Thoughts on Movies

A Trip to Pixar

Last week, I had a chance along with some friends to tour again the Pixar Animation Studios campus in Emeryville, California. Pixar created Toy Story, the first feature length animated motion picture made entirely using computer-generated imagery. Since then, the studio has made a number of fantastic feature length and short animated films using their trademark blend of cutting edge of technology, beautiful artistry, and authentic storytelling (a complete list of their films is on their website). I have such tremendous respect for the films created by Pixar team, so being able to see this unique place again was an honor and a thrill.

(Photos taken by yours truly unless otherwise noted.)

Driving through the gates is a great way to start

This Pixar employee had an awesome cutout of Miss Fritter from CARS 3 attached to the Jeep’s spare tire

The giant Luxo Jr. and Pixar ball statues in front of The Steve Jobs Building

Luxo Jr. refers to a computer-animated short film done at Pixar in 1986 starring a couple of Luxo brand desk lamps and a ball (the Luxo Jr. lamp is part of the Pixar logo placed at the front of every one of their films). Watch the trailer on YouTube.

We’re going in

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I have no selfie game

In his excellent (and highly recommended) book Creativity, Inc., Pixar co-founder and president Dr. Ed Catmull says this about the Pixar campus, which was heavily influenced by the owner of the studio at the time, Apple Computer guru Steve Jobs:

“Built on the site of a former cannery, Pixar’s fifteen-acre campus, just over the Bay Bridge from San Francisco, was designed, inside and out, by Steve Jobs. (Its name, in fact, is The Steve Jobs Building.) It has well-thought-out patterns of entry and egress that encourage people to mingle, meet, and communicate. Outside, there is a soccer field, a volleyball court, a swimming pool, and a six-hundred-seat amphitheater. Sometimes visitors misunderstand the place, thinking it’s fancy for fancy’s sake. What they miss is that the unifying idea for this building isn’t luxury but community. Steve wanted the building to support our work by enhancing our ability to collaborate.”

Once you enter the doors of The Steve Jobs Building, it feels like you’re walking into a more creative version of an Apple retail store. Currently hanging from the sides of main atrium area are giant “papel picado” (Spanish for “perforated paper”) cutouts that are themed to Pixar’s upcoming film Coco.

The atrium of The Steve Jobs Building

COCO-themed “papel picado” (perforated paper)

More papel picado

Beautiful Coco art is hanging on many walls in the atrium.

Loved seeing this concept art from COCO

Fun statues also populate the space.

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Luigi, Guido, and The Incredibles welcome everyone walking through the front doors

These statues also populate the lobby–Pixar’s increasing number of awards (Academy Awards and others) for their animated films and shorts.

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Pixar’s impressive haul of awards received for their work

From the atrium, we were given a tour of the infamous animators’ office section on the main floor of the building (sorry, no photos allowed). This is the place where the animators are encouraged to decorate their own workspace. Here’s what Ed Catmull had to say about it, again from Creativity, Inc.:

“The animators who work here are free to—no, encouraged to—decorate their work spaces in whatever style they wish. They spend their days inside pink dollhouses whose ceilings are hung with miniature chandeliers, tiki huts made of real bamboo, and castles whose meticulously painted, fifteen-foot-high styrofoam turrets appear to be carved from stone…The point is, we value self-expression here. This tends to make a big impression on visitors, who often tell me that the experience of walking into Pixar leaves them feeling a little wistful, like something is missing in their work lives—a palpable energy, a feeling of collaboration and unfettered creativity, a sense, not to be corny, of possibility. I respond by telling them that the feeling they are picking up on—call it exuberance or irreverence, even whimsy—is integral to our success.”

Needless to say, the animators’ area is really a fun and clever space where these brilliant and talented folks get to put in the long and arduous hours in creating these beloved animated films. It was cool to see director Lee Unkrich at work in the Coco production area. And we also got to see some art from some other upcoming Pixar projects which kind of made my head explode.

We then were taken upstairs (again, no photos allowed…sorry). In one hall, we got to geek out at a stunning display of pre-production art for Coco.

Here’s a trailer for Pixar’s Coco, which opens in U.S. theaters on November 22.

In the opposite hall on the second floor, we got to see some amazing concept art used in the making of Cars 3 (and how cool is that neon sign at the top of the stairs?). Some of this art can be found in the books The Art of Cars and Poster Art of Cars, both highly recommended for any Cars fan. I didn’t want to leave this hall.

Actually, I didn’t want to leave the building. There really is a palpable, positive energy in the place, which I believe comes from both the beautiful work environment and, more importantly, from the talented people at work there. Our tour guide kept it real with us–he knows that he is working in a rarified work environment, but he also was very clear about the challenges and pressures that the artists face daily. He said something really interesting about the importance of problem solving at Pixar which, to quote Ed Catmull one more time (because he says it best), really sums up what makes Pixar so exceptional:

“What makes Pixar special is that we acknowledge we will always have problems, many of them hidden from our view; that we work hard to uncover these problems, even if doing so means making ourselves uncomfortable; and that, when we come across a problem, we marshal all of our energies to solve it. This, more than any elaborate party or turreted workstation, is why I love coming to work in the morning. It is what motivates me and gives me a definite sense of mission.”

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The entire gang (📷: Allison Shields)

I left the experience with even more respect for the creative folks at Pixar. I also left feeling creatively re-charged and ready to re-start some of my own creative projects that have been percolating. The Pixar-themed fun continued later that evening when I had some delicious ice cream at Fentons Creamery, which made an appearance at the end of Pixar’s wonderful animated feature film Up.

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From the parking lot (and it was a miracle that I even found a place to park–it’s a very popular place)

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The ice cream here is legit

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Russell, Carl, and Dug (and the rope ladder to the dirigible) at Fentons in UP (©️Pixar)

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3 thoughts on “A Trip to Pixar

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