Inside Pixar has capsules of the studio's brilliant DNA, but is ultimately too brief

While Inside Pixar give us a glimpse of the process, it never quite becomes the definitive documentary on a company that has truly made some clutter-breaking animation films in the last 25 years.

Tatsam Mukherjee November 17, 2020 08:02:21 IST
Inside Pixar has capsules of the studio's brilliant DNA, but is ultimately too brief

A still from Inside Pixar. YouTube

Language: English

For a studio that singlehandedly raised the bar for animation films around the world, Inside Pixar seems like a (rather) thin brochure on the internal machinations at Pixar. Jumpstarted in 1986 by Steve Jobs, who was a majority shareholder in the company for the longest time, Pixar changed the way the world's interchangeable description of animation films and 'cartoons.'

The most tasteful use of technology clubbed with incredibly novel plot-lines, which delivered on adventures for kids as well as emotionally resonant for the grown-ups. So high is the benchmark set by Pixar films, they they have inspired other studios to pull up their socks and come up with innovative films like Wreck It Ralph (WB Animation), Lego Batman (WB Animation), and Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse (Sony). The studio was bought by Disney in 2006, a move that has not  dented the quality of the films coming out of it. Curiously, none of this information appears in Inside Pixar. Premiering on Disney+Hotstar, a streaming service owned by its parent company, the documentary chucks the conventional narrative in favour of something more distinctive.

Instead of beginning with when the company was founded and the usual hurdles that Pixar had to overcome while making some of the finest animation films the world had ever witnessed, the documentary chooses to focus on the people. A five-part series, where individuals from the company appear in 10-minute episodes describing how they have gone about navigating the challenging work environment inside Pixar — where everybody seems to be incredibly smart, and have exceptional taste. It is a bold step to focus on the hundreds (sometimes thousands) of faceless names that appear in the closing credits of an animation film, something we usually glaze over as the audience. It give us a sneak peek into the work culture inside Pixar, something these five individuals not only uphold, but also something they help redesign so the studio's culture never seems dated.

As an African-American writer, Kemp Powers describes the 'black experience' he intends on bringing to the writer's room in a manner that it never seems like mere tokenism. He breaks down the challenge of making a film's African-American lead feel more 'authentic.' Powers has an idea of making the character visit the locality's barber shop, before a big musical performance. According to Powers, there is no other greater microcosm for the African-American experience than a barber’s shop in the neighbourhood. "You might be a lawyer, an actor or even a garbage-man... but once you enter those doors, you're like everyone else. In that chair, for 20 minutes, you're king," Powers tells us. He makes that note, and sends it to director Pete Docter, who asks Powers to write a scene around it. Powers here, emphasises on an important point, that it is never quite good enough to have a good idea. The scene around that idea has to be well-executed too, because good intentions alone never make good films. Powers writes up the scene, and it is approved by Docter. As the characters inside the barber shop are being designed, Powers mentions how he feels proud seeing the different textures of African-American hairstyles being meticulously drawn by his colleagues. It hints at how Pixar relishes the challenges of getting the details right.

Character artist Deanna Marsigliese talks about the challenges of coming up in an industry that never embraced women with open arms. Marsigliese, with her red hair, and her classical taste in clothes and make-up, looks like a character straight out of a '50s period film. Like most of her colleagues, she speaks about the challenge of being constantly 'inspired' to be coming up with ideas left, right, and centre. She delves a little into the process of going on long walks, observing people around her, eavesdropping on other people's conversations — whatever triggers a new train of thoughts. She also speaks about sometimes feeling the need of 'doing less,' in terms of dressing up and her usual make-up routine, so as to be taken seriously. But it is something she also says, has also been less and less on her mind, as she has gone about doing what her mind wants. Working in a dynamic environment like Pixar's where the script of a film goes through hundreds of rewrites, considering how it goes through many departments, Marsigliese talks about the importance of being ready to pivot from the original idea.

Animator Steve Hunter talks about coming out to his parents as a gay man. And how Pixar emboldened him to go about telling a story that is mined from his personal experiences, through a short film, Out. Hunter’s is a touching story about a man growing up in suburban town in Canada, coming to terms with his sexual orientation, and also finding a workplace that allows him to assert his identity through projects that help represent a truth, that might help others cope with similar circumstances. 

Script Supervisor Jessica Heidt talks about reviewing and each and every single line of a Pixar script that is run past her, and confronting a problem that many within the company were not even conscious about. Working on Cars 3, Heidt analysed the dialogues by a male character compared to female characters, and the numbers reflected 90 percent and 10 percent respectively. Even though a number of characters mentioned in this were supporting parts, with probably only a line or two of dialogue, it represented something important to Heidt. When she brought it to the notice of her directors, writers, and other Pixar colleagues, many agreed that it was an analysis that should be done on all developing projects. With the help of a colleague, Heidt developed a tool that would allow any ongoing project to get a specific male-to-female ratio, and thereby help maintain a gender balance in the narrative — allowing the team to take a call.

Writer/director Dan Scanlon, who arrived with Monsters University, speaks about the challenges about being at the helm of his first film, Onward. He talks about growing up with a jovial mom and a brother, who became a faux father-figure along with a sibling. It is while writing that he was forced to confront his demons of losing his father at the age of one, and having absolutely no memory of the man. The more and more he digs deep into the idea, the more and more he is intrigued by the man, who would have been his father. What would their dynamic have been? How would he react to Dan's artistic flourishes in Pixar? It is a fascinating tid-bit story, where Scanlon exorcises his demons, he did not even know he had, through a story about two brothers who go on an adventure to bring someone back to life. It speaks to why Pixar's films, while entertaining for kids, also brings copious amount of laughs and tears for the adults. 

Despite the optimised-yet-fascinating portraits of the five individuals, Inside Pixar ultimately comes across as a documentary underlining the company's progressive values.

The line-up definitely seems to suggest that, where we begin with a black man, a woman, a gay man, a lady talking about the gender imbalance in the films, and only in the end do we see a straight white man talking about his role in the company. It might not have been constructed with bad faith, but it does become too on-the-nose by the end.

Also, considering the brief run-times of each episode, we never quite see the people confront the messy process of churning out mind-boggling creativity on a daily basis. While Inside Pixar gives us a glimpse of the process, it never quite becomes the definitive documentary on a company that has truly made some clutter-breaking animation films in the last 25 years. As long-time fans, we are obviously thankful for what we have, but we only wish there was more.

Rating: **1/2

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