Written by Dan Sarto
If it’s Friday, it must be Pixar. And as most would attest, a visit to Pixar is pretty special. In no particular order, we met John Lasseter, crawled around the infamous Love Lounge, drank Scotch with Andrew Gordon in the Lucky 7 Lounge, met up with Oscar-winner Ralph Eggleston and his mending broken finger, had lunch with Roger Gould, screened the nominated films for 235+ staff, saw concept art, original models and other visual goodies from several films and talked to Bob Peterson. And, we bought Girl Scout cookies in the Pixar lobby. Quite the day indeed.
If it’s every animation fan’s dream to visit Pixar, then at the conclusion of our Friday visit, the fan in all of us was ready to die and go to heaven. The pouring rain outside did little to dampen our enthusiasm as we piled out of the van and into the lobby. There, our host, Michelle Radcliffe, coordinator for in-house education at Pixar University, greeted us warmly and after a few introductions, patiently marched us all over the main building, answering all our silly questions and making sure we had a good time.
By design, the large expanse of the central “atrium” is situated in such a way that people must frequently traverse it to get around the studio. The friendly, cordial, “happy community” atmosphere, however, can’t hide the fact that Cars 2 is in its final stages and everyone feels the pressure. People walk quickly and with purpose – we’re lucky to get as much of people’s time as we do and the packed theatre is further proof that for even the busiest of animation studios, taking time to explore the latest and most celebrated animated work is an important management priority. Like at the other stops on our tour, that support is truly appreciated and should be acknowledged.
John Lasseter’s own Oscar win for Tin Toy is only one example of his devotion and passion for short films – Pixar’s robust shorts production pipeline continues to give top talent the opportunity to helm their own film and potentially contend for top spots on future features. It’s quite an exclusive club and this year’s nominated short, Day & Night, written and directed by Teddy Newton, joins a list of storied work from some of Pixar’s most talented people.
Soon after arriving, we were greeted by Sashka Unseld, Jakob’s former directing partner and one of the co-founders of Studio Soi. Sashka left Germany to join Pixar right when Studio Soi began work on The Gruffalo. Jakob endured a few anxious weeks until Max, his former student at The Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg, joined the production as co-director.
Like at other tour stops, we were not allowed to photograph most of the work we saw. Wherever we were given the green light, we took as many pictures as time would allow and many of those accompany this post. We were however allowed to linger a bit in certain places, to look at a particular set of drawings or models, or to talk to friends and colleagues who we frequently ran into. Geefwee spent 7 years working at Pixar beginning in 1995 and many people he worked with are still at the studio. He seemed to find an old friend in every hallway. We visited with Tanja Krampfert, a rigger and former student of Jakob’s. She showed us a number of cg models she was working on, taking time as well to get caught up with our German directors – it’s been 3 years since they last saw each other. Later, she, Max, Jakob and Sashka ran into Bernhard Haux and Jonas Javers, also Pixar riggers and former Filmakademie students. Jonas actually did much of the rigging on The Gruffalo before coming to Pixar himself.
As we strolled through various parts of the studio, we spent a few moments checking out a traveling collection of original Chuck Jones artwork adorning the walls of the East gallery as well as a selection of original artwork from various Pixar staff adorning the walls of the West gallery. Large sections of the studio are still decorated with various sketches, paintings, backgrounds and maquettes from Toy Story 3. Some areas of the studio still contain workspaces fashioned from prefab outdoor sheds, a throwback to a time when purchasing such sheds at Home Depot cost no more than purchasing office cubicles and artists were allowed to choose between the two. Everywhere you looked, there was a ton of “stuff,” home-made signs, adulterated posters, scores of toys and electronic gear – in all directions, an elaborate maze of cubicles and offices, each uniquely designed, each showing off someone’s creativity in ways designed to compliment, not crush, their neighbor’s efforts. It’s wonderfully apparent that first and foremost, this is a company of extremely talented artists. Teddy more than once mentioned how awed he gets working with people he considers significantly more talented, how it pushes him to do better. Spend a few hours at Pixar and you see exactly what he means.
We passed several bars, elaborately decorated creative oases where Pixar staff, at their own expense, flexed their interior design muscles and built out lounges. I remember a Tiki-themed lounge as well as one that was in the early stages of build-out. I seem to recall hearing there are 9 such lounges within the building, but I could be mistaken. At one point, we rather sheepishly gazed in at John Lasseter’s office, a multi-room affair resembling the world’s most fastidiously curated Pixar toy collection more than the most important room in the entire studio (actually, the cereal bar across from the Luxo Café is probably just as important). We all stood gawking and pointing in all directions like kids inside a See’s candy shop. We’d actually spent a few minutes with John earlier in the morning, shaking hands and exchanging greetings in the atrium as he came through while being photographed for a “Day in the Life” project of some sort. John of course is the Hawaiian shirt king and was suitably decked out. Nice.
When it came time for the screening, we rushed down to the main theatre, situated at the end of the atrium. The room was packed, with people standing against the walls and sitting in the aisles. Ron of course thanked everyone for coming and introduced the program. The crowd applauded all the animators, hometown favorite Teddy Newton the loudest. The show then began and we headed out once again to see more of the studio.
While more than 200 people enjoyed the screening, we enjoyed arguably the two high points of the tour.
While these two famous watering holes are no longer Pixar’s best kept secret, they are still known to most only by reputation. We, on the other hand, can now boast of traipsing through not one, but both. Everyone was looking forward to this part of the tour. We started first in Adam Burke’s office. Adam, a key Pixar animator, was out of town unfortunately. That, however, didn’t stop us from barging right in and commandeering his office, one by one getting down on all fours and crawling through the access panel door into the tiny space that is the Love Lounge. For those who don’t know, the Love Lounge was created by supervising animator Andrew Gordon, who used to occupy this office. After moving in, he noticed a small panel on the wall and after pulling it open, found a tiny crawl space used to access some duct-work. Sensing opportunity, he decorated the space with 50s flair, complete with lava lamp, leopard-print cushions and a matching fez. The lounge is so small, 6 people can barely stand next to each other without bumping shoulders. Graffiti, celebrity signatures and kitschy knick knacks line the walls, as does a closed-circuit camera whose purpose is unknown. A venerable “who’s who” has graced this hallowed ground – Quentin Tarantino, Tim Allen, Malia and Sasha Obama to name but a few – crawling like toddlers for a few moments of geeky contentment. We all crowded in, tried the handy fez, took pictures, then crawled out.
Then came the Lucky 7 Lounge. Not content to create the Love Lounge, Andrew decided his new office needed something even more elaborate. From a sculptured bust with pivoting head peers a switch – like the old Batman TV series, the switch opens a bookcase, revealing a hidden room behind. However, in Andrew’s office, there is no pole, just a secret entrance to an old speakeasy / scotch bar / casino, complete with felt table, couches and fully stocked bar. We sat, shared a nip of 12 year old Highland Park and soaked in the splendor. Very excellent indeed.
We tracked back to the theatre and while waiting for the screening to end, ran into Ralph Eggleston. I met Ralph a decade ago on one of our earlier tours – he won the Oscar that year for the short For the Birds. Nursing a broken finger, we shook left hands – he explained he’d just had the cast taken off his right hand and that he had no heroic or tough-guy story to explain his injury, just his own clumsiness. Everyone seemed to be talking with a different group of people, discussions unfortunately that had to end as it was time for Q&A. Teddy was asked and explained about the genesis of his film, as were Geefwee, Jakob and Max. Jakob explained as well the choice of using cg characters and physical sets, going into detail about the main set, a 5 meter square forest with several rows of trees that ended with matte paintings. He also shared how they used Lego tracks for their camera rig. Geefwee told of solitary years spent creating his film, trying to hone down his message so it would be both effective and entertaining.
The Q&A was followed by lunch. I lucked out and sat with Teddy and Roger Gould, who I hadn’t seen for a couple years. Roger is as nice a person as you’ll ever meet. Formerly the head of shorts at Pixar (he co-directed Mike’s New Car and Boundin), Roger is now creative director for theme parks – he’s the person at Pixar who represents the company creatively on all the Disney and related theme park projects. He was responsible for the complete rebuild of the submarine ride at Disneyland in southern California, turning the venerable ride into the Disneyland Finding Nemo Submarines. He explained how they stripped the ride, including the subs themselves, down to the bone, completely rebuilding everything, right down to replacing diesel engines with electric motors. He talked about projects in Florida, Hong Kong and Shanghai and how much fun it was to work on theme park rides that are designed to entertain people of all ages for decades to come.
After lunch, we spent more time talking before discovering a group of kids manning a card table stacked with Girl Scout cookies. Like desperate junkies spying the shadowy man in the Panama hat, we raced over to see what inventory was left. Personal experience has taught me that if you don’t make an early purchase you’re stuck with the dry, cruddy lemon or butter cookies, some lucky stiff chowing down handfuls of Thin Mints or Somoas in their car before collapsing into a diabetic coma. We lucked out, and 4 boxes later, I had my stash firmly secured in my pack.
As they say, all good things must come to an end and soon, our tour was complete. We took some final pictures with the oversized props beside the reception desk and headed out into the rain and our ASIFA San Francisco screening at Dolby Labs later that evening back across the bridge in the city. My eldest daughter Becky joined us for the ASIFA screening, driving up from Santa Cruz, where she’s getting her Master’s in Education at UCSC. Karl Cohen, head of the SF chapter, greeted Ron and the tour group enthusiastically. It’s always great to see Karl, though usually for me that’s in Ottawa rather than San Francisco. The screening was packed to capacity. Among others, John Hayes, founder of Wild Brain, was there. I haven’t seen him in years and it was great to say hello. After a bit of a technical glitch, the screening got under way. Afterwards, a number of attendees braved the rain and joined us for dinner at the Grubsteak Diner, a neat spot I’d seen on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. My dinner was almost as good as the Girl Scout cookies I ate back at the hotel. Almost.