Of all the places you could work in the entertainment business, Pixar Studios has got to be one of the coolest, if not the coolest. Through numerous video features, magazine articles and buzzfeed posts we’ve see their near-idyllic work environment in Emeryville, California: personalised work spaces for animators, goofy lounges, fun extra-curricular courses and parties just about every night of the week.
At the recent D23 Expo (an annual presentation hosted by the Walt Disney Company) there was a notable absentee in the form of veteran Pixar creative Bob Peterson, who was expected to present his film The Good Dinosaur.
According to Disney bods on the day, he wasn’t available due to scheduling difficulties. However, insider blog Blue Sky Disney is reporting that Peterson is now off the project, leaving Pixar in need of a replacement director. A director, mind you, who will have to work pretty quickly to get the film ready for its May 2014 release date.
Having been employed on just about every Pixar feature since Toy Story, Peterson has been a key part of the company, working in various capacities as storyboard artist, writer and voice actor. He co-directed one of the studio’s most acclaimed features with Up (for which he also provided the voice of Dug, the squirrel-obsessed golden retriever.
Although his 11th hour ousting has yet to be confirmed, it would not be unprecedented. He would actually be the third director removed from a Pixar project in the company’s 18 year history of making features.
Director Jan Pinkava won an Oscar for his Pixar short Geri’s Game, about an old man who plays chess against himself. Some years later, he would be given the green light for a film he devised about a French rat who wanted to be a chef. After working on the project for five years, he was replaced by Brad Bird, newly hot off the success of The Incredibles.
Likewise, veteran animator Brenda Chapman was relieved as the director of Brave after creative disagreements with the company. While she managed to retain co-director’s credit, eventually sharing an Oscar with replacement director Mark Andrews, she has since left the company.
From the outside, these firings seem like real dick moves by Pixar: a name associated with invention, joy and child-like innocence. Hearing about disgruntled employees and snap dismissals is sort of like seeing your favourite uncle beat up a parking attendant: very sobering indeed.
But were the firings justified? One could easily reason that they might have been.
It’s been reported many times that Brad Bird basically re-wrote Ratatouille from the ground up, using the existing virtual sets and character models. And while it seems like a backwards way of doing things, the end result is unquestionably one of the companies finest and most ambitious films.
Brave may have not suffered from a glut of ambition, but early synopses of the film suggests that Chapman’s original vision was a lot more grounded in obscure mythology while the final film resembled a traditional and tightly-structured fairy tale.
It mus be said though, animation is a more collaborative process than live action film-making, with the director being a somewhat less crucial cog in the machine. Animators and storyboard artists contribute as much to the creative process as writers and actors.
But when a director is removed from a project like this, it almost always signals and complete change in the movie’s direction, as with Ratatouille and Brave. The original director may have become too attached to the ideas, which could cause trouble when having to murder his darling.
As a studio, Pixar has always prided itself on delivering quality films and one can only guess that you don’t achieve greatness by saying ‘good enough’ all the time. Sure, their recent slate has featured way too many sequels and a few of their most dispensable movies to date (we’re looking at you, Cars 2…) but studio president Ed Catmull has recently released his new strategy of focusing on more original stories and cutting back on the spin-offs.
As a vital part of a newly invigorated Pixar’s plan stay at the top of their game, The Good Dinosaur has to be nothing short of great.
According to the official synopsis, the film is set in a world where a cataclysmic asteroid narrowly avoided hitting the Earth. As a result, the dinosaurs never went extinct and they went on to co-exist with humans. As a set-up there is plenty of potential, with the story revolving around an unlikely friendship between a teenage apatosaurus and a human boy. The “unlikely friendship” part seems a little Pixar-by-numbers, but as always everything will come down to whether the characters and story are good.
We remain, as always, cautiously optimistic.
The Good Dinosaur is scheduled for a 2014 release