My Day at Pixar and Lucasfilm
This past week my work sent me up to the Bay area to meet with our marketing partners at Pixar and Lucasfilm. (Who says your day job has to be a drag?) This was my first visit to both campuses, so I must admit I was pretty excited. I wrote a research paper on Pixar’s leadership during my MBA program, so I was familiar with Pixar’s story and the values that shaped them. I’ve read about their campus in Emeryville and I’ve seen pictures, but nothing prepared me for the delight of seeing the place for myself. We were treated with a first class tour of the campus, including visits to John Lasseter’s playroom – I mean – office and the legendary workspaces designed by the animators. I’m particularly found of the office that was dressed to resemble a plane crash in a jungle.
Here are a few pictures taken in the main atrium. For obvious reasons, I cannot post pictures from the restricted areas of the building.
We spent the afternoon at Lucasfilm, home to ILM (Industrial Light and Magic) a leading visual and special effects studio. I held it together for good while, but ended up geeking-out when we came across the props and models from some of my favorite films.
The trip was both productive and inspiring. Here is what struck me most:
The Elegance of Thoughtful Design – The Pixar campus is beautiful, but great design is not just a pretty face. It is the coalescence of simplicity and functionality. Each space is designed with a purpose that reflects the values of the community. For example, at Pixar they want to force people to encounter one another because they believe it is the interaction of people that sparks ideas and creativity. So the four restrooms are attached to the high-traffic areas near the central atrium. The mailroom is across from the dining area and all employees are required to pick-up their own mail. Everyday activities, like bathroom breaks and mail runs, can lead to encounters and conversations with co-workers, that would not happen if the restrooms were hidden down hallways and the mailroom was buried in the basement.
The Symbiotic Relationship Between Artists and Engineers – It is not about celebrity “creative types”. The right brain and the left brain need each other. At Pixar they say, “Technology inspires the art, and art challenges the technology.” It is the relationship between the two that has led to their success. The work of the one is not greater than the other.
Movie Magic is Indeed… Magic – Walking through the halls at Lucasfilm and seeing the matte paintings, models, and character designs from the incredibly rich history of films that ILM helped create reminded me just how much I love filmmaking. While computer generated visual effects have allowed stories to be told in ways we never thought possible, there is still something about practical special effects that I find magical.
The Importance of Playfulness – To step inside John Lasseter’s office is to see a big kid at work. His office is packed floor to ceiling with toys and collectibles. I noticed the same thing when I visited the restored offices of Walt Disney. For such powerful and influential men, they sure had a lot of toys in their offices. Playfulness and productivity are not mutually exclusive. We must never grow too old to be a kid.
Optimism – Beneath all the creativity and innovation I saw at both Pixar and Lucasfilm is an underlining optimism. “We didn’t know is was impossible, so we did it.” In a world where cynicism is having its day, perhaps the best reminder is that it is still possible to believe that anything is possible.
The Best of the Noise
Hollywood is mostly noise.
The noise I am talking about is not the perpetual drone of the 6 million vehicles that pack LA County freeways or the 10 million people who take up residence here. I am talking about the noise that comes from the aspirations of a city swollen with “starving artists”. If you could take that noise and slow the babel down to hear each articulated pronunciation, you would hear one simple message: Look at me.
Each year roughly 50,000 screenplays are registered with the Writer’s Guild of America. Hollywood studios release around 150 films a year. If you include the independent films that get limited releases (some very limited) there may be as many as 600 films released a year. Some basic math will reveal that the work of an aspiring screenwriter has a 0.003% chance of getting made into a feature film by a Hollywood studio and a 0.012% chance that the screenplay will get made at all. Furthermore, those 50,000 unproduced screenplays don’t go away at the end of the year. They are deposited into an ocean of existing screenplays that float around with scripts from the year before, and the year before that, and the year before that…
To be honest, a large percentage of those 50,000 unproduced screenplays are poorly written and do not warrant consideration to be made into a feature film. However, I assure you that not one of the writers would say their screenplay is not good enough to be made into movie. This is why Hollywood is so noisy. The supply obnoxiously exceeds the demand. So you have a city full of dreamers clamoring, “Look at me! Look at me!”
Aside: While I cannot speak for my actor friends – whom I personally think have tougher go of it than us writers – I believe the odds are similarly stacked against them. The same goes for musicians and other performing artists.
When people say they got their “break” they mean they broke through the noise. They said “look at me” and someone with influence paid attention.
One of the ways a screenwriter can rise above the noise is to have his or her work place in a screenwriting contest. The Nicholl Fellowship is an annual screenwriting competition hosted by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (the same Academy that presents the Oscars). It is a well respected competition and while winning the competition can change your life, you don’t need to win. Simply placing as a semi-finalist or quarter-finalist can make a difference. It means your script was scored higher than 95% of the scripts entered. It gives you legitimacy and a chance to rise above the noise. Your name gets on the list.
I received my gently worded letter from the Nicholl Fellowship this week. I was informed that my script, The Resurrection of Dennis Munson, did not place in the top 5%. The letter went on to say that it missed placing by the “thinnest of margins, only a point or two.” In fact, it placed in the top 6%. But, like placing 4th in the Olympics, that is not good enough to get on the list.
So for now, I remain in the ranks of the noise, but I raise my glass for being among the best of the noise.
I love watching the Tour de France. I look forward to it every July and I try to watch every stage. For most people cycling is a niche sport. Those who are into it are really into it and those who are not are oblivious. If you asked TC Mits (the common man in the street) to name three great cyclists they would probably say Lance Armstrong and then maybe, if they are attune to personal feuds that make headlines, utter “Landis?”
I started watching the Tour several years ago while training for a triathlon. I found watching other cyclists suffer helped the time pass while pushing pedals on my bike trainer.
At first, I didn’t understand the race. How can the guy in the yellow jersey finish minutes behind the stage winner and still be winning the race? What’s the deal with points and the green jersey and the polka jersey? Why do so many look content to ride in a group? It’s a race, "Go for it!”
Over the years, I learned to appreciate the sport; to recognize the calculated strategy and see the race within the race.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
You don’t have to win every race to win the race
There are some who are out to win the day. There are others who are out to win the race. Some days you’ll watch as others get all the attention. That’s okay. You’ll arrive in Paris before they do.
Know your job
Most teams have one leader. Everyone else on the team is there to support the leader. The support riders are called domestiques, which literally means ‘servant’ riders. They are there to protect the leader, pace the leader, and fuel the leader. On long hot days one rider will ride back to the team car, which trails the race. He’ll pack his bike and stuff his jersey with as many water bottles as he can, then hustle back up to where the race is happening and deliver the bottles to his teammates. That is his only job for the day. It's an important job. If you’re a domestique, do your job well. One day you may to tapped to be the leader.
There is a reason cyclists ride in a peloton. By sticking together - and working together - they conserve energy. Painful is the path of a rider caught-out alone. They rarely finish first.
One of the things I love about the Tour de France is... France. I love watching the French countryside pass by with its lush pastures, medieval villages, and rugged mountain ranges. I wonder how often the riders are struck by the beauty of the land or ponder the rich history of the people who’ve lived there over the centuries. I doubt they think about it. How often are we so focused on the race that we fail to see the wonder of it all?
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
I caught up with this fun and delightful film from New Zealand over the weekend. I really enjoyed it. Quirky, funny, and heartfelt this film is a refreshing change of pace from the effects driven blockbusters we typically see this time of year. Like many I was heartsick after the events of the last week; finding this life-affirming film was good for my soul.
It is getting harder and harder for small independent films to see the light of day, so if you get the chance to see this film, please do. You won't be disappointed. The film is in limited release here in the States. Check your local listings to see if it is playing near you.
In Search of a Golden Ticket
Forty-five years ago Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was released into movie theaters. Though critics enjoyed the film, it was not considered a box office success. It was in and out of theaters before most people realized it was there. It took nearly two decades, but the underdog story of a poor boy who wins a chance to enter a world of pure imagination found new life with the help of VHS tapes and cable TV. By the mid-90s the film had become a cult classic.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen the film. When the doors of the factory open and Willy Wonka welcomes the lucky winners into his world the kid in me wants to believe that people like the “Candy Man” and the wonders of his chocolate factory really do exist. Take me away. I dream. Take me to a place like that.
We all feel like Charlie Bucket at times; we feel the odds are stacked against us. We survey the world around us and see what appear to be undeserving people rewarded for childish behavior. We think that if we could find a golden ticket, a chance to rise above our station, we would prove that we are more than who we appear to be. We would prove deserving.
So for many of us every query letter, script analysis, contest submission; every open mic, song upload, photo tag or blog post is like opening a chocolate bar. Will this be the one that changes my life?
If Charlie’s story is in any way a reflection of what we would do if handed a golden ticket, it is this: we would screw it up. We would steal Fizzy Lifting drink and bump into the ceiling - which will have to be washed and sterilized – and we too would lose.
Charlie’s golden ticket wasn’t a gold-colored slip of paper hidden in a candy bar. His golden ticket was the strength of his character, which was forged as he struggled for his heart’s desire. In the end, that is what made the difference. That is how Charlie got his chocolate factory.
So shines a good deed in a weary world.
A WRITER AND TRAVELER KEEPING THE FAITH IN LOS ANGELES