How Pixar Makes Movies Everyone Loves
The Creative Secrets Of The Most Successful Animated Studio In The World
There is an expression that: “what is made for everyone is loved by no one.”
In the worlds of art and commercial these words are close to an immutable law. For good reason. In almost every case, trying to satisfy everyone results in pleasant, but quickly disposable content. However, every so often there is something or someone who proves this assumption wrong.
In cinema, Pixar animation is a rare exception to the rule. They make movies beloved by all demographics. Young and old. Critics and consumers. City dwellers and suburban soccer moms.
And they haven’t done it once, they pull off this trick again and again. The studio maintains a near-perfect track record. Since releasing Toy Story in 1995, just about every one of their films has been lauded by critics and rewarded at the Box Office.
Here are some statistics to show their success:
- All but 4 Pixar films cracked the top 10 in box office earnings the year they came out.
- Only one Pixar movie, Cars 2, has a rotten score (below 60%) on the popular film review site Rotten Tomatoes.
- Since introducing the Best Animated Feature Oscar 16 years ago, Pixar has taken home half the awards.
In the volatile world of filmmaking, Pixar is a certified hit machine. But what is it that makes Pixar films universally appealing? How do they defy odds and pack theatres with such a wide range of people?
One could pick apart each of their films for answers, but I believe there are seven core reasons Pixar is popular. None of them are unique to the studio, but the combination of the seven explain why their films are so good.
Here is how Pixar makes movies everyone loves.
*** Most of this article is spoiler free, but the last section has details on the endings of the Pixar movies: Toy Story 3, Inside Out, and Soul.
Reason 1: Cutting Edge Animation
In 1986, computer scientist Ed Catmull, animator John Lasseter, and (then) ex-Apple CEO Steve Jobs formed Pixar Studios. The trio came from diverse backgrounds, but banded together with the goal of creating the first computer animated feature film.
At the time, the idea of a digitally animated feature seemed like a pipe dream. People at Disney doubted the technology would replace their hand drawn style of animation. Even Star Wars creator George Lucas, who both Lasseter and Catmull worked for, questioned its utility. When strapped for cash, Lucasfilm’s Computer Graphics Unit was one of the first to go.
For years Pixar would survive by selling computer hardware and making shorts and commercials. While these early projects were detours from the company’s cinematic goals, they helped establish their style of animation and perfect the technology they would use on their first feature film: Toy Story.
When Toy Story roared to the top of the box office in 1995 it was not only a financial victory, but a vindication of its founders’ belief in digital storytelling. The film proved that computer animation was the way of the future and established Pixar as the leaders of this movement.
Since Toy Story, no studio has spurred more innovations in animation. With each release, Pixar has stretched the limits of computer generated technology. Monster Inc was the first film to animate fur. Finding Nemo was the first film to depict the ocean using computer graphics. The Incredibles was the first film that featured an all human animated cast.
When watching a Pixar film audiences expect to travel to worlds unknown, and see unexplored characters and ideas take form on screen. These feats would not be possible without the studios’ commitment to technology, and desire to meld it with art.
Reason 2: Relentless About Getting The Story Right
Shortly before the release of Toy Story 2, director John Lasseter made major revisions to the story. For most productions this might require some re-shoots and perhaps a trick or two in the editing room, but for a big budget animated movie these revisions meant the entire team would need to redraw and reconstruct much of the film.
The 8 month scramble pushed the company to the brink. Employees ate and slept at their desks. Some barely saw their families. Many sustained stress related injuries. But Lasseter and the creative team never doubted the decision. They believed the effort was worth the cost if it meant getting the story right. In the end it paid off, Toy Story 2 was a smash hit that rivaled, if not topped, the original.
This example, while extreme, shows the care Pixar has for their stories. The studio made their name with technology, but they have built their empire on well-told stories. As co-founder Ed Catmull admits, “visuals don’t matter unless you get the story right.”
Pixar has processes at every level to meet the standards they’ve set for themselves. At the highest level is the Pixar Brain Trust: a team composed of the company’s top creators and story artists. During Brain Trust meetings, Directors show their work to the group and receive honest criticism from their peers.
Outside the Brain Trust, each production reviews their story in meetings called “dailies”. In a daily session, every member of the production, from the director to entry level animators, can suggest improvements for the film.
These practices are arduous — most Pixar movies go through around a dozen versions before their release — but the results are undeniable. Behind their eye-catching animation, each Pixar movie has a story that audiences connect with. The visuals may sell tickets, but it is their stories that keep people coming back, and Pixar tells them as good as anyone in Hollywood.
Reason 3: Relatable And Unique Characters
While working on the script for Toy Story, Pixar struggled with the character Woody. Eager to distance themselves from hokey Disney princes and princesses, they wrote an edgier version of the character. The original Woody was a tyrant who bossed around his friends, and berated anyone who questioned his status as top toy.
As you can guess, this version of Woody didn’t play well for audiences. During test screenings, people complained they couldn’t cheer for the crotchety cowboy. The writers worked for months to craft a new Woody: one whose arrogance came from a place of anxiety and insecurity — a fear that his owner would abandon him. The result was a flawed, but relatable character audiences could root for.
You may ask, why do we identify with a toy in the first place? Or any Pixar character, for that matter? Some of which include talking fish, trash-collecting robots, and a rat with a nose for French cuisine. On the surface these creatures bear no resemblance to ourselves, yet we’re deeply invested in them.
Director Andrew Stanton says Pixar pulls this off by giving their characters an “inner motor” or “unconscious drive” that motivates their actions. For Woody, this drive is to serve his owner. Wall-E’s drive is to find beauty. Marlin, the dad from Finding Nemo’s, drive is to prevent harm. These characters may not look or talk like us, but they think and act like we do.
While this inner motor grounds characters in reality, Pixar gives them ticks that add humor and excitement to their personality. Dory from Finding Nemo is a fish with short-term memory loss. Buzz from Toy Story is blissfully unaware he is a toy. The combination of inner drives and outer eccentricities leads to memorable characters that are equal parts empathetic and amusing.
Reason 4: Appeal To Children And Adults
The early 2000s marked a busy spell for Pixar. Fresh off the success of the Toy Story movies, the company ramped up their production schedule with the goal of putting out a new picture every year.
The tight schedule took a toll on the team. Many employees struggled to balance their work and family life. This included new directors Pete Docter and Andrew Stanton, both of whom were recent fathers. These familial struggles seeped on screen in the upcoming Pixar releases (Monsters Inc and Finding Nemo) and soon became touchstones of the studios’ stories.
It borders on cliché to say that Pixar movies aren’t just for kids. From the beginning, the company has earned a reputation for telling stories both children and adults can enjoy. The films feature whimsical characters and slap-stick gags that kids love. While including mature themes and inside humor for grown-ups.
But Pixar goes a step further. Their stories don’t just appeal to kids and adults, they feature characters of different ages dealing with similar struggles. For instance, Finding Nemo tackles coming of age from the eyes of both parent and child. We see the conflict from young Nemo’s perspective as he tests the limits of his freedom, as well as his father Marlin’s who must accept that his son is growing up and he can no longer protect him.
What’s more impressive, Pixar links these arcs into a single message that applies to kids and adults. At the end of Finding Nemo, both characters learn the importance of confronting fear and embracing the unknown: a truth we learn in our youth, but must remind ourselves of as we grow old.
Reason 5: Eye For Detail
If you comb through Pixar’s annual budget, you might find an odd item in the ledger: Field Trips. Like school kids, the Pixar team takes time out of their busy schedule to go on field trips before starting production on a film.
It’s easy to dismiss these trips as one of the company’s kooky Bay Area practices, but there is a reason behind them. As an animation studio, Pixar has to develop a precise eye for detail to draw and render everything that appears on screen. Pixar’s field trips are part of the meticulous research and development they do to accomplish this.
For Finding Nemo, the crew visited the Pacific Ocean and got scuba certified so they could properly animate the ocean. Before the production of Ratatouille, the team spent a week in Paris to learn the layout of 5 star restaurants. For Up, they took balloon rides in Bolivia to familiarize themselves with the tropical terrain.
This research goes beyond the physical world. Pixar conducts exhaustive interviews to understand the themes and philosophies of their movies. For Inside Out they talked to dozens of psychologists to understand how emotions and memory work. For Soul they spoke with gurus and leaders of the world’s major religions to learn their thoughts on the meaning of life.
This eye for detail is clear to anyone who has watched a Pixar movie. The world on screen, whether it be real or imagined, feels intricate and lived in. This is no accident. Everyone involved with a film has a deep understanding of its subject matter. While the audience may not have been to the places on screen, they can tell when the creative team has done their homework.
Reason 6: Original Stories
In 2015, Marvel released Avengers: Age of Ultron. The success of the Avenger movies and their sequels gave studios a new blueprint for success: find established franchises and produce as many movies as possible around them.
This Marvel style of film-making didn’t happen in a vacuum, it was the culmination of a trend away from original ideas. As box office numbers plummeted, and audiences shunned the cinema in favor of streaming services, studios have clung to pre-existing ideas and property.
You only have to look at the box office receipts in 2015 to see this. Of the top ten box office earners, only one was based on an original idea. Pixar’s Inside Out: a high concept story that takes place inside an 11-year-old girl’s mind.
The release of a movie like Inside Out may seem like a bold choice, but it is a choice that Pixar makes again and again. The studio built their reputation on original ideas. In their 25 year history, they’ve never purchased a script or adapted material. Their in-house creative team develops each of the stories you see on screen.
These stories are not only original, but feature bold ideas most mainstream movies don’t explore. Animating a movie inside the human mind seems like something that would play to an art house crowd, but Pixar packaged it for general audiences in Inside Out. Few studios would dare make a near silent film with an environmental message, but Pixar did that with Wall-E. Creating an existential movie set in the afterlife might seem too risky for a children’s film, but Pixar pulled it off in Soul.
The success of these movies contradict the belief that people only crave familiar stories. As other large studios grow more conservative, Pixar continues to take creative risks. As co-founder Ed Catmull says: “if we aren’t always at least a little scared, we’re not doing our job.”
Reason 7: Films Have An Emotional Core
Cutting edge computer animation, exquisite storytelling, unique characters — these elements alone would be enough to make a “good movie”. But there is one crucial ingredient that elevates Pixar movies from “enjoyable entertainment” to beloved stories that people revisit repeatedly: an emotional heart.
Every Pixar movie touches on some part of what it means to be alive. They explore the most complex and poignant pieces of the human condition — projecting our deepest thoughts and fears onto the silver screen.
Pixar doesn’t just address these emotional themes, they handle them in mature ways. Too often films that deal with sensitive issues, especially animated ones, come off as sappy or trite. They offer audiences cookie cutter clichés for complex problems, or sentimental reassurances that no matter what happens, we’ll all “live happily ever after.”
Pixar films take a more nuanced look at their subjects. They respect their audience enough to give them ambiguous answers to life’s questions. And aren’t afraid to end their films on a bittersweet note.
At the end of Toy Story 3, Andy must grow up and hand down his toys, even his beloved Woody doll, to his neighbor Bonny. In Inside Out, Joy must accept that sadness will forever touch some of Riley’s core memories. In Soul, Joe Gardner must realize that landing a dream gig won’t make his life complete, and real meaning comes from the subtle pleasures he’d ignored.
It’s strange that in mainstream movies it is an animation studio that tackles serious themes in sophisticated ways. Pixar films may feature robots, quirky animals, and talking toys but they deftly deal with the ups and downs of the human condition. They merge technology and art to connect us to life’s joys and sorrows.
This is the magic of filmmaking. This is the magic of storytelling. This is the magic of Pixar.