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An elephantine task

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”).

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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.

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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.

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“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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Meledandri, who once headed Fox’s animation division and is an executive producer on “Horton,” knows that anyone groomed at Pixar emerges from the campus with an extraordinary skill set.

“There is no single source of creative talent that is as consistent producing great artists and animators as Pixar,” says Meledandri. “It is the single greatest source of animation talent in the world.”

Pixar is famously rigorous when it comes to storytelling. After assembling a rough version of a movie in production, it invariably has second thoughts about plot and character development, and shuts the film down to overhaul its script and story reels. “Without question, those were the lessons I learned -- that story matters the most,” Hayward says.

Presented with a chance to adapt “Horton,” Hayward, Martino and screenwriters Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio tried to preserve the book’s core story. Wanting to show the Seuss estate that they weren’t about to make some coarse “Cat in the Hat” adaptation, Hayward and Martino assembled a 30-second short film and pages of new artwork that highlighted their ideas for the film. “We just wanted to show them how much care we were going to show,” Hayward says.

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While the resulting movie is faithful to the famous fable, there are some differences. The mayor of Who-ville (voiced by Steve Carell) is no longer little more than a passive, inaudible voice, and a Dr. Seuss kid named Jo-Jo has moved from being an insignificant “shirker” in the book into one of the movie’s key players. Even Horton (Jim Carrey) has a lot more to do in the movie.

The most noticeable departures include the scoundrels, a kangaroo (Carol Burnett) and the eagle Vlad (Will Arnett), who are more menacing than anything in Seuss.

Having once dubbed anime, Hayward added a homage to the Japanese art form, in part as penance for the cruelly stereotypical illustrations of Japanese that Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel) turned out as a World War II cartoonist. “It’s a book about tolerance,” he says, “and I wanted to put in a nod to the Japanese.”

Stellar alumni

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In its zeal to get its movies just right, Pixar, which declined to comment for this article, can be a hard place to work.

Brannon had been working on “Toy Story 2" for many months when, after the sequel was re-imagined as a feature film instead of a straight-to-video release, Lasseter replaced him at the film’s helm. Brannon subsequently tried developing some short Internet films for Pixar, but when that didn’t go anywhere, he considered a different path.

He did uncredited work on “Over the Hedge” for DreamWorks but left that studio when it became clear that DreamWorks didn’t support his idea for a feature film. Brannon then went to Sony, where he made “Surf’s Up,” which was already in development there.

“Pixar is a terrific place to work,” Brannon says. “If you want to direct there, you have to really earn their trust, and only a few people get to do that. John [Lasseter] was my mentor, and he knew that I wanted to direct. He saw an opportunity for me to go for it on ‘Toy Story 2.’ ”

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If Brannon was demoralized by being bumped off the movie, he didn’t reveal the disappointment. Instead, he says, “there are other places where you have the freedom to tell stories in a different way.”

When Bird accepted his “Ratatouille” Oscar, he thanked Pinkava, who was the film’s original director. He had been working on the film for some five years and had pieced together much of its story and characters when Bird replaced him. The movie about a gourmet rat was very much under the microscope before the switch: “Ratatouille” was either going to be the first Pixar movie after its deal with Disney expired or, as it turned out, the first Pixar movie after Disney paid $7.4 billion to acquire the animation studio.

“There was much more pressure on the project -- it would receive much more scrutiny,” says Pinkava, who in his early Pixar years directed commercials. “I would have loved to have been in the seat directing the animation,” he says of “Ratatouille.” “There’s no question I wish I could have taken the movie further. But I am very grateful the movie got made.”

Pinkava speaks highly of Pixar. “It’s a tremendous environment, a company based on everybody wanting to do great animation.” But after “Ratatouille” he decided it was time to go. “I was never quite on the inside of Pixar -- I was on the edge of the inner circle. But I have no complaints, really. None.”

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Pinkava doesn’t think Pixar has a glass ceiling: “I’m not sure it’s a ceiling as much as it’s a runway congestion problem.”

And now he and other Pixar alumni are looking to take off from different animation airports, with Hayward and his post-Pixar brethren hoping the passengers don’t really notice the difference.

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john.horn@latimes.com

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