Pixar's Secret: Rewrite, Re-edit, Recut

Editor's note: Steve Jobs left a big mark on pop culture before he died Wednesday, and his innovations transformed everything from how we listen to music to what we see in movie theaters. His acquisition and support for Pixar Animation Studios helped generate a wealth of classic films, starting with 1995's Toy Story. In recognition of that achievement, we're republishing this piece from June 2010.

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Readers familiar with my writing for The New Republic may recall that I have a considerable soft spot for the Pixar oeuvre. So I was curious to read the recent Wired cover piece, published in advance of this week's release of Toy Story 3, asking how it is that while (pace William Goldman) "Nobody in Hollywood knows anything ... Pixar seems to know everything."

The article nails one of Pixar's signal strengths: Rather than relying on a revolving set of freelance talents, it has assembled a longtime staff of creative regulars (people such as John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, Brad Bird, and others) who trust one another well enough to endure an environment of constant, if collegial, self-critique. The piece also has some remarkable details about Pixar's technical process, such as the following:

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...

The average frame (a movie has 24 frames per second) takes about seven hours to render, although some can take nearly 39 hours of computing time. The Pixar building houses two massive render farms, each of which contains hundreds of servers running 24 hours a day.

But perhaps the most illuminating tidbit is a quote from Toy Story 3 director Lee Unkrich: "We don't ever finish a film. I could keep on making it better. We're just forced to release it."

This ethos of constant revision and incremental perfectionism, I think, is what most clearly characterizes Pixar's work. It's a luxury unique to animation, though one of which few animators take comparable advantage. Live-action filmmakers are essentially slaves to a shooting schedule. They go in with a script, storyboards, etc., and come out, several weeks or a few months later, with the footage they will assemble into a motion picture. Once the sets are broken down and the cast-members scatter to their subsequent projects, that's pretty much that, barring a relatively rare, extremely costly re-shoot. Any subsequent "eurekas!" on the part of the filmmakers are likely to be unrealized.

That's not the case for the Pixar folks, however. Unlike some animators, they don't generally assemble their vocal casts to work together, so they have the flexibility to go through multiple iterations of writing and performance. As Pete Docter (who directed Up and Monsters, Inc.) described the process to me:

Generally, as you probably know, we write the film, and the actor signs on. We record for three or four hours one day. We fly back to northern California. And we, for four or five months, sit and rewrite stuff. Then we fly down again, we do these short little bursts of recording, and then we go off and we rewrite, re-edit, and recut. Rewrite, re-edit, recut.

I remember talking to Billy Crystal at the end of Monsters, Inc. He was starting to look at us like, "This has all the telltale signs of a disaster," because live-action stars are used to being done in six months. We're working two years. And then we're coming down on a given day and handing them the stuff that we've been rewriting and rewriting. And they're like, "What is this now?" They really have to trust us to explain, "Ok. Now this scene has changed in this way. You're now standing outside. You're yelling up to him." Or whatever....

Animation is kind of like making a movie in slow motion. Whereas on most live action sets you'd be like, "Snap, snap, snap--come on we have 15 minutes to get all the rest of the shots in," and then the whole set is struck, and you're screwed if you think up another great idea because too bad, the actors have gone off, the set's gone--we've got three years to craft and add and tie things together. And that is key, I think, to what we do.

Rewrite, re-edit, recut. Rewrite, re-edit, recut. Will the formula work again for Toy Story 3? Bet against it if you will, but recognize that you're betting against history.

See also: Christopher Orr reviews Toy Story 3.