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An elephantine task

Jimmy Hayward had to leave Pixar to get his shot at directing. He's not alone.

March 12, 2008|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

Jimmy HAYWARD wanted to direct movies for as long as he can remember, and when he started working at Pixar Animation Studios more than a decade ago, it looked like the self-taught animator was well on his way.

He collected animation credits on "Toy Story" and its sequel, and on "A Bug's Life," "Monsters, Inc." and "Finding Nemo." But Hayward eventually realized that if his childhood dream was to come true, he would have to do what very few Pixar employees ever consider: leave the company. And that was precisely the move he made in order to direct "Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who!," which hits theaters Friday.

Pixar is rightly considered the most artistically and commercially successful movie studio around. In addition to winning countless awards (Pixar's "Ratatouille" just collected the animated feature Oscar), the Disney-owned outfit holds an unparalleled box-office streak, with each of its eight feature films becoming global blockbusters.

For all the success, however, there's very little room atop Pixar's food chain. While live-action movie studios might crank out more than a dozen movies annually, the digital animation company built by Apple's Steve Jobs barely makes a film a year -- and had no features at all in 2005 or 2002. What's more, all Pixar movies so far have been directed by an inner circle of animation all-stars: John Lasseter ("Toy Story," "A Bug's Life," "Toy Story 2" and "Cars"), Brad Bird ("The Incredibles" and "Ratatouille"), Andrew Stanton ("Finding Nemo" and summer's forthcoming "Wall-E") and Pete Docter ("Monsters, Inc." and 2009's "Up").

Some of Pixar's limited future directing slots already have been claimed. Longtime company editor Lee Unkrich is making 2010's "Toy Story 3." Sound designer Gary Rydstrom, who directed the Pixar short "Lifted," and Brenda Chapman, a Disney and DreamWorks alumna who had a writing credit on "Cars," also are developing Pixar movies.

In other words, Pixar director slots are few and far between. Which brings us to the 36-year-old Hayward, who departed Pixar's Emeryville, Calif., campus in late 2002 and is making his directorial debut on "Horton," a co-production of 20th Century Fox Animation and Blue Sky Studios.

"I left Pixar because I wanted to be a director my whole life," says Hayward, who directed "Horton" with Steve Martino. "I love Pixar, and I love the education I got there. But there's a pretty full corral of talented directors there. [And] I don't know if they saw me as director material or not."

While it may seem as if as many people would leave Pixar as intentionally tear up winning lottery tickets, Hayward's exodus is not unique.

Ash Brannon, the original director of "Toy Story 2" and credited for story work on "A Bug's Life" and "Toy Story," directed the Oscar-nominated "Surf's Up" for Sony. Jill Culton, with credits on four Pixar movies, headed to Sony to direct "Open Season" and the upcoming "Hotel T." Jan Pinkava, who preceded Bird as the original director on "Ratatouille" and won the animated-short Oscar for "Geri's Game," recently left Pixar to develop and direct animated movies for other producers. And Colin Brady, an animator on "Toy Story" and "A Bug's Life," was one of the directors on Christopher Reeve's animated feature, "Everyone's Hero."

For every one person who leaves Pixar, though, there's a hundred trying to get in.

'A wonderful education'

Long before he went to Pixar, and years prior to learning how to animate, Hayward was attached to Dr. Seuss.

"When I was a kid, 'Horton Hears a Who!' was my favorite book. I would read it all the time," Hayward says. As much as he liked Seuss' inventive prose, Hayward was more drawn to the illustrations, especially those of Who-ville, the tiny city inside the infinitesimal speck that the large elephant Horton is carrying around. "I wanted to run around down there," Hayward says.

It would take years to be able to start his animated exploration. Hayward finished high school but didn't go to college, and he was making short animated and live-action films and commercials in Vancouver, Canada, in his late teens and early 20s. He landed a job on ABC's computer-animated series "ReBoot" in the mid-1990s. After a few episodes, he met Pixar's Docter, who told Hayward about a little movie he and Pixar were making called "Toy Story."

In his nine subsequent years at the East Bay start-up, Hayward helped animate half a dozen Pixar movies. "It was just a wonderful education," says Hayward, who eventually would become an animation instructor at its internal Pixar University.

He says he never got close to directing his own Pixar movie but was able to sell a television pilot called "Chumps" to MTV. The show never went anywhere, but a studio executive, Chris Meledandri, took notice and hired Hayward to help complete "Robots," a Blue Sky-Fox movie released in 2005.

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