Interview: Pixar president Jim Morris – 'The Good Dinosaur'

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As president of Pixar Animation Studios, Jim Morris knows a thing or two about putting together a good story. Ahead of the HK release of Pixar’s latest film, The Good Dinosaur, Anna Cummins talks to him about the legwork needed to create groundbreaking animation, and finds out why broccoli isn’t cross-cultural

As a veteran film producer and special effects expert, Pixar’s president Jim Morris is one of Hollywood’s leading lights. (No more lamp puns now, we promise.) In his previous role at the helm of Lucas Digital, part of Lucasfilm, Morris worked for 11 years creating movies you may possibly have heard of, including Jurassic Park, Forrest Gump, Saving Private Ryan, Mission: Impossible, Pirates of the Caribbean, three of the Harry Potter films and Star Wars: Episode I and II. In 2005, a year before Disney bought Pixar for over US$7 billion, Morris picked up the reins as the animation studio’s president – also producing features such as Wall-E and Ratatouille. This summer’s Inside Out, a charming tale about the anthropomorphised emotions of a young girl, received overwhelming critical and commercial success. The studio’s next motion picture, The Good Dinosaur, follows hot on its heels this month – after delays instigated by a change of director and voice cast pushed its release back by over a year. 

An earnest and very Pixar tale of kinship between Arlo, an apatosaurus who is swept away from his home by a river, and Spot, the caveboy he encounters on his journey back, The Good Dinosaur has been drawing particular praise from critics for its highly impressive, photorealistic style of animation. With Finding Dory, The Incredibles 2, Cars 3 and more on Pixar’s horizon, it’s worth remembering that Toy Story, released in 1995, was the world’s first ever computer animated feature-length movie. With 2019 promising the release of Toy Story 4, Pixar has taken us all on one heck of a cinematic journey in the last 21 years – as Morris tells us when we meet.

So, for the first time ever, Pixar released two films in the same year in 2015 – The Good Dinosaur, which hit screens in the US back in November, and Inside Out, which came out in June. Why did you go for a double whammy?
To be honest, The Good Dinosaur was supposed to come out in 2014. Our plan was to do an original movie every other year, plus a sequel every other year. But that gets screwed up as you make better progress on one film compared to another! It’s been a bit of a challenge this year. We’re actually finishing films every eight months. We have enough production capability, but unfortunately that is not the issue! The issue is having the stories developed to the right point so we have enough content to make the films. That is the tricky part. It’s worked out fine so far. It does make a crunch with publicity; everyone gets spread a bit thin. But we’re feeling okay, we’re not at the point of regret, yet!  

Pixar’s renowned for exploring themes and telling moving stories at the same time. During production, what comes first – the theme, the characters, the plot or something else?
Usually the first thing that comes is an idea that engages the director. I would say there is some emotional core that motivates them to want to tell a story, and later we can infer a theme from that. Inside Out is an easy one to talk about – [director] Pete Docter was wondering why his daughter had changed. It started out as that core idea, but it evolved. It went through so many iterations. After we have that starting point, the characters get forged from that, and then more about the setting and the world gets forged from that.

Inside Out did very well, are there any plans for Inside Out 2?
Not right now. Pete [Docter] and Jonas [Rivera], the producer, have a new and equally weird idea that they are working on – so we will play through on that for a while! But I wouldn’t rule it out. The nice thing about working for Disney is that they don’t really dictate. I mean, I’m sure they would love to have another Inside Out, but it would be a long way off, if at all. 

What is it you like about animation? 
Well, I like all filmmaking. What I like about animation is the ability to tackle different subjects in different ways than you could with live action. Inside Out is a really good example, to me. Having characters made of energy and being self-illuminating in this very stylised world... I think if you attempted it in a live action it might be kind of corny. I also like the tech innovations that happen at such a pace compared to live action.

The visuals in The Good Dinosaur are stunning. You even used real US geological maps as the basis for the topography. How hard is it to create an entire world from scratch?
It’s hard! We’ve come from the cartoon world, but it seemed like it would suit the story of this film if we could get something that was a heightened photorealism, rather than traditional animation. There’s so much detail in each frame. It can take take 100 hours to render one frame, and you need to render it multiple times as you go through different stages. It’s become a challenge just to get enough computer processors to compute the images. I think we already have more processors than the US Pentagon! 

You changed the director of The Good Dinosaur partway through production?
Yes. We actually change directors with some frequency! I would say when we changed directors during Ratatouille it was almost as cataclysmic to be honest. And when we changed the director of Toy Story 2 it was an utter disaster. So on our lineage of screwing up, this one is just in the sweet spot!  

You also changed almost the entire cast and the plot itself after production had begun. What happened?
The movie was one we all liked from the beginning but the story had some fatal flaws in it that none of us really saw. It was a kind of Billy Elliot story, it was a very different movie – the Arlo character was a bit different, he was kind of repressed by his community and it always felt like we were vilifying an otherwise likeable group. It didn’t resonate. We weren’t sure what idea we were getting at. There was certainly an entire group to blame for getting it to that point, myself included. What we realised over time at Pixar is that it gets to a point where a director has done what they can do for a film and you need some fresh voices if you want to proceed. 

Your studios in California are, of course, exceedingly high-tech and chic. Is there anything that would surprise people about what it’s like working there day to day?
Well… we have a flock of Canadian geese which land on the grass, and they poop everywhere. And so when we walk around we have to dodge that! [Laughs]. Something most people don’t realise about our films actually is that, even though the computers are doing the animation, our average film takes 20,000 person-weeks to make. And that is probably a little bit more than most traditional, hand-drawn Disney films took. The amount of labour it takes to make a film like this is huge – the textures and scenes are painted by hand. Our joke used to be that we are where high-tech and low-life collide.

Does much change when one of your films is released in different markets?
Occasionally. For some films, like Cars 2, we set out to do a bit of localisation out the gate, with different race cars for each area. While we were working on Inside Out, I took the storyboard to the Japanese team, and they were baffled by why a child would not like broccoli. In Japan, kids love broccoli! Whereas in the US they hate it. So in some scenes we replaced the broccoli with carrots, which kids in Japan hate.

What are your long-term goals for Pixar?
One thing we’re trying to do is to expand the roster of directors. We’re trying to build the next generation and make the company more diverse, to get a breadth of voices to tell a range of stories. We’re 37 percent female at the moment, and we’d like to be 50 percent. We don’t have a lot of turnover at Pixar though, which makes that somewhat challenging! 

When you look at Pixar’s back catalogue, is there anything you’d change?
Well, I’m sure there’s something in each and every one of them if I had the opportunity to go back and tweak! In general, it never seems like a Pixar movie until it’s released and then it just... does. Even Inside Out, we weren’t sure if people were going to like it, as it’s nothing like we’ve made before. 

I find each and every one of our films resonates with certain audiences, or otherwise is important from a film history point of view. I remember when Toy Story first came out [in 1995], back when I was working for George Lucas. [Then CEO] Steve Jobs, [director] John Lasseter and [co-founder] Ed Catmull invited us over to see it; the movie had just been finished. They weren’t in the fancy place we are now, they were in some crappy warehouses. We watched the film, and afterwards I sat there thinking, ‘This just changes everything. This is like Casablanca.’ The way every scene propels into the next, the writing is brilliant and the characters are all multi-dimensional. I had never seen an animated film, other than some anime, that had so much character complexity, yet was so accessible. When Pixar is at its best it has this complexity and can speak to a lot of different audiences, but it’s still simplistic enough that kids get it, too. It’s a tricky balance.

After The Good Dinosaur, what else does Pixar have in the pipeline? 
We have a bunch of confirmed titles. There’s Finding Dory later this year. We’re working on The Incredibles 2, Cars 3 and Toy Story 4. Dan Scanlon, who did Monsters University is working on an original film. Mark Andrews who directed Brave is working on one, too. We have a new director called Brian Phee, who is working on a new movie, and we have a few shorts that are in the works. I can’t say much more than that or I’ll get in trouble!

Of all the Pixar characters, which one would you say is most like you?
Probably Woody. I have cowboy boots. If nothing else, we have that in common!  

The Good Dinosaur opens citywide on Thu Feb 4. 

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