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Why Pixar Shut Down Production on Good Dinosaur

Pixar is the world's most successful movie studio, but that doesn't mean they don't have near-misses.

Pixar interview - The Feed

ICYMI: Disney Pixar are the most successful studio in the world. So what happens when you have to scrap everything halfway through and start again? #TheFeedSBS

Posted by SBS 2 on Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Pixar Animation Studios have an incredible strike rate when it comes to hit movies. They've made over $6.2 billion at the box office and have an average review rating of 93 per cent.

So what happens when it all goes wrong?

That's what faced Pixar Animation Studios president Jim Morris on the new film The Good Dinosaur. Originally due out last year, they had to stop production, fired almost the entire cast and completely rework the story.

We started on The Good Dinosaur a long time ago and we had a basic pitch we all liked very much. We worked on it for a long time, and it took us a while to figure out that there were some basic things in the story idea we were trying to tell that we couldn't fix, and weren't going to work out.

We were fairly far down the path; we were three years plus into the making of the film and we just realised that it wasn't going to be good enough. Everything we tried to do to fix it just felt like we were overplotting or bolting something on that didn't feel organic. So we made the hard decision to stop working on that film and do a reboot.

There were still things about the world and the characters we liked a lot, but the story just wasn't working. All that is survived is some of the design of the two key characters. Everything else - about the story, what it's about, even the look of it - has changed.

Thank God Disney trusted us, and said, 'if that's what you guys think you need to do'; because otherwise we'd all have been fired for incompetency.

When you do make that decision to reboot and you've got an army of people working on a film, what does that do to the building? How does that news reverberate?

It can be fairly traumatic when we make a big change to a movie that's been cooking along. We've had we've had great luck, and great misfortune. I've had a lot of my career in different films I’ve worked on. Some have gone through the roof, and others just haven't landed in the same way.  We take solace in the leadership ranks. 

The point is to not put a bad movie out, and get the best possible movie. But it’s a little disturbing to people working on the project. It's a disturbance in the force.

There's lots of talk about the quality control that goes into Pixar movies. When do you know it's working?

We never know for sure that it's working…

Opening week box office is how you know?

That's how we know if it's connecting, and you hope it does. It takes a long time to feel like it’s working. We do a lot of screenings with different people; six or eight times we’ll project  the rough version and watch it. They’re usually pretty ragged the first few times but there’s some core we keep working on, and getting at.

You eventually feel a time when it turns a corner, when it falls in to place. We’re more palaeontologists than anything else. We find a nice dinosaur bone, and then we find another, and another, and we put them together, and we think we’re making a nice brontosaurus, and then it turns out to be a stegosaurus. It turns out to be something completely different, but it’s gotten there in this naturally organic way out of the work of everybody. You discover what you’re making along the path sometimes.

Pixar is an extroadinarily successful company, but John Carter was the biggest bomb of 2012. Jim Morris reveals to Marc Fennell where they think they went wrong. 

You were the producer of John Carter in 2012, a film that I really love, but didn’t necessarily get the sort of respect it might have deserved. When articles and numbers start to come through… what goes through your head when you’ve experienced how much work it takes to get a film like that made?

You question yourself; what could I have done better, what did we miss here, what were the things that went wrong? You try to take everything in your stride; you don’t pat yourself on the back, and when something doesn’t do well, you don’t shoot yourself. You live to fight another day.

There have been a lot of creative risks that have paid off for Pixar over the years. What was the one that made you the most nervous?

WALL-E probably made me the most nervous. I thought for sure we would be the ones to screw up Pixar’s success. It just seemed like, 'oh, this may not work'. The audience might look at this and go, 'what is this?'

WALL-E is such a ground-breaking film in so many ways, specifically that you’ve got the first 40 minutes of the film with no dialogue. Was there internal reticence at Pixar about that?

There was less reticence at Pixar, but some of our Disney executive friends were very curious about how that was supposed to work. 

“Curious” is a good word...

Well, when you do the pitch, you say, 'here it is: we've got broken down trash compactor who is living on a post-apocalyptic earth compacting trash'.  It does not sound like a great idea for a film offhand.

I think it would be safe to say that every producer, every director there has felt that. They’ve felt, 'we’re trying to make something good here, but what if it doesn’t work?'

Now that andy's grown up and left his toys behind, what story is left to tell? Jim Morris tells Marc Fennell what aventures lie in store. 

Even Inside Out, which has turned out to really connect with audiences, but was an unusual idea. We all loved it, but at some point you go, 'I don’t know if this is going to work'. You work on these things, but you just don’t know.

I think a Pixar film is one that uses animation to try to get at basic human truths and emotions. They’re not things that we decide to be themes and then work into the movies; they rise up organically from different filmmakers and storytellers,  but I think there’s a like-mindedness at all films at Pixar. They have that within.