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Friday 21 November 2014

Pixar: the studio that turns weirdness into wonder...

GREEN DREAM: Monsters University
GREEN DREAM: Monsters University

DEEP, deep inside the vast buildings that house Pixar Animation Studios lies a dark secret. It's heavily disguised – a small room hidden among the furry life-size statues of Sulley from Monsters, Inc. But inside is something that runs so contrary to the Pixar philosophy, that chafes so coarsely against its child-friendly aura, that employees will only talk about it off the record, and with a furtive glance over their shoulder.

It's a bar. A real, alcoholic bar. Situated behind the locked door of an oversized safe, which is hidden behind a huge fireplace, it's only accessible using a passkey entry system.It's a place where, after a long day, tired animators and production managers can – gasp! – get blind drunk, right under the benign gaze of Woody and Buzz themselves.

Sadly, the bar does not form part of the official tour of Pixar's headquarters – a series of low-rise, modern hangars in Emeryville, California, across the bay from San Francisco. Which is a shame, as it's a rare example of a human vice in an otherwise eerily perfect working environment; one that, at times, feels either like a youth club or a well-funded cult.

The "Smile Squad", a yellow T-shirted group of guides, cheerfully patrol the atrium, offering help to visitors.

 

INSPIRATION

Somehow it seems like the best and, simultaneously, the worst place to work on Earth. And yet, it must be doing something right. At the other end of the atrium, in a glass cabinet, sits the proof: 26 Academy Awards, five Golden Globes and three Grammys. Not bad considering that, as recently as 1991, Pixar was a high-end computer hardware company with only 42 staff, teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. So as its newest release, Monsters University, hits cinemas, you have to wonder: what is its secret?

Everyone loves Pixar. The studio, which was bought by Disney for $7.4bn in 2006, made its name with the riotous, clever, benchmark-setting Toy Story canon. The first and final films in that trilogy bookended a vertiginous 15-year success story: from The Incredibles, to the quirky Monsters Inc and the heart-rending Up, the studio's films have stood above the fart gags and wisecracking donkeys of DreamWorks, its nearest rival. Indeed, 2010's Toy Story 3 remains the highest-grossing animated film of all time.

But maintaining its pre-eminence has not been easy. Cars 2, a shameless sequel released in 2011, was a creative low point. Its 2012 release Brave was then criticised for its watered-down feminism, although it went on to win an Oscar. And new movie Monsters University has encountered similar invective, leading to accusations that Pixar is again retreading old ground. However, at the time of going to press, the film had already taken over $80m at the US box office, enjoying the second-biggest Disney/Pixar opening weekend ever.

But as it approaches total takings of more than $8bn, can the studio maintain the independent spirit that made the company? What is this formula that keeps enthusiasm and inspiration bubbling throughout the four years it takes to make a Pixar movie? And why does almost nobody from the 1,200 staff ever leave?

The headquarters itself helps. Pixar characters are everywhere. But the building boasts more than just decoration. When Steve Jobs took over in the late Eighties, during a hiatus from Apple, the design of the building itself became a personal fascination. Jobs gave his architects a simple brief: to design headquarters that "promoted encounters and unplanned collaborations".

Thus, the atrium of what's now posthumously called the Steve Jobs Building is the centre of all things Pixar. The offices are open 24 hours a day for those who prefer to work into the night. Staff are encouraged to build and personalise their own workspace. It's to this freestyling atmosphere that many attribute Pixar's success.

Phil Shoebottom can offer a perspective. Originally from Yorkshire, England, the 31-year-old lighting technical director has been working at Pixar for three years. "I remember when I started, thinking it was the strangest place I'd ever seen," he says. "One morning there was a half-naked guy stood on a table in the cafeteria, playing the saxophone."

Paul Oakley (38) from Essex, England, joined four years ago. "There's something different every day," he says. "When we started working on Monsters University, everyone had to join a fraternity. My hazing process involved me dressing up as Mrs Doubtfire for the day."

It's perhaps no wonder, then, that the interview process is harsh. With an estimated 45,000 applications received for each new position, only a chosen few make it. Shoebottom applied four times. His interview lasted eight hours. Once through that process, however, employees are given almost total free rein. The Pixar in-house theory is simple: mistakes are inevitable so it's far better if you pile in and start making them quickly.

 

VOICE

Dan Scanlon, the director of Monsters University, says: "A lot of ideas come from a lot of different places. You can affect a movie as much as you want, no matter what your title is, you have a voice."

Pixar's release slate over the next few years appears purposefully innovative. The Good Dinosaur, set for release next May, asks what the world would be like if dinosaurs had never become extinct. The following year brings Inside Out, based inside the mind of a little girl. And after Finding Dory, a sequel to 2003's Finding Nemo, Pixar is set for odder themes with Dia de los Muertos, based on the Mexican Day of the Dead.

For Oakley and Shoebottoms the prospect is tantalising. "It's all about the end product." So you don't have to drink the Pixar Kool-Aid to fit in? "People are weird here but I'm all for weird. You learn to embrace the weird. And you're better for it," says Shoebottom.

Monsters University is released on July 12

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