Friday, November 21, 2008

The Lasseter Era Begins...



Today is another milestones in the long, long history of the Disney Brothers/Walt Disney Productions/Walt Disney Pictures via the Walt Disney Company...

Today we have the first tangible results of Bob Iger's decision to buy Pixar Animation Studios. Rather than let the Lamp slip away and have the films it makes go on to provide profits for another studio and characters for another theme park he chose the boldest path. He bought the company George Lucas started to help out his film making with this potentially "new" computer technology, which George had to sell to pay off a nasty divorce. The one that was bought by Steve Jobs because he saw a future in the computer technology that the company was developing. He had this vision of selling the software that Pixar, as he newly renamed it, would be creating. Oh, and along the way some of the people there were working on these little shorts to develop the programs they were creating. He let them do this so long as they also did commercials to help foot the cost. Along the way they talked about experimenting with a film done entirely in computer images. So they started having discussions with the Mouse...

And the rest we all know. Animation changed. Computer graphics changed. Story changed... or did it just come back? Because at the heart of all that cold, computer programing was a small band of storytellers led by a fired animator from Disney named John Lasseter. Barely a decade after creating the first computer animated film and changing the course of most theatrical animation in the process, Pixar became a part of the Walt Disney Company. John Lasseter, whom was fired twenty years earlier, was now brought back in to do what he was fired for. Asking questions. Shaking things up. Bring life back to what used to be the crown jewel of animation... the Disney feature animation division. Oh, and he'd be given extremely broad powers. Only answerable to Iger. And carrots would be dangled. We are only beginning to reap the benefits of that right now. More to follow over the next few years. He truly inherited a division that was in a chaotic mess. Sure, there were many great people that worked there, but the creative heads of the company weren't very creative. The Suits were getting their tentacles way too much into the process of storytelling and the spark that had been lit in the late Eighties was being extinguished. Many projects were scraped or discarded all together. Several projects were sent back to the drawing board and a few were left unscathed. After sitting down to look at the story reels for what was upcoming in the near future Lasseter talked to the directors in charge about what he thought was going right and wrong with their projects. He got several directors who were actually leaving Disney to stay and also was in the process of bringing back animators that had long given up on Walt's Little Creation...

It wouldn't all be painless. In fact, much of it would be painful. Nothing in life or business is a fairytale. Projects that were long labors of love would have to go or be radically changed. And change is the enemy of the status quo. Some would reject this change and realize the consequences. The first project to be released by Lasseter under his leadership was one of these such labors of love. Bolt. This long gestating project would be his first test. It wouldn't necessarily be the longest one developing at the Mouse right now(that would be Rapunzel), but it would be the one he saw being the closest to being released. Or at least having the earliest possible opening(in a frantic 18 months, which is light years in animation).

This isn't a film that was conceived of wholly by Lasseter and his Pixar crew. Anyone that's a Disney fan tends to know the story how this one began. A few Disney animators and quite a lot of fans still have bruised egos and harsh reactions to the sacking of Chris Sanders from his pet project: "American Dog."

Many people have been highly critical of this project, but hopefully as the weekend ends the result will be a realization that this is the first of many positive projects being developed by the new Disney animation division. Clearly, "Bolt" is more low hanging fruit than a radical departure from the structural norm of the animation market and Walt Disney Studios' typical films.



But the story that Chris Sanders had put together wasn't really much of a story. And despite all the Sanders Fans out there, this wasn't the "Lilo & Stitch" follow-up project that they were imagining. Even today, many fans long for the project that they "think" American Dog was, but wasn't really. It was a collection of pretty, some would say pretty weird and eclectic images... but at its heart, it didn't have one. There was no connection to the character for the audience. At least not a close one, an appealing one according to Lasseter and the people around him that watched the reels. They gave suggestions to Sanders, but after working on the project so long and so close, he rejected almost all of them outright. That was a mistake. There have been several directors let go over at Pixar on projects that they were working. Most people don't know this because the process up in Emeryville is more secretive. But it's a process that has worked well since Toy Story and who was going to argue with success?

The one thing that has always mattered to John Lasseter was story. Was it good? And more importantly, was it working? If it wasn't then change was needed. If the director didn't want to change he was no longer the director. As long as the story was engaging and moving forward a director had no fear of anything from the big guy with the smile wearing the Hawaiian shirts. If you couldn't get the story going then the smile would fade and those fun shirts he wore wouldn't make your experience any more pleasant. Once it became clear that Sanders wasn't going to play ball he was removed from the project. This was heartbreaking for Chris and difficult for Lasseter, but it was not uncommon for the Pixar executive to have to do unpopular things. Such is the case in business. And despite what anyone will tell you, animation is a business. If it doesn't make money, it won't be making much animation for very long. That's a true and sometimes sad reality to the film business, to animation and to life. This isn't high school and you're not out to be liked by all the people around you. If you think you are, then you're going to be extremely disappointed in your travels.



Once that was done, Lasseter got together with his story crews and came up with likely candidates for replacements. One of the main people that he was looking at was a young animator that had proposed a short for the new shorts program he was developing named Chris Williams. Soon after discussing several alternatives for the story of Bolt, Williams was named the new director. He and his crew developed a new story with only a skeletal remains of what Sanders had worked on. Gone would be the quirky and strange style of characters in exchange for something more familiar. The new crew had just a year and a half to get this production together(half what an animated film normally takes). Sanders had left Disney and was quickly picked up by Dreamworks Animation to direct one(now two) of their animated films. But as the crew plotted on, Lasseter felt that the weight of all this might plus the crunched time schedule would be too much for even the talented Williams and he decided to bring in another director. Byron Howard joined Williams to handle the daunting task of producing this film so that it met its release date. This isn't an uncommon thing in animation and if you get the right team together you can spread the workload out so it's easier to get things done. And that's very important right now. Getting things done.



Now while all this is going on, Lasseter has many other projects to deal with. He truly has the weight of the "Disney" world upon his hands. In addition to the newly renamed Bolt, he's got to work out several other projects, both theatrical and DVD that he's become involved in(the only animated division he doesn't rule over at the Mouse is Walt Disney Television Animation). And we won't even go into the theme parks which he's advising right now.

He's working on the next Disney film to come out around Christmas next year, "The Princess and the Frog," which will finally give the world another Disney Princess. This film will be the introduction of the Mouse's first African-American princess and the project has gone through several revisions. Lasseter and company don't want to make a film that offends anyone, but they're trying to make sure that the film is respectful while compelling in the story department. From everything I've heard it's going to be a very wonderful, very beautiful film. The great thing is that we have John Musker and Ron Clements working on a film without interference from Suits. Now I know Lasseter is a Creative/Suit, but he's the kind you want. And since he demands story these two guys are the perfect ones to deliver it. I can't think of anyone I'd rather have guiding these two talented directors more than John.

Now on the other side, we have "Rapunzel," a film that I've been waiting to see with Disney Geekyness... this film has more potential than even Princess, but the story hasn't jelled completely yet. When Glen Keane came up with the new concept jettisoning the modern pop-culture elements, Lasseter was impressed with the first act but had major problems with the second and third. Cut to three years later and things haven't changed much. The first is still great, the second has improved a bit, but the last act still isn't working. So now Glen and his co-director are no longer directing it. It was difficult getting rid of Sanders, but it was much harder getting rid of Keane who was a friend and fellow animator he worked with back in the early 80's. But Lasseter did what he had to do. It wasn't working, so he brought in someone he felt could brake the logjam. And I have no doubt that by Christmas 2010(if the release date doesn't change) it will work. How could I not? Lasseter has an incredible track record. Not a perfect one, but an amazingly consistent one. The films after that are far more embryonic. It's probably too early to talk about "The King of the Elves" as it's in the story phase and has a long way to go. By 2012 when that one comes out we'll have a better gauge of what buying Pixar has done for Disney. Hopefully it'll have the same affect that Apple had buying NeXT computer... but time will tell.

I can say that after seeing Bolt I know that the patient is on the road to recovery. I believe they're heading in the right direction. I know that the films we'll get will be miles ahead of what has been put out in the last decade. Bolt is a textbook example of this. If this is the beginning of the a Third Golden Age of Disney Animation, the bottom floor so to speak, then it's great foundation. I can't wait for the next floor to go up during Christmas 2009. It's the house that Walt built, but over the years we've had some bad tenants. Thankfully, there's a new contractor working on the house and he's got an excellent resume.

I can't wait to see the beauty that it becomes...

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

I see Bolt as the precursor to the Third Golden Age, mush as 'The Great Mouse Detective' was to the the second. GMD was a good film, but not great, but provided the experience of technique needed for what lay ahead.

Anonymous said...

This post was a big excuse note for Lasseter. We all know your tone is of admiration for the man, but the floating tropical shirt and shill observances are piling high.

"The Suits were getting their tentacles way too much into the process of storytelling and the spark that had been lit in the late Eighties was being extinguished."

" The great thing is that we have John Musker and Ron Clements working on a film without interference from Suits."

Typical scapegoat. You're writing as if you were there in the room making the decisions. Do you think John or anyone in that company would ever blame "suits" as a reason for a failure? Its funny how your world is so black and white when it comes to corporate and creative positions. I'm sure the creative staff NEVER burdens the business side. NEVER!

Your problem is that you see John and his workers as some art collective with puritanical objectives. Your words seem to breeze over the fact that this is a job and there may very well be people there that view it as such. Its funny how you give John an out for his business decisions ("Nothing in life or business is a fairytale"), but whenever someone else has to make a decision they are an evil suit.

I'm cool with you being biased (after all, Fox News is "fair and balanced"). I'm cool with you wanting to predict eras. I'm not cool you with isolating certain people and giving them undue blame.

urban myth said...

Let me guess, you're one of Suits that got axed when Lasseter came on board, Anonymous?

Touchy, touchy.

quack mcbush said...

A big excuse? For what? Having a really good run at making hit movies? I don't think Lasseter needs an excuse for anything. You on the other hand might need to get the chip off your shoulder.

So they fired you for being a crappy middle-management executive. I'm sure you'll find another job.

I hear Fox and Dreamworks are looking for executives experienced in mediocrity.

;P

Dusty Banks said...

I love how Honor has reached the point where he now believes his opinions are absolute fact. Disney animation may vary well be on track for a third golden age, but obsessing over it wont make it come true.

Honor Hunter said...

And how am I obsessing Dusty?

I'm simply happy the path they're taking...

And I'm simply reporting what I've heard, which is naturally going to be seen through my opinion. Just like what you say is through yours...