It’s both a blessing and a curse to be made President of Hollywood’s only non-flop-making studio, but, as ‘The Good Dinosaur’ is released, Jim Morris clearly takes overseeing Pixar Animation Studios very seriously. Up to a point, as Paul Byrne discovers…
Having joined Pixar in 2005, after 17 years steering the good ship Industrial Light & Magic, it didn’t take long for producer Jim Morris to rise up through the ranks of Woody & co. In 2008, he was made manager of Pixar Animation Studios. In 2014, Morris was named President of Pixar Animation Studios.
“To be honest, that was just another day at the office,” offers the natty New Yorker, in Dublin for that big VFX summit thingy. “I had been working so closely with Ed Catmull at this point, our jobs had become interchangeable. So, nothing really changed when he handed the baton over to me. It was just the calls from the outside world that made me realise it was a special day. Outside of that, it was business as usual at Pixar.”
And when it comes to the film business, no one has ever done it quite so successfully from the very beginning as Pixar. Fifteen films, from ‘Toy Story’ in 1995 to ‘Inside Out’ earlier this year, and not a flop among ‘em. The €9.3billion Pixar have pulled in at the box-office has helped their Hollywood standing too, of course.
Yep, all is rosy at Pixar Animation Studios. Despite so-so sequels such as ‘Cars 2’ and ‘Monsters University’. This is a studio that thrives on not only pleasing a crowd but pushing the envelope too, in terms of both technology and storytelling. Each new Pixar movie promises its audience something unique. Something warm and familiar but also new and, on a good day, breathtaking.
Where their latest, ‘The Good Dinosaur’, fits into all this is hard to say though.
The plot takes the idea of that nasty meteor missing our gorgeous planet 65 million years ago, and thus leaving dinosaurs to get on with the evolution boogie. Which, when it comes to places such as Montana and Wyoming, means our Mesozoic mates turning their hand to farming. And talking like the cast of The Little House On The Prairie. Whilst the theme from The Viginian is homaged to hell overhead.
Proceedings take a turn for ‘The Lion King’ when feeble youngster Arlo, whilst being led through another life lesson by his patient father, witnesses Poppa perishing in a flood. Convinced it was his fault, and the fault of the little corn-stealing human critter that they were chasing, Arlo reckons he must prove himself the hero that his father always told him he was.
It’s a film with flashes of wit and imagination, but, the most notable feature of ‘The Good Dinosaur’ is really the simple fact that it doesn’t really have a notable feature. Other than the bonkers concept.
PAUL BYRNE: Pixar are pretty much The Beatles – with ‘Cars’, of course, being your Magical Mystery Tour – which makes you the new Brian Epstein.
JIM MORRIS: It’s funny you should say that, because, you look at John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Pete Doctor and Lee Unkrich, they all have their own skill sets, but they work together just beautifully. John’s got this popular voice, and a sense of appeal, where Andrew has this grittier, darker sensibility – so, that’s Paul and John right there. Not sure who wants to be Ringo, but the similarities are there.
We should talk about The Good Dinosaur. Originally conceived by Bob Peterson, the co-director of ‘Up’, and brought to the screen by Peter Sohn, who made his debut with the 2009 Pixar short ‘Partly Cloudy’ and who just happened to be visual inspiration for Russell, the little kid in’ Up’. Heavily retooled and remixed, having had its release pulled last year, the mind boggles on how the imagination flew this far out…
What helped precipitate a bit of that western flavour was the research. Pete and his team went to Wyoming and Montana, which is where the largest amount of dinosaur remains are found in the US. So, the area that you see depicted in the movie are geologically the biggest landmarks for dinosaur population in America.
So, when they went there on these research trips, they also got a sense of the people, and the place, and it just seduced them. It got so infused with some of the personalities, it just felt right. We’re all fans of the western too, which helps…
So, Pixar have had 15 films, each one of them a major hit, generating $9.3billion at the box-offices – so, stepping up to the plate can be a nerve-wracking experience.
Yeah, each new director and producer fears that they’re going to be the one that screws the run up, but, you know, we wanted to increase the output, primarily because we have so many people in Pixar. Trying to get one and a half movies out every year is a tough call, and we’ll always put the quality first, quantity second. So, we’re learning, and we’re cautiously progressing, when it comes to producing more films. Having two this year was really only down to The Good Dinosaur being delayed from last year.
You had 17 years in Industrial Light & Magic, where you were involved with the likes of ‘Jurassic Park’, ‘Schindler’s List’, the first two ‘Star Wars’ prequels, three ‘Harry Potter’ – so, you’re not stranger to blockbusters. Nonetheless, the Pixar run is unprecedented – there must be some vertigo involved here…?
Yeah, but you take it very seriously. You feel like you’re the steward of something very important to the audience too – you don’t want to disappoint. But it’s hard to top a film like Inside Out though, and I’m just glad that Dinosaur is completely different. So, we’re not competing with each other as films. I have to credit Ed Catmull for creating the kind of environment where filmmakers can flourish, where ideas can flourish, even when there are billions at stake.
We’ve been very lucky, having the right people at the right time. We’ve been lucky having the right owners too – Disney have been fantastic. They don’t tell us what to do. They hope and trust that we’ll make good stuff, and we do feel a responsibility to deliver on that trust. Bottom line is though, we’ve got to make the films work, otherwise we’ve got nothing.
There was a period of time when disgruntled ex-Disney employee Jeffrey Katzenberg was helbent on bringing down everything Disney with his DreamWorks Animation Studio releases, some of the early ones clearly rip-offs of planned Disney and Pixar films he’d previously been a part of. Rushing out ‘Antz’ in the hope of nobbling ‘A Bug’s Life’ changed the landscape, and animators from different studios stopped hanging out and sharing ideas together. How is the playing field now…?
I think we’ve realised that no one can really take your core idea and automatically make the film you were going to make, because it’s how you hammer them into submission, and the work you put into them. So, films that are about the same topic can be very different. So, we’ve stopped worrying about that; we just fight our own fight.
On the flip side of that, there is a great collegiality among the studios. I think it’s certainly improved with DreamWorks and Jeffrey, but on a personal level, it’s certainly healthy between ourselves and the people at Blue Sky, at DreamWorks and Laika, and so forth, and I really think we kind of feel that if somebody is successful, it’s not bad for the rest of us. It keeps the audience interested in animation, and it helps elevate the art form.
That’s true with the visual effects people too. We talk to others a lot, especially those at ILM, there’s a lot inter-change, and with Disney Feature Animation. We don’t work on their projects, and vice versa, but both studios are able to take advantage of the other’s technology when they want to. Which is very smart.
You rose rapidly up through Pixar, joining in 2005, being made manager in 2008, and President last year. Ed Catmull, one of the studio’s founders, said in Hollywood Reporter last week that he and John Lasseter recognised the need to line up people to take over at the studio, to make sure the good work continues on and on, long after they and others have gone. Did you get that impression when you signed on?
Unbeknownst to me, they did have that in mind when they asked me over to produce ‘WALL-E’. I found out from the HR person later on that that was a possibility. When I first met Ed, it was early days at both studios. Pixar had about two hundred people at Pixar and I had about four hundred at ILM, and both of us were expanding, growing. So, we might be very different personality, but we work well together. Ed has been great, and he’s a man of generous spirit and vision, and he wants to make sure that the company is taken care of when he moves to his next chapter. Similarly, I have started to raise people up through the ranks to be the next generation after me, so, if we get hit by a bus, we’ve got people who can carry Pixar forward.
Early on, when you grabbed your Bachelor of Science degree in Film, back in 1977, and your Master of Science in Film & Television in 1978, you’ve said you knew early on that it would be a long road into producing films – so, you started out on local television and in commercials, slowly working your way up as cameraman, then editor, then producer and director. Was there a gameplan in place, to get to here…?
I had the goal of getting here; the plan was a little less firm. Actually, the chain of events – true story – I went to the theatre in upstate New York to see The Black Stallion, and I just thought, I want to go where the guy who made that film is, and see if I can get a job with him, because I think that’s great. So, I packed up my little car and drove out to California, having quit my job at PBS. I didn’t have any contacts, and I got some good advice out there – work in high-end TV commercials, and you’ll get to understand a lot about the industry. I worked at a couple of agencies, and then I ran a couple of production houses, and then I was just lucky. ILM had had a bad year, and the guy who was running Lucas Film at the time thought that if they got into the commercial business, that would help smooth things out. So, I originally got hired to write the commercials division plan, and start up their commercials business. So, when I had the opportunity, I quickly jumped over to the features side.
When I talk to students and so forth, I tell them to always keep in mind what it is that you want to do, but most of the people I know in this business got there through a very circular route.
Heading to San Francisco, like Joe Buck, without any contacts or favours, it’s pretty wonderful that you made it to the top of the tree. You seemed to be in the thick of blockbusters within the blink of an eye, or do you always feel as though you’re having to prove yourself?
I think you’re always trying to prove yourself. When we were doing those early films, such as Schindler’s List, you really had no security in the visual effects business at that time. You never knew what the next job was going to be, or when. So, it was a tough business, and being confident in your future wasn’t very common. I spent a lot of my time in the later years there being down at the studios, hoping to get work for ILM. There’s still that feeling at Pixar, where you don’t know if the next film is going to be a hit…
We just passed the one-year anniversary of your being appointed President of Pixar Animation Studios, on November 18th, 2014 – did you allow yourself a day of strutting and whistling?
It’s funny, because Ed and I had worked so interchangably up to that point, there wasn’t any sudden transition in the day-to-day machinations within the studio. The only difference was the outside world reacting to it, as I got calls from various people. It’s very gratifying to have something like that happen, and I feel very honoured, and pressured, to live up to such a title.
The angry young John Lasseter became enormously frustrated as a young animator working for Disney, leaving acrimoniously as the old guard refused to listen to his ideas about computer animation. The late 1970’s were bad years for Walt’s company, bogged down as they were in bad sequels. The battle between art and commerce, is it the box-office that truly matters over all that critical praise Pixar tends to enjoy?
If you’re not commercially successful more often than not, you don’t get to play. So, you can never lose sight of that. I think that the people who work at Pixar are not happy working there if they don’t feel like they’re making something great, or something that has potential to be great. And everyone wants to please your audience. And if you get that right, whilst stretching a little, trying something new, that’s when the critics respond too.
For better or worse, we have such an open culture in Pixar, everyone tells you what they think about an idea, about a film. Sometimes more than I’d like [laughs]. We have screenings where everyone can send in their notes through what we call Notesar, and we look at it all, to see if there are patterns there that we’re not recognising. So, I think I have a responsibility to all the artists there, especially when we’re swinging for the fences a little bit, to listen to what they have to say.
So, both the commercial and critical success is important to us. The former keeps us going as a company, the latter gets our artists out of bed quicker in the morning.
You produced ‘John Carter’, Pixar illumni Andrew Stanton’s 2012 live-action adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1912 creation, and although I reckon it’s a fine, fine movie, audiences stayed away in their millions. Is that why you haven’t produced since – or have you just been too busy doing other things? Being that close to the flame must be difficult…
You feel gut-punched when your film didn’t land, and there were a lot of factors that went into John Carter not finding its audience. At the end of the day, and I say this in all honesty, I’d do it all over again as we shot it. It was a great experience. Andrew did a great job, for such a huge thing – he’d never really been on a set before – and working with the cast and crew was great. So, I have no regrets about it, other than I wish it had made more money for Disney. We felt bad about that.
As far as producing again is concerned, I just found myself waking up again and again in management, and so, at some point, okay, my job now is to produce the company. I like this role though, so, I see it all as part of the same kick in that regard. You don’t get that closure of overseeing just one movie from beginning to end, which I miss. I’m producing the never-ending film now.
This job right now makes me think I’m living in some kind of 1930’s Hollywood dream, where you get to go into a studio every day that’s hugely successful, and everyone gets on, everyone keeps coming up with wonderful, crazy ideas. I’m a lucky man…
‘The Good Dinosaur’ is now showing in Irish cinemas