What Makes Pixar Pixar?

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The reviews are out on Toy Story 3, and the verdict is utterly predictable: the film is amazing and it will make a gazillion dollars.

Pixar's newest gem is currently scoring a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, a movie review aggregation website, which means that there is not a single negative review among the hundreds of critics on RT's expansive roster. (Avatar, by comparison, earned an 83%.) For Pixar, this is merely par for the course. Toy Story 2 also scored 100%. The first Toy Story? 100%, of course. Last year's Up? A pathetic 98%.

Not only does Pixar claim the highest batting average of any major film studio among ornery critics, but also it's become the single most financial successful studio in movie history, on a film by film basis. What's the secret?

High doses of self-criticism and patience. From story idea to the silver screen, the Pixar team takes more than 1,100 days to produce and perfect its CGI masterpieces. It is precisely this methodical approach to film-making -- a self-critical process that boarders on navel-gazing -- that makes Pixar special and consistently successful, writes the Atlantic's own Chris Orr.

He excerpts a wonderful Wired story by Jonah Lehrer about Pixar's rewrite/re-edit/recut philosophy. A sampling:

Day 123: The storyboards are turned into what's called a story reel--a series of images that can be projected for an in-house audience like an elaborate flip book. The lines are prerecorded by Pixar employees. "This is a crucial moment for the film," says Pixar president and cofounder Ed Catmull. "Watching along with an audience allows us to see what works and what doesn't."

...

Day 533: The pictures are moving. Each character is defined by up to 1,000 avars--points of possible movement--that the animators can manipulate like strings on a puppet. Each morning, the team gathers to review the second or two of film from the day before. The frames are ripped apart as the team searches for ways to make the sequences more expressive.

Orr says animators have a unique advantage in film-making with their complete control over the settings and performances. Actors are annoyingly (well, humanly) inconstant, and the real world is rife with weather and bad shadows. But pixels are pixels. They can be an awesome firestorm or a subtle tear, and that microscopic control helps Pixar achieve manic, and ultimately magnificent, mastery of its stories.

But Pixar's specialness must come from something on top of that omnipotence. After all, there are plenty of animated movies that were horrible (the last one I saw was Shrek 3). What's more, the novel provides authors with similar omnipotence, and without naming names, let us merely agree that some novelists are downright bad. In short, control is not the only key to narrative brilliance.

I used to rationalize Pixar's otherworldly consistency by thinking the time and resources needed to produce a CGI picture were so overwhelming, one had to aim for perfection. But that's an incomplete answer, too. The first Toy Story movie was completed on a $30 million budget with a staff of 110, according to Wikipedia, and it spearheaded an entire genre. Kevin Costner's Waterworld was released the same year on a $175 million budget, and it spearheaded a lot of jokes about Waterworld.

Maybe looking for the secret to Pixar's sauce is pointless. They make beautiful, familiar, old-fashioned stories about relationships that happen to use monsters, toys and fish for characters, and they do it almost perfectly time every time because ... well, they've just figured out how to do it.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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