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What we can all learn from Pixar

I think that most people reading this article will know Pixar reasonably well. If I asked you what Pixar “do”, then most people would probably say that they’re film makers or animators. If you asked the founders of Pixar the  same question they’d probably tell you that they’re story tellers.

Pixar have an amazing history which most people don’t know about. They’re also amazingly successful and apart from a couple of little blips have a stupidly high level of quality coming out of their studio.

Before I continue, I should point out that I’m not a Pixar expert and that I haven’t double checked and cross checked my sources. So some of this could be bollocks, but it’s still going to be more factually accurate than Bravehart – and nobody complained much about that film at the time. If you want to know more about Pixar, buy their amazing book.

What has this got to do with Teh Interwebs?

That’s a fair question! When I started reading about Pixar I could see parallels to Teh Interwebs. Pixar use technology to create their products. The technology is changing rapidly and there’s a balance to be struck between the technology and the creative teams. Sounds familar? Also, who cares – Pixar are great and worth talking about anyway. 🙂

I’ve come up with six thoughts about what we can learn from Pixar at the end. They’re not all based on things I’ve talked about here, but they’re all in the Pixar book and in documentaries about Pixar.

Back to the chase…

This clip from YouTube (sorry about the crappy quality) is possibly the best 8 minutes of film Pixar have ever done. It’s from “Up” and it won’t spoil the film if you haven’t seen it.

If you’re not close to blubbing after watching that then you’re probably a psychopath and should seek medical attention straight away. What’s great about it is that the wide range of animation techniques used doesn’t get in the way of the story, instead it enhances it and gives the story tellers more control.

The Golden Age of Disney

Pixar’s history and Disney are tangled together. The eagle eyed among you will know that Disney own Pixar now, but we’ll come back to that later.

Once upon a time Disney made great films like Pinnochio, Snow White and Bambi. They even did crazy stuff and went out on a limb to make films like Fantasia. They pioneered advances in animation and sound and made films that are still classics today.

Then they went and made shit like Pocahontas 2. OK, I’ll admit that I’ve never seen Pocahontas 2 or even the first one. But unless I end up babysitting some kid with a really shitty DVD collection I’m never going to see this film.

What happened? I can’t say for sure, but it seems like after Disney’s death it all went rather commercial. They redeemed themselves somewhat with the Lion King and Aladdin, but they’ve never regained the artistic integrity they had in the mid 20th Century.

Many people compare Pixar today to the golden age of Disney. In the same way Disney broke new ground and tried risky thing, Pixar have done the same.

A Brief History Of Pixar

There are three major players in early story of Pixar. From left to right in the image below: Ed Catmull (tech wizard and animation fan), Steve Jobs (no introduction needed) and John Lasseter (animator and tech fan).

Ed Catmull

Ed Catmull has an amazing history. He studied at Utah University before going to the New York Institute of Tech where he pretty much invented texture mapping, anti aliasing, subdivision, z-buffering and tweening. He doesn’t get out of bed without revolutionising computer animation.

He then goes and makes a 3D hand animation which is the first computer generated 3D used in a film back in 1972.  Not content with that, he ends up helping out making that Genesis effect animation in Star Trek that blew everyone away at the time. That still looks great. That was during a stint at Industrial Light and Magic at Lucasfilm. Yeah, he worked there too.

What he also did was to approach all this from an academic point of view, sharing and discussing his work so that the field could be advanced. What a guy!

It wasn’t all roses though, he really wanted to make a feature film generated with 3D graphics. He didn’t want to be limited to little sections and scenes – but he couldn’t get buy in from anyone back then.

John Lasseter

As a child John Lasseter loved Disney and wanted to be an animator. After graduation he went to work as a junior at Disney but the company had already stagnated by that point and was driven by the bottom line.

He saw the potential in 3D animation and made this incredible animation test for Disney for Where The Wild Things Are. Check it out:

That was 1983! And what did he get for this brilliance? He got the sack. Yup. Computer graphics were seen as tool for creating cost effective animations, this didn’t do that and so the Disney Corp chucked it out along with John. Some of you will note that it took almost a decade for Disney to use the technique in Beauty And The Beast).

John met Ed and they got together at Industrial Light & Magic where John was hired as an “interface designer” because nobody would agree to pay for an animator there. Together they secretly worked on nifty animations together.

Steve Jobs

Now, I can’t remember exactly how Steve Jobs got involved in this. George Lucas had to sell off parts of Industrial Light & Magic because of spiraling costs and an expensive divorce. Steve saw the potential in the work that Ed and John were doing and snapped up their department at a bargain rate. He pumped a load of money into it and in a typically smart Jobs way he backed off and let Ed and John get cracking. Pixar was born.

Luxo Jr

You know that lamp you see at the start of Pixar films? This is where it came from. While most people were busy doing boring spinning 3D logos and technical test for computer graphics, Ed and John created this absolutely classic lamp animation.

Yeah, you’ve seen that before! There’s a fantastic quote by John about how someone came up to him afterwards and asked whether the baby lamp was a boy or a girl. That was the point he finally knew that 3D computer animation had come of age. People saw the story, not the technology. People did however also see the technology! These guys were way ahead of the pack.

Toy Story

Everything was set for Toy Story. We all know this story ends well, but it was a rough time. Pixar had being doing TV commercials for a while now and they finally had a chance for a feature animation. In 1991 Disney agreed to fund it, but started interfering massively. The story became compromised and characters lost their form. Disney wanted to scrap the project. Pixar asked for a reprieve and went and rewrote the story the way they always saw it. Disney were (thankfully) impressed and the project went ahead. The rest we know.

Toy Story 2

So, it was all plain sailing now right?

Toy Story 2 was an even bigger pain in the arse than the first one. Disney had just made a load of cash from a straight to DVD sequel for Aladdin and Toy Story 2 was supposed to be a quick cash cow in the same vein, so a “B team” was created for Toy Story 2 while the main focus of the company was on “A Bug’s Life”.

Near the end of the Toy Story 2 process Ed and John realised that it wasn’t working out. It wasn’t up to Pixar standards and they didn’t want sub par work coming out of the studio. It had been a mistake to have a “B team” or a B grade product.

Instead of being content with releasing it as it was, they rewrote and remade the whole film in 9 months. It was painful and afterwards one third of the company had RSI from being overworked. One employee couldn’t work anymore and one employee was so tired they left their baby in the backseat of their car.

They vowed never to work their employees that hard again and Toy Story was another massive commercial and critical hit.

Bought out by Disney

In 2006 Disney bought up Pixar. This seemed a bit odd at the time since Pixar were so successful by themselves and it seemed like getting more involved with Disney would only bring trouble. However, it sounds like the Disney deal gave Pixar much more financial stability and security. Pixar kept their own identity and John Lasseter became Chief Creative Officer at Disney- quite amusing considering to how he was orginally booted out for trying to bring 3D animation to Disney twenty years earlier.

Strangely the deal also made Steve Jobs the biggest single shareholder in Disney. That man had fingers in many pies.

Since then…

Pixar have gone from strength to strength. Cars was a bit crap but the kids loved it. The real stand out moments for me have been the silence of the start of Wall-E. The brilliance of the Incredibles (It’s taken until the Avenger’s Assemble film for another film to achieve the same level of action) and the final scenes of Ratatouille. Toy Story 3 has to be one of the best films ever made, the ending was taken to such levels of dramatic tension that it’s going to be hard for anyone to beat it.

That’s all very good, but can you summarise the key things that we can learn from Pixar?

Yes I can. Here are 6 ideas / thoughts that I got from reading about Pixar that I think everyone can apply to their work.

1. Identify change at the cheapest point. 

Pixar stories take years to write and storyboard. Only once the story is right do they start the actual animation production. Why? Because animation is expensive and changing the story after starting animation is a huge waste. It can take 11 hours to render a single frame of a more complex scene.

What’s interesting is that Pixar use a variety of tools to create storyboards and moods. Pencil, pastel… whatever is right for the job.

2. Work out where you can be expressive

Even though animation is a slow and labour intensive process there are other points where Pixar can be creative. They have gag sessions where they come up with small jokes for films. One gag was “the claw” in Toy Story which turned from a small idea into a major part of the third film. The voice recording too (though scripted) has space for improvisation which gives the actors more control over their characters.

3. Technology is a tool

Even though Ed Catmull was a technical wizard, he never seems to have forgotten that technology is a tool for creating a story. You know those crap films which have special effects all over the place for no reason? Pixar don’t make films like that. The innovations they create are used directly in helping to tell stories.

4. Make things great

While Pixar no doubt have an eye on the balance sheet, lots of their choices imply to me that they’re more focused on making great stuff than making money. They could have pumped out a straight to DVD Toy Story but they didn’t. They could have followed a similar story to Toy Story for several films but instead they made one with no dialogue for the first third of the film and another about an octogenarian who’s wife just died.

They just make great stuff and that’s what brings the money in.

5. It’s a team effort

When Pixar moved to their new building they could finally record voices in their building instead of doing it off-site. Instead of hiding the actors away, they got them (Tom Hanks etc..) to walk around the studio and meet the animators. They say it made everyone feel like part of the same team.

At Pixar’s University, Pixar staff spend part of their working week learning things that aren’t directly connected to their discipline. The reasoning is that if an animator understands how the accounts system works, that’s something that can only help the company.

6. Focus on the goal and have fun on the way

Pixar work hard and play hard. But they always keep an eye on the goal.

(Click on the image to watch the TED talk)

“Story telling is joke telling. It’s knowing your punchline, your ending, knowing that everything you’re saying from the first sentence to the last is leading to a singular goal”.