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Day Three: Pixar!

Pixar is living through a new golden age. The string of hit films, the triumph of Up, the promise of the studio’s ambitious new projects, all fill the space with a glow. I’ve visited Pixar before, and each time I’m aware that someday I’ll be telling people not yet born that, yes, I visited Pixar.

Enrique and Javier strike a monster pose

By Shaenon K. Garrity

“This is the old studio system,” says Enrique Posner.  We’re eating lunch at the Luxo Café, in the atrium of Pixar Studios.  On the other side of the big picture windows, rain is pouring down in sheets.  Around us, stylish but nerdy young people—the median age at Pixar is in the low 30s—gather in knots, talking intently, munching on steak salad with white beans, reading Philip Pullman and Christopher Moore.  “Live-action film in Hollywood no longer has the studio system,” says Enrique. “The studios are just production and distribution companies.  Only animation still has real studios, because animation needs it.  Here, there’s still a sense of community”

Enrique has a point.  There’s an energy to Pixar that other studios don’t seem to have, the energy of shared creative purpose.  But it’s not just the cohesion of an old-fashioned studio.  Pixar is different, and the people here know it.

Every animation nut dreams, sometimes, of going back in time to witness a golden age of the medium, one of those times when gifted creators came together under the perfect conditions.  Termite Terrace.  Disney under the Nine Old Men.  The birth of Studio Ghibli.  Personally, I would have loved to have seen the Disney tour of South America that transformed Mary Blair.

Pixar is living through one of those golden ages now.  The string of hit films, the triumph of Up, the promise of the studio’s ambitious new projects, all fill the space with a glow.  I’ve visited Pixar before, and each time I’m aware that someday I’ll be telling people not yet born that, yes, I visited Pixar.

Compared to those golden studios of the past, Pixar is exceptionally posh.  This is no leaky Termite Terrace.  We lunch on grilled sea bass and vegetarian pizzas from the café’s brick oven while, across the polished atrium, staffers line up to collect their Silver Passes to the Disney theme parks.

Raul, Enrique and Javier overlook the Pixar Lobby

AWN is there for the afternoon with Javier Gracia, director of the Oscar-nominated short “The Lady and the Reaper,” and producers Raul Garcia and Enrique Posner, all from the Grenada-based studio Kandor Moon.  Yesterday they visited ILM; tonight they’ll fly to L.A. for tours of Sony, Dreamworks, and other animation hotspots.  For now, Pixar is happy to entertain.  Michelle, coordinator of the Pixar University in-house education program, leads our group on a tour of the main building (there are currently five, but construction is underway on an expanded facility that will put the staff back under one roof).  Sadly, we won’t be staying long enough for the monthly Beer Bash, which starts after 5:00, but there’s plenty else to see.

We linger in the east gallery, which currently displays production art from Up: sketches, watercolors, sculpts and maquettes, multimedia collages, wooden models of the flying house.  Standing before a montage of color keys, Michelle points out that the opening montage of Carl and Ellie’s marriage starts in the morning and ends in the evening, giving the impression of a single day.  The west gallery, dedicated to non-Pixar art by staff members, features landscape paintings by photography director Sharon Calahan.  The Kandor Moon animators pause for photos on the catwalk overlooking the atrium, and again in front of full-size statues of the Incredibles.

Enrique, Raul and Javier having a truly "Incredible" time

The animation department is a subterranean village of Lost Boys.  Each animator has designed his or her workspace differently: a medieval castle, a tiki lounge, a Wild West saloon.  Instead of cubicles, some animators work in garden sheds set up like miniature houses.  We pass the Knife and Fiddle, one of the animators’ bars, currently decorated as a winter ski lodge.  Then comes the high point of the tour: a visit to the office of animator Adam Burke.

Adam Burke’s office contains the Love Lounge.

The Love Lounge was created by Andrew Gordon, the animator who previously occupied the office.  When he moved in, Gordon noticed that his office included an access panel to a small crawlspace between the walls of the building.  He turned this space into a tiny but swanky 1950s lounge with leopard-print cushions and strings of novelty lights.  The steel walls are covered in autographs from visiting notables, mostly animators, but also such celebrities as Quentin Tarantino, Sarah Silverman, Tom Waits, Annie Liebowitz (who left footprints), and Malia and Sasha Obama.  With Adam’s permission, Javier adds his signature.

“Not long ago,” says Enrique, “I was at the set of Harry Potter in England, and I sat in Harry Potter’s chair at the place where he eats.  But the Love Lounge takes the cake.”

Then it’s time for a screening of the Oscar-nomianted shorts in Pixar’s main screening room.  The 235-seat theater fills to capacity, with latecomers sitting in the aisles.  As per Pixar tradition, stars appear on the ceiling of the theater as the lights dim.  The audience says, “Ooh!” as a shooting star arches across the artificial night, and “Aah!” when a second star follows.  Then the shorts begin.

After “The Lady and the Reaper,” Javier, Raul and Enrique stand up for a Q&A.  What inspired the story?  “My grandmother was passing away,” says Javier, “very softly, very nice…but it made me look around and see other people who don’t die so well, who die alone.  I wanted to make a film about a person’s right to die with dignity.”  This inspired a slapstick cartoon about an elderly woman who is happy to go along with the Grim Reaper and be reunited with her deceased husband—until a hotshot doctor revives her, triggering a battle between Death and the hospital staff.

“The Lady and the Reaper” took a year and a half and 25 people to produce.  Kandor Moon had just finished the animated feature Missing Lynx, directed by Raul and his codirector Manuel Sicilia.  Javier was selected by a vote from the staff to direct a short film while Kandor prepared for its next feature project.  “The Lady and the Reaper” won a Goya Award, the Spanish equivalent of the Oscar, and became the first Spanish animated film nominated for an Academy Award.

Enrique notes that Spain has been struggling in the global economic downturn, since so much of its economy is based on construction and tourism.  The international success of “The Lady and the Reaper” has attracted enormous attention from the Spanish government and media.  The efforts of co-producer Antonio Banderas to promote the film haven’t hurt, either.

Javier and Raul are both working on Kandor’s next feature, Golier, set in a medieval world where traditional knights and heroes are being replaced by lawyers and bureaucrats.  With a budget of $33 million, it’s the tiny studio’s biggest project to date.  Like “The Lady and the Reaper,” it will be filmed in both 2D and stereoscopic 3D.

Outside the theater, Javier, Raul and Enrique stop to speak to interested Pixar staffers.  They’re thrilled to run into fellow Spanish animator Rodrigo Blaas.  There are twelve Spaniards at Pixar, notes Enrique, an impressive number considering the modest size of the Spanish animation industry.  Returning to the animation wing, we run into another of the Spaniards, Carlos Baena, hard at work on Toy Story 3.

Javier shows off Oscar Tour poster in Pixar lobby

Next we’re guided through the more sedate tech wing and given a glimpse of one of Pixar’s two Renderfarms, massive banks of computers dedicated to processing the studio’s animation 24/7.  Pixar has an emergency diesel generator capable of powering the studio and its computers for three days—so even if the Bay Area blacks out, work on Cars 2 and The Bear and the Bow will continue uninterrupted.

Upstairs, we get a look at the office of chief creative officer John Lasseter, although the man himself is away from the building.  It’s sensory overload.  Crowding the shelves that line Lasseter’s office, floor to ceiling, are toys—every Pixar tie-in toy ever produced, plus model trains, model cars, ray guns, and vintage G.I. Joes.  The animation memorabilia includes a traffic cone from the Cars wrap party autographed by every member of the staff, a letter from Chuck Jones congratulating Lasseter on Toy Story 2, and a mounted, life-size Catbus head from the Studio Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, Japan. It feels rude to stay too long, gawking at the absent director’s stuff, but it’s hard to leave.

As it turns out, we have to leave Pixar a little earlier than expected.  Raul’s flight has been cancelled due to weather, and he has to take an earlier plane.  The Kandor guys stop at the studio store—Raul needs a pink Pixar T-shirt for his daughter—and suddenly it’s time to go.

One of us, at least, might be back.  Although Javier is currently working on Golier, he’s looking for work in the United States, where the opportunities for animators are much greater than in Spain.  I ask him what he thinks of Pixar.  He gestures at the animators’ idiosyncratic offices, the tiki décor, the Chuck E. Cheese band in the hall.  “It looks like it’s not real,” he says.  Would he like to work here?  Oh yes.

Enrique talks about bringing some of Pixar’s ideas and methods to Spain, but he doesn’t expect total success. “There is something special here,” he says, “that is not repeatable.”

Shaenon K. Garrity is an award-winning cartoonist and scriptwriter whose work includes the online comics Narbonic, Li'l Mell, Smithson and Skin Horse. She works as a manga editor for Viz Media and the content editor of the webcomics site Her writing on comics appears in The Comics Journal, and Comixology.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.