Since Pixar's first feature film, the groundbreaking "Toy Story," came out in 1995, executives at the Emeryville animation house have been insisting it's an artist-driven studio.
But it isn't clear until you walk the halls for a few hours the extent to which the creative types have taken over. Animators' office spaces look like a theme park ride. There are 11 bars on the Pixar campus, most built at the whim of thirsty employees. And the carefully guarded front gate only adds to the Willy Wonka mystique. Many of the workers have a pretty good "welcome to Pixar moment" associated with their first day on the job.
"I was walking through the atrium, and then nearly got knocked down by someone riding past on a bike. It was like 'What? This happens here?' " says Daniella Muller, a 24-year-old production assistant who joined the studio last year. "It makes you feel so relaxed to know that you can be yourself, and you're never going to feel out of place."
"Toy Story 3," Pixar's 11th feature film, comes out Friday. Every one of the studio's films has been a commercial success, with six among the Top 10 highest-grossing animated films of all time. But even as the number of employees has increased nearly tenfold in 15 years, to more than 1,100 now, the philosophy remains the same. At Pixar, the lunatics are encouraged to run the asylum.
"We have a lot of fun. I'm sure every company does," says Jennifer Johnston, the executive chef at Luxo Café, the cafeteria in the center of the campus. "But I feel like, in my experience, it's actually part of the decision process here. 'Would it be fun? Then let's do it.' "
" 'Corporate' is the worst word you can use here," facilities manager Craig Payne says as he gives a tour of the 22-acre campus, including new construction on the western end.
At another company, the employee in Payne's position might be a feared corporate rules-enforcer - the guy who tells you not to put tack holes in the plaster or forbids you from painting over the antiseptic white walls next to your cubicle. But the architect and 14-year Pixar veteran embraces the madness.
Among the more creative additions on the campus: One animator built a bookcase with a secret panel - which opens up into a speakeasy-style sitting area with a card table, bar and security monitor. Other employees work in modified Tuff Sheds, tricked out to look like little houses with front porches and chandeliers.
"Sometimes I just have to let go," Payne says with an amused sigh, as he walks into a newer building with a high ceiling - where someone has interrupted the clean sightlines with a wooden loft. A couch and a mini-refrigerator are balanced 10 feet above the floor.
Tearing the roof off
The example is being set at the top, where creative head John Lasseter often seems like the biggest kid of all. Lasseter's work space is filled floor-to-ceiling with toys. With barely any space to set a coffee cup down, it looks like half of eBay exploded in the middle of his office.
"There are a lot of amazing, talented people here. You really have to let go and allow them to express themselves however they want," Payne says. "There was actually an individual here who took the ceiling out of his office, because he wanted the natural light. ... It was a little extreme, but we don't freak out about it."
The origins of the Pixar workplace culture can be found at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia (Los Angeles County), attended by Lasseter, Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton and other Pixar creative titans in the 1970s and '80s. There they learned from animators who had made the great old Disney movies, at a school created by Walt Disney to stoke artistic innovation.
Reunion of inventive minds
Lasseter, Docter and Stanton met again at Pixar, which had been bought by Steve Jobs from Lucasfilm in 1986. "Toy Story" was a huge success in 1995, and Pixar moved in 2000 from a leased office in Point Richmond to the Emeryville campus. Jobs seemed to understand what Lasseter and the others were preaching - a studio where story is king and artists collaborate - and provided a design that encouraged chance meetings. In the center of the romantic steel and brick main building is an atrium the size of an airplane hangar, where the mailroom, theater and the building's only restrooms are located. Employees must either interact with each other or hold it until they get home.
There's a pool table and a room filled with free cereal in the atrium, and employee-made artwork celebrating the latest movie on the walls. Individually, these touches seem random. But everything, down to the placement of the Sugar Corn Pops, is part of a greater plan.
"It may seem like a dumb little thing, the free cereal," says Adrian Molina, a 24-year-old story artist. "But I find myself at 4 p.m. every day, going to my friend James' office and saying, 'Hey James, it's 4. Cereal?' And we'll sit there and talk about what's working and not working. We're spending time, eating cereal and bouncing things off each other. And then ideas happen."
The work experience
Pixar is filled with sights that seem jarringly alien to most people's stereotype of a productive workplace. A couple of employees, presumably taking some downtime between big projects, assemble Lego pieces on a couch. Employees play a video game within sight of the glass-walled executive meeting rooms, which overlook the lobby.
Look closer, and you'll see employees hard at work. Johnston talks about employees who are "in the zone," approaching the cafe wordlessly to grab their latte before returning to work. While other animation studios may cut corners, Pixar operates at a level of detail that can be mind-numbing. At a meeting in the theater to go over nearly finished footage for a new "Cars Toon," filmmakers pore over secondlong scenes, discussing minutiae such as a single piece of confetti or a shadow in the corner of the frame.
Assistant projectionist Bryan Dennis says he works harder here than at his last job, as a hotel sound engineer in Pebble Beach (Monterey County). At the other job, he would be told to help set up birthday parties and other celebrations. At Pixar, he's a guest.
"I like that every day I'm reminded that there are people a lot smarter than me," he says, hustling to get ready for some more dailies. "It's such a different energy to be here. ... I don't get burned out. I don't have a problem working 12 hours today, because it's not going to be boring."
Lasseter, 53, is frustrated when people say Pixar is his brainchild and will live or die based on the creative life of the inner circle. He's trying to build something lasting, and fostering creative young talent is a studio priority.
"In cinema history there are times when a collection of artists come together and make some films. It's just a magical time, and great stuff is done. And rarely, if ever, that golden age lasts beyond that original group," Lasseter said last month, interviewed by phone during his commute from Glen Ellen to Emeryville. "Either they split up, like a band ... or the founders die and they just don't carry on. We don't want that to happen at Pixar."
The cafeteria in the center of Pixar's campus advertises the special of the day modestly as a "cheese sandwich," but it's the work of an artist. This is the "Finding Nemo" of sandwiches. Burrata cheese, pesto aioli, grilled pine nuts, arugula, locally grown yellow tomato and fig jam rest on toasted focaccia.
Keeping sense of community
Pixar employees can e-mail executive chef Johnston to provide feedback on this culinary creation, just as each film's director and producer solicit advice from all employees, including those who have been there only a few months.
Throughout the workday, fun reigns. Johnston appreciates the fact that chicken paillard - featuring seasoned chicken and some vegetables on the side - has become a running gag. A song was performed about the dish, and someone dressed up as chicken paillard for Halloween. The costume can be seen propped against the wall in the animators' area.
Jason Katz was hired in 1994, while "Toy Story" was still in production. The story supervisor was the 125th Pixar employee and has seen the studio grow to a filmmaking giant with many faces he doesn't recognize. But some things never change.
"I still feel like we're making this small thing here. We like it, and we're excited to show it to our families," Katz says. "But this whole giant audience that sees it eventually? That's just this weird gravy. In some ways, I don't think we're making the movies for the multiplex, where it's obviously going. I feel like we're just trying to make each other laugh."
Prepared to play: Pixar readies for the opening of "Toy Story 3" on Friday. Datebook, 16
Animation giant draws on Lucasfilm
-- Pixar was originally George Lucas' computer graphics division at Lucasfilm. Lucas sold it to Steve Jobs in 1986 for $10 million.
-- In 1986, there were fewer than 50 people employed at the company, including current chief creative officer John Lasseter and President Ed Catmull. There are more than 1,100 employees now.
-- "Toy Story" was Pixar's first fully computer-animated film, and the highest grossing film of 1995 with $192 million in domestic box office.
-- Pixar has been based in Emeryville since 2000. The company's 22-acre campus had also been the home of the Oakland Oaks baseball team, a horse racing track, a Del Monte fruit cocktail canning factory and the mansion of city founder Joseph S. Emery.
-- Disney, which had already distributed most of Pixar's films, bought the company in 2006 through an all-stock transaction worth $7.4 billion.
-- Pixar's "Up," released last year, was the second animated film nominated for a best picture Academy Award, after "Beauty and the Beast" in 1991.
Without a doubt, one of the most anticipated movies of the year comes out this weekend. It’s become an annual event to witness the newest Pixar film make its way to theaters, and Toy Story 3 has all of that with the added pressure and excitement of seeing some familiar character return (and to introduce themselves to a new generation.
Toy Story launched everything, and after millions of fans, billions of dollars in box office, and a shelf full of Academy Awards that might as well be labeled “Reserved for Pixar,” we find ourselves on board a train that refuses to slow down and seems to keep getting better with every new stop along the tracks.
I was fortunate enough to speak with Lee Unkrich, the director behind Toy Story 3, and we discussed what makes toys upset, the personal tragedies in life that helped him tell the story, and what Pixar’s goals are for the future.
Considering that you’ve worked with Pixar so long and were co-director on Toy Story 2 with John Lasseter, how important was it to maintain his legacy for Toy Story 3?
Well, I guess when you say, “maintain his legacy,” it’s really a matter of maintaining our legacy. John is awesome, and we all love working with him, but the truth is that there was a group of people that collaborated on those early films – myself included. The films were born out of a lot of different people’s ideas and sensibilities. Obviously John was the director and had final say over everything and he guided the project, but the thing that made me directing the third film more comfortable was that I was at John’s side making Toy Story and Toy Story 2.
So my allegiances weren’t to his specific vision per se but to the world we created, the characters, and the vibe we created.
It’s interesting that people make a big deal about Pixar shying away from sequels, and now you’re heading more into that territory. Do you ever give credence to that feeling or do you wonder why that’s a big deal to some?
Oh, no. We get it. The world’s pretty divided. I see all the sentiment out there – I’m out on the ‘net, and I know that there are a lot of people that say, “Oh, God. Pixar’s gone off the rails. They’re doing all these sequels all of the sudden.”
But I know there are an equal number of people that are excited that we’re doing sequels because they love the characters we’ve made and they want to see more in those worlds. So we have to keep everybody happy, and the only way to really do that is to stick to our guns and tell great stories whether it’s a sequel or not. We apply the same rigor to a sequel – I know from experience having just finished this film – that we apply to an original film. And, really, they’re no easier. They’re just as difficult in their own ways.
Read the rest of the interview here!
Btw, if you want to watch a really cool documentary on Pixar, CNBC will be airing The Pixar Story on June 21st at 9 PM EST. The trailer is below.
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