There's this thing they do at Pixar called plussing. Jonah Lehrer, in his book “Imagine,” describes Pixar plussing as "a technique that allows people to improve ideas without using harsh or judgmental language." During production meetings, instead of merely shooting down ideas, every criticism must come with a plus, with a better idea attached.
For instance, Mark Andrews, co-director of Pixar’s"Brave," standing on a lakeside archery range beside Belmont Harbor the other day, explained that the mess of red hair on Princess Merida, the film's heroine, is a plus. "When I came on the film, she had curly hair but every strand lined up laser straight along bands of curls. But what if it were messier, more textural, less predictable? That’s plussing."
Katherine Sarafian, the producer and longtime Pixar executive, broke in: "See, the hair itself is not the plus. Curly hair is character development, representative of her 'untamed nature.' Hair that looks more organic, on the other hand, a plus. Plussing is not about us saying 'We like this,' but rather 'What would make this better?' And if it's really good, what makes it great? And if it's great, what makes this just insanely great?"
Ferret legging, I said.
They looked at me quizzically. "What is ferret legging?" Andrews asked.
Ferret legging, I explained, is a rare Scottish sport that involves placing a live ferret in your pants. The bottoms of your pant legs are tied shut, then a ferret is dropped in. The goal is to see how long you can withstand it. There was a great story on ferret legging in Outside magazine back in the 1980s when Outside was still in Chicago, I said. Apparently, the world record was 40 seconds, but that was back in the '80s ...
Andrews and Sarafian looked at me, unsure what to say.
"Brave" is set in Scotland, ferret legging is from Scotland, "Brave" should have had ferret legging — plus!
"Oh, right," Andrews said, politely, "well, yes, we should have put ferret legging in. We didn’t think of that."
The bow and arrow then? A plus?
"The bow and arrow, because we wanted a tough chick," Andrews said. "We wanted to give her a weapon. Plus, mastering a bow implies skill, which helps us tell her story and get a little exposition out of the way."
"Maybe we should have given her a machine gun?” Sarafian asked.
“Except it has to be period, so no.”
What Pixar came up with for the Chicago leg of the film’s press tour, however, was definite plussing: Why sit in a hotel room and have an awkward 10-minute conversation with a filmmaker when you can have an awkward 10-minute conversation with those same filmmakers while shooting arrows in a public park? Plus!
Which is why we were talking on an archery range. Which is why, on a recent morning, a grassy, overgrown field alongside the harbor was dressed with prop bales of hay and posters of “Brave” and, watching over the whole scene, videos cameras and Klieg lights and a bored soundman and technicians. Andrews and Sarafian spoke with some local media, said a few things about “Brave,” shot a few arrows, then moved on.
There was a practice range, an assortment of bows, scattered arrows, targets inscribed with the movie title. The air was muggy, the sun harsh. Sarafian was dressed down, Andrews’ hair was up in a little Fabio-ish ponytail. (Plus!) By the time I arrived, a number of the interviewers had already been through. (Plus!) “Some shot better than others,” whispered a Pixar publicist. A guy from a local newspaper hit the target with great precision, she said, if you consider he hit the center of the “A” in “Brave,” far above the bull’s eye. Oh, and a tabloid guy sailed his arrow right past the target, she said. Andrews had to go collect the arrows.
An interviewer with a college TV station walked up. “Your time will be the whole thing,” a production assistant told the man, “your 10 minutes will include shooting the arrows and the interview.” The man nodded and Andrews said, “You want to shoot? Or I can shoot? Or all of us can shoot? Or we shoot each other?” Andrews splayed his legs out like an action hero, pulled back on his bow and released, hitting the target, reloading, releasing, hitting the target again. The college guy from Columbia made the impressed face people at dinner parties make when a stranger tells them about their vacation. Then Andrews and the guy shook hands, the interview over, and a woman named Francine from a web site I’ve never heard of stepped in.
“I told them I shot already,” Francine said vaguely, wiggling out of the archery portion of the interview.
“But how did you do?” Andrews asked.
“Mediocre,” Francine said, shrugging.
Then the camera, a courtesy for the video-based interviewers, flipped on and Francine, quiet only a moment earlier, transformed, growing excited and animated. “You brought the sun to Chicago,” she said, gesturing to the sky. Andrews smiled. While watching the movie, Francine said, she was struck by how realistic it was! How brave it was for the princess to tell her parents how she felt about arranged marriages! “Did you do that on purpose?” she asked the filmmakers, who looked slightly unsure of what the question was, then began saying things about bravery and mythical lands, Scottish landscapes, coming of age and “internal bravery.”
This went on a while, and the soundman kept looking at the harbor, annoyed at the parade of cars and trucks rumbling close to the junket. “We’ve had every type of vehicle,” the publicist said. “Cars, small cars, big cars, postal trucks, ambulances, garage trucks.” As she explained this, comically, a fire truck pulled up.
When Francine finished, a reporter from a weekly magazineÖ arrived.
She wore skinny jeans and a black T-shirt and apologized, saying she wasn’t any good with an arrow. She asked about the bow and arrow in the movie, and Andrews said the bow and arrow is one of mankind’s first inventions besides fire and the reporter agreed, then the subject changed to the princess and Sarafian said that having her be a princess was important “because if she just herded sheep, then big deal.” Then the reporter pulled back on her bow and fired at the target and — thwack — came incredibly close to the center.
“You lied!” Andrews said.
She smiled and shot another. Same thing.
“Impressive,” Andrews said, then: “Let’s end there, on a high note.” The reporter shook hands with the filmmakers and walked off. “Wait,” Andrews yelled, racing for her, “don’t forget your commemorative target!”