Pixar to avoid traditional studio thinking

Disney is ramping up its quest for innovative technologies, while Pixar is keen to keep traditional studio thinking out of its innovation process.

Those were the messages Monday from Pixar and Disney Animation prexy Ed Catmull at Siggraph, the world’s largest computer graphics conference, which runs this week at the L.A. Convention Center.

Catmull, the featured speaker on the conference’s opening day, announced Disney is partnering with Carnegie Mellon U. in Pittsburgh and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich to conduct R&D for a wide range of Disney projects and companies.

Research will focus on technologies that apply to “all the company’s business units” and many forms of entertainment, said Joe Marks, VP of R&D for Walt Disney Imagineering Research & Development, who will oversee the labs for Disney.

Aside from improved ways for fans and online users to interact with robotic and virtual Disney characters, Marks said research would include “sports visualization for ESPN, sports simulation for Disney Interactive Games, radios and antennas for handheld devices for the parks, and artificial intelligence for park attractions and games.”

The labs’ work will also support Walt Disney Feature Animation, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures and Pixar Animation Studios.

“The scope of technology is such now that no single company or single university can do everything,” Marks told Daily Variety. “It’s about Disney re-engaging with the global R&D community.” He promised Disney would continue to do so, though no more labs like these are planned for now.

Catmull also reflected on the lessons he had gleaned from managing Pixar’s creative community for more than 20 years, delivering a jab at the major studios’ practices.

He cited an unnamed head of a major studio who told him, “Our central problem is not finding good people, it’s finding good ideas.”

Pixar’s experience, Catmull said, was just the opposite.

“We realized that if you take a good idea to a mediocre team, they’ll screw it up. And if you take a mediocre idea and give it to a good team, they’ll either fix it or throw it out and do something else. So the important thing was to find good people.”

As a result, he said, Pixar’s development department doesn’t look for ideas for films.

“Their job is to find teams that work well together. In fact, since everything sucks at the beginning, all we can tell is whether they work well together.”

Further, he said the focus on the “idea” for a film, like “a movie about dinosaurs” is a misguided view of creativity.

“Movies are not singular ideas. There’s a complex array of issues and problems and ideas,” he said, adding, “A complex community supports a complex of ideas.”

Part of the Pixar approach, he said, is that the director always has final say over what goes into his picture. Not even Disney topper Robert Iger has approval on a Pixar film.

Upon taking over Disney Animation, though, Catmull and chief creative officer John Lasseter discovered “there were three levels of approval over the directors, so we had to clip that off.” But Catmull said they decided not to combine the two units, in part to protect Pixar’s creative community.

In general, he said, efforts to make filmmaking predictable and smooth are bound to fail, and there will always be crises.

“The measure is how do we respond to the crises as they happen. We have to be comfortable being uncomfortable,” he said.

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