Wednesday, June 11, 2014

3 Ways Pixar Changed How I Watch Movies

Allow me to state the obvious. We at The Cinemologists love movies. I think we've made that point pretty clear by the almost 200 articles and videos we've made on the subject, but I thought I should mention it in case anyone missed the memo. Recently though, I've been thinking about where I started down that road. There were a lot of cinematic influences in my childhood, from watching Alfred Hitchcock films on public television as a tot to seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark over and over again at my grandmother's. I'm sure I'll get to writing about those experiences at some point. But, much like a lot of people my age, I grew up with the wonderful films of Pixar. The first movie I ever saw in theaters was A Bug's Life, and I just about wore out my VHS copies of the first two Toy Story films and Monster's Inc. When I was bored on summer afternoons, I'd marathon through all the special features on The Incredibles and Finding Nemo DVDs, where I learned much about the filmmaking process.

As such, these wonderful movies influenced me a lot, both as a viewer and in my ambitions as a filmmaker (which formed very early on thanks to the family VHS camcorder). With that in mind, here are three of those influences... 

3. They Showed Us that Movies are Made by Real People

In my childhood years, I pictured movie directors like this:

They were suit-wearing, megaphone-toting big shots with larger-than-life stature and brilliance to spare. I was some kid from New Jersey.

Without so much as an ascot to my name.
Then I went through the DVD extras on the Pixar films. It was here that I saw a balding, slightly overweight guy in a Hawaiian shirt who looked like he was going to go cut his lawn and pick up his kids from school after directing the latest Pixar opus. That visage was nothing short of inspiring for me. To top it all off, this was in an era when video technology was squarely in the hands of the masses and anyone with drive and imagination could technically make a movie.

Thus, seeing seemingly normal people with big imaginations doing what I wanted to do on a grand scale almost felt like I was being given permission try my hand at movies.

In addition, the bonus features weren't afraid to show that movies are hard work. There are so many steps involved in bringing your concept to reality (especially in animation), from pitching ideas to storyboarding to pre-visualization to the ridiculous amount of time and effort spent in animation. It really put my discouragement at the impossibility of shooting an epic space-adventure in my living room over one afternoon in perspective. Great movies didn't come easily for the professionals, so why should they for me either? Positive results are rewarded to those who work at it, no matter what field you're in.

2. They Prepared Us For Classic Cinema (By Ripping It Off)

Look through Pixar's filmography and you'll find plenty of cool references to films that came before, whether it be through the Return of the Jedi/Superman/Raiders of the Lost Ark-inspired opening of Toy Story 2 or the bafflingly awesome nods to Stanley Kubrick's The Shining throughout their oeuvre.

The most obvious connection between Pixar and classic film is undoubtedly found in A Bug's Life. This movie, the story of an oppressed ant colony that hires a wandering circus troupe to fend off grasshopper bandits, has far more in common with Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954) than the Aesopian tale that allegedly inspired it. I'd recap the plot of Seven Samurai for you, but that would be redundant considering that I already told you the plot to A Bug's Life. Basically just sub out insects for humans and circus performers for r┼Źnin samurai.

In more subtle ways, Pixar whet the appetites of youngsters for a ton of great shows and movies the older generations grew up on. My love of legendary British producer Gerry Anderson's output first started when I saw Toy Story 2 in theaters. I was so enamored with the Woody's Roundup series featured in the movie that I had to find out if there was a similar show in real life. There was, of course, because Woody's Roundup was heavily based on Gerry Anderson's Four Feather Falls, a western marionette series following the adventures of a sheriff with magical powers.

While I eventually lost interest in Four Feather Falls as I grew older, it did lead me to check out Anderson's other productions, including Stingray, Thunderbirds, Space: 1999, and UFO (one of my favorite TV series ever).

The Incredibles aided this obsession too, as its production design was heavily influenced by both Thunderbirds and the Sean Connery and Roger Moore era James Bond films. John Barry's music for the 007 franchise was also indispensable to The Incredibles, forging the tone and style of Michael Giacchino's highly enjoyable soundtrack. Excperts from John Barry's score to On Her Majesty's Secret Service even featured in the teaser trailer! Speaking of musical references, just have a listen to the theme from Nobuhiko Obayashi's horror comedy Hausu (1977), and tell me Giacchino wasn't inspired by it when he composed the music for Up. Incidentally, they're both movies in which a house is a central character and the person living there is dealing with the death of a loved one.

Though a bit past my time in terms of childhood remembrances, Wall-E is another great example of Pixar's cinematic legacy. It's basically a 1970s science fiction film in terms of themes and story, containing elements of Logan's Run, Soylent Green, Silent Running, The Omega Man, THX 1138 and so many more. The only major difference is that Wall-E starred a cute Johnny 5-esque robot instead of Charlton Heston.

They're practically the same person when you think about it.
I have no doubt that there is now going to be a generation of kids who are drawn to those films I mentioned simply because Wall-E gave them an entry point into the genre, and, as a fan of 70s sci-fi, I couldn't be happier about that!

1. They Made Us Look Closer

It seems like Pixar made a living out of making us look more closely at the details in their movies. They constantly hid clever sight gags, Easter eggs, and other references throughout their filmography, and that definitely motivated us to become sharp-eyed viewers. However, they didn't just force us to look inward at their own worlds. They also made us turn outwards to face the real world as well.

This action sequence could be happening on your lawn right now.
Think about where these stories took place. Toy Story revealed the potential for intrigue and excitement in a child's room and the suburban neighborhood just outside it. A Bug's Life made an anthill the setting of a sweeping drama about a struggle for survival. In Monster's Inc., a humble closet is the gateway to an imaginative universe of creatures unlike any that exist on earth. Finding Nemo turned a fishbowl into a sitcom setup.

It sure beats The Big Bang Theory!
In other words, these movies squeezed great narratives out of locations we encounter every day but never think twice about.

As for me, I always found it difficult to come up with doable plots for my movies. The imagination was there, but it seemed like my ideas always ran far beyond my budgetary means in terms of making a filmable story. But there was Pixar, showing that great adventures could happen anywhere if you looked close enough. That's important to know if you're making a movie, but it's also an indispensable life lesson. It shows that you can never take the little things for granted, because, the more you notice the details, the more interesting the view becomes.

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