I liken Pixar Animation Studios to the Roadrunner. No matter how many traps the coyotes of the desert try to lay down for the purpose of capturing and devouring the essence of this miraculous being, it speeds on through, turning almost any effort to siphon the powers on show into a painful instance of backlash. Truly, there seems to be no effective mimickry of Pixar’s success. One would hope that this recognition would be enough for most animation houses and they could just do something unique, but noooooo. And even amongst us audience members, even though it’s not like we’d do anything with that information, there’s an inexorable temptation to know the answer to the big question: How does Pixar do it?!
The day concluded with a tour of the studio by a representative of Pixar University (!), who described Pixar University’s program of in-house classes both related and unrelated to Pixar’s actual industry and how they equalize everyone in the company since executives and animators could be in the same class at the same level.
In all of these instances, the college connection seemed to pop out at me. The concept art was reminiscent of graphic design students hanging their recent projects around classrooms. Fliers advertised showings of company viewings of various films. And, of course, the Pixar University thing. Now, I don’t claim to be the breaker of this news; Pixar University has been an open secret. But it seems that nobody’s been making the key connection between these threads: Pixar’s unique aura and results come from the place acting like a college. College (optimally) is a place where your education becomes sharpened to a point. Instead of the free-for-all fuzzy combination of academic topics that high school and everything before it gives you, college is a time where you can start carving out your path and personally define yourself and your work. You take a variety of courses, no doubt, but they serve to give you character while you also focus more specifically on the career you long to have. As a result, you are out to prove yourself; an energy exists in college work that, even if the skills aren’t entirely developed, bears a love and devotion to the work itself and a conscious or unconscious need to impress. Consider how an energy like that would express itself in a professional animator, as opposed to one who has the energy of a longtime drone of the working force. If you can keep the energy of a college student in your work, you’d never forget why you got into it in the first place, and what you produce will reflect that. Pixar’s films have that energy, the excitement of children with the ability of adults.
This sensibility gets exemplified in John Lasseter, methinks. Not as a student, but as a teacher. John Lasseter is renowned for being very passionate about the art of animation and a very friendly man. This is all true. However, in having a chance to both meet him and also hear various Pixar employees speak about him in person, there’s another important element to Lasseter’s position and style in the company that should be noted. For all his accessibility and artsy-fartsy genius, he still comes across like an authority figure. When push comes to shove at Pixar, things require his approval and authorization, especially on Cars where he was the director as well as the top creative exec. John Lasseter has the air of your favorite college professor, someone you like personally and makes you want to do your best in anything he asks of you. It’s a crucial element of a college atmosphere that there’s an authority figure that would push you and/or inspire you to bring your top work to the table. I got a significant sense of that relationship between Lasseter and the rest of the company in the course of hearing everybody talk about him and hearing the way he talks about his own work.
I’m not surprised that this isn’t an atmosphere seen more often in other production houses. After all, most people spend their lives trying to escape the feelings of youth in vain attempts to prove their own worth as adults. The capriciousness of youth should certainly be cast aside as we gain experience and age, but the advantages of youth often seem to be forgotten in the process. Most animators are kids at heart anyway, but Pixar embraces that concept so fully that the very system is set up to construct and encourage this manner of life and work. Instead of animators being required to retain childish virtues in the face of an opposing or blandly neutral environment, we have what I described above. Of course, this goes against the traditional perception of the workplace. So, for any business people who may be reading this article: if you want to be like Pixar, all you have to do is simply alter everything you traditionally hold dear about corporate practices. Let me know how you’re doing with that.