When it comes to animated films, Pixar is the gold standard. With Ed Catmull and John Lasseter at the helm, as president and Chief Creative Officer respectively, the computer animation film studio has released 16 feature films since 1995 – among them Toy Story and the popular sequels that followed, as well as, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo and WALL·E – all grossing a worldwide average of $593 million per film.
Additionally, 15 Academy Awards, seven Golden Globes and 11 Grammy Awards are no fluke. Every story, character and world created is created in-house, and Pixar credits their culture of collective creativity for their successes. What is perhaps even more remarkable in an industry where turnover is par for the course is that many of the company’s employees have remained with the company for long over a decade. But even though everyone’s voice is heard at Pixar, and sharing your ideas is encouraged, movie making there is not for the faint of heart.
Here, Pixar’s finest share some of the things they have learned about creativity:
HOW WELL YOU PLAY WITH OTHERS MATTERS
Pixar has a notoriously long interview process, where they subject potential recruits to an eight-hour day of conversation with current employees. “Because you spend four years with these people, the biggest agenda is, ‘Can I work with you? Can I work with you? Can I work with you?’” reveals Andrew Stanton, director of “Finding Nemo” and the upcoming “Finding Dory”. In fact, in an environment where every candidate is without a doubt talented, being agreeable often trumps the candidate’s skillset. But what Stanton also looks for is someone who is proactive without being asked. “What you don’t seem to get a lot of is people that understand how to be proactive, people that are self sufficient and have a good radar for how to be useful, as opposed to just waiting to be told,” he says. “I’ve talked to everybody in all walks of life, and everybody wants the same thing. They want people like that.”
RESPECT THE PROCESS
The average number of years that a film is in production at Pixar film is four, but if something doesn’t feel right, the process can take as long as seven or eight. Stanton explains why there is no cutting corners, even if it would get the product out faster. “There’s no fast way to figure out the story,” he says. “Our standards are so high. I think there’s a lot of places where somebody would finally have just made it. And we’re just like, no! There’s nobody pickier.” Even when the process runs smoothly, a film that involves a team of 250 people is simply labour intensive. For example, one single shot in a Pixar movie requires an extraordinary amount of “takes” before it is considered finished – a “take” being how many times the director reviews a shot. In “Finding Dory,” a scene where Dory meets the new character of Hank for the first time took 146 takes to finish, over a 13-month period. “Our motto is all story, no glory,” quips Story Supervisor Max Brace.
EMBRACE TEAMWORK – AND FEEDBACK
Since its inception, Pixar has embraced an environment where constant feedback eventually leads to the right answer. “The harsh truth is, sometimes what’s best for the movie isn’t what’s best for an individual or even a department,” says Stanton. Adds producer Lindsey Collins, “Here’s the amazing thing. You dread it. And then, 20 minutes into the note session, you engage. And you’re like, ‘Okay. Cool. I like that note.’” What the process requires from all employees is an ability to create at their highest level without being too precious about their work – and to leave their ego at the door. “You can get just so much higher standing on other people’s shoulders than you can all by yourself,” says character art director Jason Deamer. ”If you can swallow your pride and show your worst stuff to people, you’ll get some honest critique, and they can turn you in a new direction.”
LOOK FOR INSPIRATION IN OTHER ARTFORMS
Animator Alan Barillaro, who directed the short film “Piper” that will be screened prior to “Finding Dory”, often looks to 20th century painter Norman Rockwell for answers on character development. “Not just for his skill,” says Barillaro. “But because much of the constraints are the same as in film. You’re trying to tell a story visually as quickly as possible so it’s easy for the audience to get.” In creating new characters, Deamer maintains that nothing beats researching the real thing – in his case animals in the wild. “It’s always more interesting than anything you could make up,” he says. “And starting with the real thing makes the final thing so much more believable in the end.”
APPLY 100% TO EVERYTHING IN LIFE
When Deamer joined Pixar he quickly realized he was surrounded by animation’s crème de la crème. “It’s a very specialised environment,” he says. “People are so great at one particular thing.” But he recently made another observation: His colleagues apply the same amount of discipline to everything they do. “We had this battle of the bands. And 17 bands entered, which was shocking,” he says. “But what really surprised me was when they got up there, they were all really, really good. Maybe the common thread with all these people is that when they do something, they obsess on it. An obsessive, compulsive quality is more the universal talent [at Pixar] than one discipline.”