The Art of Pixar Animation

There’s definitely something special about the San Francisco Bay Area. The region is an incubator of the world’s most successful and innovative companies (e.g., Google, Apple, Facebook, eBay, Twitter, IDEO, etc.) that have dramatically shaped our culture. It boggles my mind that I live in a city where I am within arms reach of these inspiring organizations, one of which is just a short BART ride away from my home.

Pixar, based in Emeryville, CA, is one of the most successful film studios of all-time. Pixar has earned a record-breaking number of accolades, including twenty-four Academy Awards, six Golden Globes, and three Grammys. Films like Toy StoryMonsters, Inc.The IncrediblesRatatouilleWall-E, and Up, have been overwhelmingly popular because they appeal to audiences of all ages – not only children, but teens, adults, and seniors alike. So, how does Pixar do it? What makes Pixar’s movies so different from all of the other blockbuster animated feature-length films from places like Blue Sky StudiosDisneyDreamWorks Animation, or Lucasfilm?

Most people would agree the secret ingredient for Pixar’s movies is the story. More than just the story, it’s the art of visual story-telling and character development:

When you see the movie, all of the work that we do should disappear. You want people to believe in these characters and feel like they’re in the story with them.
— Bob Pauley, Production Designer at Pixar

Wall-E is a prime example of the magic of Pixar's storytelling.  Wall-E's opening was nearly dialogue-free (shockingly) for the first thirty-minutes.  The captivating character development, accompanied by incredible visuals, sound, and musical score, drew in the audience by building an instant heart-felt emotional connection.

If the story isn’t there, all the breakthrough graphics in the world piled onto it won’t matter.
— Joe Ranft, Head of Story at Pixar

Building that emotional connection is key. While Pixar’s movie Up is a fun family movie, it also delves into complex, real-world emotions where the characters confront real-life experiences like romance, infertility, death, and regret – all in the first ten minutes of the film. Ask anyone who’s seen the movie if they cried during those first ten minutes – and you’ll get a resounding “yes”. The opening scene of Up was emotional, powerful, real – and risky. The film would not nearly have had the same impact without those first ten minutes. What makes Pixar unique is that it’s willing to push the envelope. It doesn’t gloss over the not so warm and fuzzy real-life bits as if they don’t exist. Unlike other film producers, who tend to be overly cautious about what they think their family audiences want to see, Pixar presents it in a way that’s gripping and meaningful.

Of course, Pixar’s breakthroughs in computer animation certainly cannot and should not be ignored. Pixar is equipped with some of the best technical and creative talent in the industry. With all of the top film studios so heavily focused on developing impressive, photorealistic CGI with hundreds of millions of dollars behind their films, the competition for stunning visual effects is fierce. Pixar’s competitive advantage goes back to one very basic element – the story being told.

For an in-depth Pixar experience, the Oakland Museum of California is now offering an insightful and extraordinary look into the renown studio’s history and creative work with PIXAR: 25 Years of Animation. Until January 9, 2011, over 500 works will be on display, including storyboard sketches, concept drawings, paintings, maquettes, media installations, and the very, very cool Toy Story Zoetrope!