The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Inside Out, Coco, and many more hit films are all generated by the masterminds at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville. I was lucky to meet director of animation James Ford Murphy and executive producer Andrea Warren, and be invited for a look at where the magic is made.
We pull in on a sunny October day, pass through the security gate, and walk towards the main building, named after founder Steve Jobs. The campus is incredibly creative, with airy buildings, green lawns, and recreational spaces to recharge.
Squirrels scamper up manicured trees, and a flock of plump Canadian geese graze at the outdoor amphitheater. A large plastic seagull – Nigel, from Finding Nemo – keeps watch over the small soccer field (rumor: the grass is FIFA-approved). It gives off the feel of a college.
An immense lamp and ball sit outside the main building- well-known logo Luxo the lamp, which actually illuminates after dark. We would later learn on the tour that Australia’s Museum of Modern Art constructed the piece for a Pixar exhibit, and shipped it to California when the show was over.
We checked in and waited for our tour guide, Xanadu, at the Steve Jobs Building, a huge, bright, glass-enclosed warehouse with concept art from the latest movie to greet folks; the Parr family stands poised to fend off questionable visitors, because Pixar’s next movie is Incredibles 3.
Characters from Cars and Inside Out lounge near the ping-pong tables and the glass case full of Oscar awards. As you look further into the Atrium, you’ll see a gift shop with items only available there (not in Disney stores), a USPS post office, an employee lunch room, and a bustling cafeteria.
Xanadu explained that Steve Jobs oversaw the design, and he wanted a building made by hand, like the films Pixar produces. He was so meticulous; he searched for the perfect shade of brick color, ultimately settling on a dark brown mix inspired by the Hills Bros. Coffee House in San Francisco.
Jobs also laid out the floor plan for the departments in accordance with the brain’s hemispheres: the creative sides are on the right side of the building. The technical sides are on the left. The level of thought Jobs put into each detail is mind-blowing.
This is a two-story building, but the second story is like a loft, with offices only along two sides. From the ground, you can still look up – and slightly into the rooms where people are meeting.
In the Steve Jobs Building, the patio floor extends into the building, separating the inside and outside only by a wall of glass. That’s to create a seamless transition, and an “Alice in Wonderland” effect, as Xanadu told us.
Xanadu said Jobs believed strongly that face-to-face contact resulted in the best ideas, so his initial plans called for only one restroom in the entire building. This mother cringes.
After pushback from the rest of the team, Jobs capitulated and made it two, but they’re at the front of the building, still forcing people to leave their desks and interact with others.
She says he also advocated healthy practices, so there are two large staircases to encourage walking in the Atrium, subsidized health classes in the “Breathing Room” (fitness studio), a salt-water lap pool heated to 74 degrees, basketball and sand volleyball courts, a BBQ area (“Palm Grove”), large herb gardens the chefs use in their cooking, the aforementioned soccer field, and monthly visits from a team of therapy dogs for stress relief.
It’s near lunch now, and droves of staffers are coming out to Café Luxo for their subsidized lunch. There’s a table of today’s specials to choose from, in addition to other cafeteria staples. Beverages are free, and lunch is cheap.
If employees want to bring their own food, there’s a beautiful, wood paneled break room. Jobs, we’re told, didn’t want workers to go hungry, so there’s always free cereal and milk, PB&J materials, and fruits.
As we near the end of the Atrium, we see a door in the wall leading to the Steve Jobs Theater. The 235-seat arena is used for the final review of movies.
Sometimes, Pixar uses the space for educational talks for staff development, organized by the so-called Pixar University committee. Monday nights, it’s dedicated for recreation when theater manager John Hazelton shows old movies on 35 mm film.
Then we duck past a Closed Set sign, into the hallway where the voice actors lay down their tracks. We are not allowed to take photos for the next couple sections.
The hall leading into the recording studio is painted brick red, and autographed with many names like Owen Wilson, Jeff Pidgeon, Amber Kroner, Patton Oswald, Dame Edna, Alexander Gold, and Elle Docter.
“Who are some famous people you’ve seen?” we ask Xanadu excitedly.
“We have a no gawking policy,” she says, “so we aren’t allowed to take photos or go up to famous people.” Also, there aren’t celebrities walking around all the time. Xanadu says if an actor is working with Pixar for the first time, they’re invited to come to the headquarters to get a feel for the company’s culture. After that, Pixar travels to the voice actors.
She adds that sometimes, celebrities visit just for a tour, and the biggest star she’s seen in her five years there is actor Keanu Reeves. Xanadu permits me to blog about that.
From the audio booth area, we walk upstairs past rows of colorful offices on the second floor. The wide hallway is lined with art from 2017’s Coco. Xanadu says every piece of art connected to a movie is saved – even concept sketches on napkins – and archived in the art gallery for future exhibits in places around the world.
It took seven years to research Coco, which won an Oscar. Pixar has two full time sculptors, Jerome Ranft and Greg Dextra, whose job is it to create a 3-D sculpture of the main characters. This gives the 2-D artists a better feel for who the character is and how they should animate it.
We see clay molds, sketches, and digital paintings of the Coco characters, and a short informative movie about the challenges for this film: how to create the world of the dead, and how to light, color, and animate such a fantasy world?
We were fascinated to learn there are animation artists dedicated to extremely specific jobs. For every movie, there is an art team dedicated to just creating crowds of people.
There is an exquisite guitar inlaid with pearl and gold on one of the walls. Xanadu shares that it’s one of only 11 created in conjunction with Coco, and that the director and producer of that movie each have one. She’s not sure where the other nine are, but informs us the Consumer Products team commissioned a limited run of the instruments.
At the end of this art gallery, we come to a sitting area with what looks like a storyboard on the wall. It’s a color script, Xanadu clarifies, whose purpose is to show the mood, color, lighting, and tone of each movie.
There are quaint, brown leather chairs here that belonged to Walt Disney. The Walt Disney!
We’ve concluded the viewing of the first art gallery, and it’s time to walk across a bridge to the other side of the Atrium. The bridge is slightly arched, and Xanadu says it’s because Jobs didn’t want a straight line to cut the view when looking up from the ground floor.
This art gallery is Incredibles-themed, and the color script is more retro. Incredibles 3 is due in summer 2019.
The film after that is an untitled piece by Dan Scanlon, the creator of Monsters University. When that movie comes out, Xanadu tells us, the Coco art will make way for the new movie’s pieces. That includes repainting the walls to match the feel of the new movie.
We stop to watch a deleted scene from Incredibles. It’s a runway show in which Edna features her retro designs, which are actually the creations of staffer Deanna Marsigliere.
Scratch actors voiced over the rough cut; those are Pixar employees who want to do it just for fun. Every other year, they can audition for an unpaid role.
Voice actors’ unions make it hard to hire non-union talent, though they weren’t as prevalent when director/writer Brad Bird worked on the original Incredibles 14 years ago. As Xanadu tells it, Bird was seeking a specific voice for Edna, and nobody could match what he envisioned, so he ended up playing the part himself.
Lastly, Xanadu directs our attention to a raised 2-D cityscape hanging on a wall. Some of the lights in the buildings are on. It’s a timeline, she says- as each part of Incredibles 3 is completed, another light comes on.
When the entire city is lit, the movie is done. “It’s a way to track the movie’s progress and to build excitement,” she pronounces.
Tracking timelines are themed for each movie. Cars, for instance, measured progress with a racetrack that had moveable cars.
We leave the Steve Jobs Building and head towards a building called Brooklyn. The other buildings are named West Village, Uptown, SoHo, and Ellis Island (the archives building). The big, grassy area out front is called Central Park.
What’s the Manhattan connection? Xanadu says it’s a riff on their address, Park Avenue- the famous New York City street.
Brooklyn is a quieter, more secretive building where new concepts are developed. Like the Steve Jobs Building, it’s open, with a second and third story added only along the sides of the building, giving this a very high ceiling. A five-foot-tall Day of the Dead skull sits in the reception area, across an employee café.
The Presto Theater takes up a corner of Brooklyn. At 135 seats, it’s the second biggest of the five film venues on campus.
There are “Easter eggs” in the metal artwork above the theater doors; look closely, and you’ll see the triangular design is Luxo lamps stacked on each other. Embedded in the floor, little movie characters are scattered about, waiting to be found.
We cruise down the middle of Brooklyn, pausing to look at dozens of artwork on the wall, or 3-D art in cases. They’re all for sale at a silent auction fundraiser for one of the charities Pixar supports.
The artists are staffers, and they were allowed to use any medium. No close-up photos were allowed of the art.
In the center of Brooklyn’s massive foyer is where we find a slight Hawaii tie-in. It’s a three-story tall brick chimney. Dole Food Company used to own this property, and this building was previously a cannery. In a nod to this history, Pixar turned the chimney into a fireplace and seating area.
Before Dole, the Oakland Oaks minor league baseball team owned the land, which explains why there’s a glass case with old-fashioned baseball equipment and memorabilia on display. Nearby, staffers are using the billiards tables.
We don’t ascend the stairways here, but Xanadu says the third floor has a terrace with a sweeping view of the East Bay.
Two-and-a-half hours later, we finish the day with lunch back at Steve Jobs Building, and shortly thereafter, we drive away from Pixar- amazed at what we learned, and with a deeper appreciation for how much thought goes into each movie. One might say it’s incredible.