“…Which is weird, because I might not be back for a while — this is the last I’ll see of the place. And it’s an airport.” When the dialogue after the dash was removed, I immediately understood two things: first, that it made the line more perfect by eliminating what was strictly unnecessary, and secondly, that the rest of the sentence was my personal touch from the way I understood the character.
But that’s why it had to go: this script was presented as part of a large class, to be potentially directed by somebody else; the example is meant to show how creativity in larger groups naturally favors a collective sum of opinions over one person’s understanding of their work, and illustrate the principle that “perfection is not when nothing more can be added; it’s when nothing more can be taken away.” The minimalism of Apple products is an example of the latter, while the work of Pixar Animation Studios — for whom Steve Jobs was a head founder and investor — is one of the former: the famed Pixar Braintrust of top employees regularly consult over every aspect of their films throughout all stages of production. Additions and improvements to others’ ideas is the point, and since each of these films take years to make, it’s easy to conclude that everything in their final versions have passed through many hands in the process of being tested and considered from every angle.
Computer animation as a medium demands this attention to detail, plus an unequaled ability to tweak and revise: virtually every prop, camera movement and gesture must be created from scratch and remains in an adjustable state, while each voice actor can do as many takes of each line as the director calls for, free from time and logistical restraints in a recording studio. As Pixar director Andrew Stanton noted about his switch to live-action for John Carter, “After two decades in animation, I was spontaneity-starved.”
On a live-action film shoot, things are different: check the trivia for your favorite movies and you’re sure to find stories of improvised lines, quick adjustments due to practical problems like weather, and scenes that have to be salvaged and re-written entirely in the editing room. (Or just watch Truffaut’s Day for Night.) The clock is always ticking on a film set: as actor Jake Gyllenhaal says, “What’s so wonderful about movies is, you get your shot. They even call it a shot. The stakes are high. You get your chance to prove what you can do.” The influences and imperfections that live-action directors must handle while working in a creative capacity can serve to force unexpected creativity, plus a more intimate understanding of the material, by the way they deal with them.
And that’s part of the reason why we think of directors as the primary authors of films: while there may be hundreds of crew members on a live-action set, there is only one person directing the given real-time situation, betting on fixing it in post or choosing to call for one last take. In a Pixar meeting or other, more comfortable environments of group creativity, there’s less need for a single guiding authority, and indeed the point is for the ideas of each individual to become subsumed into one whole — which I think tends to become a simpler, more conventional sum as more people have to agree on the same thing.
But the people at Pixar are excellent filmmakers and creative individuals; terms like “conventional” are not quite fair for what they arrive at. Rather, I think that what happens is that by the time their films are released, they are so well thought-through that there is nothing left for the audience to discover on their own terms — considering the medium, there is literally nothing on-screen which hasn’t been considered by whole committees of people puzzling over exactly how the audience will react.
The result has the potential to drift towards what I think of as the Eisenstein 1+1+1+1+1=3 syndrome; the book Lessons with Eisenstein reveals the process of how he would plan out each shot of his films one at a time, working out with mathematical precision and the formulas of Soviet Montage Theory how we will come to love Vakulinchuk, plea for the baby carriage on the Odessa Steps and hate the impassive Tsarist regime. Eisenstein built his films one brick, one shot, one calculated unit of information at a time — but audiences are smarter than that; we (or, at least, I) come to resent being spoon-fed in such a deliberately measured manner. I love filmmakers who paint in broad strokes; I love films that force my mind to hit the ground running, that keep me engaged by giving too much or too little information — I want to be caught up in an experience made for an audience of thinking individuals, not robots conjectured to think X or Y when presented with each new factor.
Here’s what I mean to say in more practical terms: when a movie scene begins to resemble a parabolic rise and fall more than the prose of a paragraph, we’re missing the human touch, the technical imperfections which also reveal personality — that is, if all creative endeavors had to perfectly conform to a single, golden standard, the creator’s individual personality could only come through in a general way — in the choice of subject, perhaps, but less in the specifics of the creation itself, which would inflexibly have to follow certain rules.*
The film equivalent of this rigidity can be seen in Pixar’s Trailer 2 for Brave (note that this is an original scene of 2:30, not a series of clips) — between two climaxes and the required rising/falling action to each, Trailer 2 is riding the curves of a carefully plotted graph through and through. (And if you’re familiar with the way these scenes tend to play out, there are no surprises at all.) It might be perfectly structured in dramatic terms, but perfection in the mind of the viewer is a less exact science — if an Apple product is perfect, for example, it’s because every kind of person can use it with ease; it’s meant for everyone. And when a Pixar film earns more than a billion dollars, it must appeal to a similar range of people — but that also means there is less for each individual to connect to for their own reasons, and more like a wide, general sense of what people will predictably respond to; similar to Eisenstein’s closely planned audience reactions for The Battleship Potemkin, the masses (myself included) learned to dislike Hopper and his gang and sympathize with Flik and his colony in A Bug’s Life. And the way they do this is by creating “perfect” films of controlled narrative arcs and metered, shot-by-shot stability; when you get down to it, their smooth surfaces leave little to discuss besides the story, and the story predictably comes down to the same simple life morals we’ve heard all our lives: tried, true and sure to be a commercial success. (I’m not a particular fan of Shrek, but its wisecrack attitude was a nice relief from usual animated fare — just like Warner Bros.’ energetic cartoons played foil to Disney, today we have DreamWorks’ pop culture goosing Pixar’s starry-eyed morality.)
But then, there is another side to Pixar: the teaser trailer of The Incredibles is just as pre-polished with simple shots made to communicate basic things in Eisenstein fashion (especially in the first half), but the premise is more interesting; it still leaves you room to think, “What is this?” And that same interesting premise keeps an audience engaged for the feature-length version as well. The scene of various characters enjoying their newly paved street as beautiful neon lighting flows across their surfaces in Cars is another exception—a moment of fresh air; virtuoso animation for pure art’s sake — in the midst of a particularly formulaic film.
Given the analysis of every detail Pixar brings to their films, the final result will succeed the more their stories are, if not unconventional, essentially interesting or unexpected in some way — due to the medium they’re working with (plus their hundred-million dollar budgets to turn a profit on), nothing within their films will be left open to influence in the same way an unfolding live-action production is, but the more interesting their premises are to begin with, the more that initial originality will hold up under the marathon process of finding ways to make them appeal to everyone.
*Though Pixar is certainly not an environment for auteurs, looking for the different sensibilities that do emerge from the oeuvres of their directors is an interesting exercise. John Lasseter of the casual Hawaiian shirts directed Toy Story, Cars and their sequels, and A Bug’s Life. From him I get a special sense of adherence to Robert McKee’s Story principles, with a focus on buddy relationships. Brad Bird was a replacement for original director Jan Pinkava, but Remy being flushed through the sewers in Ratatouille is surely among the company’s most dynamic action scenes; this same skill can be seen on full display in The Incredibles. Finding Nemo and WALL-E make an interesting pair for director Andrew Stanton — both have a broad cinemascope vision but emotionally come down to the smallest touches. And Pete Docter maintains an equal balance between the worlds of Monsters, Inc. and Up, plus a sense of touch for the relatively unique characters that populate them. I would like to think that the beginning of Up shows a willingness for the company to play with higher stakes, but Pixar is a billion-dollar animation producer — and of children’s films, no less. In the long run, we may be in for more of the same.