Ink & Pixel: A Bug’s Life

Last Updated on August 5, 2021

Ink & Pixel is a source of pride and joy for me as a writer and as such, I’m always striving to take this column further for those who read and enjoy it. If you yourself, or anyone you know, helped to make any of the amazing feature animated films found within this column, I would love to talk to you to further my knowledge. Please contact me at [email protected] so we can discuss it further.

There’s nothing wrong with being different. In fact, I think that some of the greatest and most memorable characters in film stand out because of their exaggerated physical appearances or radical tactics to combat impossible odds. These are the types of characters that you want in your corner when things take a turn toward the strange. Our title character from Disney Pixar’s A BUG’S LIFE, Flik, was that kind of character as it was his forward thinking and lone wolf nature that saved the day. People fear what they don’t understand, but that’s no reason not to be different and let your freak flag fly. Oh Pixar, you’re forever sticking up for the little guy.

A BUG’S LIFE was Disney Pixar’s second film and was directed by John Lasseter (TOY STORY, CARS) and Andrew Stanton (FINDING NEMO, WALL-E). The film featured a colony of industrious ants fighting for their survival inside the harsh hierarchy of the bug kingdom. After gathering a massive amount of food, both for themselves as well as a bullying swarm of grasshoppers, Flik, the colony’s “black ant”, undoes the group’s year-long efforts by accidentally casting the picked food into a nearby chasm. After striking an unfair deal with the menacing group of grasshoppers, Flik (Dave Foley), leaves the colony in search of warrior bugs to help fend off the grasshopper’s inevitable return.

In his travels, Flik discovers a troupe of circus performer bugs and after mistaking their comedic antics as an act of heroism, pleads for them to return to the colony to do battle against the grasshopper leader, Hopper (Kevin Spacey), and his group of hungry cohorts. The story of Flik, Princess Atta (Julia Louis Dreyfus), Dot (Hayden Panettiere), as well as his circus friends, soon culminates into a tale of individualism, friendship, and heroism that only Pixar can deliver.

Some would argue that A BUG’S LIFE was Disney Pixar’s most important film. After the tremendous success of their debut film, TOY STORY, it was imperative that Pixar knock their follow-up film out of the park, so as not to be known as a one-hit-wonder company. TOY STORY had wowed audiences the world over, and A BUG’S LIFE was Pixar’s way of taking things to the next level both technically and creatively. Because while TOY STORY was very localized in its story telling, A BUG’S LIFE would now introduce a cast of thousands, varying weather elements, landscapes, and organic materials that had never been seen before by movie going audiences the world over.

Lasseter and Stanton partly found their inspiration for A BUG’S LIFE by way of an old Disney cartoon that was part of the Silly Symphony series. Disney’s Silly Symphonies were a series of animated shorts produced between the years of 1929 to 1939 in the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles. The short that paved the way for A BUG’S LIFE was the animated adaptation of Aesop’s “The Grasshopper and the Ants.” This musical cartoon short featured a similar tale where a jubilant, violin shredding grasshopper, caring not for the coming winter months, finds himself at the mercy and diligence of an ant colony. After nearly freezing to death, due to his lax and rebellious nature, the ants save the grasshopper from certain death. Themes found in “The Grasshopper and the Ants.” can be found all throughout A BUG’S LIFE in the sense that both films are stories about charity, the importance of being unique, and the importance of working together as a unit for the good of the species or group.

In the beginning, A BUG’S LIFE was rather different in its presentation and story. Originally, the lead character of the film was the ringmaster of the circus troupe, a red ant not so cleverly named, Red. In the early draft of this proposed story, Red, after hearing two out of town ants in need of “warriors”, hatched a scheme to pose as said “warriors”, and then, when he and his friends bellies were full, they’d skip town, leaving the ants to their fate. A real jerk, right? But Lasseter and Stanton were uncertain about this approach to the films story or leading ant. Something needed to change.

It wasn’t until a year and a half into the project that Lasseter realized what was wrong. Oddly enough, it was right after Lasseter had seen Nicholas Cage’s performance in THE ROCK when it dawned on him that their main character was in desperate need of a attitude adjustment. The problem with Red was that after the circus bugs made it back to the colony he was no longer important to the story. He was just a facilitator, a conduit, and not a redeemable lead character. Thus the rewrites began to make one of the colony members the main character. Like Nicholas Cage in THE ROCK, Flik was an “every ant” kind of guy who now had family on the line. It gave the audience someone to root for and a reason for our main character to pit himself against the odds.

So what do you do when you want to make your animated film larger than life itself? You research. The decision was made that if team Pixar was to approach making a film about bugs that they would have to get down on their level to do so. This meant taking frequent trips out into fields, woods, gardens, and national parks to discover the true nature of the films characters, the insects. A tiny camera dubbed “The Bug Cam” was created in order to get down to “bug level” and film the flora and fauna of the world as they would experience it.

While this tiny camera roved about the tall grass, flowers, and spider-like roots of massive trees, the filmmakers learned just how important it would be to sure that the translucency of the world be maintained. Think about it like this: you reach for a green leaf, pluck it from a nearby branch, and hold it up against the sun. The leaf is suddenly lit up from the inside, showing all of its veins and jagged tips. And it’s all because of your upward vantage point against our celestial light source. Bugs see life this way all the time. So it was Pixar’s job to make sure that the audience experienced this as well.

In the time that I spent researching this film, I was quite entertained by the multitude of ways in which they recorded all of the different bug sounds throughout the film. Even with all of the high tech sound equipment we have now it’s still rather difficult to record the sounds produced by certain bugs found within the film. Because of this, many of the sounds needed to be created or improvised by the Sound Editing staff at Pixar. Sounds such as the fluttering of nearby dragon fly wings, the cracking of uncooked crabs, wind against a series of playing cards, the extending of bendy straws, fingernails on a chalkboard, helicopters, jet planes, and many others were all used to bring the bugs to life. Each of these sounds would be expertly layered one of top of the other to create a chorus of sounds that best suited each species of insect.

Okay, it’s difficult to write about A BUG’S LIFE without addressing the big elephant beetle in the room. Part of the way through the film’s production a rather nasty public feud had erupted between Jeffrey Katzenberg, Steve Jobs, and John Lasseter of Pixar. Katzenberg, former chairman of of Disney’s film division, was said to have left the company after a huge blowout with Michael Eisner, Disney’s CEO. As the result of this feud Katzenberg formed Dreamworks Studios, an animation film making company now in direct competition with Pixar. To add fuel to the fire, Dreamworks first film set to be released was ANTS, a film that at the time nearly mirrored the plot and themes of A BUG’S LIFE. In a dastardly move, Katzenberg even went so far as to move the release date of ANTS to compete against Pixar’s sophomore effort.

With whispers of bad tidings circulating between both companies the challenge to finish and release each film was on. Ultimately, Disney kept pretty quiet about their feelings towards Dreamworks and the feud just sort of faded into obscurity as far as the public was concerned. Over time both companies have gained traction within the industry and have released a number of high grossing hits. I’d like to think that both companies have buried the hatchet long ago, but who knows what feelings still remain anchored to that unfortunate time.

During its theatrical release, Pixar’s A BUG’S LIFE had grossed $363.3 million world wide. This was far more money than Dreamwork’s film, ANTS during its release which only managed to prepare for a long winter with only $171.8 million. A BUG’S LIFE holds a steady 92% fresh rating on with 77 of the 84 reviews being positive.

It’s easy to see why A BUG’S LIFE would be considered so special to audiences as well as the members of the Pixar family. If TOY STORY was the film that landed them on the moon than it was with A BUG’S LIFE that they planted their flag and said “dibs.” With the success of A BUG’S LIFE Pixar was now a company that everyone would be paying close attention to. In all manner of speaking, the film had raised the bar for animation companies everywhere by forcing them to step up their game in terms of both story and the presentation of their ideas. It’s pretty cool that Pixar’s most ignored film might also have been the very reason why we’ve had so many others over the years. All it took was being a little bit different than everyone else, and standing out in a crowd of thousands.


About the Author

Born and raised in New York, then immigrated to Canada, Steve Seigh has been a editor, columnist, and critic since 2012. He started with Ink & Pixel, a column celebrating the magic and evolution of animation, before launching the companion YouTube series Animation Movies Revisited. He's also the host of the Talking Comics Podcast, a personality-driven audio show focusing on comic books, film, music, and more. You'll rarely catch him without headphones on his head and pancakes on his breath.