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An Animated Legacy

The genius behind ‘Up,’ Wall-E’ and other Pixar classics credits Syracuse for catapulting his career to dizzying heights.

Jim Morris on set

Pixar President Jim Morris '77, G'78 (far right) on the set of Wall-E with director Andrew Stanton (far left) and first camera assistant, Randy Jonsson.

Syracuse University alumnus Jim Morris ’77, G’78 compares animated filmmaking to classical composition. “Every detail is carefully thought out. Nothing is left to chance,” explains the affable president of Pixar Animation Studios. “This is different from live-action film, where directors are like jazz musicians, often riffing on whatever happens in the moment.”

Morris should know. A decorated producer, production executive and visual effects pioneer, he has worked on hundreds of movies—from Pixar’s Oscar-winning masterpiece Wall-E to such Lucasfilm hits as Jurassic Park, Terminator 2 and Forrest Gump, all revered for their award-winning visual imagery.

Syracuse gave me a liberal arts sensibility. It helped me developed a creative compass that has guided my decision-making for the past 40 years.

—Jim Morris '77, G'78, president of Pixar Animation Studios

The Bay Area resident brings an innate sense of curiosity to his craft, as evidenced by his success in the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in television, radio and film. Morris rounded out his Syracuse education with an English minor in the College of Arts and Sciences—“I was into French and Russian literature as well as anthropology”—and film courses in the College of Visual and Performing Arts. “Syracuse gave me a liberal arts sensibility,” continues the 2021 recipient of the George Arents Award, the University’s highest alumni honor. “It helped me develop a creative compass that has guided my decision-making for the past 40 years.”

Coming into Focus

Jim Morris holding award

Morris holding the 2008 British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) Award for Best Animated Film.

Morris was barely a teenager when a trio of futuristic films—Goldfinger, Jason and the Argonauts, and Robinson Crusoe on Mars—set him on his life’s course. “I couldn’t believe what I saw onscreen,” recalls the Delaware native, referring to the films’ visual effects and stop-motion animation. “The imagery was primitive by today’s standards, but it inspired me to start making my own little films.”

Originally intent on studying psychology (first at Tufts, then Syracuse), Morris ultimately landed at Newhouse, where a professor convinced him of the merits of being a film student. Morris was easily persuaded, given Newhouse’s newfound status as the nation’s largest standalone communications school. Plus, computer-generated imagery (CGI) was making inroads into Hollywood. “Syracuse was the beginning of my path,” he admits. “I had great professors who gave me a thorough grounding in filmmaking—from concept creation and scriptwriting to various preproduction, production and post-production techniques.”

As a student, Morris picked up freelance work through Newhouse professors and the school’s vast alumni network. He recalls how a TV commercial gig led to a stint as a cinematographer for the men’s basketball team, which, in turn, opened doors at WSYR-TV News. “All those things put me through college,” says Morris, who, after graduation, cut his teeth at various other television stations and ad agencies. “I paid my dues.”

Syracuse was the beginning of my path. I had great professors who gave me a thorough grounding in filmmaking—from concept creation and scriptwriting to various preproduction, production and post-production techniques.

—Jim Morris '77, G'78, president of Pixar Animation Studios

Professor Emeritus Owen Shapiro, whose founding of the VPA film program coincided with Morris’ arrival on campus, is an unabashed fan. “Even as a student, Jim was really smart,” remembers Shapiro, who credits Morris for helping establish the Syracuse International Film Festival, where students can engage with some of the world’s top indie filmmakers. Shapiro considers Morris one of Syracuse’s “special connections” to Hollywood, whether hosting students at Pixar, returning to campus for Orange Central or serving on the VPA Council. “Jim always makes time for us.”

Bound by Creativity

Morris’ big break came in 1987, when he joined Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), the visual effects arm of Lucasfilm. Working for the preeminent George Lucas allowed him to indulge his craving for computer graphics and digital imagining on the big screen. Morris went on to create the industry’s first three-dimensional CGI character for James Cameron’s The Abyss as well as various liquid-metal robots for Terminator 2. “I also was proud of Death Becomes Her, which helped usher in a CGI revolution,” says Morris, referring to Meryl Streep’s 360-degree-neck and Goldie Hawn’s torso-sized bullet wound. “We came up with photo-realistic skin that was later adapted to Jurassic Park.”

In time, Morris rose to president of Skywalker Sound and Lucasfilm Animation as well as executive vice president and general manager of ILM. “Imagine working with filmmakers who also are your heroes,” he says of his involvement with such mega-franchises as Star Wars, Mission: Impossible, Harry Potter, and The Pirates of the Caribbean. “I learned a lot about producing and managing large teams of creative people.”

Portrait of Jim Morris

Morris on campus, where he received the 2021 George Arents Award, the University's highest alumni honor. "He's a steady hand with all the experience in the world," says Sean Bailey, Walt Disney Studios' president of production.

Morris had been at the helm of Pixar for only a year when Disney acquired the fabled studio in a $7.4 billion stock deal in 2006. The merger immediately yielded the Oscar-winning trifecta of Ratatouille, Wall-E and Up. At the table was Alan Bergman, then president of The Walt Disney Studios, who marveled at Morris’ ability to navigate art, business and technology. “Jim handles everything gracefully because he comes from a place of integrity and wants to do the right thing,” says Bergman, chair of Disney Studios Content since 2020. “He’s one of the most creative, genuine people I know.”

That Morris also is a seasoned guitarist speaks to the undeniable chemistry between music and film. He’s played this connection to the hilt in such recent fare as Soul and Coco while curating some of the most beloved soundtracks of the past 20 years, including those to Up and Brave as well as the Toy Story, Cars and Monsters series. Morris explains that performing at gigs like Pixarpoolaza, an annual concert by and for Pixar employees, allows him to tap into different parts of his brain. “Pixar is filled with artists and techies who also are musicians. Creativity binds us together.”

In this new podcast, VPA Council member Jim Morris—president of Pixar Animation Studios and one of Syracuse University’s 2021 Arents Award winners—discusses his favorite Pixar projects, reveals how a piece of advice from a faculty member fueled his successes, describes why he’s humbled to receive the University’s highest alumni honor and more!

Listen now

In the Groove

Staying at the top is sometimes more difficult than getting there. Which makes Morris’ resume, capped off by a copious collection of awards, more impressive. A frequent honoree of both the Producers Guild of America and the Visual Effects Society, he is revered for being the “real deal” (Pixar chief creative officer Pete Docter), “an empathic and understanding leader” (Lucasfilm EVP and general manager Lynwen Brennan) and one “who forms enduring bonds of respect with everyone around him” (Honey, I Shrunk the Kids director Joe Johnston).

Fifteen years on, Morris—like his heroes the Beatles—doesn’t really want to stop the show. “It’s been a long and winding road at Pixar, but I try to stay true to the dreams of my youth,” he admits. “Besides, I love what I do, moving from project to project. Whether I’m playing guitar or making a film, I try to stay in the groove. That’s when something has the right air, the right space. That’s when it’s organic.”

Jim Morris’ Personal Favorites:

Always (1989, visual effects producer): “A remake of A Guy Named Joe, one of Steven Spielberg’s favorite childhood films. Instead of fighting enemy planes, we had the pilots battle forest fires in the Pacific Northwest.”

Wall-E (2008, producer): “Everything up until then had been like basic training. I approached Wall-E like a 1970s sci-fi.”

John Carter (2012, producer): “If Wall-E was animation leaning toward live action, John Carter was live action leaning toward animation. You can see the impact that Jason and the Argonauts and Robinson Crusoe on Mars had on me.”

Rob Enslin

This story was published on .

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