A Row of Your Favorite Cereals, Anytime You Want: The Gospel According to Pixar

Anthony Lane of The New Yorker penned a fantastic and very thorough profile of everyone’s […]

David Zahl / 5.17.11

Anthony Lane of The New Yorker penned a fantastic and very thorough profile of everyone’s favorite studio last week, Pixar. As suspected/rumored, their “corporate culture” appears to have been lifted straight out of Grace in Practice; they understand intuitively that great work is always the fruit of a root, that motivation/the internal life is everything when it comes to creativity, that art cannot be leveraged out of people. Indeed, (lasting) collaboration itself is a matter of friendship and shared interest, and even perfectionism can be subordinated to story. Lane’s descriptions of Pixar head honcho John Lasseter almost bring Thornton Wilder’s Theophilus North to mind – and the spirit of play that Simeon Zahl so thoughtfully articulated at the 2010 Mbird Conference. In fact, the whole thing sound so idyllic, liberating and lightning-strikingly inspiring that it almost makes you wonder how long it can last. Especially with so much money involved. But hey, let’s enjoy it while it’s here:

Most of us, as we leave the theater, 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.

Pixar’s canniest construction work has been to apply fresh cement between the generations; a boy whose viewing habits could not be further from his grandmother’s, and whose iPod would give her a migraine, will eagerly accompany her to “Up,” which is itself about the bonding of young and old. She will dab her eyes during the marriage-story that takes up the first ten minutes; he will warm to the villain’s airship and the talking dog.

Yes, there is a Pixar University: all those worries about the right choice of college for your child solved in one stroke. The only catch is that, in order to reap its blessings, students need to be at Pixar already. Once in situ, they can finish their tasks for the day, in any department of the company, and 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 ot head the program, which started in 1995. He used to be a juggler.

Whether your accountant, having spent his leisure time at a life-drawing class, will now file your quarterly-earnings reports with extra zing is open to debate; but it seems to work for the folks at Pixar. According to Adrienne Ranft, a manager of P.U., “It helps them to do their job and get away from their job.” Nor does the corporate nurturing stop there. As I ambled with her through the Cardio Room, the Massage Room, the Weights Room, and the Breathing Room, I began to wonder if there was any bodily function with which Pixar was not pleased to assist. Might there not be something creepy about an institution that pokes into every cranny of its workers’ contentment? Is there not, in short, a dark underbelly to the Pixar state of bliss? If there is one, it is well concealed.

[Speaking of the opening sequence of Cars 2, which takes place at sea], “We had to hand-plant twenty-two hundred industrial lights on this oil platform: thousands of individual lights that we’ve added one at a time,” [director of photography Sharon] Callahan said. She switched them on, with a click, and the platform bloomed from an illustration into place. For her next trick, she showed me an elevator scene, in a museum. “I wanted to do a glowing, underlit floor in the elevator,” she confessed.
“Because it looks cool.”… That was the most clarifying moment of my time at Pixar. Nobody can resist the tidal pull of that aesthetic: it looks cool.

One of the ironies of computer animation is that the more homely the detail you desire the more difficult it will be to represent. You want to show the end of the world, with nuclear firestorms and collapsing cities? No problem. You want to show a kid in a t-shirt stroking a cat? Hmmm.

“We go to great, great pains, and jump through hoops, and guys have to work for months to do one little thing, and it’s all in the service of the story,” Lasseter said. How about that time-consuming splash, in “Cars 2”? “It’s there to tell us that the hero is up against these big, big guys, and it was important for them to feel big. When you do your job right, and get something perfect, the audience won’t notice it. But if it’s not right they will notice it, popping out of the movie.”

“The people at Pixar are my best friends,” [Lasseter] said. “Not only do I want to see them every day – but, when my wife, Nancy, and I make a list of whom we are going to take on vacation, the top group is always Pixar. We just want to be together all the time.” 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 this, 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... In cinema, as in fiction, friendship is a more durable substance than we give it credit for, and often more resilient than [romantic] love. Indeed, it may be the hardiest strain of love that we possess, untroubled by erotic fragrance.”

This childs-eye view of the world is no less apparent in the company [Lasseter] helps to run: when I asked where the spiritual core of Pixar lay, everyone directed me, without hesitation, to the cereal bar, on the right side of the atrium – a row of your favorite cereals, on tap, anytime you want.

To order a copy of Mockingbird’s recent publication The Gospel According to Pixar, go here.