For the Al: John Lasseter

November 1, 2015

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Deserve the Al Copeland Award? John Lasseter practically is the Al Copeland Award.

Improve the human condition? This man has not only reinvented movie animation technology, not to mention Hollywood’s business model. He has proven the superior power of the transcendent – the good, the true and the beautiful – in the marketplace of culture. He beat the purveyors of schlock, and he did it in the only way that really counts – by putting more asses in seats than they could. He didn’t defeat the schlockmeisters by shaming them, but by selling so many tickets that he ran them out of the marketplace. He proved that edifying culture can sell, which is another way of saying it can survive and sustain itself. He and the circle of people clustered around him are almost the only people left in Hollywood who know how to tell an edifying story, and they are literally the only people left who can tell an edifying story that appeals to everyone across all our cultural boundaries.

As I recently argued at some length, they are in the process of saving American civilization.

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Courtesy of the Onion

There are basically two kinds of Al winners – inventor/entrepreneurs and champions of unpopular causes. They’re either David going up against Goliath, or they’re Elijah calling down fire on the lonely altar. Lasseter is both.

Inventor/entrepreneur? Lasseter dreamed for all his boyhood of working for Disney, and by some miracle he got himself chained to a drafting table deep in the bowels of the Disney dungeon, slaving away as the tenth assistant drawer of left pinkies . . . and then promptly got himself fired from his dream job for taking an interest in computer animation just at a moment when (unbeknownst to him) one of his superiors had decided the future lay elsewhere.

Perhaps because computers would eliminate people like him and elevate people like Lasseter? Can’t have that! Just like any good Al winner, John Lasseter saw the future, and he didn’t care whose cushy job was threatened by it.

So, cast out of the only company he ever wanted to work for, Lasseter chased down the future and seized it by the throat, and made it sing so loud and so beautifully that twenty years later, Disney came crawling back to him and begged him not just to come back, but to take over all their animated movie making, oversee design of all their theme park rides, and direct a good chunk of their other stuff to boot.

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Mr. Incredible, second from the right, poses with some less impressive heroes

Now, all that would be Al-worthy if Lasseter’s innovations were merely technical. And it is hard, now, to remember that back in 1995 the thing that everyone thought was revolutionary about Toy Story was the technology.

But Lasseter’s innovation is as much the way his movie studio runs. He has figured out how to run a team of creative people in such a way that it not only produces material that is simultaneously artisitcally and commercially successful, but does so with sufficient regularity and reliability that you can pitch it to investors. He has taken the Muses to the bank.

And they really are the Muses. Lasseter and his people are not just “artistically and commercially successful.” They are bringing the transcendent things – the good, the true and the beautiful – back into the center of American culture.

Lasseter is as much a deserving Al winner as the champion of unpopular causes as he is so as an inventor/entrepreneur.

And what causes they are! If some have won the Al by standing up for this or that cause which is unpopular, but is nonetheless one of the keys to maintaining our justice, virtue and freedom as a people, Lasseter has stood up for just about all of the causes that are unpopular, but necessary for our justice, virtue and freedom:

  • Do not make your own happiness the aim of your life (Inside Out)
  • Love means putting other people’s needs ahead of yours (Frozen)
  • Accept your mortality (Toy Story 2)
  • Honor the superiority of exceptional talent (The Incredibles)
  • Manhood involves fatherhood (UP)
  • Womanhood involves motherhood (Brave)
  • Let your children take risks and grow up (Finding Nemo)
  • Don’t envy your brother (Toy Story)
  • Legitimate government rests on justice and popular consent (Toy Story 3)
  • Those who live for nothing but pleasure are fit for nothing but slavery (WALL-E)
  • Work your ass off, and be content with a family and your daily bread (Princess and the Frog)
  • Beauty transcends both nature and custom (Ratatouille)
  • Technology is for solving problems, not imposing your will on others (Big Hero 6)

No one else teaches these things and is listened to receptively by all sectors of society. Without this man, what hope would there be for these values in the long term? No, seriously, tell me. I’ll wait.

Two more Al-worthy accomplishments:

Lasseter is almost single-handedly responsible for the English language translation of the beautiful works of Hayao Miyazaki, who was practically unknown over here until Lasseter introduced us to him.

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And Lasseter would be, if he won, the first Al winner to outdo the award’s illustrious namesake in tasteful shirts.

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Lasseter owns over 1,000 Hawaiian shirts and wears one every day.

You can’t ask for a clearer avatar of the Spirit of Al Copeland!


Pass the Popcorn: Time to Get UP!

December 30, 2009

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Over Christmas I finally saw UP with my mom and brother. They both thought it was as good as anything Pixar has ever done. At least on first impression, I’m more inclined to agree with Marcus that it’s not quite as good as the very best Pixar has ever done, but it’s close.

But I reserve the right to revise and extend my remarks, and here’s why. What I think is holding this movie back from being quite as good as Toy Story 2 or Finding Nemo is its somewhat less organized plot structure. Like Toy Story 2 and Finding Nemo, UP has a main character who needs to learn something about the meaning of life, and over the course of the movie he learns it. But while UP is an oustanding movie, I felt that it didn’t “earn” its moment of epiphany quite as well as its predecesscors. A little more careful organization of the plot leading up to the epiphany might have put it over the line into the top circle.

However! On second thought, it occurred to me that a careful “earning” of the epiphany may not suit the particular subject matter UP has chosen to treat. As you’ve no doubt picked up, UP is a movie about the desire for adventure. And I won’t be spoiling anything if I tell you that it’s especially about the masculine form of this desire. Other than the protagonist’s wife, who appears only in flashback, the only female “character” on the screen is a big squawking bird. And the bird is very distinctively an animal rather than a character with personality. Her animal-ness is constantly obtrusive; we’re never allowed to think of her as even a quasi-person. By contrast, the dogs we encounter (all of them male) are very deliberately personalized. The female is not devalued in this movie; it just happens to be a movie about something that is distinctive to the male.

And part of the distinctive masculinity of this movie is the way important things are understood without having to be said. If you’ve seen the movie, I’m thinking in particular of the moment when Carl is first called upon to fulfill the promise he made to Russell; the moment when he first has to choose between fulfilling that promise and fulfilling another promise he made to someone else; and the moment when he changes his mind. In most movies, each of those moments would have required a lot of dialogue or a long soliloquy. In UP, the first and third involve no dialogue at all, and the second involves only a few very short lines from Russell – Carl says nothing about his decision. Russell understands Carl without anything needing to be spoken.

So I’m open to the possibility that this particular movie may be better without the clearly organized buildup to the epiphany. Before I decide, I’d like to see it again knowing from the beginning what it’s all about and where it’s going.

But in any case it looks like I’m going to need to offer a thorough repentence of my guardedness about this movie before it came out. I was cautious partly for supersitious reasons (with every other Pixar movie I hated the trailer and loved the movie, but with this one I loved the trailer so I was afraid I’d hate the movie) and partly because the creative team – Pete Docter and Bob Peterson – was untested. But Andrew Stanton was untested until he made Finding Nemo.

Looking back, I’d say this is more vindicated than ever. It’s clear that Pixar is not just about John Lasseter. He was its founding father, and let’s give credit where it’s due. But the continued maturation of creative teams able to reproduce what Lasseter did proves that Pixar is not a man, Pixar is a business model. And it’s the best one to come down the pike in Hollywood since the studio system broke up.

One more housekeeping note. As I feared, it does appear that anyone who saw UP is eligible for a rebate on this.


Pass the Popcorn: Things Are Looking Up – Or Are They?

May 29, 2009

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Well, I’m going to owe a lot of people their money back on this post. Bowled over by the new Star Trek film (which you should really go see if you haven’t already) I overconfidently predicted that it would be the best movie of the year, and offered a refund on the price of the blog post to anyone who felt differently at year’s end. My reasoning at the time – as I explained in the comment thread – was as follows: “Take a look at what else is on the docket for this year. See anything that’s likely to be better?”

Guess what I had completely and totally forgotten about?

When I realized that a Pixar movie was coming out this summer, here’s what I felt like:

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But who knows? Pixar has been less than stellar in the past – remember A Bug’s Life and Monsters Inc.? Both are better than the average family movie, but to say that is damning with faint praise.

And UP comes to us from a relatively untested creative team. It was written by Bob Peterson and co-directed by Peterson and Pete Docter. Both have accumulated some secondary credits at Pixar – Peterson got secondary writing credits on Finding Nemo and Ratatouille; Docter got “story” credits on both Toy Story movies, Monsters Inc. and Wall-E; both have worked on Pixar shorts, direct-to-video projects, videogames, etc. (Peterson was also the voice of Ray the science teacher in Nemo and Roz the bureaucrat-cum-deus-ex-machina in Monsters.) Neither seems to have done much outside Pixar.

Between the two of them, there’s only one topline credit before UP. Guess what it is?

Docter directed Monsters Inc.

Let’s see how far back we have to go before we find a Pixar movie with a similarly untested creative team:

Wall-E: Written and directed by Andrew Stanton of Finding Nemo

Ratatouille: Written and directed by Brad Bird of The Incredibles and The Iron Giant (a masterpiece you really must see if you haven’t yet)

Cars: Written and directed by John Lasseter of Toy Story & Toy Story 2

The Incredibles: Written and directed by Brad Bird of The Iron Giant

Finding Nemo: Written and directed by Andrew Stanton of . . .

. . . well, OK, I guess the last time we had an untested creator at the helm, we did pretty well, didn’t we?

But guess when the last time before that was? Monsters Inc. Directed by Pete Docter.

I suppose I’m being overly pessimistic. It’s partly because I don’t want to have to shell out all that money on my ill-advised guarantee.

But I have another reason to suspect UP will be no good – I loved the teaser trailer.

No, seriously. Up until now, I have hated every teaser trailer I’ve seen from Pixar. I hated the teaser for Finding Nemo. I hated the teaser for The Incredibles. I really hated the teaser for Cars. I don’t remember seeing the teaser for Ratatouille but I didn’t go in with high expectations so I can’t have liked it if I did see it. And I was, I guess, nonplussed by the teaser for Wall-E – by that time I had learned that hating the teaser was actually a good sign, so that changed my whole outlook on them.

So up until now the teasers have been awful and the movies have been great. What does it say that the teaser for UP made the movie look really good?

This is the second of what I guess will be an annual series of Pass the Popcorn entries on Pixar. I don’t think I can top what I said in the first edition, so I’ll stop here.

Except I will note that the plot synopsis for Toy Story 3 has changed pretty radically since I first expressed such trepidation about it. Before, there was a whole paragraph, which I don’t remember in detail but it was about Woody and Buzz getting thrown away after Andy grows up. Now it’s just one sentence, and Woody and Buzz are ending up in a day care. That sounds much more promising.


Pass the Popcorn: Pixar as Art and Commerce

June 27, 2008

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

With Wall-E conquoring the movie universe today, how could we do anything else for this week’s Pass the Popcorn but a retrospective on Pixar?

Yet how much is there left to say, really? A retrospective of Pixar along the lines of the previous retrospectives I’ve done here would read like this: they made a really amazing movie, then they made another one, then they made another one . . .

I could tell you all about how great Toy Story and Finding Nemo are. But you already know. So I’ll skip the movie-by-movie retrospective and just look around for things to say about Pixar that everybody doesn’t already know.

“Hey, Marlin! Didja know Pixar made a whole bunch of really great movies?”

“Yes, Dory, I knew.”

“Oh. Okay, then. . . . Hey, Marlin! Didja know Pixar made a whole bunch of really great movies?”

If I shared the view that Pixar’s more recent offerings (Cars, Ratatouille) represent a step down from its earlier accomplishments, I might write my third consecutive retrospective of a great filmmaker who succeeds both artistically and commercially, then lets fame go to his head and produces substandard work. However, I don’t think Pixar’s quality has declined. Yes, Cars is not Toy Story. But you know what? A Bug’s Life ain’t Toy Story either. Between the two, I’m not sure which I’d take – they’re both quite good for what they are, definitely well above the average “family movie” (not that that’s saying much), but they’re not great filmmaking. Same goes for Monsters Inc.

Believe it or not, this was a Pixar movie. Remember?

And I don’t care what anybody else thinks, I think Ratatouille is a very impressive accomplishment. It not only has sharp dialogue (consider, for example, the duel of wits between Linguini and Anton Ego in the press conference scene) and great humor (in its context, the moment where Ego is transported back to childhood by his first bite of Remy’s ratatouille is every bit as funny as the “I am your father” line in Toy Story 2), but also philosophical depth (the whole movie is basically Plato’s Ion in cartoon form, with cooking as a proxy for art and creativity generally – as Ego’s climactic monologue makes clear).

“Not by craft does the poet sing, but by power divine.”

So Pixar movies have always ranged from good family movies (A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc., Cars) to exceptionally good family movies (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) to landmark artistic achievements (Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo).

But other things about Pixar have changed over time. It’s hard to remember this now, but there was a time when the name “Pixar” primarily meant “digital animation.” Of course everyone acknowledged that Toy Story was also a great story, and would have been noteworthy even without the technological breakthrough. But it was the digital filmmaking technology everybody really noticed when Toy Story hit the theaters.

Once upon a time, this wasn’t the adventures of good old Woody and Buzz. It was a revolutionary breakthrough in digital filmmaking that was going to change the role of technology in movies – which happened to come in the form of a story about a bunch of toys.

Of course, today nobody cares about Pixar as a technological innovator – and that fact is as great a testament as anything to its accomplishments as a producer of art. “Pixar” now just means “great movies.”

Pixar as fine art (at MOMA; HT www.rationalistic.com)

And, technology aside, Pixar’s accomplishments are breathtaking not only as art but also as commerce – in fact, I think what’s really most noteworthy about Pixar is that it appears to have developed a working business model for consistently producing good-to-great movies.

The idea of a business model for producing good art will strike some as misguided or even offensive, but it is really nothing more than the reappearance of what was the normal mode of producing art in almost all times and places. All great art before the advent of Rousseau’s philosophy – from Aeschylus and Euripides to Dante and Hieronymus Bosch to Shakespeare and Rembrandt – was produced in the context of a economic system designed to systematize financial support for artists (in the form of community festivals, household patronage, guilds, etc.) who were in turn expected to produce good work in response to something approximating market demand. The supposed antinomy between art and commerce is a prejudice of our own time. As C.S. Lewis once remarked, before the Romantic movement with its idolization of the artist and the creative process, the idea that artists should not be expected to produce good work “to order” would have been considered as absurd as the idea of a captain who could only steer the ship when the fit took him. Socrates’ remarks to Ion notwithstanding, in addition to divine power there is indeed a “craft” to the production of good art, and the divine power responds to the craft as much as the craft responds to the divine power.

Their greatest challenge: Reconcile art and commerce!

By now everyone knows the formula: Pixar collects a small stable of very talented filmmakers and gives them a long production cycle (four to five years for each project) during which they work collaboratively, each member of the team contributing actively to the other members’ projects. Everyone draws on everyone else’s talent and ideas, and the long cycle ensures that nothing has to go out the door before it’s ready.

Presumably it’s the presence of so many great artists in such a collegial and collaborative atmosphere that explains the remarkable phenomenon of Pixar shorts – the company has taken a defunct genre, the animated short, and produced enough great work in it to support a separate release on its own DVD even though they’re all already out there as bonus features on the DVDs of Pixar movies (which everybody who bought the shorts DVD probably already owns). The short Knick Knack was by itself worth the price of admission to Finding Nemo. No doubt what we’re seeing is the ideas generated during artistic bull sessions at Pixar that couldn’t support a full-length movie, but were too good to throw away.

If you look at him and say, “Hey, that’s the guy who cleaned and fixed Woody in Toy Story 2!” you’re missing some of Pixar’s best work.

The Pixar formula looks very much like art-colony stuff, which is not what people expect from an intersection of art and commerce. But my point is that the Pixar formula is a formula – Pixar didn’t happen by accident, and it didn’t happen without investors who evaluated the business plan and judged (correctly, as it turns out) that the Pixar formula would produce reliable returns in the form of consistently good movies. In other words, while all the non-commercialized, anti-commercial art colonies seem to have stopped producing art worth seeing, in this case commerce produced an art colony that works. And it’s not fundamentally all that different from the household patronage system of Renaissance Italy, with Steve Jobs standing in for Lorenzo de’ Medici; capitalism just allows the patrons to draw resources from a broader base.

There’s no reason the Pixar model couldn’t be reproduced by other movie companies, by TV production houses, by music labels, etc. Even “high” art, for which there is a much more limited audience, could be produced this way. You would just have to finance it through contributions from, and sales to, the wealthy (and, presumably, through government subsidies) rather than by selling stock – which is pretty much how high art is financed now.

Of course, it takes a certain kind of person to create and sustain a collegial atmosphere among a bunch of top-flight artists – a class of personality not known for playing well with others. This is John Lasseter’s most important accomplishment, and recognizing the value of what Lasseter was doing is Steve Jobs’s most important accomplishment (at Pixar, anyway). For this, Lasseter can be forgiven even the egomaniacal introductory sgements he plastered onto the American DVD releases of the works of Hayao Miyazaki – but that’s a rant I’d better stop before it starts.

There are other Steve Jobses out there in the entertainment industry. There’s no reason they can’t find other John Lasseters and hire them to create new Pixars.

Pixar has a “formula” on the creative side as well as on the institutional side. Around the time of Toy Story 2 or so, I remember Jay remarking that Pixar movies succeed because all of them are about something, and specifically they’re about something that kids understand and adults still care about. In the early movies this was always pretty clear – Toy Story is about the anxiety of being replaced (Buzz is to Woody as a newborn baby is to the older sibling), A Bug’s Life is about standing up to bullies, Toy Story 2 is about death. In some of the later movies the subject isn’t as clear – you can make out a case that Monsters Inc. is about fear of the unknown, but you have to stretch a lot further. Nonetheless, the formula is still there for the most part, and it’s still pretty clear in most of the movies.

How will Wall-E fit in? The director (Andrew Stanton, he of Finding Nemo) has confirmed what seemed likely from the previews – namely that the movie has an environmental theme. That would of course be a disaster, since the last thing Pixar needs is to start making preachy movies. But Stanton swears the movie isn’t preachy. And I’ve long since given up judging Pixar movies by the previews, which always seem to promise disappointment, and thankfully have always proven wrong. The previews for Finding Nemo struck me as awful.

So I guess I’ll see you all at the theater tonight, and we’ll all find out together.