When Jim Morris was an 8th grader at Tower Hill in the 1970s, he started making “little animated films.” With the support of “some terrific teachers” in high school, Morris was eventually encouraged to pursue film-making in college.
Now president of Pixar Animation Studios, Morris has pretty much stuck to movie-making for the last three decades – 13 years overseeing animated films at Pixar and 17 in various positions at Lucasfilm, Ltd.
Movie Hits at Pixar and Lucasfilm
Morris, who oversaw films like Ratatouille, Toy Story 3, Cars 2 and Cars 3, Coco and Incredibles 2, was invited to speak at Tower Hill today as part of the school’s Centennial celebration. He spoke to current students and alumni with an interest in animation and/or digital media within the entertainment industry about his days at Tower Hill (’73), his career path, his love of feature and animated movies, and Pixar’s approach to filmmaking.
At Lucasfilm, where Morris supervised a staff of over 1,400 artists and technicians, he oversaw the creation of Academy-Award-winning special effects for Jurassic Park, Terminator 2, Forrest Gump, and Death Becomes Her. And he also managed special effects for movies like Mission: Impossible, Pirates of the Caribbean, Schindler’s List and three Harry Potter films.
“I handed in films instead of papers in some courses”
The journey to success always starts somewhere. Morris says teachers helped ignite his passion back in middle school. “I probably wouldn’t even be here today talking about film if I hadn’t been at Tower Hill. I developed an interest in photography and making films here. And somehow, I was able to get away with handing in films instead of papers in some courses. It’s crazy that I was able to convince some teachers of that.”
Morris was headed to Tufts University to study psychology when a professor at Tower Hill suggested he should follow his dreams of studying film. “You know, growing up in Wilmington being kind of far from anything to do with the entertainment industry – it seems like an abstraction to think you can actually grow up and make a living doing something like film. But with the guidance of teachers here, I ended up going to Syracuse and studying film, and that was really life-changing for me.”
His big break with George Lucas
After a string of jobs from cameraman to editor in news (PBS, NBC affiliates) and making TV commercials for big clients at ad agencies, Morris made the jump to the movie side, taking a job with George Lucas and Industrial Light & Magic (ILM). At the time, ILM “was having a bad year” and they thought Morris’ perspective from the commercial industry might help improve business.
He wasn’t assigned to movie work right away, but Morris eventually found his way to that division. One of the most exciting periods in his professional career got off to an auspicious start when Morris was asked to produce special effects for Caddy Shack II. “One of the worst movies ever made,” he joked.
But things quickly turned up, as Morris was assigned to work on The Abyss, which earned the 1990 Oscar for Best Achievement in Visual Effects. “It’s noteworthy because it’s really the first time there was a computer-generated character in a movie.” He went on to work on the Terminator films and the film epic Titanic (1997) with famed director James Cameron.
Morris joins Pixar in 2005
Morris left Lucas Films 14 years ago to produce Pixar’s WALL•E, which won the Oscar in 2009 for Best Animated Feature Film and now oversees all of the projects there, including greenlighting what films they make, putting production teams together, overseeing casting and, of course, effects.
The filmmaker shared with students a case study of the making of Inside Out, which won the 2016 Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film. Taking the students from a film’s early development through its release five years later, Morris said, “There’s a million little things the story writers do to give life to their characters.”
He also shared pictures of the Pixar campus in Emeryville, California. The outdoor patio has an enormous white desk lamp and yellow ball (both from the short film Luxo Jr. ). The lobby includes characters from Toy Story and Monsters Inc. And workrooms show employees busy drawing, writing, talking or laughing while collaborating on projects.
Morris walked students through Pixar’s five-year film production timeline, where writers start by shaping the idea of the movie and the structure of the film through story development. Next comes animation, simulation, special effects (using 3-d tools) and lighting. He talked about things like “subsurface light scattering” and “illumination techniques” that give characters believability. “And we do lots of writing on napkins in restaurants and bars.”
Morris manages 1,200 employees in a campus designed by Apple’s Steve Jobs
A lot has changed since Morris dabbled in 16-millimeter film at Tower Hill and in the 20+ years since Pixar’s blockbuster Toy Story hit theaters in 1995. Thirteen times as many storyboards were created for Inside Out as were created for Toy Story. “A dozen story artists worked for thousands of hours to make Inside Out believable and compelling. They generated 177,000 storyboards just for this one movie.”
Morris’ advice for students was to take a broad approach to their studies and careers, much like the way his film enterprise does at Pixar.
“We ask individual directors to come forward with ideas that they are very passionate about. Then we try to build on those ideas. Our creative leadership team selects people who are able to capture emotion and flair in storytelling, and we ask these folks to pitch three separate movies ideas to us. That first step is so important. Because at the end of the day, our movies have to tell the best story possible and be believable. Then it’s up to our team to give life to some of these incredible characters.”