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Pixar's Maverick Director: How I'd Tweak Our Formula for Success

"Brave" director Mark Andrews tells how Pixar needs to  work faster and smarter — but, sorry, no R-rated toons

For 15 years, Pixar was on one of the most remarkable streaks in the history of motion pictures.

The Northern California-based company, which grew out of the computer division of Lucasfilm in the early 1980s, had produced a string of 11 consecutive commercial and critical hits, beginning with "Toy Story" in 1995 and running through "Monsters Inc.," "Finding Nemo," "The Incredibles," "Wall-E," "Up" and "Toy Story 3," among others. 

Along the way it won 23 Oscars, including six Best Animated Feature awards.

Also read: GKIDS: The Scrappy Little Guy of Animation

The company faltered only on its 12th film, last year’s "Cars 2," if you dare label more than $550 million in worldwide grosses a falter. (It drew mixed reviews and wasn’t nominated for any Oscars.)

This year’s "Brave" was seen as a largely successful attempt to get Pixar back on track, awards-wise; the tale of a headstrong young girl in medieval Scotland won positive reviews and is a solid contender in this year’s large and wide-open animation field. 

But the film wasn’t without turmoil: Original director Brenda Chapman was replaced less than two years before the film’s release (no time at all given Pixar’s usual four-to-six year development and production process), with Mark Andrews stepping in to supervise an overhaul and finish the movie.

A close colleague of Brad Bird who has also worked on "The Incredibles," "Ratatouille" and the recent live-action flop "John Carter" (directed by Pixar alum Andrew Stanton), Andrews turns out to have some strong ideas about how one of the most successful studios in Hollywood history could overhaul its way of doing business. 

When I toured Pixar recently, I came away with the impression that you were known as the loudest guy at the company. And the fastest.
I have no problem voicing my opinion. And I came out of TV animation, where you work on the kind of schedule where you don’t have time to doodle. It was a really good testing ground, because it makes you go with your gut and try stuff out and just roll with it. And once I got into features and saw how slow everybody works, I thought, OK, fine. I’ll keep at my same speed, and just get through more stuff.

Speed is not known as a primary attribute of the painstaking Pixar process.
It’s like filling an ice tray. They like to fill it very carefully, one cube at a time, until it’s all even. I’d rather fill the sink with water, stick the ice tray under the sink, and pull it out. Fill ’em all up at once.

But Pixar has had remarkable success with its current pace. Could the company really make movies significantly faster than that?
Absolutely. I don’t see any reason why it can’t be done. The technology definitely says that it could happen. It really comes down to a philosophy. It’s about working within parameters instead of turning over every stone.  If you said, “We want it for $100 million in two years,” you could get it done and it could look fantastic. 

A lot of these special-effects companies, they’ve got smaller budgets than we do, they’re doing more shots than we’re doing, they do it in less time than we do, and they look fantastic. What are they doing that we’re not doing, I wonder? 

Have you lobbied for a faster process within Pixar?
Sure. Yeah. I had a nice dinner with [general manager] Jim Morris and [president] Ed Catmull and pitched them this idea, and they were very excited. Why not try it out? It’s not gonna hurt anything to try out a different way of working. 

What it all comes down to is the story. Making something look great is difficult, but we can do it. Getting the story to be great is always the biggest hurdle, and that’s what eats up the time. We want absolute quality, and when that story’s not firing on all cylinders, man, we have to pull that in and push back the release date or even, sadly, swap out the director to get it working.

Thomas Sanders

You did just that on "Brave": You came in 18 months before the release date and replaced the original director. 
Yeah. I came in with an objective eye. I had known about the project, and I was a consultant on the research of the time period and all things Scottish, but I could be objective because it wasn’t my baby. I could see the forest through the trees.

How much leeway did you have?
Pixar wanted it to be what it was: this parent-child tale in the Scottish Middle Ages. There all these elements that they loved about it. I couldn’t change it up tons, but I had to make it work.

Within two months I had my first reels up, in two-and-a-half or three more months I had my second reels up, and within a year I had a version of the reels up that actually became the film. It was a lickety-split process, and I think a lot of the success had to do with the fact that there was no time to hem and haw about directions to go.

What were the key decisions you had to make quickly?
One was how the magic worked. Did it only affect mom, or did it affect the whole world? There was still back and forth about that, and I just kind of came in and said, “Magic affecting the whole world doesn’t make sense if nobody’s going to react to it.” I mean, if you looked out your window right now and all of a sudden there was snow, you’d freak out. It would utterly change the direction of this conversation, and the rest of your day.

But in "Brave" it didn’t. Everybody kind of accepted it. So I said, “No snow.” They said, “But we’ve been working for two years on developing snow!” Sorry, it doesn’t work. Maybe you can set "Monsters University" in the snow and use it then.  

There were other changes, to make the characters of mom and Merida likeable and real. They were fighting that the whole time, because either Merida would come off a bratty teen or mom would come off bitchy. So how do you make them likeable? I developed a whole scene so that they could talk to each other without actually talking to each other, so that the audience got where they were coming from.

There were other changes, too. It was a matter of coming in, doing it, letting it go and walking away.

You talked about learning from visual-effects companies. The line between animation and live action does seem more blurred than ever.
That’s totally true. Everything is getting closer and closer and closer. We’re all circling around the same things, the perfect hybrids. Someday, animated films are going to look like live action. You’re not going to be able to tell the difference, which will be totally trippy. Like, “Hey look, it’s Olivier again! I never saw him as Indiana Jones!”

Speaking of live action, you worked on the rather notable recent flop "John Carter." What went wrong?
I don’t know. Definitely not the story. There were a lot of mistakes that were made in the selling of the movie. It’s the one part of the process that’s out of our hands, and that stuff is just as much alchemy as making a movie. 

I think there was a lot of internal turmoil in Disney at the time on "John Carter," which may have everything to do with why it didn’t so so well. It’s unfortunate, but that’s Hollywood. 

I hear you want to be the first guy to direct an R-rated Pixar movie.
I’ll start with PG-13, and work up to R.

Is that really liable to happen?
Probably not at Pixar. But I think there is a big huge hole in entertainment for a fully-animated PG-13 or R-rated film, or for stories that have the kind of intensity that would garner that rating. That’s kind of where I live, as an artist and a filmmaker. I live in the PG-13, R-rated world. Those are the stories that attract my attention, and that’s ultimately my destination. 

Pixar has got the G and PG films down, but who knows if another division couldn’t open up that could expand and do something else.