For UI alumus working at Pixar, filmmaking 'hard fun'

For UI alumus working at Pixar, filmmaking 'hard fun'

CHAMPAIGN – Making a Pixar animated film might take five years of hard, collaborative work, but gee, the Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif., sure seems like a nice place to work.

University of Illinois alumnus Michael "wave" B. Johnson, who leads the acclaimed studio's Moving Picture Group, showed photographs of the Pixar workplace during a talk he gave Tuesday on the UI campus on Pixar history and culture and its production pipeline.

Folks from university-student age on up in the packed lecture room at Wohlers Hall saw photographs of the outdoor Pixar swimming pool – built after one executive read that swimming alleviates repetitive strain injuries; the former soccer field, now being obliterated by a new Pixar building; a huge atrium where employees play badminton three days a week; and the cafe cereal bar, with more than a dozen cereals from which to choose.

There also were photographs of highly individualized offices, among them Johnson's tastefully appointed digs, and Pixar's "little watering hole" where employees who also are musicians perform – Pixar's "a really depressing place if you're not talented," commented Johnson.

So many people want to work at Pixar that it received 8,000 applications this past summer for internships. Only 100 were hired. Johnson, who has worked at Pixar for 16 years, picks most of his interns and employees via direct referrals from professors and other people he has worked with.

Johnson called Pixar a "director-driven" studio that works in teams on lots of movies at one time, rather than just one movie at a time.

The three major steps of making a Pixar animated movie, he said, is starting with a description of a rich, believable world; creating engaging characters that logically exist in the world; and telling a compelling story about the characters in that world.

The story is initially outlined on storyboards, now created, reviewed and saved for future reference via electronic pencils used on pressure-sensitive display screens. Old-school movie makers made storyboards by hand; even Pixar had to coax its story artists to go digital, Johnson said.

Yet even in this digital age, great story artists still have to draw well and fast, Johnson said. They also have to be open to new ideas – "51 percent is, 'Plays well with others,' " Johnson repeated a few times during his hourlong talk.

During the editorial phase, the film is edited and organized like a live-action film; Johnson called this phase the "spine of the filmmaking pipeline." Voices are recorded during this stage, before any actual animation takes place, in working prototypes, which are low-resolution, black-and-white sketches of the movie.

"If you can't get the movie working here, it will never work out," said Johnson, who showed sketches from "Toy Story" and "The Incredibles," which he later said is his favorite Pixar movie because it has no extraneous moments.

That stage of the pipeline takes longer than the rest of the Pixar movie-making process. It's important to root out any problems then, or even earlier, because the pain that comes with making movies is temporary, but a movie that "sucks lasts forever," Johnson said, quoting Jason Dreamer, Pixar's art director.

"It really is a culture of creative criticism," the UI alumnus said.

After prototype is accepted all-round, the movie goes through several more production stages, among them animation, lighting and articulation – which makes the characters move in a realistic manner.

All along, the adage at Pixar is that things don't have to be real, just believable, Johnson said.

Johnson's talk, part of the Design Matters lecture series of the UI School of Art + Design, was titled, "Making Movies is Hard Fun – Building Tools for Telling Stories."

Johnson has a bachelor's degree in computer science engineering from the UI and a doctorate in computer graphics and animation from MIT. His father, Robert J. Johnson, taught art for 30 years in the Chicago public schools.


An earlier version incorrectly attributed the Jason Dreamer remarks to a different Pixar executive.

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