As a member of the press you may attend many press junkets over the course of your career. Some you will remember because the film was good, others because the staff was rude; your first just because it was your first. However if your first happens to be at Pixar you will be hard pressed to find a better experience; Pixar Animation Studios is simply unforgettable.
Late Thursday afternoon I got a voicemail from Jack proclaiming an exceptional opportunity has presented itself and he would like for me to get back to him as soon as possible. Now just so you all know I am not much for the leash that is a smart-phone, so we continued to play phone tag into the late hours of the night. Eventually I received an email that went something like this:
ShowBizCafe was offered to go to San Francisco to do the junket with the stars. I’d love for you to be able to experience something this cool at the Pixar Studios. It’s this Saturday.
At this point I was just ecstatic to go see Toy Story, San Francisco was just going to be icing on the cake. Boy, was I wrong. Watching Toy Story 3 was just the tip of the iceberg.
As we pull up to Pixar Animation Studios for the first time, I begin to realize that Jack just gave me the opportunity of a lifetime, newbie or veteran. It is around six-thirty pm as we all walk toward the front entrance. Outside is a huge replica of the iconic Pixar desk spotlight, Luxo, and the classic toy ball, at the door is the Sunnyside Daycare Welcome sign we are all going to soon add to our repertoire.
As we walk into this warehouse turned studio/office of modern filmmaking at its best there stands a monument of Pixar’s perfection: a life size replica of Ken’s Dollhouse with every detail intact, even a working elevator. We all sign in to our right. Behind the sign-in desk is a case of all the well-deserved awards Pixar has amassed, down to what looks like the Piston Cup itself.
The first night at Pixar we are already being treated to a very special screening in their very own screening room. Being from the New York City area, all the screening rooms I am accustomed to come through floors of elevators to the renovated side of a building. They are spectacular experiences to be had, but they are not The Pixar Screening Room:
We all file into a traditional theatre, red velvet on oak paneled seats with a beautiful curtain to cover the screen. As the house lights turn off, the constellations above reveal themselves. Yes I said constellations, Pixar has re-created stars for the ceiling of the screening room. Complete with shooting stars, Orion’s Belt, The Big Dipper etc. And the film starts with the classic short, another success in Pixar’s case. As Toy Story 3’s credits come to a close I am still glued to my seat. The desk lamp jumps across the screen for the last shot and its beam of light brings on the house lights.
And so at this late hour I still find myself wide-awake, and I am working on NY time. We step outside and realize our sneaking suspicion of the desk lamp outside being turned on for passersby(s) of night is true. The outdoors picnic tables of the entrance are lit by non-other than Luxo.
The following afternoon we return to the site for lunch and our third treat: A tour of The Pixar Animation Studios! More than a tour it is an intimate look at the studios and the movie-making process. Much like the movies themselves the studios are built entirely by Pixar, every last detail. Steve Jobs policy is just that and every screw in the studio has been hand turned to make the studio as much a home as Pixar’s family.
That is the first fact our tour guide pervades us with as we walk through the skylight atrium towards Pixar’s very own café. Even though the food there is good the average employee diet consists mostly of cereal, any and every kind of cereal you can imagine. The places I have worked have had coffee bars and health bars, but Pixar’s kitchens (they have a few spread out through the floors) have cereal bars that the employee’s love to indulge in. If you are worried that too much cereal isn’t going to be healthy (enough) don’t worry they have bicycles that go from building to building for meetings, when they actually have to stop working because we know they never want to, and they have yoga classes for staff in the atrium. But enough about employee perks, how and where the magic happens: In one sentence, it is approximately a four-year process, one and half for story and the following for development.
Screenwriters rejoice, Pixar is a proponent of excellent story-telling due to massive amounts of research, attention to detail, outlining, and constant story boarding. We begin our tour here, with the storyboards that line the upstairs corner in the far left of the studios. On display today are the much-edited original storyboards of “Finding Nemo,” specifically when the shark swallows Marlin and Dory. Just so we are all on the same page, I say much edited because it is almost like looking at an outline of a storyboard. As each character is developed and each plot line explored the whole staff strips each and every possible world before handing over this completed leg of Pixar magic. The story is airtight because this work, much like the next steps, has its in house critics and critiques.
From here we walk along the corridor to the upstairs front left corner. Along the wall are frames of step-by-step artwork that is rotated throughout the year to showcase Pixar’s talent hobbies and talent. In this very corner we begin to discuss the one question that is on all our minds: How can I have your job at Pixar? The straight and narrow is this Pixar is a family. To work for Pixar is not a project-by-project resume building experience. So with a little perseverance and good timing you can fit the mold of the next employee, just remember to reapply on the website approximately every six months, and when you get the first call for an interview remember there can possibly be thirty-eight more to go. Yes we spoke with an engineer who got her job after thirty-nine interviews; of course she would go through them again considering the development of every strand of Violet’s hair is more than worth it.
Which brings us to the point of the tour when we cross the bridge to the right side of the upstairs studio and meet one of the Art Directors. Across the wall is a very colorful storyboard of Toy Story 3 (at least all the major points). Here we learn in great detail, how much detail is in every scene. For those of us who are not almost OCD, as I am, about color schemes and detailed palettes let me be the first to tell you that they can totally change the way you appreciate any Pixar movie, especially after you get a look at this wall. What is highlighted here is how color affects the viewer. So as not to give anything form the film away (mostly because I liked it and I don’t want to ruin it for anyone), let me just says this, the color of Andy’s clothes are not accidental, the serene lighting on Bonnie is supposed to make you think of her pure and innocent character, the eerie unsaturated grey’s are supposed to make you apprehensive, and as red always is it is a sign of danger. But Art Direction is not just color it is about the entire setting and much like Pixar is a family project, we learned that the paintings of all our favorite characters in Toy Story were drawn by non-other than Lee Unkrich’s children.
And so from the detailed model’s and another line up of highly organized artwork we are led back to the far right corner of the upstairs, from where we head to the very special software animation room. This room is perhaps one of the best parts of the tour, as they say save the best for last. So imagine a home theatre system, a relatively smaller room than screening rooms, with couches that rise to the back so everyone has the perfect view and comfort. In the center of the room is a set up of computers and engineering software. This is where every frame’s every detail is examined and cross-examined.
What I was privileged enough to see as an example was how Woody was updated to match the modern day animation engineering. Toy Story was the first computer animated film of it’s kind, but ten years later that original computer cannot stand up to its new competition so Woody was masterfully recreated from scratch. As we were told numerous times on our tour, think of each element, especially the characters, as software programs. When writing these programs there are a million different options, so how does Pixar know what to chose and where to draw the line. Simple, once a character is simulated everyone gets together, in groups, and they sift through acceptable changes and unacceptable changes.
As with everything Pixar, all of this work is done in house. So as everyone thanks Pixar for a great show and readies themselves for the interviews with the stars I take a moment to digest this surreal moment before the next.