Disney Pixar: Monsters, Bugs, Toys & Cars, Inc

Pixar’s latest film is out next month. Tim Walker gets animated about a new wave of creativity at the now Disney-owned studio

Sometime in 1994, shortly after completing production on Pixar’s first feature film, Toy Story, four of the new animation studio’s creative heads met for a brainstorming lunch that would soon become legend. In just a couple of hours, Toy Story director John Lasseter and his co-writers Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter and Joe Ranft came up with the concepts for four more Pixar movies: A Bug’s Life; Monsters, Inc; Finding Nemo and Wall-E.

Months later, Toy Story was released to universal acclaim. The handful of films formulated at that single lunch meeting went on to earn a combined 15 Oscar nominations and more than $2.2bn (£1.46bn) at the box office. In the 15 years from Toy Story, Lasseter, Stanton, Docter and their fellow director Brad Bird presided over an unrivalled run of creative triumphs.

Since 2010, however, Pixar has produced just one original film, Brave, and three sequels: Toy Story 3, Cars 2, and the forthcoming Monsters University. While it remains a famously collaborative workplace, the studio now has more than 1,200 employees, compared to the 120 who went to work on A Bug’s Life in 1995. Some of its celebrated original directors have transitioned to live-action film-making with mixed success (viz Stanton’s unloved John Carter). With a new generation of Pixar film-makers coming to maturity, how can the studio retain the creative flair that makes it unique?

Pixar’s present home was built in 2000, a 22-acre campus among the low-rise former warehouses of Emeryville, California, just across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco. While its output of summer blockbuster sequels increasingly resembles that of a regular movie studio, it remains closer to Silicon Valley than Hollywood, both geographically and spiritually. Its employees dress like friendly tech geeks, not ruthless Burbank execs. And its main block was recently renamed The Steve Jobs Building, in honour of the late Apple boss, who was also Pixar’s co-founder and chief executive.

On a sunny day in April, the studio campus was decked out to resemble the fictional setting of its latest film, Monsters University, the follow-up to Docter’s wonderful Monsters, Inc (2001). Referred to at Pixar as “MU”, the new movie is about the college years of Mike and Sulley, the two professional scarers of “MI”. Its large and varied cast includes at least one new potential Pixar icon, Dean Hardscrabble: a terrifying part-dragon, part-giant-centipede voiced by Helen Mirren, who presides over Monsters University.

As with any new Pixar release, the film comes burdened with technical achievements. Where Sulley boasted 2.3 million individually animated hairs in MI, he now has 5.5 million. The average Pixar film contains 10 characters per shot; MU’s average is 25. The movie also required 100,856 storyboards, more than any other in the studio’s history.

Journalists were treated to a tantalising 40 minutes of Monsters University and, as the world has come to expect of Pixar, it is brilliant: witty, emotionally charged and visually captivating. But the fact remains that the film is a sequel – a prequel, to  be precise – and can surely never hope to generate quite the wonder and surprise of its predecessor.

Pixar creatives have said previously that they will only make sequels if they can produce a story as good as the original. For some time, the remarkable Toy Story 2 seemed a special case: Pixar’s The Godfather Part II, if you will. During the early 2000s, Pixar resisted making any other sequels, despite the demands of its franchise-hungry production partner, Disney. So Disney, which owned the rights to Pixar’s characters, began developing its own further sequels to Toy Story, Finding Nemo and Monsters, Inc.

The feud between the two companies only came to an end when Disney bought Pixar outright in 2006, installed Lasseter as chief creative officer of both Pixar and Disney Animation, and returned control of Sulley and co to their original creators. Now Disney is finally getting its way. To add to Toy Story 3, Cars 2 and Monsters University, Pixar recently announced that Stanton would return to make a Nemo sequel, Finding Dory, due in 2015. Disney is also poised to release Planes, its spin-off from the Cars franchise.

Which is not to say that Pixar’s own creative well is drying up. The studio’s slate for the next few years also contains several exciting original projects, including two helmed by second-generation Pixar directors. Bob Peterson, who co-directed Up (2009), is presently polishing prehistoric fantasy The Good Dinosaur for release next year, while Lee Unkrich, the director of Toy Story 3, is working on an as-yet-untitled film about the Mexican national holiday, Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Meanwhile, Docter is due to return with Inside Out, about the inner workings of a little girl’s mind.

Dan Scanlon, the 36-year-old director of Monsters University, worked as a storyboard artist on Cars and Toy Story 3, and co-directed the animated short Mater and the Ghostlight with Lasseter. He says the collegiate atmosphere at Pixar makes for a seamless transition between the studio’s original directors and emerging talent.

“I feel very supported here: by the crew and the other directors and producers,” Scanlon says. “It’s a company where it’s not hard to get John Lasseter’s ear, or to sit down and have lunch with Pete Docter. You have a support group of experienced directors who have been through the mill. John is always involved in all the films as executive producer. He meets with us every so often, sees the reels, gives notes, checks in throughout the process. I learned as much as I could from him and from Pete. This whole experience felt like college – it took four years to make Monsters University, and I felt like a student the whole time.”

Until now, every director of a Pixar feature has been American, and the majority of its movies have been in the all-American tradition: cowboys, automobiles, quasi-Ivy League colleges, superheroes. One way forward for the studio is to draw more on its international employee base, and it is significant that Pixar’s last two animated shorts have both been by non-American directors, with European sensibilities.

Italian Enrico Casarosa made the Oscar-winning La Luna, which appeared in cinemas before screenings of Brave, while Monsters University audiences will be treated first to The Blue Umbrella, by German director Saschka Unseld, which, aesthetically, is entirely unlike any previous Pixar production.

Unseld saw Toy Story soon after graduating, and took a job at Pixar in 2008, where his first credit was on Toy Story 3. He cites among his cinematic influences Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire, and the films of Wong Kar-Wai. In The Blue Umbrella, the inanimate objects of a city street – drainpipes, buildings, manholes, vents – come to life to help the lovelorn umbrella of the title to woo his mate: a red umbrella. The seeds of the film were sown when Unseld began to animate snaps taken with his smartphone.

“When I pitched it, John Lasseter was excited about making it look completely different from anything Pixar had done before,” Unseld says. “Pixar started by making shorts. It allows us to experiment a bit, to try out different things. I’m a huge proponent of trying to make animated movies that look different, and to explore the medium more than the industry has been doing so far - which is what Pixar did with Toy Story. Pixar is always changing. No one here says ‘We have it all figured out.’ We don’t reinvent the wheel with every movie, but we try new things every time, to see if there’s a better way.”

‘Monsters University’ is out on 12 July

Arts and Entertainment
The crowd enjoy Latitude Festival 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
'I do think a woman's place is eventually in the home, but I see no harm in her having some fun before she gets there.'

Is this the end of the Dowager Countess?tv
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Martin of Coldplay performs live for fans at Enmore Theatre on June 19, 2014 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn