women at Pixar. In the 22 years since Toy Story was released, the company had only had one female feature director, Brenda Chapman, whom Lasseter fired from her movie, 2012’s Brave, over creative differences. Pixar’s vaunted brain trust — the creative leaders who shape the studio’s movies in candid notes sessions — was predominantly made up of its past directors, people like Docter, Stanton and Lee Unkrich. “If you only have male directors, then the only people sitting around that table are male,” says Lindsey Collins, who produced Wall-E and Finding Dory and is producing Turning Red, a 2022 film directed by Domee Shi that will be the studio’s first feature from a female filmmaker since Chapman left. “There just weren’t a lot of women in general,” says Shi of starting at Pixar as an intern in 2011. “The women I did meet, I clung to like we were two people on a raft, like, ‘Oh awesome, another nerdy animation girl.’ ” Women at the studio had been quietly pushing for change from within for years. On her own, on the 2017 film Cars 3, script supervisor Jessica Heidt had started tracking how many spoken roles went to male characters versus females and presenting the data to filmmakers after their brain trust screenings. “She would just put a piece of paper on the director’s desk and say, ‘Here’s what’s happening,’ ” Docter says. “And you’d go, ‘Holy cow. Eighty percent of these lines are males. I wasn’t aware of that. I didn’t do that intentionally.’ So just exposing these blind spots and allowing us to fix it.”

Docter had been an advocate for Shi since well before he took the CCO job and played a pivotal role in her career when she was pitching a short film to a room of Pixar executives. Shi had told Docter about the idea when it was a side project she was pursuing while working as one of his story artists: Bao, a film about a lonely Chinese Canadian mother suffering from empty nest syndrome who gets a second chance at motherhood when she makes a steamed bun that comes to life. After hearing feedback from colleagues, Shi had altered the idea in hopes of getting it made as an official Pixar short, ditching the original ending where the mother eats the dumpling. When she pitched the revised idea to the group of Pixar leaders, “I remember Pete standing up and being like, ‘That’s not the version you pitched me,’ ” Shi says. “I was like, ‘Sorry, I changed it because I thought it’d be too dark for Pixar, too weird.’ He turns to the panel and he was like, ‘The original version she pitched was awesome, you guys should see that.’ ” Shi was given a second chance to pitch, the group greenlit her short and Bao went on to win best animated short at the Oscars, with the weird ending.

When Docter ascended to the Pixar leadership role, he and Pixar president Jim Morris formalized the creative advisory teams that had been running the studio during Lasseter’s sabbatical, with a commitment to keep them 50 percent female and diversified in terms of age, race and ethnicity. That meant involving the studio’s producers, a group with many more women, as well inviting story artists, animators and short filmmakers. There are more female directors on the way: In addition to Shi, Aphton Corbin and Rosana Sullivan are female story artists who have directed short films at the studio recently and are now moving into development on features.

In building Soul around a Black protagonist, pianist Joe Gardner, Docter was also breaking with the studio’s past of telling stories around predominantly white lead characters, save for the Mexico-set Coco (Docter’s Up also featured an Asian American boy). The idea originated after Docter, who plays stand-up bass and whose siblings and parents all have careers in music, decided that jazz was an ideal metaphor for the improvisation of life he wanted to explore in the film, and he would make his lead character a jazz musician. “One of our [music] consultants said, ‘Well, if you want to be accurate, jazz should really be called Black improvisational music,’ ” Docter says. “And so we thought, ‘This character should be Black.’ The longer we lived with it the more I realized, ‘This is a bigger issue than the decision that I thought it was. We need help with this.’ ” Pixar enlisted Powers, who had written the play One Night in Miami (now an awards-contending Amazon Studios movie directed by Regina King) and co-written five episodes of Star Trek: Discovery, before ultimately elevating him to be the studio’s first Black co-director.

Soul Crew and Filmmakers

Powers says he felt that part of his role was to bolster the Gardner character, voiced by Jamie Foxx. The role initially had been written as secondary to 22, a cynical soul Joe meets when he dies, voiced by Tina Fey. “It felt incredibly sincere,” Powers says of Docter’s interest in getting Joe Gardner right. “It felt outside of Hollywood. I don’t think there’s an insincere bone in the guy’s body.” After 30 years at Pixar, Docter was used to taking blunt criticism about his work, but race was new terrain. “A number of people gave me feedback like, ‘You seem really scared to talk about race issues,’ ” Docter says. “I am, because I’m afraid I’m going to stick my foot in my mouth and say something dumb and offend somebody. I did along the way, without knowing it, and I learned from other people’s mistakes as well.” Among the tropes Docter unwittingly replicated was that of Black characters in animated movies getting body-swapped out of their bodies, which occurs in Disney’s The Princess and the Frog and Blue Sky Studios’ Spies in Disguise. Although a body-swap element (with a cat) remains in Soul, Powers advocated for it to be diminished in the story, so that Joe retains agency as a character in key emotional scenes, including one with his mother. “The hope is that even though Joe’s not in his body, we see his body,” Docter says, “while spending time in the spaces he would have been anyway, and learning more about him as a character.”

Sketches and models of the non-earthly beings called Jerry that nurture souls 1 Sketches and models of the non-earthly beings called Jerry that nurture souls 1

As to the question of whether it should have been Docter, a white man who grew up in Bloomington, Minnesota, who finally made a Pixar movie with a Black protagonist, Kiri Hart, a Black former Lucasfilm executive who joined Soul as an executive producer and is now producing other films at Pixar, says, “I won’t say, ‘I don’t think Pete Docter should have made this movie,’ because I’m really glad he did. I’m so glad it exists. I would like to see there be an equal amount of opportunity for a person of color to make a movie like this, and I’m cautiously optimistic that we are on that road.”

Disembodied Joe meets the soul 22 (Tina Fey), and they embark on an existential journey common to Docter’s work.

As a director, Docter has told stories of the type rarely tackled by $200 million-plus studio movies, as in Up, which is largely about a widower’s grief, and Inside Out, which is about an adolescent girl’s sadness. “Pete doesn’t ever pick an easy road,” says Stanton, who started at Pixar three months before Docter and remains at the studio as a creative vp. “Pete’s not interested in repeating anything. He wants to invent a new color every time.” Within Pixar, Docter is known for a kind of childlike innocence. When he started making decent money at the studio as a single man, his first big splurge was a cotton candy machine. His second home is a treehouse he built in Lafayette, California.

Back in 2000, when he was frustrated at a meeting about Monsters, Inc., a producer at the studio called his wife, Amanda, to warn her, “Pete’s in such a bad mood he swore in a meeting today.” When he’s ruminating on a problem, Docter takes long walks, usually by himself, with a few note cards and a pen. “He’s not a quick thinker — he’s a deep thinker,” says Amanda, with whom Docter has two children, Nicholas, 24, and Elie, 22, and a Rottweiler named Moochie Spotlight. “In our marriage, if we have a disagreement, I’m fast and furious. And he’s one to say, ‘About that disagreement yesterday, here’s my response.’ “

Once it became clear Lasseter’s sabbatical was in fact a permanent departure and Docter was installed in the role, there was relief around the studio, if not, necessarily, for Docter. He finished Soul in time for its planned summer 2020 theatrical release, despite having seven weeks of production left when the pandemic hit. Disney moved the release date back to November 2020 in hopes that theaters would be open, but when the COVID-19 numbers began spiking again in the fall, Iger called Docter and said he was going to put Soul on Disney+. “That was, just to be honest, a kick in the gut initially,” Docter says. “We finaled every frame on the big screen. We wanted it to be experienced together. That’s still sad. However, where we are now, boy, if he hadn’t made that call, I don’t know that people would’ve seen the movie at all.”

Ian Megibben and Pete Docter

Pixar’s next three features were all greenlit before Docter assumed the CCO job — Luca, a coming-of-age adventure set in Italy directed by Enrico Casarosa, due this summer; Shi’s movie, Turning Red, about a teenager dealing with a family curse that turns her into a giant red panda whenever she gets too excited, due in March 2022; and Lightyear, the origin story of Buzz Lightyear, directed by Angus MacLane, due in summer 2022. “In the past we had a big run of sequels, too many in a row,” says Docter, whose feature green lights have not yet been publicly announced. “Now we have a lot of original stuff, which I’m personally excited about, but for financial safety we probably should have a few more sequels in there. Sometimes it’s tough, because the creative projects have a life of their own, and they either take off or they don’t.”

The streaming service is turning out to be a place for experimentation, including Pixar’s first original longform animated series, Win or Lose, due in 2023. Written and directed by story artists Carrie Hobson and Michael Yates, the series will tell a Rashomon-esque tale from the various points of view of a co-ed middle school softball team over the course of a season. There are also spinoff series from Cars (fall 2020) and Up (fall 2021) and a collection of mini-shorts called Pixar Popcorn, due in January. With the increasing importance of streaming to the studio, says Docter, “We were asked early this year to up our game and produce more. So we stepped up and we’re basically doing as much for streaming as we are in theatrical release.”

In some ways, the demand to produce for Disney+ has brought Pixar back to its more freewheeling early days, Docter says. “At the beginning, when we were doing Toy Story, we didn’t know what we were doing,” he says. “So people would be just off the street. ‘You’re going to be the art department manager.’ Now we would never do that. First you’d have to go through three or four other positions and train. The streaming service has shaken that back up to the earlier days of, ‘OK, we just have to take some chances and go.’ “

Though Lasseter sometimes directed films while running the studio, Docter does not yet have plans to direct again. “The CCO job is not making films,” he says. “It’s guiding other people. I was initially worried that it would be like a tax, taking me away from what I really loved. But it’s been surprisingly rewarding.”

Docter, once one of the youngest animators at the studio, now draws from his 30 years of animation experience to advise younger filmmakers. “I can see their eyes light up and them recognize the truth of what I’m saying, and it helps them get somewhere, and that’s been surprisingly fulfilling to me,” he says. Whether that will be enough to sustain him forever — to soothe those inevitable tugs of existential ennui he so frequently explores onscreen — he can’t yet say. “Whether it’ll be enough in the long run, or if I’m going to be jonesing to get back to directing, I don’t know. We’ll have to see.”

***

Animation Revolution: A Pixar Timeline
By Carolyn Giardina

1979: George Lucas enlists pioneering computer scientist Ed Catmull to lead Lucasfilm’s Computer Division, whose work includes developing graphics technology.

1986: Steve Jobs purchases Lucasfilm’s Computer Division and launches it as a company called Pixar.

1986: Two-minute short Luxo Jr. — which introduced the iconic desk lamp in the Pixar logo — screens at computer graphics confab SIGGRAPH. The film, John Lasseter’s directorial debut, is lauded as a breakthrough and becomes the first 3D computer-animated production to earn an Academy Award nomination, winning the Oscar for best animated short.

Luxo Jr. (1986)

1995: Toy Story, the first fully computer-animated feature film, debuts Nov. 22 and ultimately earns over $245 million worldwide. It launches Pixar’s most iconic franchise, led by characters Woody and Buzz Lightyear. A week later, on Nov. 28, Pixar’s initial public offering becomes the year’s largest IPO, doubling its stock price on its first trading day and making Steve Jobs a billionaire.

John Lasseter and wife Nancy Trague

2006: Under CEO Bob Iger, Disney buys Pixar in a $7.4 billion deal. Catmull is named president of both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios. Lasseter becomes chief creative officer of both entities.2008En route to winning the best animated feature Oscar, Wall-E becomes the first animated film to be named best picture by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.

Walt Disney CEO Bob Iger and Steve Jobs

2009: Docter’s Up is the first animated feature film to open Cannes. He goes on to win the Academy Award for best animated feature (it also wins for its score), and Up becomes the second animated feature to be Oscar-nominated for best picture, following 1991’s Beauty and the Beast.

2010: Toy Story 3 grosses more than $1 billion worldwide and becomes the third animated feature to earn a best picture Oscar nomination. It wins two trophies, including best animated feature.2017Amid the #MeToo movement, Lasseter takes a leave of absence from Pixar after acknowledging unspecified “missteps” in a memo to staff.

2018: Docter succeeds Lasseter as Pixar’s chief creative officer.

2019: Catmull retires.Disney+ debuts in November, powered by the Pixar library and new content including Forky Asks a Question and several Pixar shorts.

2020: Because of the ongoing pandemic, Soul forgoes a theatrical release and instead debuts over Christmas on Disney+, now viewed as vital to Disney’s future success and a launching pad for much of Pixar’s coming content.

The Hollywood Reporter Cover 1

This story first appeared in the Jan. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.