Monday, September 21, 2015

Pixar Filmography, Volume 1: Doing the Impossible or, A Collaboration of People on “a bug’s life” and “Toy Story 2"

It’s No Small World
Prior to Toy Story’s release in 1995, the film’s main story writers—director John Lasseter, the late Joe Ranft, Andrew Stanton, and Pete Docter—got together for a now-famous lunch to discuss other ideas, optimistic that they might have the opportunity to make another movie. A film about bugs was one of those ideas, and became their next feature film. (The other ideas consisted of monsters, fish, and a robot, respectfully.)

It was a challenge for Pixar not just technologically, but to see if they could be as sophisticated and enthused as they were for their first movie. As with any sophomoric effort, they set out to prove they were serious and caring about the work they did. At the same time, they didn’t want to repeat themselves. This is no different than in Walt Disney’s day and age during the late 1930s and early 1940s, when he and his studio followed up Snow White (1937) with such ambitious projects as Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), and Bambi (1942), in terms of maintaining a sense of creativity and innovation.

With a bug’s life (loosely based on the Aesop fable “The Ant and the Grasshopper”), the filmmakers created an organic and complex world full of color and scale (outdoor, natural environments, presented in widescreen!), witty humor, and a cast of thousands of insects of all shapes and sizes. (No human characters are in this film, for the record.) According to TIME magazine in 2004, “it took 12 times the computer power of ‘Toy Story’ to make [this film].” As with Toy Story, the filmmakers took advantage of an idea that is familiar to the audience, and then took it to a whole other level by telling a story that proved to be, according to advertisements, “an epic of miniature proportions.”

Flik embarks on an epic adventure
The film follows a misfit inventor ant named Flik, who insists on going out into the world and finding “bigger bugs” to fight off grasshopper adversaries that threaten his colony. He does find help in the form of “warrior bugs,” who turn out to be misfit circus performers. What follows are a series of ironies and misunderstandings and perceptions of others, which add to the complexity and wittiness already on display.

From the beginning, it’s clear the ant colony is held down by conformity and expectations from the adversary grasshoppers, led by the menacing Hopper. Flik wants to make a difference in his community, but is looked down on for his unconventional ways. At the same time, Princess Atta is in the process of becoming queen, yet stressing and worrying over how her role may impact those around her. Her younger sister Dot has aspirations herself, yet is held back because of her small stature. And the cast of circus performers—including Slim the walking stick, Heimlick the Bavarian caterpillar, Francis the male ladybug, Rosie the black widow spider, Dim the rhinoceros beetle, Manny the praying mantis, Gypsy the gypsy moth, and twin pill bugs Tuck & Roll—all long for meaningful lives. The film displays, both in the story and on the filmmakers’ parts, an amazing amount of team effort and community as the ant colony (and the circus troupe) come together in unexpected ways to show what they’re made of and what they’re meant for.

Bugs taking to the sky
This is arguably one of the most under-appreciated films in Pixar’s canon. And even though it was only their second feature, it was nonetheless a challenging and fun effort (as director Lasseter and company recounted years later) that proved the studio wasn’t just a one-hit wonder with Toy Story, and therefore had other stories to tell outside the toy box. For extra fun, Pixar created animated “outtakes” (something they did for their next two films as well).

The Toys Are Back
Following Bugs, Toy Story 2 proved an even greater challenge. Initially made for direct-to-video release by a second-unit team at the studio, the story proved so good that they decided to revamp it for theatrical release. However, Lasseter and company found the current result “not very good” and made the daunting decision to scrap and rewrite the entire film nine months before its scheduled release date of November 1999.

The sequel follows a team effort by Buzz Lightyear, Mr. Potato Head, Rex the dinosaur, Hamm the piggy bank, and Slinky Dog to rescue Woody from a greedy toy collector, who plans to ship Woody and a collection of “Roundup Gang” dolls (newcomers Jessie the cowgirl, Bullseye the horse, and Stinky Pete the Prospector) to a toy museum in Japan. Woody finds the notion of living forever in a museum tempting, as he has begun to fear that his owner, Andy, will someday outgrow him and he won’t be played with anymore. One could argue that a theme in this film is choosing between what is popular (being a prized item in a museum) and what is real (being loved by a child).

Buzz and company are out to bring Woody home
Like Bugs, this film improves on its predecessor in scale and locations, going from Andy’s room to the big city, from “Al’s Toy Barn” to an elevator vent to the local airport and beyond. Other new characters include Wheezy the asthmatic but loveable penguin, Buster the dog, Tour Guide Barbie, another deluded Buzz Lightyear toy, Emperor Zurg (an obvious parody of Darth Vader), and greedy toy collector Al (a brilliant showcase for Pixar’s improvement in human animation). There’s also plenty of fun and entertainment for kids and adults, including some clever homages to classic films as Star Wars, Jurassic Park and Rear Window, for the latter. A few subplots include a 50s T.V. western, as well as a contemporary space video game Rex obsesses over. The filmmakers even decided to incorporate original ideas from the first movie back into this film (e.g., Woody’s nightmare about being thrown away, and an opening Buzz Lightyear cartoon).

More importantly, Toy Story 2 tells a deeper story involving the relationships between toys and their owners, and what the former are meant for. Jessie’s backstory scene, featuring “When She Loved Me” by Sarah McLachlan, is especially bittersweet and heartbreaking, and arguably set a new benchmark for Pixar in terms of emotional resonance beyond the medium of animation.

Cast of Toy Story 2
The fact that everyone involved in the making of this film improved on the original and made it even more emotionally-involving and successful is a testament to their determination and dedication. For one thing, it was a box-office success when it was released on Thanksgiving of 1999, earning double the amount of its predecessor. It also received a 100 percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and is considered by many critics to be a rare sequel that lives up to or exceeds the original. That’s not to say that making the film took an extreme toll on the crew, which it reportedly did. Furthermore, both Bugs and TS2 represent not just the enormous amount of technological breakthrough in the film industry, but also the enormous amount of group effort that was given into making great quality products.

To reiterate what Lasseter said during the first Toy Story, “It’s the people that created this picture” (my emphasis). Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull agrees, “The important thing is not the idea. The important thing is the people. It’s how they work together.” And it was this message and lesson that would lead to the creation of a new studio where everyone at Pixar could work, interact, and play under one roof, and give other filmmakers opportunities to bring their own stories to life.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Pixar Filmography, Volume 1: "Toy Story" (1995)

September 14, 2015

From the beginning, the goal and dream of Pixar Animation Studios was to create the world’s first computer animated film. The journey began with making short films and commercials throughout the Eighties and into the early Nineties, in order to develop the software and other tools they needed to get there. Following their original short films, they initially conceived a half-hour Christmas special starring the character Tinny from their short “Tin Toy” before making a feature-length movie. However, the Disney Studio was so floored by this idea of toys coming to life that they gave Pixar the greenlit to achieve their dream.

Toy Story, released in November of 1995 to critical and commercial acclaim worldwide, was the culmination of art, computer science, and storytelling. With that in mind, story and characters came first to the technology. And while the latter was revolutionary in terms of character designs, lighting, sound, and so forth, the former gained emotional investment from audiences and critics, just as Walt Disney’s Snow White had done for them courtesy classic hand-drawn animation in 1937.

The story is a buddy picture, set in a modern and contemporary world where toys come to life when children aren’t looking. (Fitting that the filmmakers chose toys since, on computers at the time, plastic looked believable and life-like.) Favorite toy Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), who has been comfortable in his position as room leader, experiences the angst of being replaced when child-owner Andy gets a new toy for his sixth birthday. The arrival of Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Tim Allen) creates jealousy and rivalry on Woody’s part—as well as annoyance, considering that Buzz really thinks he’s a “space ranger” and not a “child’s plaything”—and eventually makes him hated among the other toys when Buzz accidentally (and unintentionally) gets thrown out the bedroom window. Soon, the duo land inside the home of toy-torturing next-door neighbor Sid, every toy’s worst nightmare. It’s interesting that the story has a family move as juxtaposition with the lead character development of Woody and Buzz, and the stakes, really moving forward. The only way Woody and Buzz learn they can escape and get back home is together as a team.

As mentioned before, the film deals with the fear of being replaced; the consequences of jealousy, selfishness and rivalry; and the importance of teamwork and friendship. The film also deals with accepting our identities and characters as we really are, such as in the scene where Buzz is depressed over the fact that he’s “just a toy” and feels worthless. But it’s Woody who encourages him that being a toy is more meaningful that being something we’re not. “Over in that house,” says the toy sheriff, “is a kid who thinks you are the greatest, and it’s not because you’re a space ranger, it’s because . . . you are his toy.” Therefore, one could argue that this story is Buzz’s journey as well as Woody’s, in terms of coming to face with life outside their own little worlds or realities (e.g, Andy’s bedroom for Woody, and “space ranger” delusions for Buzz) and choosing to be the best they can be for the sake of not only each other and the other toys, but more specifically for the little boy they belong to.

As an entertaining piece of 90s nostalgia, Toy Story succeeds, with unforgettable characters as Mr. Potato Head, Hamm the piggy bank, Rex the timid dinosaur, Slinky Dog, Bo Peep, the green army men, and the little green aliens. And who could forget the site of Pizza Planet (including the truck, which has since made a cameo in just about every Pixar film), Sid’s room (which one critic described as Geppeto’s workshop modeled by Stephen King), and the climactic moving truck chase sequence? Like “Snow White,” the most incredible thing about “Toy Story” is how very good a movie it is. And it was only the beginning of something new, “to infinity and beyond.”

Pixar Filmography, Volume 1: The Short Films

September 14, 2015

With Inside Out and the upcoming The Good Dinosaur released in theaters this year, Pixar Animation Studios celebrates twenty years of feature films since the release of Toy Story in 1995. It’s also been nearly thirty years since the company was founded and began making short films and commercials.

It began as a team under George Lucas’s Lucasfilm company, known for creating computer software to further push the limits of what technology in film was capable of since the original Star Wars in 1977. Key team members included Pixar co-founders Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith, as well as William Reeves, Eben Odsby, and John Lasseter. The first short (technically under Lucasfilm) was "The Adventures of Andre and Wally B." (1984), directed by Smith, and features an android character taunted by a large bumble bee. Not only did the short create a bright and lush forest environment, but also believable and engaging characters that could comically squash and stretch as they would in hand-drawn animation.

"Andre and Wally B."
"Luxo, Jr."
"Luxo, Jr.", Pixar’s first official short after being founded in 1986 (Apple co-founder Steve Jobs purchased the group from Lucasfilm in February that same year), centers on a large Luxo lamp and a smaller one as the latter chases and plays with a rubber ball. Directed by Lasseter (a classically-trained Disney animator who went on to direct the group’s next few short films, in collaboration with Reeves and Odsby in particular), “Luxo” received a standing ovation when it was presented at the SIGGRAPH computer technology conference in 1986, and eventually became the first computer-animated short to receive an Academy Award nomination. The title character would go on to become the company’s mascot, and even made appearances on segments of “Sesame Street.”

"Red's Dream"
"Red's Dream" (1987), the first short to use Pixar’s new rendering system at the time, is a noir-like story about a lonely, store-bound unicycle (colored red) who dreams of a life in the circus. It was one of the first uses of water effects in a computer-animated film, as well as Pixar’s first attempt at creating an organic human-like character (in this case, a circus clown).

"Tin Toy"
"Tin Toy" (1988) proved to be the most complex for the animators. Featuring the most characters (including a human baby, a one-man band toy named Tinny, and a host of other playthings hiding under a couch) and shots for a computer-animated short, this Academy Award-winner also inspired what would become the world's first entirely-CGI feature film.

"Knick Knack"
"Knick Knack" (1989) was said to be the most collaborative and fun-filled of the shorts, as it features a tiny snowman who tries repeatedly (in Wile E. Coyote fashion), but to no avail, to break out of his snow globe and join the other knick-knacks on the shelf. It was also the last of the shorts made before Pixar would commit the next few years to the aforementioned feature film. The rest is history.

WRITER'S NOTE (September 21, 2015): The original version of "Knick Knack" featured a Miami girl knick knack and a Mermaid one that were big-breasted and very risque. For the revised version that appeared before “Finding Nemo” in theaters in 2003, these elements were fortunately changed to make the short more family-friendly. However, very quick shots of the former uncensored elements appear very briefly in "Toy Story 2," during the scene where Hamm the piggy bank channel-surfs the T.V. at lightening speed.