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Pixar’s Ousted Founder Returns With Apple and ‘Luck’

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LOS ANGELES — The most Pixar movie of the summer is not from Pixar. It’s from Apple TV+ and the lightning-rod filmmaker-executive who turned Pixar into a superpower: John Lasseter.

Five years ago, Mr. Lasseter was toppled by allegations about his behavior in the workplace. Almost overnight, his many accomplishments — building Pixar from scratch, forging the megawatt “Toy Story” and “Cars” franchises, reviving a moribund Walt Disney Animation, delivering “Frozen,” winning Oscars — became a footnote.

After employees complained about unwanted hugging by Mr. Lasseter, Disney investigated and found that some subordinates occasionally felt him to be a tyrant. He was forced to resign as Disney-Pixar’s animation chief, apologizing for “missteps” that made staff members feel “disrespected or uncomfortable.”

Mr. Lasseter, 65, is now on the verge of professional redemption. His first animated feature since he left Disney-Pixar will arrive on Apple’s subscription streaming service on Friday. Called “Luck,” the $140 million movie follows an unlucky young woman who discovers a secret world where magical creatures make good luck (the Department of Right Place, Right Time) and bad luck (a pet waste research and design lab dedicated to “tracked it in the house”). Things go terribly wrong, resulting in a comedic adventure involving an unusual dragon, bunnies in hazmat suits, leprechaun millennials and an overweight German unicorn in a too-tight tracksuit.

Apple, perhaps the only company that safeguards its brand more zealously than Disney, has been using Mr. Lasseter as a prominent part of its marketing campaign for “Luck.” Ads for the film, which Peggy Holmes directed and Mr. Lasseter produced, describe it as coming “from the creative visionary behind TOY STORY and CARS.”

Apple’s chief executive, Tim Cook, shared a look at the film in March at the company’s latest product showcase event. “Luck” is just the beginning of Apple’s bet on Mr. Lasseter and Skydance Media, an independent studio that — contentiously — hired him in 2019 as animation chief. (Skydance hired lawyers to scrutinize the allegations against Mr. Lasseter and privately concluded there was nothing egregious.) Skydance has a deal to supply Apple TV+ with multiple animated films and at least one animated series by 2024.

Pariah? Not at Apple.

“It feels like part of me has come home,” Mr. Lasseter said in a phone interview, noting that Steve Jobs, Apple’s co-founder, helped build Pixar before selling it to Disney in 2006. “I really like what Apple TV+ is doing. It’s about quality, not quantity. And their marketing is just spectacular. It’s the best I’ve ever seen in all the movies I’ve made.”

Mr. Lasseter’s return to full-length filmmaking comes at an awkward time for Disney-Pixar, which appears to be a little lost without him, having misfired badly in June with a “Toy Story” prequel. “Lightyear,” about Buzz Lightyear before he became a toy, seemed to forget what made the character so beloved. The movie, which cost an estimated $300 million to make and market worldwide, has taken in about $220 million, which is even worse than it sounds for Disney’s bottom line because theaters keep at least 40 percent of ticket sales. “Lightyear” is the second-worst-performing title in Pixar’s history, ranking only above “Onward,” which came out in March 2020 at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr. Lasseter declined to comment on “Lightyear,” which arrives on Disney+ on Wednesday. He also declined to discuss his departure from Disney.

More than 50 people have followed Mr. Lasseter to Skydance from Disney and Pixar, including Ms. Holmes (“Secret of the Wings”), whom he hired to direct “Luck.” The screenplay for “Luck” is credited to Kiel Murray, whose Pixar and Disney writing credits include “Cars” and “Raya and the Last Dragon.” Mr. Lasseter and Ms. Holmes hired at least five more Disney-Pixar veterans for senior “Luck” crew jobs, including the animation director Yuriko Senoo (“Tangled”) and the production designer Fred Warter (“A Bug’s Life”).

John Ratzenberger, known as Pixar’s “good luck charm” because he has voiced so many characters over the decades, pops up in “Luck” as Rootie, the Land of Bad Luck’s unofficial mayor.

The upshot: With its glistening animation, attention to detail, story twists and emotional ending, “Luck” has all the hallmarks of a Pixar release. (Reviews will arrive on Wednesday.) Some people who have seen the film have commented on similarities between “Luck” and the 2001 Pixar classic, “Monsters, Inc.” Both films involve elaborate secret worlds that are accidentally disrupted by humans.

“I want to take the audience to a world that is so interesting and beautiful and clever that people love being in it,” Mr. Lasseter said. “You want the audience to want to book a week’s vacation to the place where the movie just took place.”

It remains true, however, that Mr. Lasseter continues to be a polarizing figure in Hollywood. Ashlyn Anstee, a director at Cartoon Network, told The Hollywood Reporter last week that she was unhappy that Skydance was “letting a so-called creative genius continue to take up positions and space in an industry that could begin to be filled with different people.”

Emma Thompson has not changed her public position on Mr. Lasseter since backing out of a role in “Luck” in 2019. She had been cast by the film’s first director and quit when Mr. Lasseter joined Skydance.

“It feels very odd to me that you and your company would consider hiring someone with Mr. Lasseter’s pattern of misconduct,” Ms. Thompson wrote in a letter to David Ellison, Skydance’s chief executive. (Her character, a human, no longer exists in the radically reworked film.)

Ms. Holmes, the “Luck” director, said she had no qualms about joining Mr. Lasseter at Skydance.

“It has been a very, very positive experience, and John has been a great mentor,” she said.

Holly Edwards, the president of Skydance Animation, a division of Skydance Media, echoed Ms. Holmes. “John has been incredible,” she said. “I’m proud that we’re creating an environment where people know they have a voice and know they are being heard.” Ms. Edwards previously spent nearly two decades at DreamWorks Animation.

Some of Mr. Lasseter’s creative tactics have not changed. One is a willingness to radically overhaul projects while they are on the assembly line — including removing a director, something that can cause hurt feelings and fan blowback. He believes that such decisions, while difficult, are sometimes crucial to a quality outcome.

Credit…Michael Tran/FilmMagic

“Luck,” for instance, was already in the works when Mr. Lasseter arrived at Skydance. Alessandro Carloni (“Kung Fu Panda 3”) had been hired to direct the film, which then involved a battle between human agents of good luck and bad luck.

“As soon as I heard the concept, I actually was kind of jealous,” Mr. Lasseter said. “It’s a subject that every single person in the world has a relationship with, and that is very rare in a basic concept of a movie.”

But he ultimately threw out almost everything and started over. The primary cast now includes Jane Fonda, who voices a pink dragon who can sniff out bad luck, and Whoopi Goldberg, who plays a droll leprechaun taskmaster. Flula Borg (“Pitch Perfect 2”) voices the overweight, bipedal unicorn, who is a major scene stealer.

“Sometimes you have to take a building down to its foundation and, frankly, in this case, down to its lot,” Mr. Lasseter said.

Mr. Lasseter did not invent the concept of doing real-world research to inform animated stories and artwork, but he is known for pushing far beyond what is typically done. For “Luck,” he had researchers dig into what constitutes good luck and bad luck in myriad cultures; the filmmaking team also researched the foster care system, which informed part of the story. (The lead character grows up in foster care and is repeatedly passed over for adoption.)

As at Pixar and at Disney, Mr. Lasseter set up a “story trust” council at Skydance in which a group of elite directors and writers candidly and repeatedly critique one another’s work. The Skydance Animation version will soon include Brad Bird, a longtime Pixar force (“The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille”) who recently joined Mr. Lasseter’s operation to develop an original animated film called “Ray Gunn.”

Ms. Holmes said Mr. Lasseter was a nurturing creative force, not a tyrannical one.

“John will give you notes on sequences,” she said. “He will suggest dialogue. He will comment on color or timing or effects. He’ll pitch story ideas. He’ll draw something — ‘Oh, maybe it could look like this.’

“And then it’s up to you and your team to execute against those notes. Or not. Sometimes we came back to John and said the note didn’t work — and this is why — or we decided we didn’t need to address it.”

Ms. Holmes added: “When the answer is no, he’s really OK with it. He’s really OK with it.”

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Mickey 17, the next film from Parasite director Bong Joon-ho, is out in 2024

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You’ll have to wait a bit to see Parasite director Bong Joon-ho’s next project. The sci-fi film, called Mickey 17, will hit theaters on March 29th, 2024. The news was revealed via the briefest of teaser trailers, which shows star Robert Pattinson hanging around shirtless in some kind of tube.

The film is based on the novel Mickey 7 by Edward Ashton, which is about a “disposable employee” out on a quest to colonize an icy new world for human habitation (no word yet on where all the extra Mickeys came from). In addition to Pattinson, the film stars Steven Yeun (Nope, Okja), Naomi Ackie (The Rise of Skywalker), Toni Collette (Knives Out), and Mark Ruffalo (everything with the incredible Hulk in it). Outside of the cast, Joon-ho is also working with some notable names behind the camera on this one, including production designer Fiona Crombie (Cruella), costume designer Catherine George (Okja, Snowpiercer), and Dan Glass, a visual effects supervisor known for his work on the Matrix movies.

It’ll likely be a while before we see a proper trailer for Mickey 17, though, as Warner Bros. says the film is currently in production.

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In Phoenix, a Taiwanese Chip Giant Builds a Hedge Against China

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Intel, which hopes to introduce its own new production processes over the next two years, took issue with TSMC’s suggestions that its technology in Arizona will be the most advanced in the United States in 2024. “I would disagree with that point of view,” said Ann Kelleher, the executive vice president who heads Intel’s manufacturing technology development.

State and local officials in Arizona have already agreed to offer financial incentives for the first phase of TSMC’s construction, and the company is expected to apply for federal grants for both phases under the CHIPS Act.

Mr. Chatterji, the White House adviser, estimated that the two new TSMC factories in Arizona, once operating at full capacity, could by themselves fulfill U.S. demands for such advanced chips. But Handel Jones, an analyst who heads International Business Strategies, said TSMC’s factories in Taiwan would still be needed, both because of their production capacity and because they will be making more advanced technology by 2026.

TSMC operates four factories in Taiwan that each can process up to 100,000 semiconductor wafers each month. In Arizona, TSMC initially said the first factory could process 20,000 wafers a month. It now estimates that the two factories’ combined output will be 50,000 a month, or 600,000 a year.

But even relatively small operations in the United States can become important, industry executives said, particularly for individual customers like Apple or for the production of particularly crucial chips in emergencies.

By adding more advanced production technology in the United States, TSMC “would help address vulnerabilities associated with the shortage of semiconductors evident over the past few years,” said Bob LeFort, president of the U.S. arm of Infineon, a big German chip maker.

TSMC’s move is also a sign that the CHIPS Act is having an impact on the plans of big companies, helping to not only spur their spending but galvanize investments by companies that supply them with production tools and materials.

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Elon Musk’s Neuralink is reportedly facing a federal probe on animal welfare grounds

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Neuralink, the brain implant company founded by Elon Musk, is reportedly facing a federal probe over the treatment of animals used in its experiments. Reuters reports that a probe was recently opened by the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) inspector general and focuses on potential violations of the Animal Welfare Act. A spokesperson for the USDA inspector general declined to comment to Reuters on its report.

Although Reuters says it’s unclear how wide-ranging the probe is, the news agency details a range of concerns over animal welfare raised in interviews with more than 20 current and former Neuralink employees. These include reports that, in one experiment, 25 out of 60 pigs allegedly had the wrong size of device installed as part of a study, while on another occasion, two separate pigs had devices installed on the wrong vertebra, leading to one needing to be euthanized to end its suffering. 

Staffers are reportedly pushed to meet ambitious deadlines

Neuralink’s aim is to develop ways for the human brain to interface directly with computers to help treat a range of neurological conditions and even help paralyzed people walk. So far, the company has made a number of public demonstrations of its technology being used by animals, including showing a monkey playing Pong with its brain and another typing on a computer using an implant.

It is common for animals used in scientific tests to be killed after experiments are completed so that their autopsies can provide further data. But current and former Neuralink employees interviewed by Reuters said that testing mistakes can lead to excess deaths by requiring tests to be repeated. They can also make the resulting data less accurate. Reuters reports that Neuralink has killed around 1,500 animals since 2018.

None of this is firm evidence of wrongdoing (and Reuters notes that Neuralink has passed all USDA inspections), but employees have reportedly raised concerns internally that Musk’s drive for quick progress has created an environment filled with what Reuters calls “under-prepared and over-stressed staffers scrambling to meet deadlines.” Musk’s attempts to motivate employees to work faster reportedly include telling staff to imagine they have a bomb strapped to their heads. Reuters says the CEO also wrote in an email in February this year, “In general, we are simply not moving fast enough. It is driving me nuts!”

Publicly, Musk has been bullish about the potential for Neuralink to start human trials in the near future. At a recent event, the Tesla and now Twitter CEO said that he hoped to install the device in a human’s head within the next six months. Musk previously said he hoped to start human trials in 2020 and then in 2022.

Neuralink has faced criticism for its treatment of animals before. Earlier this year, a nonprofit called the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), which is against the use of animals in medical experiments, alleged that, in a study funded by Neuralink, scientists at the University of California, Davis treated monkeys involved in one of its experiments inhumanely. Neuralink responded to the allegations, saying that “the facilities and care at UC Davis did and continue to meet federally mandated standards.” 

Neuralink did not respond to The Verge’s request for comment. Reuters’ report is well worth reading in its entirety. 

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