Pixar and the Real World
By Max Nelson
Late in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s mystically tinged 1991 film The Double Life of Veronique, a French music teacher—fresh from the discovery that she once had a mysterious psychic connection to a Polish singer who died young—picks up and studies a marionette that unmistakably resembles her. Finding an almost identical figurine lying next to it, she turns to the puppeteer, with whom she’s just spent the night, and asks him why he’s made two marionettes in her likeness. “I handle them a lot during performances,” he tells her. “They damage easily.”
Another scene, worlds apart from the one just described but similar to it in tone and philosophical import, comes about halfway into 1995’s Toy Story, the first and most influential feature to come out of Pixar Animation Studios. A top-flight Buzz Lightyear action figure, convinced that he is the fictional superhero he’s been made to represent, stumbles into a room where a boxy TV happens to be playing an ad for the line of toys from which he comes. Seeing the image of a storage room filled with boxed copies of himself, and reading the accompanying disclaimer (“not a flying toy”), he has an epiphany. It’s the same sort of epiphany that strikes the stuffed cowboy doll Woody in Toy Story 2 when he discovers a collection of memorabilia that proves he’s modeled after the hero of a short-lived 1950s cartoon. “You don’t know,” a toy from the collection asks Woody in that scene, “who you are, do you?”
To be a mass-produced object and not to know it, to have doubles of which you’re unaware, or to belong to a world to which you don’t (or can’t) have full access: the nonhuman characters in Pixar films, be they toys, monsters, robots, fish, rats or bugs, are nearly always unsettled in recognizably human ways. They are humiliated (Woody is put under the bed after Buzz usurps his prized place on their young owner’s pillow) and often subjected to waves of jealousy, uncertainty, and guilt. They run into epistemological roadblocks (Monsters Inc.), struggle with the establishment and maintenance of civil societies (A Bug’s Life), come to terms—or fail to come to terms—with the passage of time (Up), and try to reconcile the pleasures of solitude with those of intimacy and codependence (WALL-E).
The current members of Pixar’s core creative team—John Lasseter, Pete Docter, Lee Unkrich, Brad Bird, and Andrew Stanton, among others, all of whom cycle between directing and writing the studio’s films—have a special skill for imaginatively projecting themselves into the inner lives of objects and animals. Watching their movies, we are asked to contemplate, say, what sort of religious devotion the cheap alien toys in an arcade might have for the metallic claw that periodically “chooses” one of them, or what sort of economic value a society of monsters might attach to the doors by which they enter kids’ rooms at night, or the degree of disdain a state of sewer rats might have for the people living above them.
That said, the imaginative work in question here can only go so far. Never has a Pixar film been directly concerned with, in the words of the philosopher Thomas Nagel, “what it is like for” an object or animal—i.e., what it would actually be like to see the world through non-human eyes. Instead, most of Pixar’s nonhuman protagonists end up getting anthropomorphized on one hand and, on the other, defined in relation to specific human beings. The humans in these movies are powerful, threatening presences, since it's usually they who’ve set the boundaries within which the films’ heroes live and move. In some cases, the movie’s central drama involves one of them—Linguini, the gangly, talentless chef in Ratatouille; or Boo, the little girl in Monsters Inc.—intruding on the hero with a direct emotional appeal. The characters in the Toy Story films, on the other hand, maintain a kind of charged distance from their young owners, about whom they talk in terms that waver between the romantic and the sacred.
How, these movies ask, might we come off in the eyes of the animals, objects, and fictional creatures in our lives? And how far can we go reconstructing our own lives—political, romantic, social, religious—by analogy with those of animals and toys?
It’s startling to think that questions of this kind are being implicitly asked, let alone convincingly answered by a company founded by a handful of tech geniuses and bought by Disney (in 2006) to the tune of 6.3 billion dollars. The tech geniuses in question were, as one of the studio’s earliest employees described them, a tiny “fraternity of geeks” operating out of a former chauffer’s quarters at the New York Institute of Technology. The institute’s founder, Alexander Schure, was a generous millionaire with a passionate interest in the then-nascent field of computer animation. In the mid-1970s, he made a surprise job offer to a brilliant, struggling young academic and computer scientist named Edwin Catmull, who relocated from Utah to Long Island and founded the NYIT’s first computer graphics lab. Catmull, who was raised Mormon and had done his missionary work in Scarsdale, soon welcomed in a pair of Californian painters—Alvy Ray Smith and David DiFrancesco—who’d travelled cross-country to seek him out. Smith had received a private demo by a friend of an early computer painting program, and liked what he saw.
In 1979, Lucasfilm—fresh off of the momentous success of Star Wars, which the NYIT crew had seen with delight—called Catmull’s tiny office asking if, using only computers, they “had the ability to take a spaceship and make it fly around onscreen.” By the end of that year, Catmull joined Lucasfilm at the helm of their new Computer Division, where he was soon joined by a handful other former members of the NYIT team, including Smith and DiFrancesco. (They’d left the institute for temporary jobs until Catmull could find them positions.) Once at the prestigious studio, they found themselves unexpectedly courted by eager newcomers; one of the rejects was a young CalArts grad named Brad Bird, who, Smith remarked, “didn’t have a technical bone in his body.”
Many of Bird’s fellow CalArts students had been hired straight out of school by Disney, the school’s institutional godparent. When he came to Lucasfilm in January 1984, John Lasseter had already earned—and lost—one of these coveted positions. (In a fitting irony, his burgeoning interest in computer animation met a cold reception at the same company that would later pay billions for a studio at which he was the chief asset.) He arrived at a division where, little to the knowledge of its corporate owners, a revolution was taking place. At NYIT, Catmull and his creative team had been experimenting with the possibility of using multiple frame buffers—random-access-memory (RAM) devices containing an index of color values that correspond, one value per point, to pixels on a video display—to create more photorealistic computer graphics, supplemented by color blending strategies designed to smooth out the pixels’ connecting lines into curves. With the resources of Lucasfilm at their disposal, the team had developed new algorithms for the simulation of motion blurring, rendering processes that used fractal sets to yield more sophisticated representations of uneven terrains, and “particle systems”—courtesy of the animator Bill Reeves—meant to reproduce natural phenomena like water and dust.
What the Lucasfilm computer graphics team wanted to create—and what, indeed, they were creating—was nothing less than a new visual language. For them, one senses, the development of a new fractal system could be a discovery on par with the invention of perspective in painting or the arrival of free indirect discourse in the novel. But the Pixar team was never any more interested in the perfect reproduction of reality than were, say, Filippo Brunelleschi or Jane Austen; their characters, in fact, have always been decisively cartoonish, comically ill-proportioned, bent, twisted, or compressed in shape. Instead, what they have always pursued is a language capable of making its subjects present in a new way, and to a new extent.
To be present, on this view, is to be minutely, seductively expressive. What’s often singled out about Pixar’s creative team to account for their phenomenal success is their storytelling prowess—but their stories, however well paced, tightly structured and colorfully filled in, tend to conform closely to existing narrative models. (During a tense stretch of pre-production for Toy Story, Lasseter and Docter traveled across the state to one of Robert McKee’s “Story” seminars, about which they came back raving.) The team’s particular genius lies instead in its ability to give its characters such a wide vocabulary of fine-tuned, dancelike digitized gestures: a shrug, a shiver, a movement of the eyes, a lowering of the head, a twist of a body through space, an inscription of a hand on air.
Lasseter’s animation work for Lucasfilm on The Adventures of André and Wally B, a 1984 short in which a dozing globular man gets stung by a sly bee, was a model of wordless comic precision, and his epochal short Luxo Jr.—made for the team after they’d left Lucasfilm and taken on the Pixar name—was something else still: a ballet staged for two desk lamps that, in less than two minutes, forces us into an intimate emotional bond with the objects it happens to star. Watch the way that the undulation of the baby lamp’s cord or the movement of the beach ball with which it’s playing conform perfectly to the laws of physics; but watch, too, the contrast between the younger lamp’s energetic wastefulness and the older one’s patient economy of movement, the eager anticipation that shudders through the junior lamp’s frame when it coils to jump on the ball, and the way it casts its shade up and down twice, first incredulously, then sadly, when the ball deflates.
When Pixar premiered Luxo Jr., it had taken on its own name but not, as of yet, the title of a studio. For a handful of years, Lucasfilm had been betting that it would eventually have a chance to put the technology coming out of its computer graphics division on the market. By 1986, they chose to cut their losses and sell. The division’s eventual buyer, after months of down-to-the-wire negotiations, was widely considered a Silicon Valley has-been when he acquired the company. Stung after his recent deposition from Apple, Steve Jobs regarded Catmull’s team as a potential good investment. He bought Pixar as a computer hardware company with a small, appendix-like animation arm.
Catmull and Smith were no businessmen, more comfortable in their capacity as computer scientists than in the executive roles into which they’d been forced. For its first decade of existence, the company suffered heavy, consistent financial losses; Jobs, with immense patience, poured in compensatory money out of pocket. What triumphs the company did make in these years were not, however, directly on account of the cutting-edge computers it sold. In 1986, Pixar made its first, critical deal with Disney, to whom it sold a state-of-the-art computer animation production system (CAPS) that yielded graphics of rich color and striking depth. Several years later, it would give the market Pat Hanrahan’s computer graphics software RenderMan.
It’s likely that both these developments influenced Disney’s choice to collaborate with Pixar on what would eventually become Toy Story, taken together with Lasseter’s consistent creative success. In 1988, he won Pixar its first Oscar (for the short Tin Toy). The previous year, he’d finished the deeply despondent short Red’s Dream, a grim fable about a neglected bicycle that dreams itself into—and out of—a better life. That movie, in retrospect, plays like a kind of artistic manifesto for the studio: its commitment to assigning objects hypothetical inner lives; its community with castaways and outsiders; its sharp sense of the humiliation that comes with seeing oneself reduced to a price.
How many kids have not, at one point, imagined that their toys want to be played with? The world of the Toy Story films is entirely based around the logic of this thought—but it’s also a world in which humans are almost always either grotesque, unreliable, or ill-defined. In the first two films, Andy—the toys’ beloved owner—comes and goes with tornado-like abruptness and force, playing with his toys when the mood strikes and, presumably, ignoring them when it doesn’t. In the third, he’s heading to college years after having left his toys behind. What unites the toys is something like a community of faith. They talk about their owner like a messianic sect; it’s his coming that gives their life purpose, and the inscription of his name on their feet that marks them as fellow-worshippers. (If Pixar has an ethical project, it's a matter of giving us a sense of guilt-tinged responsibility toward the objects and animals in our care.)
The toys have another source of concern beyond their owner’s unpredictable absences and revelations: their own status as mass-produced, over-advertised objects. This status, one senses, is something with which they always have to keep coming to terms. The key figure in Toy Story 2 is not the absent child—although the movie’s most overwhelming sequence, a wordless flashback to a cowgirl doll’s short-lived period of bliss with her first owner, is about exactly that—but the collector, represented here in its crudest form by Al, the bulging, unwashed toy-store-owner who kidnaps Woody to sell him overseas, and in its most poignant form by the elderly toy restorer Al hires to fix the cowboy’s broken arm.
The cleaning Woody undergoes at the hands of this stooped, dusty, mole-like figure, who brings out an elaborate carrying-case of tools for the job, might be a kind of restoration, but not the sort he needs. He craves, he decides, to be played with; it’s what can be done with him—what he can do—that decides his value, not his asking price. But the restorer is one of the most haunting presences in Pixar’s filmography, in part because it’s he, more than any of the film’s livelier characters, who most accurately embodies how the studio’s animators actually work: his minute attention to small-scale visual detail, his obsessive polishing and refining, his evident, dedicated care. His reply to Al’s gluttonous questioning—“how long is this gonna take?”—could be the studio’s motto: “You can’t rush art.”
Between making the two Toy Story films, Pixar went public. Alvy Ray Smith, fuming from a charged encounter with Jobs, had left the studio before production on the first film had begun. Pixar’s negotiations with Disney during the making of Toy Story had been unmistakably tense, and the movie itself—the first entirely computer animated feature film—was far from a safe bet. (Production had, at one point, completely shut down when revisions were demanded on the script, around the same time that Jobs—in an unrelated bout of anger—had taken revenge on Pixar’s staff by denying them their shares in the company stock.) True to its word, Disney poured nearly 1.5 million dollars into the movie’s marketing campaign, which ranged from the excessive to the mildly appalling: making-of trailers, daily Disney studio lot parades, a line of happy meal toys, and, on the day of the movie’s premiere, a three-story pop-up theme park. “I don’t see,” one Disney consumer products exec told an incredulous Pixar staffer, “how we’re going to do toys for this.”
The company’s stock market launch came days after Toy Story had premiered to wildly enthusiastic responses. By the time the market closed for the day, Jobs’ Pixar shares were valued at $1.1 billion. Lasseter, Catmull, and two other veteran Pixar team members, all of whom had been earmarked for generous options, went to sleep exponentially wealthier men than the ones they’d been that morning.
Toy Story 2, released in 1999 on the heels of the success of A Bug’s Life, was unmistakably the work of a studio rather than that of a computer hardware company’s covert animation branch. Far showier than its predecessor, it’s also emotionally richer, more confident, and much more conceptually ambitious. One marvels, watching it, at the skill of Lasseter’s team at integrating fictional pop cultural artifacts into the main fabric of their movies. A virtuosic opening battle scene, set in a sort of underground fortress, between Buzz and arch-enemy Zurg is exposed as a video game; the Buzz we’ve been watching, the onscreen avatar of Rex the meek dinosaur (played by Wallace Shawn, one of the Pixar team’s favorite actors). Midway through the movie, Woody stares with rapt attention at a taped episode of the serial Western show in which his character once starred. Meanwhile, his friends are searching for him in the cavernous aisles of Al’s toy barn, where they keep running into comically distorted versions of themselves. What’s at stake in these scenes is the creation of a self-contained, fully functional world—one with its own economic ecosystem, its own mass culture, and its own impressionable, off-camera kids.
Creating a sort of miniature world within the space of a film always involves asking whom that world accepts and whom it refuses to acknowledge. That the economic and social world that created these toys fails to make room for them, address them directly, or adapt to their scale is one of the most poignant—and political—aspects of the Toy Story movies, as well as the basis for much of their humor. (Witness the toys trying to jump hard enough in unison to open an automatic sliding door in Toy Story 2.) Generally speaking, the typical post–Toy Story 2 Pixar film setup likewise involves a citizen of one world trying to break into a new and unfamiliar ecosystem—usually human, often urban or suburban. These movies stand or fall on their ability to get the ecosystem in question to make the same sort of claim on the audience that it makes on the hero, proffer the same kind of seductions, pose the same kind of threats.
The unofficial trilogy of films the studio made back-to-back around these themes between 2007 and 2009—Ratatouille (2007), WALL-E (2008), and Up (2009)—all center on figures who don’t feel at home in their world. Where is there to belong in these films? The rat colony in Ratatouille; the postapocalyptic Earth in WALL-E, littered with the relics of an archaic commercialized world; the elderly pensioner’s tiny house in Up, transformed by a loved one’s death from a loving home to a painful memento mori—these are unsatisfying living spaces, but so, it seems, are the spaces against which they’re defined: a Paris where rats hang in windows from hooks; a space station where morbidly obese Americans float around on hover-chairs, eating; an ugly city of freeways and noise. The movement in each film is, instead, to a third space that exists somewhere between the first two. At the end of Ratatouille, for instance, we leave Remy—the genius rodent-chef whose story the movie tells—running a human restaurant in Paris where his family members, usually unscrupulous in their eating habits, gather in a scaled-down dining space between the ceiling and the roof.
Ratatouille, the second of Brad Bird’s films for Pixar (after The Incredibles), was the first film Pixar premiered after Disney bought the studio for that exorbitant sum, but its tone and concerns were, if anything, more markedly grown-up than those of its predecessors. The kitchen at Gusteau’s—the fictional French restaurant where Remy finds himself and, hidden under a young cook’s hat, improbably becomes a famous chef—is a sort of warped picture of a civil society, presided over by a petty tyrant chef and run according to a distinctly macho ethical code. Until she gets demoted to a love interest, the young Linguini’s chef-in-command Colette is cast as a determined woman in embattled, male-dominated territory. Remy, in contrast, is an unapologetic aesthete. He tries to cultivate his brother’s palette—in an imaginative flourish, the pair’s taste sensations are shown as floating, colorful abstract animations dancing around their bodies—and comes to take on, as the movie proceeds, the persona of a genius stifled by the prejudice and philistinism of the world he’s trying to convert.
The story for Ratatouille came from Jan Pinkava, an animator who had joined Lasseter at Pixar in 1993 after spending his early life in Britain, where his family had emigrated from Prague after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. His father Jan Křesadlo was a psychologist-turned-poet whose work had included a massive epic poem, written in Homeric Greek and translated into Czech by Křesadlo himself, about the abduction in a futuristic world of the mystical sheep that “watches the cosmos.” (The poem’s title has been variably translated as either “Astronautalia,” “Small Space Odyssey,” or “An Unknown Poet’s Star Voyage.”) Pinkava, who had originally been commissioned to direct the movie, was taken off the project midway into production; he left the studio soon after. The story was being “pulled in many different directions,” one of Pixar’s producers said, by strands “dealing with prejudice, family, following your passion, art and criticism.”
Most of those strands, it must be said, nonetheless come through in the final film, in which Pinkava’s central idea is rendered with Bird’s signature comic delicacy and lightness of touch. By this point, Pixar’s technical capabilities were exponentially more sophisticated than they had been even at the making of, say, Toy Story 2. (Animating Remy’s fur, for instance, only became possible after the studio had developed a program to simulate the effects of law-governed physical forces on computer-generated objects, a substitute for animating those objects’ movements one at a time.) So too was the creative team’s collective sense of cinematic space. An early scene of Remy scurrying through Gusteau’s kitchen, jumping from one catering cart to another, and riding through the main restaurant floor before returning to his point of departure is one of those passages in modern CGI-animated movies—like the Moroccan motorcycle chase in Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin or the barrels-borne-down-the-river battle scene in Peter Jackson’s second Hobbit film—that testify to the power of computer animation to gracefully stage chaos, hubbub, and flux.
The movie is Remy’s, but he is not, arguably, the figure in which it’s most interested. If Toy Story 2 was, in some sense, about the human impulse to restore and collect, then Ratatouille is about the human impulse to judge. Anton Ego, the gaunt, towering restaurant critic voiced with guttural grandeur by Peter O’Toole, stops the movie whenever he enters it. His Proustian conversion at the movie’s climax, in which Remy’s signature dish sends him back in a flash to his provincial French childhood, is a wordless setpiece on par with the first forty minutes of WALL-E or the opening chronicle of the marriage in Up. But his life, like that of the restoration artist in Toy Story 2, lacks the fullness, abundance, and emotional color that suffuse those scenes. He is outside the world—outside all the movie’s worlds—he has been appointed to evaluate. “In many ways,” he ruminates in voice-over near the movie’s end, “the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and themselves to our judgment.” And yet “there are times when a critic truly risks something—and that is in the discovery and defense of the new.”
The risk is, in this case, a sacrifice; at the end of the film, Ego loses his job for praising the work of a rat. What you hear in the movie’s final minutes, in which Ego gets a new lease on life as the owner of Remy’s bohemian-styled new dinner spot, is a statement of gratitude on the studio’s part to the businessmen, scientists, and crazed millionaires who took a risk on them when they were the new. It is also the sort of homecoming scene at which Pixar specializes, and a reminder of what makes them more or less unique in large-scale American movies: their interest in what it might take, or mean, on our side—as individuals, and as a species—for such a homecoming to be earned.
For most of the historical and technical details used in this essay, I am grateful to David A. Price’s excellent book The Pixar Touch (Vintage, 2009).
Toy Story 2 played December 21 and Ratatouille played December 26, 27, and 28 as part of See It Big, a series co-programmed by Reverse Shot and Museum of the Moving Image.