The coolest job in the world? What it's really like to work at Pixar

Character-driven... Mike and Sulley come to life in Pixar office (Credit: Deborah Coleman/Pixar)

Pixar has a reputation as one of the best places to work on earth. The animation studio behind hits like ‘Toy Story’, ‘Finding Nemo’ and ‘Wall-e’ is renowned for its plush premises and relaxed working culture.
 
Yahoo! Movies visited the Pixar HQ in Emeryville, San Francisco, with the company busy promoting ‘Monsters University’. We spoke to folks from all levels of the company - lighting animators, storyboard artists, producers and directors - to find out if it’s really a dream job. Here’s what we learned…

[Monsters University 'in-jokes' revealed]




The job interview is exhausting
 
Philip Shoebottom (Lighting): “I applied four times straight out of university. Then every year after. The hiring process is so strict. Once you’ve got your showreel through the tens of thousands that come every week, then have a phone interview, then they fly out you for an 8-hour Spanish inquisition.”
 
Paul Oakley (Lighting TD):
“In my interview, I spoke to two people every half an hour for eight hours, a revolving door of people. They’re trying to ascertain if you’re going to be a good fit. If you can fit in that culture.”
 
Slouches need not apply
 
Oakley: “Everyone here is an overachiever. One colleague is a professional carpenter.  He made his own bar! There’s another guy who’s like the third best violinist in his class in the world.”
 
Shoebottom: “There’s guys in animation have their own clothing line. They go off and make and design clothes in their spare time. Everyone here is quite OCD about everything they do.”


Extroverts required
Animators, storyboard artists and directors must pitch ideas and scenes before they are animated. It requires personality and acting skills. Director Saacha Unseld struggled pitching his short, while Story Supervisor Kelsey Mann, who manages storyboard artists, is a natural.

 
Saacha Unseld (Director, ‘The Blue Umbrella’): “You must talk through the story in five minutes, real time. The first round is a panel of directors, including Pete Doctor (‘Monsters Inc.’), Jason Katz (Story Supervisor on ‘Toy Story 3'), Bob Peterson (upcoming ‘The Good Dinosaur’). Afterwards, you pitch the one idea they liked to (Pixar co-founder) John Lasseter.
 
“The first time I tried to pitch to the development team as a test was a disaster. I mumbled. Then I forgot where I was in the story. So I went home to put myself through the excruciating process of watching myself pitching. I made 50 recordings, I trained myself. I sent my girlfriend away. I overacted 200 percent but it was better."
 
Kelsey Mann (Story Supervisor):
“You’re trying to sell the scene. You’re trying to mimic what it will be when it’s done. One guy pitched a scene dressed as a zombie! It’s a big part of the job to do the voices and the characters. Some people are more introverted and it’s harder for them to come out their shell but you have to as a story artist. Pitching is like telling a great joke. Or a story. There’s a right way to set the mood and the story. You can really ruin a great scene by having it pitched poorly.”


They’re always being judged
This critique continues after animation begins. The process is seen as key to their success, but it’s not for the faint-hearted.

 
Scott Clark (Supervising Animator):
“Downstairs we have a small screening room that all the animators file into and check our egos at the door and just put our work up there. We are the first audience. Does everyone in the room laugh? Do they respond to it? It can be hard if you’ve worked a long time on something to get certain feedback. But the best idea wins. If someone’s got a better idea, then hopefully you’re excited and go back to your desk and make it better.”



Almost everything gets scrapped
The studio remakes every aspect of its movies over and over, a time consuming process. ‘Monsters University' was no exception.
 
Mann: “John Lasseter once said: ‘At some point in every Pixar movie it’s the worst movie you’ve ever seen’ and that’s true. The reason our films ended up great is because we’ve made them horrible internally. We work though those bad versions of the movie.”
 
“[There were] five versions of [‘Monsters University]. We did versions where it was Sulley’s story. We thought we had to follow what ‘Toy Story’ did, with Woody as the driving force of those films. Actually we don’t.”
 
Ricky Nierva (Production Designer):
“Dean Hardscrabble [Helen Mirren’s antagonist] was a male at one point.”
 
Jason Deamer (Character Art Director):  “We went so far as to actually sculpt in clay and model and start to articulate the character as a male, before very late in the game [director Dan Scanlon] changed him to a female. And we liked this design! We didn’t want to change it. We had to gather all the designers and start again. At one point she was a moth, a snake, an insect, a scorpion, an owl – but nothing was working. It wasn’t until we came across this giant centipede, the Scolopendra Gigantea, [that it fell into place].
 
Mann: “On this movie we did 227,000 drawings. They’re not all in the final product. You want to casually date your drawings, and not marry them”.



Patience is a virtue
Pixar movies famously take four to five years to make (at least). Despite the huge technological advances made by the studio, this won’t change.
 
Kori Rae (Producer, ‘Monsters University’): “Could we make these movies in two years? I think my answer is ‘no’ because the story process continues through the absolute course of the film… for four or five years. We don’t write a script, hand it out, and never touch it again. We’re tweaking story points while we’re rendering the film and finishing the film. There’s not a way to speed up that part of the creative process.”

Clark: “There are definitely aspects to technology that make workflows efficient, but it’s always going to take time as artists to say: ‘Who is this, why are they doing this, what are they doing, and how am I going to get that across’.”


There are jobs you never knew existed
As Pixar create literally every aspect of the frame from scratch, there’s a bewildering array of jobs that need doing that you wouldn’t expect, from “monsterfying” the architecture to “garment simulation”.
 
Robert Kondo (Sets Art Director): “If we were a monster architect, what problems would we face? How are the different size monsters accommodated within buildings? Monsters are definitely heavy - another design problem. We took their trapezoid shape and put it all the way through the film. Even bricks have trapezoid shape. Our buildings are also powered by scream power, not electricity, so [we designed] pipes that carry this scream like energy leading to light switches.”
 
Christine Waggoner (Simulation Supervisor): “What is simulation? Motion that’s too complicated to be animated by hand. For example, Sullivan has far too many hairs to be moved in a manual way. Folds in clothing are very complex. To be realistic they track the body in a complex way that is too difficult to predict or draw. We had to build 127 garments for this film. The irony is that when you watch a live action movie you don’t think about the actor’s clothing or the hair on their head. We have a mantra: If you don’t notice it we’ve done our job.”


 


The office lives up to expectations
The campus-style premises in Emeryville, San Francisco has been called the coolest office space in the world, you can see why from the pics.
 
Shoebottom:
“The best thing is having friends and family visit. It reminds you how good it is. You can kind of get blasé. They come in and go ‘oh my god’! [but] you complain about the stupid things. ‘Oh they changed the coffee!' ‘Why have we only go two specials today?!’"

They don’t just make sequels for the sake of it
Pixar has been criticised for making follow-ups to ‘Monsters Inc.’, ‘Cars’ and ‘Finding Nemo’, but staff insist the company has not changed its tactics.
 
Unseld: “The sequels only happen if there’s a story everyone’s convinced by. Branding them ‘sequels’ sounds weird because it shouldn’t matter. If there’s a story everyone’s onboard with it’ll get made, it doesn’t matter what the characters are. Pixar has never changed as an artist director driven house. That won’t get tainted.”
 
Mann: “I remember hearing then we were going to do ‘Toy Story 2’ and thinking ‘we’re doing another one?!’ [but] we were all proven wrong. I don’t think we’ll ever just do sequels. People here are too creative.”
 
'Monsters University' is released in the UK on 12 July.

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