There was a reason that they had been anthropomorphizing lamps: they just couldn’t get the hang of creating hair or warm-looking skin, which seemed to mean that they would never be able to feature human characters.
They parleyed their short Tin Toy into a first feature called Toy Story. While that was in production, they sat down for a now-legendary lunch in where they tried to figure out the future of the company: they couldn’t make movies about toys forever, but how many movies they could make about heroes without hair or warm skin?
In addition to more Toy movies, they wound up brainstorming a list of five more ideas, all of which eventually got made:
- Ants: A Bug’s Life
- Monsters: Monsters Inc. (They didn’t know at the time that by the time they got to this movie, they would finally master hair, and be eager to show it off)
- Fish: Finding Nemo
- Cars: Cars
- Robots: WALL-E
So was it worth doing? Was there any point in making movies about such unlikely subjects? Yes, but they’d have to make up for the inherent liabilities with extra assets: they would have to create heroes that were extra-lovable, extra-compelling, extra-human.
Faced with such a daunting task, they had to admit something that no one else in town was willing to say out loud: the Hollywood way of crafting stories was broken.
In the heyday of the studio system, as historian Thomas Schatz famously described in his book “The Genius of the System”, the studios managed to closely manage their artists in a way that unleashed creativity instead of stifling it. During the system’s peak, from the mid-‘30s to the mid-‘40s, they somehow created something unprecedented and never again replicated: quality and quality control at the same time.
PIXAR realized that, if they were going to create five very expensive movies about five different types of hard-to-like creatures, they were going to have bring back that studio spirit. This meant that they had to bring back the idea of the “story department”. Egos had to go out the window, replaced with rigorous group critiques. Everything was constantly second-guessed by their “braintrust” and whole movies were sometimes sent back to the digital-drawing-board.
The results, as you probably know, were stunning. They were creating characters that were so lovable, even people who disliked computer animation were flocking to the theater every year. More than any other studio name in town, “PIXAR” came to mean quality.
And then a funny thing happened: they ran out of limitations. Now that they can tell any type of story, the PIXAR name has started diminish in the public’s eyes. They aren’t bending over backwards to make us fall in love anymore, because they seem to feel like their new human characters should be inherently likable.
But no character is inherently likeable. Even if you’re making a live-action movie, your character are just cold constructs until you hook them up to a lightning bolt and jolt them to life. Every character starts off as a bug, a fish, a car, a robot… they only have as much life as you give them. I wish that every studio would take PIXAR’s lead and bring back story departments, but unfortunately, it seems PIXAR is joining their competitors instead of beating them.
Meanwhile, if you don’t run a studio, what lesson can be learned from this? Limit yourself. Put yourself in a box and try to figure out how to do great work inside of it. Can you write a great thriller set entirely in two apartments, like Bound? Can you make people cheer for a love affair between a teenage boy and an eighty-year-old woman, like Harold and Maude? Can you make an entire super-hero movie out of found footage, like Chronicle? Can you write a silent movie, like The Artist?
Hold your own feet over the fire. Create a situation where you find yourself saying “This will only work if I do everything right.” Because guess what? That’s always true.