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Pixar: The studio, its history and process

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SDG   

Um. Really?

The Hidden Message in Pixar’s Films (Discover Blogs - Science Not Fiction)

Now, this is not your standard “Disney movies hide double-entendres and sex imagery in every film” hidden message. “So,” you ask, incredulous, “What could one of the most beloved and respected teams of filmmakers in our generation possibly be hiding from us?”

The relationship between humans and the non-human characters is critical to understanding Pixar’s movies. There are certain rules in Pixar movies that make things far more interesting than the average Disney fairy tale. The first is that there is no magic. No problems are caused or fixed by the wave of a wand. Second, every Pixar film happens in the world of human beings (see why I excluded Cars? It’s ridiculous and out of character for Pixar). Even in films like a A Bug’s Life and Finding Nemo, in which humans only exist as backdrops for the action, humanity’s presence in the story is essential. The first two rules are pretty direct: the universe Pixar’s characters inhabit is non-magical and co-inhabited by humans.

The third rule is that at least one main character is an intelligent being that isn’t a human. This rule is a bit complex, so let’s flesh it out. ...

In each Pixar film, at least one member of the team is human and at least one member is not human but possesses human levels of intelligence.

You can see where I’m going here. Particularly in WALL•E, Ratatouille and Up! there is no ambiguity about the reality of intelligence in the non-human characters. Each Pixar film asks us to accept one deviation from our reality. While it seems like the deviation is different in every case (e.g. monsters are real, robots can fall in love, fish have a sense of family, Kevin is a girl, a rat can cook), the simple fact is that Pixar only asks us to accept one idea over and over and over again:

Non-humans are sentient beings. That is the central difference between Pixar’s universe and our current reality.

That idea alone would suffice to show that Pixar films are all but propaganda for the concept of non-human personhood. But that is where the hidden message begins. ...

Taken together as a whole narrative, the Pixar canon diagrams what will likely this century’s main rights battle – the rights of personhood – in three stages.

First are the Humans as Villain stories, in which the non-humans discover and develop personhood. I mean, Buzz Lightyear’s character arc is about his becoming self-aware as a toy. These films represent nascent personhood among non-human entities. For the viewer, we begin to see how some animals and items we see as mindless may have inner lives of which we are unaware.

Second are the Humans as Partners stories, in which exceptional non-humans and exceptional humans share a moment of mutual recognition of personhood. The moment when Linguini realizes Remy is answering him is second only to the moment when Remy shows Ego around the kitchen – such beautiful transformations of the Other into the self. These films represent the first forays of non-human persons into seeking parity with human beings.

Third, and finally, there is The Incredibles, which turns the personhood equation on its head. Instead of portraying the struggle for non-humans to be accepted as human, The Incredibles shows how human enhancement, going beyond the human norm, will trigger equally strong reactions of revulsion and otherization. The message, however, is that the human traits we value have nothing to do with our physical powers but are instead based in our moral and emotional bonds. Beneficence and courage require far more humanity than raw might. The Incredibles teaches a striking lesson: human enhancement does not make you inhuman – the choices you make and the way you treat others determines how human you really are.

The message hidden inside Pixar’s magnificent films is this: humanity does not have a monopoly on personhood. In whatever form non- or super-human intelligence takes, it will need brave souls on both sides to defend what is right. If we can live up to this burden, humanity and the world we live in will be better for it.

Rebuttal -- but not from the angle you might expect.

Pixar Films And Non-Human Intelligences (FuturePundit)

Writing for Discover's "Science Not Fiction" blog Kyle Munkittrick reviews films made by Pixar and finds a hidden message in Pixar films about the need to respect and accept non-human intelligences. I see this message as more likely to do us a disservice than to make our future brighter.

This is a modern technological version of the rather old Golden Rule "Do unto others.." It is an old rule as a couple of quotes from the Christian New Testament demonstrate: Luke 6:31 "Do to others as you would have them do to you." and Matthew 7:21. Also, the rule supposedly pops up in a variety of religions. But while reciprocity is great if you can get it, following the Golden Rule is no guarantee that others will reciprocate. When it comes to non-human (especially artificial) intelligences the odds of reciprocity go way down.

Personhood isn't possible without intelligence. But intelligence is only a necessary - and not a suffcient - condition for personhood. Brave humans (contra Pixar) will not make other forms of intelligence into moral agents who are motivated to respect us.

NY Times science writer Nicholas Wade (or his editor) asked "Is ‘Do Unto Others’ Written Into Our Genes?" in his review of Jonathan Haidt's book The Happiness Hypothesis. My answer: Of course. And there lies the problem with the Golden Rule extended to other species of biological life and, especially, machine intelligences. There's no guarantee that other forms of intelligence will have the instinctive desire to engage in reciprocal exchanges with us.

At least biological life forms that are social creatures will very likely have some instinct toward reciprocity. But machine intelligences could manage to escape the ethical programming that humans will try to give them. Since machine intelligences are most likely to be the non-human intelligences that we will encounter in the next 50 years we should be worried about whether we will be able to keep them friendly toward us.

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Tyler   

In the Narnia books, a non-human being is God, revealing Lewis's insidious agenda that not only are non-humans animals sentient (see Reepicheep), but they are in fact superior, possessing a divine status humans are unable to reach themselves.

Link to the Transcendent Man thread, which is sort of about these ideas.

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Amid Amidi @ Cartoon Brew:

Semi-disturbing fact from an
in the Wall Street Journal: He received 74 rounds of applause in the course of
a single day
at the studio! According to the paper, “During the day’s five half-hour-long and two hour-long meetings, each time Lasseter signed off on a scene the room erupted.” I usually get one round whenever I leave a room, but dozens every day is just plain nuts.

It obviously begs the question, What happens if you don’t clap?

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Untitled Pixar film opens Nov. 27, 2013.

Disney's next Pixar pic is November 27, 2013. It's an original project, not a sequel -- and it doesn't have a title yet. And that's all Disney is saying. Now who knows more info?

Brave? Or something else?

Edited by Overstreet

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Overstreet wrote:

: Brave? Or something else?

No, Brave already has a release date in 2012. And Monsters University comes out in the summer of 2013. So it's something else. (And if I'm not mistaken, unless they rejig the release dates again, this would mark the first time two Pixar features have come out in the same year.)

Hmmm. Maybe the reason this film is currently untitled is because Pixar has gotten so fond of shortening its movie titles that it decided to release a film without any title whatsoever. ;)

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Amid Amidi @ Cartoon Brew:

Semi-disturbing fact from an
in the Wall Street Journal: He received 74 rounds of applause in the course of
a single day
at the studio! According to the paper, “During the day’s five half-hour-long and two hour-long meetings, each time Lasseter signed off on a scene the room erupted.” I usually get one round whenever I leave a room, but dozens every day is just plain nuts.

It obviously begs the question, What happens if you don’t clap?

It sounds like they were applauding the fact that Lasseter was signing off on the scenes (meaning that the scenes were — finally — done) rather than Lasseter per se. If I'd been working on a movie for a couple years, I'd probably clap for that myself.

Edited by bowen

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bowen wrote:

: It sounds like they were applauding the fact that Lasseter was signing off on the scenes (meaning that the scenes were — finally — done) rather than Lasseter per se. If I'd been working on a movie for a couple years, I'd probably clap for that myself.

That possibility occurred to me -- and is, indeed, suggested by some in the comments -- but note, also, the comment by Floyd Norman, who has been working with Disney-Pixar off-and-on since Uncle Walt's day (since Sleeping Beauty, I think): "We’ve turned a professional business into high school. Can you imagine Walt and the old men putting up with such nonsense?" To which he later added: "For those who think the same thing went on back in the old days… the answer is no. Walt didn’t put up with such nonsense and he sure the hell didn’t give compliments."

Edited by Peter T Chattaway

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SDG   
: It sounds like they were applauding the fact that Lasseter was signing off on the scenes (meaning that the scenes were — finally — done) rather than Lasseter per se. If I'd been working on a movie for a couple years, I'd probably clap for that myself.

That possibility occurred to me -- and is, indeed, suggested by some in the comments -- but note, also, the comment by Floyd Norman, who has been working with Disney-Pixar off-and-on since Uncle Walt's day (since Sleeping Beauty, I think): "We’ve turned a professional business into high school. Can you imagine Walt and the old men putting up with such nonsense?" To which he later added: "For those who think the same thing went on back in the old days… the answer is no. Walt didn’t put up with such nonsense and he sure the hell didn’t give compliments."

Well, but does Floyd Norman's opinion make one model better than another? Is a professional business environment necessarily preferable to a fun, informal one? What's wrong with compliments?

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bowen wrote:

: It sounds like they were applauding the fact that Lasseter was signing off on the scenes (meaning that the scenes were — finally — done) rather than Lasseter per se. If I'd been working on a movie for a couple years, I'd probably clap for that myself.

That possibility occurred to me -- and is, indeed, suggested by some in the comments -- but note, also, the comment by Floyd Norman, who has been working with Disney-Pixar off-and-on since Uncle Walt's day (since Sleeping Beauty, I think): "We’ve turned a professional business into high school. Can you imagine Walt and the old men putting up with such nonsense?" To which he later added: "For those who think the same thing went on back in the old days… the answer is no. Walt didn’t put up with such nonsense and he sure the hell didn’t give compliments."

I have grave reservations about Cars 2, but it is perfectly obvious that Pixar's methods are pretty well proven at this point. I think that the main problem with Cars 2 (and Cars) is that Lasseter is is wearing far too many hats to properly direct a movie at this point in his career. Cars was pretty undercooked, and Cars 2, which is a salvage job by a man who seems extremely busy without it, looks even more so. Issues repeated across multiple reviews (maybe all reviews) are the weak attempts at humor, convoluted plot, and lack of any emotional core.

I've been hearing good things about the Brave trailer, which Pixar will need. I think Cars 2 is going to hurt the Pixar image. You can't go around saying that quality is your business plan, and then produce weak merchandising cash-ins for your movies.

Well, but does Floyd Norman's opinion make one model better than another? Is a professional business environment necessarily preferable to a fun, informal one? What's wrong with compliments?

Pixar has ALWAYS been run as a loose shop. Uncle Walt had more than a few clinkers of his own. There's more than one way to run a successful business.

Edited by bowen

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SDG wrote:

: What's wrong with compliments?

In general, nothing, but 74 rounds of applause in one session is arguably a little excessive, no?

bowen wrote:

: I think Cars 2 is going to hurt the Pixar image. You can't go around saying that quality is your business plan, and then produce weak merchandising cash-ins for your movies.

Where would you fit Planes into this analysis?

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bowen wrote:

: I think Cars 2 is going to hurt the Pixar image. You can't go around saying that quality is your business plan, and then produce weak merchandising cash-ins for your movies.

Where would you fit Planes into this analysis?

The teaser for Planes actually looked better than the trailers for Cars 2. Not what you'd call really good, but not frantic and hyperactive either.

That said, there is a clear effort at distancing there: Planes does not bear the Pixar brand, as it is being marketed using the already tattered Disney brand instead. (Which brings to mind the question: What is the plan for the Disney animation brand? It can't be both a dumping ground for second-rate product AND a premium label for major theatrical releases. There is an old French saying: adding urine to wine makes the wine worse but doesn't make the urine any better.)

Edited by bowen

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The funny thing is, I have long suspected that the original Cars was as mediocre as it was precisely because it was the last film that Pixar was obliged to give Disney under their original contract, so Pixar's truly creative efforts were focused on the films that were going to be completed AFTER the Disney contract expired. Hence, we have Ratatouille, WALL-E and Up, all of which were in development well before the Disney-Pixar merger, and all of which are less obviously "kids' movies" like the Cars movies are.

But then came the Disney-Pixar merger, and so Pixar began cranking out the sequels that Disney would have made without them anyway -- and yes, the process began with Toy Story 3, NOT Cars 2. Toy Story 3 simply had more-inspired source material, and perhaps the folks at Pixar had more invested in that franchise, personally and emotionally, than they ever did in Cars.

(Interestingly, the only non-sequel Pixar has announced since the Disney-Pixar merger is Brave, a "princess" movie, i.e. the sort of movie that you might have expected Disney to make on its own. I don't doubt that it was originally a personal project for original writer-director Brenda Chapman, but, well, Pixar ended up kicking her off the project, so we'll just have to wait and see how THIS particular "studio led" movie turns out. In the meantime, I can't help wondering if the title character in Brave will end up getting drafted into Disney's "princess" line of merchandise.)

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Pixar before Pixar

Anyone interested in the history of computer animation and the roots of Pixar is in for a treat. Headlining this post is a forty-year-old video created by Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull and classmate Fred Parke at the University of Utah. The animation of the hand, which is among the earliest examples of rendered 3D animation, was reused in the 1976 feature Futureworld. It was the first use of computer modeled animation in a feature film. The backstory of who had a copy of the entire film and why it’s posted on Vimeo is also fascinating and worth a read.

Next up is Vol Libre by Loren Carpenter. The film is considered a classic of early computer graphics and caused a huge stir when it debuted at SIGGRAPH in 1980. In fact, Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith walked up to Carpenter after the screening and offered him a job on the spot in George Lucas’s Computer Division, which eventually became Pixar. Carpenter has been with the studio ever since. . . .

Cartoon Brew, September 2

- - -

Not surprisingly, given the opening and closing sequences in Vol Libre, Loren Carpenter had a hand in the "Genesis Planet" footage from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982).

Edited by Peter T Chattaway

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Cartoon Brew posted this on Thursday, noting that this is one of the rare times that Steve Jobs spoke at length about Pixar (as opposed to Apple, NeXT, etc.). I had forgotten that Jobs got Pixar up-and-running during his exile from Apple (he left Apple and founded NeXT in 1985, he bought Pixar from Lucasfilm in 1986, Toy Story came out in 1995, Apple bought NeXT in 1996 and Jobs became Apple's CEO again in 1997).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E29v8vF0u-8

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SDG   
Variety: World's greatest boss: John Lasseter

Variety's Creative Leadership Award: John Lasseter

John Lasseter isn't like other leaders, as these personal stories of mentorship and encouragement from pros throughout the company show:

Dan Scanlon

Director, "Monsters University"

"Early on, John taught me that a good idea can come from anywhere, even the janitor. I remember being in a story room with him (shortly after I started) in 2001, and he was so open to hearing my ideas, even though I was so new. That really surprised and impressed me. Later on, I saw story interns pitch him ideas for 'Cars' shorts. They were all so nervous, flubbing their lines, and John put everyone at ease and took the seeds of their ideas and ran with them."

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Cartoon Brew posted this on Thursday, noting that this is one of the rare times that Steve Jobs spoke at length about Pixar (as opposed to Apple, NeXT, etc.).

And now Anne Thompson has the story of how Jobs's publicist talked him into doing the Charlie Rose interview, somewhat against his will (in the publicist's words: "Of the many battles with Jobs, that was the only fight I ever won").

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John Lasseter tells the New York Times that his favorite movie is...

“Dumbo.” Hands down. “Dumbo” is my favorite film for many reasons. It’s very tight storytelling. It’s amazing to have a main character not speak at all through the whole movie. It is the most cartoony of all the Walt Disney features, and I love the style of it. The music, the characters, it’s just fantastic. It’s just over 60 minutes long. It’s a very well told story. And it’s so emotional too, especially for parents. It’s really amazing.

Make of that what you will, SDG!

Lasseter also says this:

Steve Jobs and I were very close, and early on when I was making “Toy Story” we started talking and he said, “John, you know at Apple when I make computers, what is the lifespan of this product, two years, three years at the most, and then about five years, they’re like a doorstop. But if you do your job right, these films can last forever.” I was amazed by that statement, and I was humbled by it too.

Well, slight nit-pick here: Steve Jobs was NOT at Apple when Lasseter made the original Toy Story. Jobs left Apple and founded NeXT in 1985. He bought Pixar from Lucasfilm in 1986. Tin Toy came out in 1988 and won the Oscar in 1989. Toy Story, which was originally conceived as an expansion of Tin Toy, came out in 1995. And Apple bought NeXT in 1996, after which Jobs became Apple's CEO again in 1997.

Question: Would Pixar as we know it even EXIST if Jobs hadn't left Apple?

Edited by Peter T Chattaway

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John Lasseter tells the New York Times that his favorite movie is...

“Dumbo.” It’s very tight storytelling. It’s just over 60 minutes long. It’s a very well told story. And it’s so emotional too, especially for parents. It’s really amazing.

Wish he could have applied some of these ideas into Cars 2.

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SDG   
John Lasseter tells the New York Times that his favorite movie is...

“Dumbo.” Hands down. “Dumbo” is my favorite film for many reasons. It’s very tight storytelling. It’s amazing to have a main character not speak at all through the whole movie. It is the most cartoony of all the Walt Disney features, and I love the style of it. The music, the characters, it’s just fantastic. It’s just over 60 minutes long. It’s a very well told story. And it’s so emotional too, especially for parents. It’s really amazing.

Make of that what you will, SDG!

Heh. It's pretty, well, dumbfounding.

Wish he could have applied some of these ideas into Cars 2.

Ha. Yes, although I gave both films the same C-plus rating, Lasseter's criteria for loving Dumbo do make the flaws in Cars 2 even more egregious.

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Lasseter also says this:

Steve Jobs and I were very close, and early on when I was making “Toy Story” we started talking and he said, “John, you know at Apple when I make computers, what is the lifespan of this product, two years, three years at the most, and then about five years, they’re like a doorstop. But if you do your job right, these films can last forever.” I was amazed by that statement, and I was humbled by it too.

Well, slight nit-pick here: Steve Jobs was NOT at Apple when Lasseter made the original Toy Story. Jobs left Apple and founded NeXT in 1985. He bought Pixar from Lucasfilm in 1986. Tin Toy came out in 1988 and won the Oscar in 1989. Toy Story, which was originally conceived as an expansion of Tin Toy, came out in 1995. And Apple bought NeXT in 1996, after which Jobs became Apple's CEO again in 1997.

Question: Would Pixar as we know it even EXIST if Jobs hadn't left Apple?

I'm sure as a paraphrase Lasseter did ok. The point was the short life span of computers vs. movies. It doesn't really matter if the tense is right regarding Steve's Apple employment. (Or whether he actually referred to Next.)

Oddly enough, when Jobs originally looked at Pixar, he was still at Apple (just barely), and recommended Pixar as an acquisition for Apple. He only bought Pixar himself after he was forced out.

Interesting stuff on the early years of Pixar as a company from Isaacson's biography of Jobs:

After Jobs came onto the scene, he and Lasseter began to share their passion for graphic design. “I was the only guy at Pixar who was an artist, so I bonded with Steve over his design sense,” Lasseter said. He was a gregarious, playful, and huggable man who wore flowery Hawaiian shirts, kept his office cluttered with vintage toys, and loved cheeseburgers. Jobs was a prickly, whip-thin vegetarian who favored austere and uncluttered surroundings. But they were actually well-suited for each other. Lasseter was an artist, so Jobs treated him deferentially, and Lasseter viewed Jobs, correctly, as a patron who could appreciate artistry and knew how it could be interwoven with technology and commerce.

Jobs and Catmull decided that, in order to show off their hardware and software, Lasseter should produce another short animated film in 1986 for SIGGRAPH, the annual computer graphics conference. At the time, Lasseter was using the Luxo lamp on his desk as a model for graphic rendering, and he decided to turn Luxo into a lifelike character. A friend’s young child inspired him to add Luxo Jr., and he showed a few test frames to another animator, who urged him to make sure he told a story. Lasseter said he was making only a short, but the animator reminded him that a story can be told even in a few seconds. Lasseter took the lesson to heart. Luxo Jr. ended up being just over two minutes; it told the tale of a parent lamp and a child lamp pushing a ball back and forth until the ball bursts, to the child’s dismay.

Jobs was so excited that he took time off from the pressures at NeXT to fly down with Lasseter to SIGGRAPH, which was being held in Dallas that August. “It was so hot and muggy that when we’d walk outside the air hit us like a tennis racket,” Lasseter recalled. There were ten thousand people at the trade show, and Jobs loved it. Artistic creativity energized him, especially when it was connected to technology.

There was a long line to get into the auditorium where the films were being screened, so Jobs, not one to wait his turn, fast-talked their way in first. Luxo Jr. got a prolonged standing ovation and was named the best film. “Oh, wow!” Jobs exclaimed at the end. “I really get this, I get what it’s all about.” As he later explained, “Our film was the only one that had art to it, not just good technology. Pixar was about making that combination, just as the Macintosh had been.”

Luxo Jr. was nominated for an Academy Award, and Jobs flew down to Los Angeles to be there for the ceremony. It didn’t win, but Jobs became committed to making new animated shorts each year, even though there was not much of a business rationale for doing so. As times got tough at Pixar, he would sit through brutal budget-cutting meetings showing no mercy. Then Lasseter would ask that the money they had just saved be used for his next film, and Jobs would agree.

...

Even as Pixar’s hardware and software product lines foundered, Jobs kept protecting the animation group. It had become for him a little island of magical artistry that gave him deep emotional pleasure, and he was willing to nurture it and bet on it. In the spring of 1988 cash was running so short that he convened a meeting to decree deep spending cuts across the board. When it was over, Lasseter and his animation group were almost too afraid to ask Jobs about authorizing some extra money for another short. Finally, they broached the topic and Jobs sat silent, looking skeptical. It would require close to $300,000 more out of his pocket. After a few minutes, he asked if there were any storyboards. Catmull took him down to the animation offices, and once Lasseter started his show—displaying his boards, doing the voices, showing his passion for his product—Jobs started to warm up.

The story was about Lasseter’s love, classic toys. It was told from the perspective of a toy one-man band named Tinny, who meets a baby that charms and terrorizes him. Escaping under the couch, Tinny finds other frightened toys, but when the baby hits his head and cries, Tinny goes back out to cheer him up.

Jobs said he would provide the money. “I believed in what John was doing,” he later said. “It was art. He cared, and I cared. I always said yes.” His only comment at the end of Lasseter’s presentation was, “All I ask of you, John, is to make it great.”

Tin Toy went on to win the 1988 Academy Award for animated short films, the first computer-generated film to do so. To celebrate, Jobs took Lasseter and his team to Greens, a vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco. Lasseter grabbed the Oscar, which was in the center of the table, held it aloft, and toasted Jobs by saying, “All you asked is that we make a great movie.”

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