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THE PIXAR GRID
At this year’s FMX event in Stuttgart, Germany, Pixar’s director of industry strategy, Bill Polson, gave a remarkable presentation entitled “Chaos Theory: Making More Than One Movie at the Same Time.” It was essentially about Pixar’s growing pains as it transforms itself from a studio making one movie a year to one making maybe three or four of them. Welcome to The Pixar Grid.
Over time, it became clear that there were four unofficial but distinct stages in the production of a Pixar movie. Limiting his talk specifically to that part of production that commences after a script is developed to the green light stage, Bill explained that it takes four years to complete a film, each of which necessarily goes through the four stages of the Pixar grid. Tongue planted firmly in cheek, he listed the four stages.
"Oh, Shit!" (“You want us to do WHAT? That’s impossible!”)
Chaos (“Our existing software won’t make car fenders shine right. We need new software.")
Stability (“Do not disturb. We’re making a movie.”)
Crunch (“We’re not going to make it! No more sleep for anybody!”)
With these stages in mind, Pixar has set out to more or less standardize them so the studio can handle more than one movie at a time. The idea is to put Feature #1 into “Oh, Shit!” and move it on through to Chaos so that “Oh, Shit!” is ready for Feature #2. Then #2 goes to Chaos while #1 hits Stability and Feature #3 starts “Oh, Shit!” -- and like that. Pixar no longer hires generalists like it did in the early days when everybody at the studio pitched in on every facet of production. Today the movies are made by specialists, people who do one thing really well, and they do that thing regardless of what movie is put in front of them. Think of Charlie Chaplin working the assembly line in the opening scenes of Modern Times. The trade-off for working this way is that the employee gets to keep his job year-round instead of being hired and pink-slipped on a production-by-production basis.
The question that arises in my mind is whether it is absolutely necessary to be making more than one movie at the same time. There are good and compelling reasons why live-action producers have not set up their own equivalent of the Pixar Grid. One can argue that a movie, regardless of the technique employed in its production, is basically the telling of a story. After that story is told, you start all over again with a brand new story. The problem is that an assembly line like Bill Polon described works best when the input components are standardized. And when you start standardizing human creativity, it quickly stops fitting the definition.
Which brings us back to the part of Pixar that Bill did not talk about, namely script development. According to the May 16th issue of The New Yorker ("The Fun Factory: Life at Pixar," by Anthony Lane), scripts for animated features at Pixar are not developed the same way live-action scripts are in the general industry. In live-action, there is a completed script very early. Sure, it may be revised by several other screenwriters, but it came in the door as a finished script. At Pixar, they come up with scripts in a kind of group-think manner according to Mr. Lane's New Yorker article. "First, you have an idea: toys that talk, piscine parenting, the last robot in the world. That kind of thing. Then you write a script, which you kick around in the company of friends...." In my personal view, this group-think process helps explain why the story line of Up tried to go in three directions at the same time. But that's just me. The box office doesn't seem to care if the stories are not as tight as were those for Toy Story and Monsters, Inc, just as long as they have that Pixar bling, that special Pixar coolness. In the U.S., it is hard to argue with financial success; in that respect and for the moment, Pixar is the gold standard.