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Inside Out: Collaborative Creativity and the Pixar Braintrust

by Ethan Tussey

by Christopher Holliday for IN MEDIA RES

The recent publication of Pixar Animation Studios President Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc. has illuminated one of the company’s foremost management tools, the Pixar Braintrust. Founded by key personnel John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter and the late Joe Ranft, the Braintrust is an interim support network offering ‘work-in-progress’ advice throughout a film’s gestation period: the locus for a unique alliance between storytelling talent and critical candour. Charged with pushing Pixar “toward excellence and to root out mediocrity,” this highly-functional institutional model is a valuable reflection of the studio’s collaborative production culture otherwise atypical of the Hollywood template for project management. Following the removal of Bob Petersen from The Good Dinosaur (2015), for example, Pixar’s prehistoric tale is now under the guidance of the current Braintrust members. While Petersen is not alone in having his directorial duties rescinded—Brad Lewis (Cars 2) and Brenda Chapman (Brave) suffered a similar fate—by assigning the business of inspiration and imagination to the Braintrust, Pixar have outwardly (re)negotiated authorship in contemporary Hollywood cinema as a strongly collective enterprise. Since Walt Disney’s $7.4 billion acquisition of Pixar in 2006, this collaborative model for creativity has even proved to be a gamechanger for Pixar’s parent company too. The credits of Disney’s Oscar-winning Frozen (2013) includes a dedication to the “invaluable contribution” made by the Pixar Braintrust, but also the Disney Story Trust, a workgroup initiated in 2007 to reproduce Pixar’s healthy creative culture. One of Pixar’s earliest films to require the nurturing input of the Braintrust was their culinary comedy Ratatouille (2007), whose narrative premise bears the imprint of its own troubled history. Original director Jan Pinkava was replaced by The Incredibles (2004) director Brad Bird, who previously shared classes in Character Animation with Lasseter at CalArts during the 1970s. Just as ‘Gusteaus’ restaurant in Ratatouille is coasting by on its reputation—losing its way since its glory days as the pinnacle of Parisian haute cuisine—the fresh intervention of Bird reinvigorated the Pixar recipe following the lukewarm critical response towards Cars (2006). However, the ability of rodent chef Remy to impossibly puppeteer human Linguini in Ratatouille also gestures towards the Braintrust’s creative passions and the rich collective action it promotes. Given the Pixar studio’s healthy appetite for computer-animated perfection, the implication seems that when it comes to the desire for quality in the final dish, it matters little which gourmet chef is pulling the strings.

Collaboration and Pixar

A scene from Ratatouille

from Ratatouille (2007)
Creator: Pixar
Distributor: YouTube
Posted by Ethan Tussey
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