The Frame

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Inside Out: Touring Pixar headquarters to find out what makes their movies special

by John Horn and Michelle Lanz | The Frame

Statues of Buzz and Woody from "Toy Story" at Pixar. Michelle Lanz/KPCC

One of the most successful movie studios in Hollywood is actually located 374 miles north of Los Angeles. Pixar Animation Studios is headquartered in Emeryville — across the Bay from San Francisco. Its physical distance from the center of the movie business is just one factor in why this studio doesn’t seem to function like all the others. 

At its start, Pixar was a technology company that branched off into computer effects for live-action films. Then, almost 20 years ago, under the leadership of Steve Jobs, Pixar released a movie called “Toy Story” and began its long run of both critically and commercially successful computer animated films.

As the studio preps to release “Inside Out” next week — its first film since 2013 — we visited Pixar to find out what makes this movie studio so different.

The first thing that strikes you when you arrive at Pixar is that it looks more like a private college campus than a studio lot. There’s a peaceful, tree-lined walkway, a swimming pool, a beach volleyball court, and an outdoor amphitheater. (On the day we stopped by, hundreds of employees were enjoying a gourmet chocolate festival). 

Outside the doors into Pixar’s central building, there’s a giant statue of Luxo Jr., the animated desk lamp character that jumps on top of the “I” in Pixar at the start of every one of the studio’s films.

As we entered the main building — a massive two-story steel and masonry structure, with plenty of skylights and a central atrium — we met with someone who’s spent his whole adult life at Pixar after starting work there as an intern many years ago.

“1994. It was the last year of the production of 'Toy Story.' So, yeah, it’s been a while," says Jonas Rivera. He's currently a producer on "Inside Out," as well as our tour guide for the day.

We begin by walking across a sky bridge overlooking the expansive atrium and cafeteria — run by the chef that the company says it stole away from Google. 

All around us are other signifiers that we’re not in Hollywood. Pixar is a blend of technology and creativity and Jonas sees this in the design of the main building itself.

"I think about it almost like a brain, where there's a left brain and a right brain. I mean, if you stand in the middle of the atrium and you look to the left side, the west side of the building is mostly engineering, programming, computer science, and the modeling. If you go to this side, the east side, or the right side literally, it is animation, art, story," Rivera says.

That metaphor extends to the people themselves.

"You might notice that the halls are a little messier on this side, and things are a little bit more put together on the left side. I always thought of it as those two groups of people wouldn't necessarily hang out at the same parties, so Pixar is built by design to collude that. So that the peanut butter gets in the chocolate, so to speak. And the meeting and the collision of the computer science and the art is what equates to the imagery and stories that we produce," Rivera says.

As we walked with Rivera across the sky bridge we had a view of a enormous glass-walled meeting room where Pixar’s top creative talent was gathered for one of their famous "Story Trust" meetings, where some of Pixar’s top directors were reviewing a planned sequel to “Cars.”

"This was obviously built and designed by Steve Jobs," Rivera says. "I call it the cathedral to animation."

They were having some fun — John Lasseter threw up a non-PG hand gesture at our group while "Inside Out" director Pete Docter waved. 

"What's happening in that room is they're having a Story Trust meeting. They just had a screening of one of our films in development, as we do on 'Inside Out,' we do on 'Up,' we do on all the films. They're having a meeting where they watch the story reels, and they get the Brain Trust, with Andrew Stanton, and John Lasseter, and Pete Docter, and they kick around the ideas," Rivera says.

Those thoughts help produce the trademark Pixar final product.

"And they go around the table and they give each other notes on all the films, and then that's the process. Then the film is re-written, and re-cut, and re-boarded to make it work," Rivera says.

The fact that the Brain Trust was working on a third “Cars” movie reflects one criticism of Pixar — that the studio, like the rest of Hollywood, has become too reliant on sequels rather than original stories.

We later met up with Pixar producer Galyn Susman — who is currently in pre-production on another sequel, "Toy Story 4" — which is not slated for release until 2017. Looking at the Story Trust meeting, we noted that among the several dozen people in the conference room, there were very few women.

"I think animation has traditionally been a very male-dominated environment. Entertainment directors are predominantly male. The Brain Trust is composed predominantly of directors, co-directors, heads of story, writers. Industry speaking, those are roles that are usually filled by men. It's certainly something that we're sensitive to, it's certainly something that we're working on. We are constantly looking for female talent within the industry," Susman says.

Just as in the movie business and nearby Silicon Valley, there aren’t a lot of women working at Pixar. 

In 2010, Brenda Chapman — who wrote the story for "Brave" and was to direct it as well — was pulled off the project. The film would’ve been the first directed by a woman. To this day, women have produced and had writing credits on the studio's films, but none of the 16 Pixar movies — that includes the two due out this year — have been directed by a woman. 

"If women are moving away from technology because they’re intimidated by technology, because technology is not being — I mean, I could go on on this topic forever," Susman says. "It's not being packaged in a way that's appealing for young girls, young women to get involved. Then all of the ones that went into art because they were driven away from technology aren’t coming to Pixar, because it’s really the marriage of the worst possible combination for them."

While that marriage of art and technology might be a barrier for women getting into the studio, the mash-up is a key ingredient to Pixar’s creative process.

"Somebody from technical might have a really smart way that they're handling some sort of rendering or imagery that could inform how one of our designers who's painting it might do it," Rivera says. "["Inside Out" character] Joy is a really good example, our character with the broiling energy. One of the images that led to how we actually did it was a mistake that someone wasn't going to show, and I don't know if it was myself, or Michael Fong, our supervising technical director saw it, said 'No no no, that's really cool.'"

The “Joy” that producer Jonas Rivera refers to is one of the five emotions inside a young girl’s mind in "Inside Out," which hits theaters on June 19. 

The hallways at Pixar are lined with drawings and models of characters from “Inside Out.” There are preliminary sketches and small, three-dimensional sculptures, called maquettes, of the emotions that tell the story of the new film — Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust. Also on display are artistic renderings of what the inside of the young girl’s mind at the center of “Inside Out” looks like.

The designs dramatize Pixar’s process of trial and error, and how Pixar finds its way to the final product.

In fact, Pixar has been known to tear apart a film in the middle of, and even near the end of production, basically starting all over again.

"All of our movies at some point have had either a blowup, or a reversal, or a huge idea that's born out of one of these meetings. I guess the point is that the fact that you have to screen, and put the movie up, and stand in front of everybody, in front of your peers, is part of the ignition that keeps us moving forward," Rivera says.

Whereas most studios churn out somewhere around a dozen films a year, Pixar has never released more than one movie in a single year. In fact, Pixar didn’t even made a movie last year — Pixar’s last release was 2013’s “Monsters University.” 
Pixar is famously relentless about putting its storytelling under scrutiny — if something isn’t working, it’s ditched. When meetings get tense and when the Brain Trust hits a creative roadblock and a director can’t figure out how a movie can be saved, “Inside Out" co-director Ronnie del Carmen says the company turns to an unusual solution.

"I hold a mean caricature night, and we draw the most savage, mean caricatures of each other while having pizza and beer."

Yes, the Pixar team insults each other to spark creativity.

"And you laugh. It lets off so much steam! You're laughing and thinking, 'That is horrible! Why do I have three eyes? Why do I have fangs? Why do I have an elephant trunk?' Then it kind of lets off the pressure, and somehow actually helps in solving the problem."

For all of the talk about the marriage of art and technology and the chef from Google and the open atrium, the one thing that Pixar prides itself on more than anything else is storytelling, and doing whatever it takes to get that story right.

"Our process is jumping out of a plane and building a parachute on the way down. That's what we do. We’re just like, 'Here we go!'"

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