Studio prospers on chaotic collaboration

With an unbroken string of hits stretching from 1995’s “Toy Story” to this summer’s “Wall-E,” you’d think Pixar had story development down to a science.

Not even close.

In fact, while Hollywood has long sought to turn instinct and experience into a replicable by-the-numbers process, Pixar continues to thrive by flying by the seat of its pants. Its filmmakers have come to believe creative chaos is one of the keys to the company’s success — and that the rest of the industry might just want to take a cue from some of the things they do differently.

At the recent Siggraph computer graphics conference, Richard Hollander, producer of the short “Presto,” which played with “Wall-E,” and Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull separately described a story process so chaotic — and so utterly different from Hollywood’s norm — that many in the corporate studio tiers are probably still scratching their heads.

A scandalous tale in James B. Stewart‘s “Disneywar” tellingly recounts Michael Eisner emailing the Disney board to snipe at Pixar’s “Finding Nemo” some nine months before the film preemed.

“This will be a reality check for those guys,” wrote Eisner. “It’s OK, but nowhere near as good as their previous films.”

Judging by Hollander and Catmull’s insights into the Pixar process, it’s hard to blame Eisner from coming away from his peek at the film thinking the process was bound to fail.

“I had no idea of the magnitude of the craziness of the story process,” Hollander told a packed room at Siggraph. In midstream, with deadlines slipping, he said he recorded this note: “Story is normal: i.e., completely in turmoil.”

But for Pixar, that is the process.

For starters, Pixar doesn’t worry about getting the story perfect before production starts.

“The first time we show it, it sucks,” said Catmull of the company’s storyboard presentations (similar to early drafts of live-action screenplays) on any of its movies. Pixar’s team is unfazed by such early reactions and just keep pressing forward.

Secondly, Pixar values people more than ideas.

Rejecting high-concept moviemaking, Catmull argues that ideas are cheap but talent is priceless.

“We realized that if you take a good idea to mediocre team, they’ll screw it up. And if you take a mediocre idea and give it to a good team, they’ll either fix it or throw it out and do something else.”

That’s what happened on “Toy Story 2,” which had to be re-boarded (think page-one rewrite) by John Lasseter just nine months before the hard release date after a lesser team had come up with a weak story.

Likewise, it’s unlikely any other studio would have greenlit Pixar’s next story: “Up,” about the adventures of 78-year-old man and his chubby 9-year-old sidekick. It’s not exactly an easy hook, concept-wise.

Catmull says Pixar’s development department was even told to stop looking for ideas for movies.

“Their job is to find teams that work well together,” he says. “In fact, since everything sucks at the beginning, all we can tell is whether they work well together.”

On a Pixar film, the director is king. Nobody has approval over the director. Only a selected “brain trust” of other Pixar filmmakers gives notes, and the director has absolute authority on how to address them — or whether to address them at all.

Pixar has been trying to instill that mindset at Walt Disney Animation Studios as well. When they took over at Disney, Catmull says, “There were three levels of approval over the directors. So we had to clip that off.”

Pixar also assumes that a crisis is inevitable on every movie, as each new project means pushing in some new creative direction.

“The measure is how do we respond to the crises as they happen,” says Catmull. “We have to be comfortable being uncomfortable.”

Tales of back-loaded production schedules and frantic races to deadline have swirled around most of Pixar’s films. But while more corporate production companies try to commoditize scripting, Pixar has learned not to panic when things seem to be going off the rails.

Even after the fact, it seems, the process can be inscrutable.

Hollander, a first-time producer who came to Pixar from visual effects house Rhythm & Hues, said he went to work on “Presto” wanting to know “How does the story process work?”

After completing the film, Hollander said, his answer is: “I don’t know.”

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