In the late '70s, George Lucas started looking into using computers to achieve his special effects. Lucasfilm created the Lucasfilm Computer Graphics Project. It was made up of Ed Catmull, Ralph Guggenheim, and Alvy Ray Smith. Together, they pretty much invented modern computer graphics. But what they really wanted to do was make movies. So in the early '80s they brought in young, but successful animator, John Lasseter. Together, along with some more hires, they produced The Adventures of Andre and Wally B. It was the first computer-animated short film. Eleven years later, the group - which had now spun off from Lucasfilm and called themselves Pixar - released Toy Story in 1995.
But Toy Story wasn't the Disney model. In fact, it was a contemporary story and wasn't a musical. But it was animated. And it was a huge hit. Well, well, well. It looks like the executives of those startup 2D studios were wrong! Not only did a non-Disney animated film become a hit, it was nothing like the Disney model! The Disney model was not the be-all end-all of animation, right? Right? Right?
Of course not!
Exec #1: Toy Story is a hit. What do we do?
Exec #2: Isn't it obvious? We open a CG studio and make a movie with wise cracking characters!
Exec #1: Brilliant! Say, could you pass the asbestos?
So Dreamworks starts production on Antz.
*This is an aside, and this story could fill another post, but here's the controversy surrounding this: Right before Toy Story was released, Pixar realized they needed to start production on another movie. John Lasseter went to Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was the CEO of Disney at the time, to pitch a movie called Bugz. On that same day in August 1994, Katzenberg resigned from the studio (albeit, for in-studio political reasons). Later in 1994, he opens Dreamworks Animation. And a few years later, they announce their new movie, Antz, set to release in March 1999. By this time, Bugz was already well into production, and set to release in November 1998. Katzenberg offered to stop production on Antz if Pixar agreed to push Bugz back because the release date conflicted with Dreamworks' The Prince of Egypt. Pixar refused and Dreamworks moved the release of Antz to October of 1998, a month before Bugz (now called A Bug's Life) was to be released. But that is neither here nor there, I just felt like ranting about that, too.
Anyway, Dreamworks starts making Antz and it turns out to not follow the Disney model either. But it didn't do nearly as well as A Bug's Life. Both were made for $60 million, and both were released within a month of each other. But A Bug's Life made nearly $200 million more than Antz. They were both very successful, sure. But why did A Bug's Life do so much better? What was going on?
And here, dear friends, is complaint numero dos.
It's about the story, you dumbasses
It was Disney all over again. Pixar hit it big and numerous studios started popping up and trying to copy their success, but they forget to copy the most important thing, and that's the story.
Heading into the early 2000s, there seemed to be a thinking as Disney started to produce bad movies again, and as Pixar kept hitting it big, that audiences were tired of 2D and that 3D was the future. Correlating with this thinking, studios started switching their 2D productions to 3D. As if the computer somehow magically made a worthless story good. No, the reason 2D was doing bad and 3D was doing great is simple.
1. All 2D feature films (including Disney's by this point) were mediocre at best and awful at worst.
2. CG was new and, for the most part, the only people doing 3D films were Pixar, and they knew how to construct compelling stories and characters.
First of all, thank God that Pixar was the first to release a CG movie. Had it been almost anyone else, and it had failed, the thinking obviously would have been that people just won't watch CG for 70 minutes (which is funny because that's exactly what people told Walt during the making of Snow White - that people wouldn't watch 70 minutes of animation).
Second of all, are execs really that stupid? I mean, I know most of them aren't actually filmmakers, but seriously. Come on. Just come on. The reason Buzz and Woody feel more real than the guys from The Road to El Dorado was because their shading was calculated by a computer? The reason Finding Nemo can make you laugh and cry whereas you watch Titanic: The Animated Movie constantly wondering why you're watching such bullshit was because the water physics were realistic in Nemo?
Why don't you make like a tree and fuck off?
But, c'est la vie. Executive decisions.
And what's heartbreaking about this is that a lot of the Pixar guys came from 2D. They love 2D. And to be used as an excuse why 2D was no longer being produced just kills them.
Animation is not a genre
This one boggles my mind and it sort of mirrors what's gone on with Disney and Pixar. Their movies hit big and they've been "family friendly." I'll give you 3 guesses as to what execs now think is important in animation.
Yeah, me too.
Hold on, wait. I just got something in the mail.
Oh, it's a rulebook for making animated films. Cool, let's look at it.
It has to be appropriate for kids, because animation is for kids.
Cool advice! I'll keep it in mind.
Seriously, is anyone else bothered by this? Back in 2007, Brad Bird gave an interview for EW, and he was asked if Pixar could ever "get away from what [Brad Bird] and Andrew Stanton ... call 'the kids' table'?" Brad's answer was:
I don't know. I mean, that's kind of up to a lot of forces we don't have any control over. I know that I bristle at it. I don't want to complain too much, because I'm really happy getting to make films and I'm grateful to anybody that wants to see them. But I can't tell you how many times somebody will come to me and say, ''My kids really love your work.'' And then you go, ''But you like it too, right?'' And they go, ''Oh, I love it.'' But they don't ever lead with that. It's like the kids are their beard to get them into the theater. Or people will say, ''I'm happy about this film because I have a 5-year-old.'' And I'm like, Well, congratulations, but I didn't make this for the 5-year-old. I made it for me, and I'm not 5. I can't think of one other art form that has its audience so narrowly defined. If you work in animation, people tell you, ''Oh, it must be wonderful to entertain children.'' Yes it is. But that's 10 percent of the audience I'm going for.(whole interview here)
Walt Disney had a famous quote that, honestly, makes my eyes well up when I think about it
When planning a new picture, we don't think of grown ups and we don't think of children but just of that fine, clean, unspoiled spot down deep in every one of us that maybe the world has made us forget, and that maybe our pictures can help recall.I've thought and thought about this. The only reason I can come up with that animation has been seen as kid-specific is that the medium allows for extreme slapstick, and that maybe slapstick is regarded as the least cognitive form of comedy. And, yes, the core of great animation is pantomime. Telling the story through movement is the basis of animation. But Marcel Marceau was never considered in the same vein as clowns that work birthday gigs.
The problem is compounded by studios who also subscribe this incredibly misguided way of thinking. But Ed Catmull, Pixar's CEO, gave a talk at Stanford Business School a couple years ago and summed it up like this. (Relevant part ends at 43:45)
One of my favorite films of all time (not just animated films, either) is Up, because it really is, I think, a huge step in the right direction. The truth is that any story can be told in animation. Comedy works well in animation, yes, but you could tell horror or drama or thriller or sci-fi or any other genre you can think of. It's the story; not the medium.
I'm a huge Charlie Kaufman nut and what I'm interested in seeing in the future is an animated Kaufmanesque movie. The bottom line is that a Kaufman movie could easily work in animation, but studios are afraid to move too far from what seems to work.
Animation is really a brand new artistic medium. Its goal is to caricature motion in the way sculpture caricatures form and drawing caricatures the line. It's had its share of masterpieces by now, but it still is seen as a very narrow art form, if the general public consider it an art at all.
I'm glad to see John Lasseter take over as chief creative officer at Disney, and I love seeing that a movie like The Princess and the Frog was able to get made. You can argue about the story or whatever. But the fact that it got funded is another step in the right direction. And I feel like any day now someone is going to make animation's Citizen Kane and break it away from the kid's table. And until they do, I'll be waiting. Patiently.