At the turn of the century, animation studio Pixar had established themselves at the forefront of computer animation having released three films co-produced with Disney. As part of a renewed deal, Pixar were contracted to provide Disney with another four films, excluding sequels. However, although Disney and Pixar were partners, the Chief Executive of the Walt Disney Company, Michael Eisner, considered Pixar his biggest rival. Distrust and jealousy of Pixar's success, at a time when Disney's animated films frequently flopped, soured the Pixar/Disney working relationship.
The 'Brain Trust'
Pixar functioned as an animation studio by using what they called the 'brain trust', made up of Pixar's most experienced animators and filmmakers. The brain trust would work together to analyse and criticise every element of every film in production to ensure that it met the highest possible quality standards. At that time the brain trust consisted of:
- John Lasseter
Pixar's first computer animator who had been involved in directing the first three Pixar films.
- Andrew Stanton
Stanton had developed the stories of all Pixar's films to-date, co-directed A Bug's Life and was the voice of Zurg.
- Pete Docter
An animator who specialised in story-development and had proposed an idea about monsters.
- Joe Ranft
Ranft had studied with Lasseter at CalArts and was story supervisor on The Nightmare Before Christmas.
- Lee Unkrich
The editor of Toy Story and A Bug's Life, he became a co-director on Toy Story 2.
In mid-1994, while finishing Toy Story, the brain trust had met in the Hidden City Café, Point Richmond, California to discuss what their next film should be. Pete Docter proposed the idea of investigating what if monsters were real, Andrew Stanton was keen to see a film set beneath the sea, John Lasseter wanted to make a film about automobiles and another idea mentioned discussed a film about the last robot left on an abandoned Earth. An idea about insects had been made as A Bug's Life, but now it was the turn of the film about monsters to be developed.
4. Monsters, Inc. (2001)
|Directors||Pete Docter, Lee Unkrich & David Silverman|
|Plot||Sulley and Mike work for Monsters Inc, an energy company in a world full of monsters. They gather energy by scaring young children, but believe that children are dangerous contaminants. When they discover a young child named 'Boo' has made her way into their world, their attempts to send her back where she belongs without being caught result in their uncovering a much bigger plot.|
|Setting||Monstropolis, a city in a world full of monsters. Also the Himalayas, early 21st Century|
|Music||By Randy Newman:|
|Oscars||2002 Best Original Song (for 'If I Didn't Have You')|
|Accompanying Short||For the Birds1 (2000)|
Pete Docter said that the idea came from the response that Toy Story had generated, that audiences overwhelmingly said that when they were young they all believed their toys led their own lives. Docter felt that a film about something else children believe are real, such as monsters, would have similar appeal, however this time the twist would be that monsters are as scared of children as children are of monsters.
Although work on the film began in 1996 with a treatment completed in 1997, it was not until 1998 when the character of Mike Wazowski was added and the age of the child that finds itself in Monstropolis settled at being quite young that the film finally gelled. On release, Monsters, Inc. was another huge success for Pixar. Not only was it the most successful animated film of 2001, it overtook Toy Story 2 to become the second most successful animated film ever, after The Lion King3. It was also nominated for Best Animated Feature, however DreamWorks Animation's Shrek won instead.
5. Finding Nemo (2003)
|Directors||Andrew Stanton & Lee Unkrich|
|Plot||Ever since his wife and other children died, Marlin the clown fish has been overprotective of his surviving son, Nemo. Frustrated, Nemo disobeys his father and swims towards the deep ocean, where a diver from Sydney catches him. Marlin embarks on a long journey to find his son, encountering the forgetful Dory on the way, while Nemo, trapped in a tank, learns self-reliance for the first time.|
|Setting||Underwater between Great Barrier Reef and Sydney|
|Oscars||2004 Best Animated Film|
|Accompanying Short||Knick Knack (1989)|
Following on from Monsters, Inc. came the film about fish first suggested at the same meeting. The idea was by Andrew Stanton who originally wished to create an underwater environment and was inspired by a photograph of two clown fish peering out of an anemone. Stanton was also a father, and so the film also took on a theme of parenthood, overprotection and love despite disagreements.
The film faced competition from DreamWorks Animation's Shark's Tale released around the same time, yet on release Finding Nemo beat The Lion King to become the most successful animated film of all time and remains the best-selling DVD of all time. It also won the Best Animated Film Oscar. It made almost four times as much as Disney's animated film that year, Brother Bear.
For fish, however, the film may have been too successful; clown fish became a must-have pet after the film's release, with many children unable to correctly look after their new tropical fish. Other children reportedly re-enacted the film's finale by flushing fish down the toilet, which again is unlikely to have ended well for the fish concerned.
In 2003 Roy E Disney, son of Roy O Disney and Walt Disney's nephew, resigned as Disney Vice Chairman. This resignation was part of a campaign against Michael Eisner. Eisner was determined not to renegotiate the terms of a Pixar/Disney deal, which was due to expire in 2006. Steve Jobs felt the original deal undermined Pixar despite their established track record. Criticised for the poor performance of Disney's animated films, Eisner wanted to distance Disney from Pixar.
As part of the existing film deal, Disney retained the character rights to the Pixar films they had financed. Eisner announced that Disney would churn out straight-to-video sequels to these films which would be made by a new animation division called Circle 7 Animation, although it was soon nicknamed 'Pixaren't'. Eisner also confidently predicted that when the next Disney animated film, Chicken Little (2005), was a huge box office success, it would prove once and for all that Disney did not need Pixar. Meanwhile Roy E Disney's 'Save Disney' campaign continued. This was designed to remove Eisner from power, with re-opening negotiations with Pixar a top priority.
An Incredible Journey?
Following Finding Nemo came an unusual film for Pixar, one that bypassed the usual Brain Trust and came from someone then an outsider to Pixar's inner circle, Brad Bird. Bird had been at CalArts at the same time as Lasseter and had also briefly worked at Disney on The Fox and the Hound in 1981. In 1989 he helped develop The Simpsons, including directing the Do The Bart Man (1990) video, which was a UK number one hit five years before The Simpsons was broadcast terrestrially. After gaining a strong reputation for his work on television series, such as the Rugrats pilot (1991), The Critic and King of the Hill, he made the highly acclaimed film, The Iron Giant (1999) for Warner Brothers, which sadly under-performed4. For his follow up at Warner Brothers he had proposed a story about a family of superheroes, yet Warner Brothers closed their traditional animation department.
Undeterred, Bird pitched his idea to Pixar who enthusiastically supported the idea, although their partners at Disney vetoed Bird as director. Although he had successfully directed a music video that had become a number one hit worldwide, as well as a critically acclaimed film, they felt he was unqualified to direct as he had not made a film that had made over $100 million. There were rumours of resentment that when Bird left Disney, he had animated a television series that many preferred to Disney cartoons. It was only after Pixar president Ed Catmull appealed to Michael Eisner directly that permission for Bird to make his film was given.
6. The Incredibles (2004)
|Plot||Following legal lawsuits, people with superpowers are forced into living mundane lives. Frustrated at this and his suburban family life, the former Mr Incredible accepts a job offer to stop a rogue robot on a remote, tropical island. Yet he soon discovers that there is more to this than he had at first realised.|
|Setting||Fictional city of Metroville and Nomanisan Island in 1960s-esque era|
|Accompanying Short||Boundin' (2003)|
A bit of a departure for Pixar. Not only was the film made by someone outside Pixar's exisiting establishment, Brad Bird also brought many of the animators he had worked with at Warner Brothers to work on the film. As the film had originally been intended to be cel-animated it had been developed without regards for the rules and limitations of computer animation. For example, unlike previous Pixar films, the characters were all human, the most difficult thing to be convincingly animated. The film was also set in 90 different locations. In traditional animation, each location merely requires background artists to create a new background but in computer animation, each location is a fully-realised 3D set animated to great detail, a much more laborious and difficult task. Pixar had previously kept the numbers of sets required per film to be under 30, yet The Incredibles trebled the number and the amount of work required in what was the longest film they had made to date.
There were also considerations over how similar the family's powers were to existing superhero characters, particularly the Fantastic Four. The Incredibles' 'Elastigirl' was also similar to DC Comics' 'Elasti-Girl', while the plot bears a close resemblance to that of Watchmen.
The film beat Shrek 2 to win the Best Animated Film Oscar. It was another financial success as the year's second biggest box office for an animated film after Shrek 2, beating competition from Shark Tale, The Polar Express and Howl's Moving Castle. Disney's film that year, Home on the Range, flopped.