Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Fun Factory

With all that's been going on this spring, it's perhaps surprising that one of the most intriguing bits of journalism I've read recently is this corporate profile of Pixar by Anthony Lane, the movie critic of The New Yorker.

Lane finds himself intrigued by the success of Pixar:

Most of us, as we leave the theatre, can no more remember which company produced the film we just saw than we could tell you who manufactured the hand dryer in the men's room. The exception is Pixar, the only studio whose products people actively seek out. Everyone knows Pixar.

So Lane goes on a road trip, to visit Pixar, to see if he can understand what makes it special.

I'm not sure if it's because I used to work (though not for Pixar) in that same campus in "the orderly town of Emeryville,", some 15 years ago, or because, like John Lasseter, I too hail from Whittier, California, or just because I'm fascinated by what makes the difference between a good company, a great company, and a legendary company, but I too am fascinated by Pixar, and I devoured Lane's story.

Lane tours the campus, visiting both new buildings and existing ones, noting work areas, the soccer pitch, volleyball court, and pool, the open-air deck with the view of the Golden Gate Bridge, and Pixar University, which he finds intriguing:

they can finish their tasks for the day, in any department of the company, then head over to P.U. for a course in live-action moviemaking, sculpting, fencing, or whatever. "Why are we teaching filmmaking to accountants? Well, if you treat accountants like accountants, they're going to act like accountants." So said Randy Nelson, the first person to head the program, which started in 1995.

I love the way that Lane de-constructs Pixar's history by way of its art: finding in The Incredibles a critique of modern corporate America; seeing Elastigirl as embodying the changing role of women in society; noting that Up, a story about "the bonding of young and old" is produced by a company whose entire body of work is about the bonding of young and old. Lane is right to be fascinated by how all this art can emerge in a world where "none of this exists":

the storyboard? It's not there. What Larsen drew on was a digital sketch pad, and he held an electronic pen. There was no board. ... It was born and cradled in the mind of a computer, and there it lived and grew. ... there are no lenses, or none that you can hold in your palm. They are purely options on a toolbar, and you scroll between them.

Of course, the greatest art is all about creating something in your mind that isn't there.

As Lane points out, there are several aspects to the Pixar office culture that are notable. Firstly, there is the idea of serendipity, and of providing the opportunity for casual, almost accidental, encounters that lead to cross-fertilization and inspiration:

The hope is that, as you head toward storyboarding, you will bump into the woman from the art department whose craving for a Danish has lured her to the cafe, and the film on which you are both toiling will be advanced a notch as your paths intersect.

Secondly, there is the celebration of creativity, inspiration, and innovation:

The funkiest parish in the building is where the animators, a hundred and twenty in number, dwell, and where their fancies are encouraged to sprout.

And thirdly, there is the idea that Pixar is a place where you want to be, where you feel involved, engaged, and inspired:

it is a democratic initiative, whereby those who make the movie at ground level -- the animators, and other interested parties -- should get to watch the movie, and then buff it up, as they go along. No mandatory notes, no development executives, no clipboard. In short, it is the filmmakers who run the show.

All of this, together, creates that magical environment that "drives each employee at Pixar to take more pains than the next one."

Several times, Lane observes that one of Pixar's particular successes is to understand that the technology is just a tool, and that what is really important is the desire to make the perfect movie:

The same goes for Sulley's turquoise fur -- a famous test for the Pixar software engineers, who had to write new simulation programs to engender 2.3 million separate strands. But Sully isn't furry because Pixar wanted to march ahead with the technology; that was merely a happy offshoot of the task. Sully is furry because the tiny human who befriends him, Boo, needs to have something to grip as she clings, unnoticed, to his back.

Lane re-tells the famous story about John Lasseter's first showing of Luxo, Jr. at SIGGRAPH 1986:

After the screening, Lasseter watched in trepidation as Jim Blinn, a computer scientist he knew, approached. What would Blinn want to talk about: rendering algorithms? Z-buffers? Jaggies? But Blinn had only one question: "John, was the parent lamp a mother or a father?

Lane wonders whether Lasseter can truly live up to this reputation, and discovers that he does:

In the mouths of most bosses, such sentiments would be mush, or self-delusion, but Lasseter, like his movies, is there to be believed. When he talks like these, he doesn't sound like a movie supremo. He sounds like Buzz Lightyear. The key to Pixar, I came to realize, is that what it seeks to enact, as corporate policy, and what it strives to dramatize, in its art, spring from a common purpose, and a single clarion call: You've got a friend in me.

Pixar is indeed a fascinating place. It's not the only fascinating place in the world; it's arguably not even the most interesting company in the Bay Area, but they have clearly built something very very special there, and it was quite interesting to read about the company in detail.

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