Disney finds its punch

The rebirth of Disney Animation Studios continues apace, with Disney finally emerging from the shadow of Pixar, the upstart that frequently outclassed the 92-year-old animation giant in the 1990s and 2000s, with awardwinning hits such as Toy Story (1995), Finding Nemo (2003) and Wall-E (2008).

Disney has been on a winning streak in recent years, with successes such as Big Hero 6 (2014) and Frozen (2013), the latter overtaking Pixar's Toy Story 3 (2010) to become the highestgrossing animated film in history.

While Pixar continues to prosper, some of the bloom has come off the rose, with the studio forced to lay off 5 per cent of its workforce in 2013 and now being criticised for being too focused on making sequels.

 

Disney looks set to keep up the pressure on Pixar with its newest title, Zootopia, which is showing in Singapore cinemas. The multi- layered tale about a complex society of talking animals is getting glowing early reviews and, if it does well, may dispel any lingering doubt that the studio, behind classics such as Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs (1937) and 101 Dalmatians (1961), is back on form.

Speaking to The Straits Times at a press event in Orlando, Zootopia directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore explain how parent company Disney's acquisition of Pixar in 2006 turned things around at Disney Animation. They say Disney was previously run by "suits" instead of creative people, with the latter divided into fiefdoms that were in unhealthy competition with one another.

Moore, who directed the 2012 Disney feature Wreck-It Ralph, says the studio has seen a slow but radical overhaul in management and culture ever since.

"Ten years ago, Disney acquired Pixar and John Lasseter and Ed Catmull became the leadership of not only Pixar, but also Disney Animation," the 52-year-old says.

Lasseter and Catmull "made big sweeping changes at the animation studio because before they were there, the film-making was run by executives and non-creative people who really had no idea how movies were made.

"They had a whole studio of people who were incredibly talented, but running things were a group of people who, without any experience, thought they knew how to do the job.

"And the first thing John and Ed did was put the film-making in the hands of the film-makers. They said this executive branch, the producers and these people are out and the stories should not come from a spreadsheet saying things like, 'If we did a movie about X, we would make this much money from toys and dresses' and so on," says Moore, who also worked on The Simpsons animated series.

"John said the movies should come from the passion and the hearts of the film-makers because that's the winning recipe that has made Pixar what it is."

But, he adds, "it didn't happen overnight", because "changing Disney Animation was like turning around the Titanic - the Titanic doesn't make a U-turn quickly. It takes years and it takes a series of movies to find its footing."

"We've seen, over the last five movies, a marked difference in the way the films have gone," he says, referring to the run of critical successes starting with Bolt (2008) and Tangled (2010).

Howard says Disney Animation has now fully adopted the "brain trust" approach that Pixar is famous for, where top talents at the studio chime in on all film projects, regardless of whether they are personally working on them, and each is encouraged to constructively critique all ideas.

But "we call ours the 'story trust' because we're not as smart", quips the 47-year-old, who co-directed Tangled.

"As soon as John came in, he quickly established that group, the story trust, which is a collection of writers, directors and heads of story departments."

Before this group came about, Disney Animation was a completely different place.

"When Byron describes to me how it used to be, it's scary - it was like each movie was its own little kingdom that was vying for one release date and at war with the others," says Moore.

Howard adds: "Nobody worked together, nobody talked, nobody cooperated."

"Everyone was afraid because there was this precious thing, this release slot that you wanted. And if you shared any of what you were doing, you might help someone else, and that's a horrible way to be in a creative environment."

The result was a bit of a Dark Ages, with the studio producing box-office bombs such as Treasure Planet (2002) and Meet The Robinsons (2007).

With the story trust, films such as those are now less likely to see the light of day, Howard says.

"Now we have this great group where, really, we're brutal on the stories. We're good to one another, we care about one another, but we're thinking about the studio as a whole, we're as invested in the success of Frozen or Big Hero 6 as we are about Zootopia or Tangled or Wreck-It Ralph because we care about the welfare of the studio.

"So we're going to give the tough notes, we're going to make sure the movies are as good as they can be."

"John Lasseter even chided us the first couple of years that we were doing this, saying, 'You guys are being way too nice, if you're not being honest with your fellow film-makers about what you think, you're hurting your friends,'" Howard recalls.

"He said, 'Be brutal about these stories - you don't have to hurt their feelings, but you're here to help them, they're here to help you. So the more honest we can be, the better in the long run.'"


Alison de Souza

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 27, 2016, with the headline 'Disney finds its punch'. Print Edition | Subscribe