As it ramps up, Pixar’s under pressure

Polson says creation of each title on four-year cycle

It’s been said so often it’s become an axiom: No other company in the history of motion pictures has had a run of sustained success like that of Pixar.

It’s true, too. Pixar’s run of critically acclaimed box office hits inspired Disney to essentially pay Steve Jobs and Pixar’s shareholders billions to take over Disney’s feature animation operation. It’s also inspired some to wonder why other studios don’t try adopting Pixar’s approach to production themselves.

As it turns out, even Pixar is having some growing pains as it scales up production from one movie every couple of years to two or three movies a year.

Some details of Pixar’s issues were revealed by Pixar’s director of industry strategy Bill Polson in a presentation called “Chaos Theory: Making More Than One Movie at the Same Time” at the FMX confab in Stuttgart, Germany. (Full disclosure: I was the host and moderator for Polson’s FMX session.) The pressures Polson described were enough to produce a knot in my stomach, and I don’t even work in animation.

From the outside, Pixar looks like a smooth-running machine, but from the inside the picture is not so serene. Polson described a four-year cycle for the creation of each Pixar title.

The first year, he said, is the “Oh Shit!” year, as the Pixar team asks “You want us to do what?” That could mean shiny automobiles (“Cars”) or fur, food and lots of clothing (“Ratatouille”) or whatever technical challenge the next pic entails.

Year Two is “Chaos,” as they tackle that challenge and get the software working to accomplish the task. Year Three is “Stability,” when the software is working. Year Four is “Crunch,” as the team cranks out the final animated shots for the movie.

“Toy Story 2,” notably, never got to “Stability”; its third and fourth years repeated the “Oh Shit!” and “Chaos” phases, as the story had to be redone nearly from scratch with a hard deadline looming.

At one time, every animation staffer went through each of those phases, as the whole Pixar team worked on every movie. These days, that has become impossible. With a movie coming out every year, there are four movies in production at a time, one for each phase. Pixar is supposed to ramp up further to three movies every two years, or about one release every eight months, including sequels to its earlier hits.

With four to six pics in production at a time, the Pixar culture is under pressure. Where before the entire team learned from every title’s problems, now only a fraction of the company gets each lesson. When everyone worked on every title, the system favored generalists, who could do more than one task. Now it favors specialists. Even the company’s recruiting had to change accordingly.

On the creative front, Pixar has thrived with its “brain trust” of directors and senior artists who weigh in on each pic during production, offering suggestions that the director may reject or accept, at his discretion (and risk). But with that many pics going at once, there may simply be too much footage for any group of working directors and artists to review. Will there be multiple brain trusts?

On the production side, Pixar updates its software for each new movie. That means that as many as six distinct software pipelines are working at the same time. It’s a huge strain on the technical staff. It also complicates things as basic as dailies. Some versions of the software require specific hardware, and not every screening room can have every hardware setup, so some screening rooms for dailies can’t be used by some toons in mid-production.

Ideally, Pixar tests the animation models for each new project on the software from the previous one, which has reached “Stability.” But with films coming this close together, the previous pic doesn’t reach “Stability” in time, so there’s no stable software to test the models on.

The tight, intimate team that created the early hits has grown much larger. Polson didn’t mention it, but there’s talk Pixar has become much more corporate, and it’s the Walt Disney Animation Studios people who now feel they have the smaller, more intimate group, compared with Pixar.

In short, Pixar is starting to look and feel a lot more like a traditional movie studio, with crews and productions working independently — with the notable exception that its crews stay together after the picture is done and start on a new one.

Pixar is working hard now not to become a victim of its own success, retooling its processes and looking for ways to keep the sense of ownership that has been at the core of its culture. Its approach has been to acquire hot talent, not hot properties, then give the talent wide lattitude to find and make stories they’re passionate about.

Can Pixar keep that talent-centric philosophy, sustain its dedication to quality and still ramp up to two to three releases a year? If the answer turns out to be yes, then Pixar may truly be a model for the rest of the movie business.

If not, then Hollywood will have seen Pixar devolve to the way biz largely exists for everyone else. And it will have happened because Pixar found something that worked but pushed it too far.

Here’s hoping that doesn’t happen.

Bits & Bytes

SMPTE presents its regional seminar, “Practical Steps in Implementing a File-Based Workflow,” today in Montreal. Seminar will be repeated Saturday in Toronto, May 24 in Atlanta and May 26 in the Greater Boston area. Online registration is open … DirecTV and Panasonic are hosting the inaugural 3D Film Invitational. In the program six filmmakers will be trained to use Panasonic 3D grear; their 3D movies will be showcased on DirecTV. Preem for their movies will be held at the Paley Center this summer. Winner of competish’s “Excellence Award” gets a $25,000 prize. … Big Block, a new digital production and design studio, has launched in Santa Monica. Company toppers are business developer Scott Benson, exec producer Kenny Solomon and SWAY Studio founder and creative director Mark Glaser. Big Block will specialize in digital automotive content, VFX, design and finishing for feature films, television, web, gaming and mobile platforms. It expects to expand to New York to take advantage of tax credits there. …

The Stereo Club of Southern California will hold its 8th annual 3D movie fest this Saturday and Sunday at the Downtown Independent Theater in Los Angeles. … The Visual Effects Society has launched a New York section. Vfx pros in Germany are talking of organizing an additional VES section in that territory as well. … Tomorrow Kerner Studios will present a daylong 3D Advertising Summit at the company’s San Rafael, Calif., HQ. … Kerner Optical has wrapped its f/x work on pic “Everybody Loves Whales.” … Luma Pictures of Venice, Calif., provided the Destroyer effects for Paramount/Marvel’s “Thor.” … Eden FX provided all visual effects for HBO’s “Cinema Verite,” with Andrea D’Amico as vfx producer, John Gross served as vfx supervisor and Fred Pienkos serving as lead digital artist … Adobe has released Creative Suite 5.5 …Chaos Group has released V-Ray 2.0 for Maya … 3D company Sensio has launched a new website, http://www.sensio.tv, with expanded resources for pros working with 3D … European 3D glasses maker Volfoni has raised $3 million from investment fund Turenne Capital. … Christie is having a busy few weeks, having supplied the digital projector for the outdoor preem of “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” at Disneyland and serving as the official digital projector provider for the Cannes fest. Disneyland event was the Mouse’s first-ever outdoor 3D preem.