Pixar shorts and the grooming of new talent.

I seem to be on a bit of a Pixar kick this week, but oh well.

Jim Hill reports that John Lasseter gave a presentation at ShoWest last week in which he said that Pixar’s short films would serve as a proving ground for new directors who could one day take the reins of Pixar’s feature films — and I have to admit that, on reading that, my first reaction was a skeptical one.

I don’t deny that short films can be a rite of passage, of sorts, for up-and-coming auteurs. And I think it would be good for Pixar to maintain a separate identity of sorts while it passes the baton to a new generation of filmmakers, instead of simply letting the company be folded into the rest of the Disney empire the way that, say, Miramax was. But so far, Pixar’s own track record in this area is, well, not so good.

At least twice now, Pixar has given one of its short-film directors the opportunity to direct a feature film, and on both occasions, the director in question never got to finish the job. In the case of Ratatouille (2007), Pixar took the project away from original director Jan Pinkava, who had previously directed the short film Geri’s Game (1997); and in the case of Newt — which was going to be directed by Gary Rydstrom, director of the short film Lifted (2006) — Pixar has simply let the film die altogether.

The simple fact is that nearly every feature film released by Pixar to date has been directed by Lasseter or by one of the co-writers or co-directors who worked with him on the first two Toy Story movies (1995-1999). The only exceptions to this are The Incredibles (2004) and the final version of Ratatouille, which were both directed by Brad Bird, a former classmate of Lasseter’s who had already established himself as a director of animated features by making The Iron Giant (1999) for Warner Brothers.

And what of Pixar’s upcoming roster? Of the three films that have been officially announced and are still in production:

  1. Toy Story 3 is being directed by Lee Unkrich, who was a co-director on three previous Pixar films including Toy Story 2;
  2. The Bear and the Bow (which may or may not be retitled Brave) is being directed by Brenda Chapman, who has already established herself as a director of animated features by making The Prince of Egypt (1998) for DreamWorks; and
  3. Cars 2 is being directed by Brad Lewis, who has no previous directorial credits at the IMDb whatsoever, apart from a making-of featurette — but, interestingly enough, he was a producer on Antz (1998), the DreamWorks film that coincided with Pixar’s A Bug’s Life (1998), thereby prompting people at Pixar to accuse DreamWorks of stealing their idea.

So there you go. With the exception of Lasseter, who built the company’s reputation over the course of several short films before directing the original Toy Story, not a single one of Pixar’s past, present or future features is the work of one of their short-film directors; and whenever Pixar has turned to someone who didn’t work on the original Toy Story movies, it has turned to a filmmaker who had already directed or produced a feature film for someone else. It may be that Pixar will promote one of its own short-film makers to the big leagues some day, but so far, this is not that day.

And for what it’s worth, it should be noted that Lasseter is said to be heavily involved in rewriting Cars 2 right now, to the point where it is even being said that he has become that film’s de facto co-director, regardless of whether he will be credited as such when the film is complete.

Make of all that what you will.

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  • RC

    Interesting – thank you for putting this together – congrats I suppose to Brad Bird for breaking into the Toy Story crowd. I loved Bird's Iron Giant…he tells a unique story that deals with powerful themes.

  • RC

    I put together some thoughts and collection of thoughts on animation that i ran across and had to include your thoughts here at my blog. Thank you for sharing.