The Pixar Story – Leslie Iwerks (2008)

Most of tributes that are pouring in for Steve Jobs are focusing on Apple, but I think Pixar is just as an important legacy for Jobs.

Even though his involvement was more in the role of Godfather than creator, Pixar would have been little more than a footnote in the story of Lucasfilm — the story of an unprofitable subsidiary that creating the digital tools that eventually made The Special Editions possible — if not for the long distance vision that Jobs possessed.

You can love or hate Apple, but there is no denying whatsoever that Pixar has enriched all of our lives, and it’s just as much about Steve Jobs as it is John Lasseter, Ed Catmull, Andrew Stanton or Pete Docter.

“The art challenges the technology, and the technology inspires the art.”

Ever since the first time I saw Who Framed Roger Rabbit? as a kid, I’ve been in love with the idea of cartoons. I’d always loved cartoons. What kid doesn’t? But the idea that they are made, that there is a “behind the scenes” to them became intoxicating for me. Like the young John Lasseter, I became obsessed with Disney and Warner cartoons and was astounded that people did this for a living. I wanted to do it to.  Well, it worked out a little bit better for him than it did for me.

Along with Ed Catmull, Steve Jobs and a handful of other visionaries, Lasseter changed the world of animation, and even — thanks to their state-of-the-art computer Renderman — feature motion pictures forever.

Pixar started out as a faint, impossible idea rattling around the heads of a few scattered idealists: to create a feature length computer animation. Not only had it not been done yet, but the tools were not even invented. But this random collection of PHds and would-be artists eventually settled in together as an unprofitable arm of Lucasfilm that was just too far ahead of its time. So how did it come to be the animation juggernaut that eventually took over Disney Animation Studios? The beginning is not all that different from Disney, really.

Before making a name on Mickey Mouse, Walt Disney began to eek out a living with the Alice comedies, a series of short subjects wherein the live action Alice (played by Virginia Davis) was inserted into a cartoon wonderland by Ub Iwerks, the “man behind the mouse”. The Pixar gang inverted that beginning, taking their first steps before Woody and Buzz by inserting a CGI stainglass Knight into the live action Young Sherlock Holmes when Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light and Magic couldn’t achieve the shot. It was from there that they grew and never looked back.

The Pixar Story was directed by Leslie Iwerks, the granddaughter of the innovative genius Ub Iwerks. Ub has a unique place in the world of film, first as the head animator of the Disney Animation Studio, the heart and soul guy who made the place tick, and later as a special effects wizard who, amongst other things, made the birds attack in Hitchcock’s The Birds.

Disney runs deep in Leslie Iwerks’s blood, and it shows. The film is a delicate, loving story about the birth and adolescence of insane greatness, tracing the story back from inception, to growing pains on through it’s massive success.

It is a one sided love affair, yes, but honest in it’s approach nonetheless. Hand-in-hand with the love-in, the original version of Toy Story 2 is thrown under the bus, though the creative team is not. As a Walt Disney Studios production, the film makes the pre-Iger Disney its main villain. The bumbling heavy, Disney is the company that could not see the talent in John Lasseter or the rich future of digital animation, and when it finally did, it wrongly axed the entire hand drawn animation division.

Iwerks starts out with a quick trip through the history of animation, starting out at the dawn of animation, from the mechanical zoetrope and Muybridge’s horse photos on through the computer graphics in Tron. Tracing the story of Pixar back from inception, to growing pains on through it’s massive success, Iwerks interviews all of the important players, from the animators and designers, to Lucas and Jobs and even the star voice talents, like Tom Hanks and Billy Crystal. The love affair with this company seems to be ubiquitous with everyone who comes in contact with it (less Michael Eisner, who is upset when they won’t let themselves be ripped off for short-term profit).

Leslie Iwerks is a fantastic filmmaker, very much in the Disney storytelling mold. Both The Pixar Story and The Hand Behind the Mouse are timeless creations of both fact and fancy. They make you wish you were there at the same time as making you feel as if you were. She simultaneously creates an immersive experience and causes a great swell of emotion through music cues and knowing exactly what shot to cut to at the right moment.

It’s a special talent — more of a filmmaker’s talent than a documentarian’s talent — that few have. She doesn’t just deliver the stories but the feelings behind the stories: the sadness of Ub and Walt parting ways, the “oh, shit” moment when Pixar realized they had to do it again after Toy Story and that none of their old tricks would work a second time. She makes you feel what it was like in that small computer lab, with John Lassiter’s futon stuffed under his desk, working for three days straight to help make the company what it is today.

It’s a remarkably exciting and insightful film, and shows Pixar to be the kind of fun filled place to work we wish we could work at, while also giving us a glimpse of the pressure to perform on the entire staff. Once success is achieved it has to be maintained, and that’s a tough bit in their business. But they deserve every scrap of it they’ve gotten.

Senna – Asif Kapadia (2011)

On May 1, 1994, Ayrton Senna, a three-time Formula 1 World Champion seeking a fourth title, was a few seconds ahead of racer Michael Schumacher in the San Marino Grand Prix. He began the race in pole position and, despite new restrictions to the computer-controlled suspension on his Williams-Renault car that made it harder to control on turns, it looked like no one could touch him.

Starting out in the sport a decade earlier after years of “pure” kart racing in his native Brazil, Senna was something of a revelation to Formula 1. He brought fire and a passion to win, and his all-or-nothing style defied the distorted logic built around the Formula 1 World Championship points system that others, like his future teammate and enemy, the French racer Alain Prost, could navigate so well.

Until a few weeks ago, I’d never heard of Ayrton Senna. Nor had I heard of his rivals, Prost and Schumacher, or the old crony head of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, the international governing body of motorsports, Jean-Marie Balestre. Here was a whole world, a truly rich, deep, politically involved world, one that spanned the continents, and I’d never heard of it.

But the way director Asif Kapadia sets up his new documentary Senna, it doesn’t matter. Certainly, it is helpful to know a little, but you don’t need any more knowledge of F1 racing going in than Exit Through the Gift Shop required prior acquaintance with street art. The film is a snapshot in time of an imperfect, interrupted life more than a gateway drug to racing enthusiasm.

Composed entirely of archival race and interview footage with Senna, Prost and a handful of others involved with racing at the time, Senna delivers an incomplete – and, one could argue, one-sided – look, but it’s riveting nonetheless. The racing scenes, especially those using the onboard video cameras from Senna’s car, are enthralling, and the speed at which he flies around the course is mesmerizing.

The main thrust of the film is Senna’s rivalry with his one-time McLaren-Honda teammate Prost, and the controversies that surrounded the championship in both 1989 and ’90, when both titles were eventually won in the midst of crashes and FIA politics. Did Prost cause the crash in ’89 that led to his win? Was the crash in 1990 caused by Senna as revenge?

The film certainly sides with Senna on the issue, and on pretty much every other question raised along the way. In that manner, we are slightly at the mercy of Kapadia here. But let’s face it: We’re always at the mercy of the director.

Senna died during the San Marino Grand Prix as he went into a turn on the 7th lap. I may not have heard of Senna during his life, but his trademark yellow, green and blue helmet – the colors of the Brazilian flag – blazing around the racetrack is an image that I’ll never forget.

Here are some leftovers I couldn’t fit into my review:
I can’t help but wonder where I was as all of this was happening, though. No, I’ve never watched racing, but I did watch Sports Center every morning before school, and I always read the paper back to front. I know exactly what hockey game I was watching the night of May 1st, 1994 — the Rangers beating the Capitals in the second round of the playoffs, Kocur and Berube fought — but I didn’t know of any of this. How did this all escape me? I don’t watch tennis but I know who the great tennis players are. I even know who the great NASCAR drivers are. We all do, just by osmosis. So it bothers me a lot that something this big, something where it seems like half of Brazil lined the streets to pay tribute to the guy, went unnoticed by me.