Pixar works on their films for years; most releases are developed for a good five years. Almost every film they’ve developed has had problems at one point of another. Some, like Ratatouille and Toy Story, were completely reworked when Pixar realized the story wasn’t working. The film newt was announced in 2008 at a Disney presentation, and canceled only two years later, making it the first announced Pixar movie to be canceled. Now we learn how the death of one story gave birth to another.
Pixar Animation Studios president Ed Catmull recently appeared on Tim Ferris’s podcast The Tim Ferris Show. In the discussion, he dropped an interesting comment about how newt spawned Pixar’s next film Inside Out. But before we get to that, here is Catmull’s explanation of Pixar’s story creation process:
The only thing that makes a film hard is if you keep going at it and it isn’t working, so you can’t solve the problems. And then what happens is, for all directors, they are emotionally invested in their films, and they also get lost in them. Happens to everybody, doesn’t matter who they are, whether they’re new or they’re experienced.
How Pixar deals with this issue is the formation of the brain trust, which allows them to always have an experienced perspective on the story:
What you want is this collection of people, we call it the Brain Trust, but essentially it is a group of colleagues who have been through it, to help navigate it when you’re kind of lost in this swirling mass. Because it’s very difficult. So the most difficult thing is on the people themselves. And we’ve had some films where the original director who had the idea got lost in it, and couldn’t get out. So we had to make some changes in order to get the film done. So, in our view, we’ve had failures, but basically we try to keep the failures inside. It’s not that it’s secret that we’ve had failures, but we don’t release the film that fails. We will abandon it, or we’ll restart. And we’ve had several restarts! Where you get to the point where you say “it’s not working, we have to do a major rethink to get this to be where it is.” We had to do that with Toy Story, we had to do that with Ratatouille.
Pixar’s troubled development of Toy Story and Ratatouille has been explored many times before. (You can read about them here, or see the Pixar Story documentary for details on the development of Toy Story). So at what point does Pixar stop trying to fix a story and completely abandon it?
Well, usually there’s a buildup, since all our films to begin with, suck. What it is, and this is the big misconception that people have, is that a new film is like the baby version of the final film. When in fact, sometimes the final film bears no relationship to what you started out with. What we’ve found is, that first version always sucks. I don’t mean this because I’m self-effacing, or that we’re modest about it. I mean it in the sense that they really do suck.
You’re going through phases where you pitch the ideas, you rework them, then you do a script, you have a script read, have actors read through it, you go through a couple versions of that, then you start to storyboard it out. You put it up, and it isn’t until you get to a few versions in that you begin to find “ok, these elements are sticking.” They’re holding, we’ve now got the tentpoles for the film that we can build around. But it’s a discovery process.
And the reason it takes a long time is you’re trying to do something that’s new. If we just want to throw out a story, it turns out we know how to do that quickly, and we know how to make it quickly. But it’s not a good movie unless you can find some way of touching people’s emotions, or bringing something new to the story.
Now back to newt, which was set to be multiple Academy Award-winning sound designer Gary Rydstrom‘s feature directing debut. Rydstrom had a history with the company working on the sound for many of the studio’s films. He directed Lifted, Pixar’s alien short film which premiered in front of Ratatouille. Newt was announced in 2008 and for whatever reason wasn’t working out. So what happened?
So what do you do when you either abandon [an idea] or restart? In our history, here, we have only abandoned one film. The other ones either evolved into what they were, or we did a restart. The one that we abandoned, the only reason we abandoned it is that we realized we needed to bring fresh blood in.
The story continues on the next page, along with a ton of concept art from Pixar’s abandoned feature film newt.