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