I had the opportunity to visit Pixar Animation Studios. It was an incredible trip with truly inspiring behind-the-scenes insights from their staff. Here are the 5 lessons I learned from Pixar:
1. Don't be boring.
You walk into Pixar and boom, your mind is blown. The architecture is unique. Huge open spaces. Inside the creative area, no boring cubicles. Instead, incredibly cool shacks are their offices and workshops. No conventional light fixtures either. Lighting is natural or almost entirely scenic, composed by all sorts of clever yet inexpensive lamps and strategically placed spotlights. You walk further and notice only quirky and cozy furniture laying around. Several razor scooters stand on little parking rails, waiting for you to ride. You look up and playful street names hang on signs inside the corridors, along with frisky neon placards. Tons of delightful paintings, frames and drawings fill the walls. In one of the individual studio shacks, a treadmill is embedded in the wooden floor. It looks like a cool rug, except you can run on it while working on a futuristic stand-up computer desk. What an atmosphere. Nothing seems to be off-limits for a creative artistic intervention at Pixar. This makes it extremely interesting. No wonder they’ve made a dull Luxo Lamp come alive.
Takeaway – Simple, mundane things can truly be turned into creative, inspiring ones.
2. Be boring.
No, this is not a contradiction to the previous point. Every significant body of work is made of the slow accumulation of little bits of effort over time. A great amount of it is composed of boring logistic tasks. Establishing a plan and keeping a routine is a fundamental part of getting things done.
Pixar understands that like no other. Making an animation movie is a complex operation that requires a tremendous amount of organization, coordinating hundreds of people and thousands of resources. Every feature length animation movie takes 4 to 5 years to go from conception to completion. They have rigid project calendars to help them plan work, hold concrete goals and keep everybody on track, from beginning to end. Milestones and pipelines can be found on LED panels on the walls, so everybody involved is constantly reminded and encouraged to keep pace. By being stoically diligent with the boring obligations, they manage to deliver exceptionally creative films to the public on a very consistent basis. It’s truly impressive.
Takeaway – Being consistently responsible with boring duties is the only way to get great work done.
3. Write it down.
Words are ideas catalysts. They are our best tool to create images, organize thoughts and put concrete pieces of information in a logical sequence.
Pixar story artists know that. It is fascinating to get an insight on their script writing process. Whenever they come up with an idea for an animation sequence, their first step is ridiculously simple: To write it down on paper. It helps them visualize the scene(s) and the different ways it can be built. It’s impressive how descriptive those initial scripts can be. They really rely on the power of words to trigger clear images of the characters, the environment, and the animation sequences before those even hit the drawing board. Pixar graphic artists then take those scripts and, based on their content, do a first set of rough sketches. It’s equally impressive how easily and quickly they translate those words into drawings. But only because the words are thoughtfully crafted in a way that seeds visualization straight off the bat. It’s magical.
Takeaway – Writing your ideas down is the first step in bringing them to life.
4. Sketch & Prototype.
Sketching is prototyping. And a crucial thing to know is this: The goal in prototyping is not the artwork in itself, it’s feedback. Sketching provides a way to test your design solutions on the fly and improve them upon critique, fast.
At Pixar, that’s exactly what they do. By trying things out — and learning from uncountable explorations — Pixar artists are able to improve their designs and gain insights that they otherwise would not get. They make not only 2D sketches, but also 3D sketches — which are basically handmade clay models. For Pixar, each sketch and prototype is fundamentally a question rendered as an artwork. None of the artists get attached to their sketches or models. They just want quick feedback to embed in the next round of designs. The process is repeated exhaustively, until the desired result is reached. That is true for colors, textures, characters, scene sets, animation sequences, 3d renders, everything. A great example of this iterative process can be found in the Tractors and Cows interview with Jay Shuster, character designer at Pixar.
Takeaway – Sketches and prototypes allow you to fail fast so you can succeed sooner.
Step back from time to time to have a panoramic vision of your work. What’s the big idea? What is it trying to communicate? How does it look and feel like as a whole? Think about the big picture you’re painting. Before, during and after it’s done.
Pixar does that. They cultivate a philosophy of always preserving sight of the overall message on every movie project. Details change, the heart of the story doesn’t. While touring Pixar, you can observe this in three ways. First, for each movie there’s this fascinating idea which they call Color Scripts or Future Postcards — basically, a set of drawing strips that tell the whole story of the movie in colors. These strips set the overall mood and emotion for the main scenes and guide how colors should transition to tell the story in the most compelling way. Second, they have a private screening room. Their whole creative team can sit, watch and critique the animation sequences for each new movie. It’s a place where they test ideas and gather feedback. They carefully watch each scene over and over again, and refine it until it fits perfectly with the bigger story they’re trying to portray. And third, every time a new movie is released, Pixar completely re-decorates its facilities with that movie theme. Currently, it’s Brave. They have a beautifully curated gallery with concept artworks, scripts, sketches, clay models, video walls with 3D modeling and rendering processes, as well as real-life sized props of the movie – like giant pieces of tapestry and a replica of celtic ruins in their gardens. It’s gorgeous. It allows everyone in the company to contemplate their finished work and truly be proud of it. It serves as a great inspiration and encouragement to keep working on the next big thing.
Takeaway – Reflection and contemplation is at the heart of every brilliant piece of creative work.
I believe these are lessons that apply to almost any field of creative work. I encourage you to check out the whole Behind the Scenes section at Pixar’s website. There’s plenty of inspiring material there. And you should also check this other Pixar related article. Hope the ideas in this post inspire you as they have inspired me. To infinity, and beyond.