The Secret Of Pixar's Success

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So you want to set up a mini-movie studio that will turn out critically acclaimed, financially successful, universally adored movies? Well, here’s how! In just a few easy steps, you too can make $6.2 billion at the box office and score an average review rating of about 93% while creating modern masterpieces of animation – or anything else. Just follow the simple steps to Pixar’s success…

Pixar grew out of the very earliest days of computer animation. Set up originally at ILM by a very forward-thinking George Lucas, the company started as software developers working on computer graphics. Chief among the recruits was a former academic called Ed Catmull, already something of a legend in the field for cracking three huge problems of early computer graphics. He’d figured out how to make the machine assign depth to objects so that they’d correctly hide or be hidden by other objects (The science bit: it’s called the “z-buffer”), how to add detail to a 3D object by wrapping it in a 2D image (“texture mapping”) and how to build curved shapes thanks to a “subdivision surface” (Now you can impress nerds with your knowledge!). And all this in the early 1980s when he was working with computers which had about as much welly as your mum’s old mobile (see left). Catmull’s the Pixar founder that people tend to overlook, but without his flair for solving technical problems, Pixar would never have gotten out of the gate. Not least because it started off making money as a software company, with Catmull (whose childhood heroes were Albert Einstein and Walt Disney) and John Lasseter only gradually shifting the focus to animation. They slowly turned the software-showcasing shorts into events in their own right, the clever clogs.

The moral of the story:
Don’t be afraid to work at the technology until you’ve got it right (see also: James Cameron waiting ten years to make Avatar). Consider making a dedicated problem-solver part of your team. And you might want to think about alternative, more traditional revenue streams to get you through those difficult early years.

“All three Pixar founders – Ed Catmull, John Lasseter, Steve Jobs – are smart people who understand the creative process better than anyone. To have one of those guys would be amazing; to have three of them in the same company is a freak of nature. It should be respected in the same way as the Grand Canyon: it happened, nobody knows how it happened, but you’ve got to be humbled by it.”

That was Brad Bird’s considered take on Pixar in 2007, while making his second film for the studio, Ratatouille. Bird himself has now joined the Pixar brain trust, along with Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter and Lee Unkrich among others, most of whom joined the company straight out of college and have worked their way up to trusted director status. Pixar’s dedication to short films allows a relatively low-risk way for would-be feature directors to prove their aceness, and looking at the range of people to have directed recent shorts and upcoming films like Brave, it seems to be paying off. A recent article in The Guardian suggested that “today’s Leonardos” are working at the company, their work towering over anything else that’s happening in the art world today in a sort of modern animation renaissance. Whether you accept that or not, something seems to be very right in their hiring process. So yes, you’re probably going to need more than a Media Studies GCSE and two weeks’ work experience at Asda if you want a job there.

The moral of the story:*
*As Catmull has said repeatedly, “Don’t be afraid to hire people who are smarter than you”. Admittedly for some of us that’s harder than others (here at Empire it would be positively impossible, for example) but it’s always worth a go).

(Please note that the last part in parentheses was not intended seriously, and don’t write in to complain).

John Lasseter considers it an essential part of company policy that everyone, from cooks to cleaners, learn to draw, so there are classes for everyone to master basic drafting skills. But as well as those classes, the company set up Pixar University where you can learn just about anything. Stone carving, cooking, all sorts of art classes – they’re all there, and they’re pretty much open to everyone. The company’s headquarters also come with a full set of sports facilities and even a beach volleyball court, which puts everyone else’s workplace discount gym memberships rather in perspective.

Animators and story crew also learn specific disciplines for specific films. Everyone working on Finding Nemo learned to scuba dive, for instance, while the crew on Ratatouille mastered gourmet cooking. It’s only a matter of time before someone at the company figures out a way to make a story set in the 5-star hotels of the world surrounded by supermodels and sets off to research it with the blessings of his bosses (they’re that bright).

This approach goes double when making films, as we’ll see in a moment…

The moral of the story:*
*The more you know about the subject, the greater the chance you’ll get it right onscreen and avoid howling errors that will irritate fans and take audience members out of the world you’re trying to create. Also, smart people like learning new things.

Toy Story 3 director Lee Unkrich says, “Screw-ups are an essential part of making something good. That’s why our goal is to screw up as fast as possible.” It’s pretty much a mantra at Pixar that every story starts off rubbish. Well, maybe not rubbish, but at least having much room for improvement. Wall-E, for example, was an idea that emerged from an ideas meeting very early in Pixar history, but took nearly a decade to emerge in the Hello Dolly-loving, cockroach-befriending form we all know and love.

On other films, the failures have been more drastic. Toy Story 2 was returned virtually entirely to the drawing board with less than a year to go before its planned release; Toy Story and A Bug’s Life also underwent drastic rewrites and of course, most famously, Ratatouille was rebuilt from the ground up. On that occasion, original director Jan Pinkava (who had proven his mettle on Pixar short Geri’s Game) was let go from the film and Brad Bird brought in to start over, rescripting and changing all but two shots (“and I tweaked one of those”). Imagine if someone had been around to give Transformers 2 the same treatment.

Incidentally, this may explain why it’s completely impossible for journalists to get Pixar employees to say anything meaningful about any Pixar film other than the next one. They don’t want to talk about the future project in case it changes between now and release.

The moral of the story:*
*If something isn’t working, get rid of it – no exceptions. And be prepared to start over if that’s what’s needed.

How does Pixar know what’s working and what isn’t? Well, that would be thanks to endless, unceasing scrutiny of every level of the creative process – in a, y’know, supportive and constructive fashion. We hope. So from story to storyboards to voice recordings to rough assemblies, the filmmaking team – and most especially the overseeing Brain Trust (led by Lasseter, Stanton, Docter, Bird et al) – make sure that every film gets on and stays on track and if necessary will take drastic measures to keep them that way. Up co-director Bob Peterson called it the “Grand Pixar Eye of Sauron” – although we think he was joking there. Still, as well as replacing directors and rewriting scripts when necessary, they’ve binned entire films that weren’t working out (Newt, anyone?)

This microscopic level of oversight means that the stories are examined, themes and characters deconstructed and reassembled and animation tweaked and polished within an inch of their life. Each filmmaking team will have at least weekly meets to show dailies (something of a misnomer, that) and display their work so that any mistakes can be caught early, and anyone can make suggestions for improvements – but especially the director and brain trust. So while the films are, as Lasseter et al endlessly emphasise, director led and collaborative, there are also some serious quality controls in place.

The moral of the story:*
*Get people who know what they’re doing to give you advice. Listen to said advice. Unless it’s about adding a Randy Newman song – that’s probably optional.

But even those quality controls don’t guarantee that you’re always going to hit a home run. And here’s where a cultivated lack of fear comes in handy. Pixar’s team believe that they are going to fall on their face eventually. They’re not so naïve as to assume that they have a right to 90+% critical approval or half a billion dollars at the box office with every film they release. And while none of them have any particular yen to be the first to release a sub-par Pixar, they’re also anxious not to get stuck in a late-90s Disney-style rut.

Pixar’s 2008 / 2009 releases are good examples of this. After a series of films on subjects that kids definitely like and related to (toys, fish, monsters, cars, bugs) here were two films that were difficult to sum up. Last robot on Earth trawls through rubbish all day? Old man ties balloons to his house and goes to South America? This is not the stuff that childish daydreams are made of. The upcoming Brave is another less-than-obvious example (even if it’s closer to Disney’s tried-and-tested fairytale story than anything Pixar has ever done). The key thing is not to rest on your laurels and churn out sequels – and if you must sequel-ise, make sure you’ve got a story worth the telling.

The moral of the story:*
*Keep taking chances, make the films as good as possible, and hope people like it. If they don’t, be philosophical and reflect that as long as you did your best and made something good, they’ll probably reassess it in 40 years.

OK, so you’ve got a successful formula going at Pixar, but what of the rest of Tinseltown and its tendency to settle for the merely OK? That’s never going to fly with you, so the only thing to do is take over. When Pixar was bought by Disney in 2007, John Lasseter became Chief Creative Officer at the Mouse House, and set about cleaning up the town. Visiting Walt Disney Animation Studios nowadays, you find a culture that bears more than a little resemblance to its northern neighbour, with the same open-plan layout and emphasis on learning and discussion. There’s even a breakfast bar full of free cereal. Lasseter, after bringing old-skool Disney working practices to Pixar, has now re-exported them to the mothership, at the same time that he and Catmull assumed control of Disney Animation (and, in Lasseter’s case, became head of the theme-park Imagineers to boot).

Elsewhere, Brad Bird’s going live-action with Mission: Impossible IV and Andrew Stanton’s already there on John Carter Of Mars. It’s only a matter of time before Pixar’s ethos and/or personnel take over every film being made, we enter a second movie Golden Age and world peace spontaneously breaks out.

The moral of the story:*
*If you’ve found a strategy that works, share it with the less fortunate! And bring back hand-drawn animation to Disney while you’re about it.