Monday, August 1, 2016

What was it like working at Pixar?

I am asked this question often. It's a shame how few people know what working at Pixar is like given the creative and commercial success of this unique environment.

For me, answering this question is tough. Having worked there for over the 15 years, both I and the studio had changed quite a bit over that little stretch of time--the studio having grown from about 300 to nearly 1200, while I went from my mid-20's to my early 40's. There is so much I can say, but for the sake of this post, and giving an answer that is honest, but as objective as possible, I'll try to create a picture of the general environment at the time that shaped so much of my experience there. But first I'll give a little context to what shaped that environment.

I constantly hear people and companies assert that they want to be the next Pixar. Unfortunately this statement usually means little more than they want to be as successful as Pixar since few, if any, really understand how Pixar achieved its success to begin with. While there were many reasons for this success (more than I could ever know), the most important factor in my humble opinion was the one-of-a-kind triumvirate of Steve Jobs, Ed Catmull and John Lasseter (and I would add John’s unsung former creative partner, Joe Ranft), as forming the specific DNA that truly expressed Pixar's accomplishments. 

With John and Ed's shared belief in the relationship between art and tech—that technology could express beautiful art, and that art challenged and improved technology—Steve's unforgiving demand of creating only the best experiences, and Joe's heart and belief in the creative process, they forged a rare harmony between creative, tech and business driven by a single goal: to tell great stories.

And by also firmly believing that great content is created by great talent, they put tremendous effort and resources into building the most supportive, empowering and humbling creative environment to not just to attract the best people in the industry, but to enable them to do their best.

And yet what is so remarkable about this simple recipe is how frequently misunderstood it has been by people and companies alike looking to reproduce Pixar's success. I have often seen the pursuit of the easy part: the financial investments in cool workspaces, gyms, game rooms, swag and all flavor of employee perks & benefits to attract good talent. But it is the other half of the equation I feel like people too often missed: the hard part of trusting professionals to do what they do best, even if it means challenging the status quo, questioning authority or taking enormous risks.

This was environment I entered into. 

So, what was it like? Awe-inspiring, rewarding, challenging, frightening, hilarious and exhausting. Pixar is, and I trust remains, a culture of perfectionists, over-achievers, visionaries and risk-takers, which by extension unfortunately includes a depressingly high percentage of insecure employees saddled with imposter syndrome, (myself having been high among them). 

No matter how smart or talented or successful you were before Pixar, coming into the studio was humbling because everyone operated, or at least give the appearance of operating, at an intimidatingly high level of achievement. For the initiate, Pixar’s iterative process was grueling, ego-bruising and demanding. Naked, unfinished, in-progress work was constantly subject to the criticism of peers, leads, art directors, production designers, directors, and just about anyone with a good eye and a valid comment. Bi-weekly reviews in front of dozens of team members could be exposing, nerve-wracking, and often lead to a worry that one was simply wasn't as good as everyone else, which if left unchecked, would slowly gnaw away at one’s professional confidence and could only be combated by working even harder to prove oneself worthy again.

Yet on the flip-side, it was inspiring, fun, exciting and encouraging to be in the company of so many talented and supportive peers, to earn the respect and approval of so many accomplished superiors, and to take part in creating something so large, so new, and so incredible that it could hardly even be imagined. 

Where there was fear of failure there was determination to succeed. Where there was doubt and struggle one day, there was confidence and pride the next. And whenever one felt overshadowed or outgunned by the level of competition, there was incredible camaraderie, team-work and a collective drive to bring out everyone’s best. At least this was how it felt for, up-and-down.

Over time, as I settled into the rhythm and flow of Pixar’s creative drum beat, I found my own pace and confidence and learned to revel in the process of tearing work my apart to make it better, of going in circles to confirm the right choices, to look at my own work and the work of others with an ever sharper eye. I learned that concept design was not just about producing a design, but exploring all the possible options to find the right design. I learned to research everything, to know my subject better than anyone else, to look at the world around me to inform the smallest details of even the most imaginative designs. 

I learned to become a good designer by first asking the right questions. I learned every film at Pixar was like a working for a different company: each director-producer team formed a unique culture that infused the entire production; each production designer had different taste and judgement, different priorities, different strengths, expectations and ways of communicating. Early on, much of how I learned to work on one film was discarded on the next, until eventually I learned how to become an empty vessel capable of holding whatever I needed to hold. 

But there were systemic challenges inherited from the long traditions of Disney feature animation, that in combination with the complicated mechanics and demands of a CG pipeline, made Pixar’s filmmaking process essentially a giant assembly line. To manage the long, complex task of making an animated film, productions were broken down into numerous distinct stages, each stage managed by specific departments, each department served by dedicated roles that could last months to years. 

Over time this process tended to turn artists and engineers alike into specialists. Efforts to mitigate risk encouraged repeat performances. Career-long leads, like team captains, hand-picked their reliable go-to’s. Type-casting and skill specialization became almost impossible to avoid. For most I think it was a fair trade in exchange for job security, professional pride and skill mastery. For myself, however, this was particularly challenging. I first came into Pixar with a fairly broad skill set and was lucky to enough to have some mobility between roles, but eventually I became so specialized that I could no long fight typecasting and eventually reached that point of having to decide if I wanted my career to be defined by my job, or if I wanted my career to define my jobs. 

Another by-product of assembly line compartmentalization was a tendency for departments to stick to their own and at times form cliquish cultures, interests or goals relative to their own position within the larger structure. Story, Art, Animation, and the various subsets of Technical felt like different hierarchical clubs with differing traditions, personalities, and politics. Infusing all of them was the subtle ever-present sense of friendly Pixar competitiveness: to be the best, the funniest, the smartest, the biggest partier or the most popular. 

Yet on the flip side again, Pixar had a wide demographic range of gender, ethnicity, age, persuasion and background (at least in relation to the historically male-dominated entertainment industry), and everyone there was of the highest pedigree, whether the most accomplished in their own fields, or just brimming with pure talent and potential. Across the board, Pixarians were mature, professional, collaborative, and fun. And because of Pixar’s focused creative culture, everyone swam together like the school of fish at the end of Finding Nemo, pulling together under the inspiring leadership of Ed and John to make the best films possible. 

Making films at Pixar was hard work, but it was work that was fueled by an especially combustable concoction of personal pride and dedication, fear of failure and the unknown, trust in the process and one's peers, and hope that no matter how long and arduous the process, it would yield something worthy of standing the test of time. It was like like rowing a boat at sea, toiling over the open ocean for months or years on end, our destination little more than a mark on a map for most of that time. We’d work hard together, play hard, struggle, sweat and press on if with only faith of the vision in the director's mind and our own trust in ourselves capable of getting us there. Eventually, usually very near the end, something would appear on the horizon, and if all went well, which it did less than you might think, it would grow larger and larger until we eventually found ourselves thrust on the shore of something far more beautiful and amazing than anyone of us had even even imagined.

At least that's what it felt like. Or I could say it was like sitting at a desk staring at a computer monitor 10 hours a day, 5 days a week, months on end, along side hundreds of peers. But that’s not quite as interesting, is it?

If there's interest, maybe I'll go into other aspects of my experience at Pixar in later posts. Having been gone for over 5 year, now, I'd also be delighted to share the views of other Pixarians. 

For a more detailed example of my day to day experience working on Wall-e, check out this old 2009 Thunder Chunky interview

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