Four Geeky Things We Learned from the Pixar Documentary Team at SXSW

Four Geeky Things We Learned from the Pixar Documentary Team at SXSW

Mar 18, 2015

Pixar isn't just the most beloved animation studio in the world -- it is one of the most beloved hive of creators on the planet. So when the studio's in-house documentary team sat down for their panel at this year's SXSW, it was standing room only. Erica Milsom, Tony Kaplan, and Debby Coleman are among those charged with taking behind-the-scenes photos, interviewing crew, and crafting special features for home releases.

And yes, they had stories to tell.

Although the bulk of the panel centered on how Pixar's creative process had rubbed off on them as documentarians, they had their fair share of juicy and entertaining anecdotes about working at one of the coolest places in the entertainment industry.

Steve Jobs, the Micromanager

It's no secret that Steve Jobs became the CEO of Pixar in 1986, using his own bank account to spin the then-small animation studio out of Lucasfilm. What isn't as known is that Jobs oversaw the construction of the Pixar campus...and he micromanaged it to death.

Wanting to create a building that reflected the "handmade" qualities of animation, he drove each and every architect and designer crazy with his demands. When one design team couldn't create a pattern for a single brick wall that matched his exact specifications after numerous attempts, they simply left hundreds of bricks on the ground and abandoned the project. Jobs also wanted the Pixar campus to only have a single restroom, forcing all employees to constantly meet each other. The tales of his megalomania, the panelists said, are legendary. But they all agreed that his attention to detail has paid off in a stunning workplace.


Characters Need to Pass the "Squint Test"

The panelists shared early sketches of Monsters, Inc. leads Mike and Sully by director Peter Docter, explaining that these early designs must pass the "squint test." If you look at a character, squint your eyes and can still recognize them, they pass muster. If they don't stand out, they go back to the drawing board. Pixar values simplicity and directness in both animation and storytelling. By assuming that the audience doesn't know everything they know, they can create movies that work for just about everyone. 


Employees Customize Their Offices in Crazy Ways

The panelists all spoke on just how messy the animation process is. Sure, the end product comes out of a computer, but the animation is the result of countless sketches, meetings, notes and memos. That means they have a lot of footage and pictures of desks covered in papers and offices that resemble a messy dorm room. Pixar employees are encouraged to be as comfortable as possible and if that means having a workplace literally covered with piles of art and books, they are welcome to do so. Some employees have taken the option to customize their workspace a few steps further. They shared a photo of one animator's workplace, which he transformed into a Mexican Taqueria. Yes, his office looks like a festive taco stand.


Everyone Got to Hold the Toy Story 3 Oscar

The concept of teamwork is hugely encouraged at Pixar. With literally hundreds of people working on every single shot and hundreds more working to make sure those artists can create that shot, the idea that everyone is in it together is pervasive. Pixar founder John Lasseter even goes as far as removing all mentions of "I" and replacing them with "We" when he speaks about the work that comes out of Pixar.

Animation, the panelists said, is a team sport. So when Toy Story 3 took home the Academy Award for Best Animated Film, every Pixar employee gathered in the lobby and everyone who wanted to hold it or take a picture with it got a chance. Yes, even the security guards and the employees of the on-campus cafe. After all, everyone did their part, no matter who small, to make the movie happen.

Check out more SXSW coverage -- in print and video.

Categories: Features, Film Festivals
Tags: SXSW, SXSW 2015, Pixar
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