EMERYVILLE, California — "We don't make bad films," Roger Gould explained during the last leg of a morning tour at Pixar Studios. "We just keep working on them until they're good."
Gould, who worked as the creative director on the "Cars" DVD (out Tuesday), talked shop in the atrium of the studio headquarters, a veritable Emerald City built at the end of a yellow brick road of solid-gold hits. Step through the front doors of the vast steel building and the experience is roughly equivalent to going from a black-and-white Kansas to a Technicolor Munchkin Land — a place where the mundane and the fantastic exist side by side.
There are the workers bustling about their days, playing pool, grabbing a snack from the "cereal room," watching movie clips on full-size sofas. There's Flick from "A Bug's Life" staring down from a second-floor enclave — which creates the bizarre juxtaposition of worker ants busying themselves next to a cartoon worker ant. There's Dan Scanlon, the director of the short film "Mater and the Ghostlight." There are Mike and Sully from "Monsters Inc." welcoming visitors with a smile and a wave.
But pull back the curtain of Pixar's magic, and you'll see more than just smoke and mirrors. Ask any employee what makes Pixar so successful, and they'll tell you that at Pixar, "Story is king," a mantra that serves as both business model and corporate philosophy.
Pull back the curtain even more and you'll probably agree with Gould — by using that mantra, Pixar has been going strong since exploding onto the scene in 1995 with "Toy Story," the first full-length computer-generated animated feature. It's a feat that would be all the more special if Pixar didn't continue to make it so ordinary and expected.
Pull back the curtain all the way and you'll ultimately come to John Lasseter, the man behind Pixar and the Wizard of Ahhs himself. Lasseter, who started as a Disney animator in the early '80s before getting unceremoniously fired, was recently named chief creative officer at Walt Disney Features Animation and principal creative advisor for Walt Disney Imagineering. He also just directed "Cars," his fourth feature film and first since 1999's "Toy Story 2."
If story is king at the Pixar kingdom, then Lasseter is its clown prince, a man who bows down before the altar of plot and not what he deems the false idol of razzle-dazzle spectacle.
"What Pixar is about is entertaining audiences. That's really what we love to do," Lasseter said. "We are geeks here and we've been involved in the technological revolutions right and left, but it's less about the technology and more about the stories and the characters and the worlds we create in the entertainment of our audiences. Pixar has pioneered computer animation. We've invented much of it, [but] in all our movies the subject matter is really chosen to fit with the technology."
Since Lasseter last directed a feature, Pixar released "Monsters Inc.," "Finding Nemo" and "The Incredibles," three movies that combined to win four Academy Awards while grossing billions worldwide.
"There is a lot of pressure, but I'll tell you the biggest pressure on our shoulders comes from ourselves 'cause we're the ones who are really driving to make each movie as good as it could be," Lasseter said of Pixar's current streak. "We make the kind of movies we like to watch. We are reasonably intelligent adults who like to go to the movies with our families, and I like to be entertained when I go to the movies with my family. So we make these movies for everybody."
"Cars" follows the adventures of race car Lightning McQueen, a hotshot hot rod built for speed who gets lost in the back roads off Route 66 on a cross-country trip to California. Stuck in the middle of nowhere, Lightning must discover that "the journey through life is the reward," Lasseter said, and not the checkered flag at the end of the race.
"It really helps when you choose a subject matter for a movie that you really love, 'cause then the research is so much fun and you hardly feel like you're working," Lasseter said of his personal inspiration for the film. "So I got to go to all of these NASCAR races, hang out with the teams and drivers. I got to take some race car driving classes and travel down Route 66 and meet all these great people. It was really fun."
Some of Hollywood's greatest talents, including Owen Wilson and Paul Newman, lent their voices to "Cars," an experience Lasseter said Tom Hanks (who voiced Woody in both "Toy Story" films) called "one of the most challenging things he did as an actor."
"We always develop the characters as we are developing the story. It's really important then that we start thinking who can do the voice," Lasseter said. "We look at people who are good actors, whose voice is meshed with what we're trying to do as far as the personality of the character, but also, can they make the character their own? Can they make it seem natural?"
Lasseter found in Wilson the perfect mix of cockiness and sympathy to voice his main character.
"Lightning McQueen was pretty full of himself at the beginning of the film, but we always wanted him to be appealing," he said. "I just look at Owen, and there is just a quality to him that he is always appealing no matter what he's doing."
Although the DVD is sparse by Pixar standards — with extras including a 16-minute documentary on Lasseter's inspiration for the movie and two short films (the Academy Award-nominated "One Man Band" and "Mater and the Ghostlight") — Lasseter is pleased the film has jumped to the home-video market, where he thinks it deserves repeated viewings.
"It's exciting to finally have this one out on DVD, because our movies are dense," he said. "There is a lot in our films, and part of that, as my wife said, is not about the first time you watch a movie, it's about the 100th time a parent has to suffer through it on video. That's what our movies are about."
Walking through the central atrium, which resembles an airplane hangar, it's easy to miss a small door propped up against the back wall, next to which an employee propped a razor scooter behind a steel edifice. It's an old door, its paint cracked and peeling. At first glance, it looks woefully out of place among the company's modern marvels.
It's not until you look again that you realize you've seen the door before. Then you remember — there it is, Boo's door from "Monsters Inc." — the door Mike puts back together for Sully so he can visit the little girl any time he wants. It exists. It's real. And it's magic.
But that's Pixar. Open any door here at the studio, and you're likely to find as much magic behind the door as you do in front of it.
Go ahead, pull back the curtain.
For more on Pixar's magical studio, check out the feature "Monsters (And Superheroes), Inc."
Check out everything we've got on "Cars."
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