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Inside the Creative Culture of Pixar    

Inside the Creative Culture of Pixar

Photo by Atiba Jefferson

By Jessica Schiffer

For over 35 years, Pixar Animation Studios has been a source of continued imagination, creativity, and inspiration for generations of families. Throughout its history, the studio has won 40 Academy Awards, and introduced 21 films at the top of the box office. But beyond its many accolades, Pixar’s most impressive accomplishment lies in its ability to create emotional connections through their storytelling. Whether a clownfish in the Great Barrier Reef, a little monster with one big eye in the city of Monstropolis, a family of supers in suburban Metroville, a rookie race car in Radiator Springs, or an emotion living in Headquarters, the control center inside the mind of a young girl, Pixar creates characters that defy the boundaries of a movie screen. They teach us lessons, they evoke feelings within us, and they remain in our hearts long after the credits roll. 

Throughout our time working with Pixar on our Madhappy for Pixar Animation Studios collection, launching Friday, we have learned that the creativity and collaboration embedded into their organization is key to its success. No matter your background or role, all team members at Pixar are empowered to think creatively. 

“It’s about teamwork,” says Jen Tan, the company’s Director of Consumer Products. “An idea can come from one person, but it develops and grows into something greater and more inspiring thanks to all the different people who work on it, and nurture it into something we all can be proud to share with the world.” It’s more than just an ideology – the emphasis on creativity and outside-the-box thinking is physically evident across their campus, in the life-size statues that celebrate their iconic characters, the framed memorabilia that covers their walls, and the toy figurines that line the desks of their team members. 

To learn more about the culture of creativity that drives innovation and excellence at Pixar, we spoke to five Pixar team members about the role that creativity, collaboration, and risk-taking plays in creating their iconic films, below.

Jen Tan, Director of Consumer Products

Photo by Atiba Jefferson

What do you like best about Pixar's creative culture?

It's collaborative, imaginative and held to really high standards. Everyone works super hard but is also very respectful towards one another, welcoming feedback from so many different places.

Why is collaboration so important to creativity at Pixar?

Ideas can come from anywhere, and can be made even stronger through collaboration. Sometimes when you're so focused on one thing, it can be hard to figure out solutions for any bumps in the process. That's where it's important to listen to different voices. 

How important do you think risk taking is to your role and the ideas that come out of Pixar as a whole?

 In my role, taking risks means challenging one another and our partners to come up with innovative ideas for products. Some ideas will be riskier than others and will require convincing lots of different parties involved before they can make it to the finish line. 

Although they are different on the surface, what do you think all Pixar movies share?

All Pixar films start from the vision of their director. They come from a personal story that means something to this one person, but once that person shares their story, the crew then becomes a part of it and contributes their own stories to help bring it to life. The stories vary and that's a good thing because what we need more in this world are different stories from voices that may not have been heard before. I always find that Pixar stories have heart and that heart is what gives life to the characters and, ultimately, connects the films to their viewers. 

Is there a film you loved working on most? 

So many to choose from, but Toy Story 3 holds a special place in my heart because it was the first film I worked on products for and even though I wasn't at Pixar yet (I was working at Disney Consumer Products), I remember it fondly and being blown away by the story of the film. And more recently, Turning Red has been so great to work on; the characters and the story of growing up immersed in two different cultures have been so relatable to me and so many other folks working on the products for this film. 

Staphon Arnold, Pixar University Content Specialist

Photo by Atiba Jefferson

What do you like best about Pixar's creative culture? 

I love that our culture is geared toward continually learning and trying new things.

Why is collaboration so important to creativity at Pixar? 

You get to hear your own ideas and thoughts all day, every day. It can be very rewarding to take a break and listen to what someone else has to say, and [it] may even give [you] something to ponder on from an angle you didn't think about.

How important do you think risk taking is to your role and the ideas that come out of Pixar as a whole? 

In my first year at Pixar, I took an improv class that showed me how much easier it is to be creative if you're not afraid of failure. Instead, you take the risk and throw your idea out there, and if it doesn't stick, oh well, you can always have another idea. But you can't get to the best one if you're too afraid to throw [things out there].

Although they are different on the surface, what do you think all Pixar movies share?

Each Pixar movie is based on an idea: What if your toys were alive? What if cars could talk? What if a family of super heroes couldn't use their powers? That great creative idea is what makes our stories so incredible and easy to spark imagination and ideas, especially if you have some risk takers to collaborate with!

Is there a film you loved working on most?

I absolutely loved cheering on and assisting our filmmakers during the production of Incredibles 2. The Incredibles is still one of my favorite movies, and to hear and talk about the ideas and story behind the sequel was a dream come true.

Jennifer Zaccaro, Director, Marketing & Franchise

Photo by Atiba Jefferson

What do you like best about Pixar's creative culture? 

The openness and the ability for anyone across the company, no matter their background or role, to have input into the content that comes out of the studio. I also like how creativity is upheld not only in the production of our films but also across the physical campus – in the decor on the walls, employee events, and the food in the cafe.

Why is collaboration so important to creativity at Pixar?

Relatability is what we aim for in our movies and relatability is built on perspective. Because everyone's perspective differs, the sharing of thoughts and ideas is essential to the creative process of filmmaking so that our movies resonate with all kinds of people from all over the world.

How important do you think risk taking is to your role and the ideas that come out of Pixar as a whole? 

Thoughtful risk-taking is encouraged across the company. Our goal is to put films out into the world that not only appeal to a broad audience but are also culturally relevant, universally relatable and heartfelt. Some may consider this a risk-taking approach, but I like to consider it authentic storytelling.

Although they are different on the surface, what do you think all Pixar movies share?

The reason I love our movies and wanted to work here is because for me, every Pixar film impacts me in its own unique way. Regardless of the character or setting, I can see some aspect of my own life in each story that unfolds, and I love that.

Is there a film you loved working on most? 

I loved working with my team to document the making of Soul. Creating an animated movie is hard, it's filled with ups and downs, and it was inspiring to witness the work it took to make the best and most authentic story come to life.

Jay Ward, Creative Director of Franchise

Photo by Atiba Jefferson

Why is collaboration so important to creativity at Pixar? 

Steve Jobs knew that we needed both those who are gifted technically and artistically to work together closely to create our unique films. The collaboration between “left and right brain” people allows for our best storytelling on the screen.

How important do you think risk taking is to your role and the ideas that come out of Pixar as a whole? 

My goal is to always push for the best, highest-quality option, any way that's possible. I’ve found that if you set the bar higher, you’ve got more of a chance to get a far better result than if you just settle for “good enough.”

Although they are different on the surface, what do you think all Pixar movies share?

Pixar movies aren’t lazy - we strive for great storytelling, and that takes work. We always try to deliver authenticity and an emotional connection to our audiences.

How does working in collaboration with others fuel your own creative process? 

Massively. When you are surrounded by great artists and masterful storytellers, it's inspiring. It makes me want to do better – to look at the places I might be “coasting” and step it up.

Is there a film you loved working on most? 

I’ve loved certain film projects because of the wonderful crew we had (like Monsters, Inc., Cars or the short Presto), and other projects because of the beautiful artistic achievement (Ratatouille). But one of my all-time favorite projects wasn’t actually a film, it was the many years we spent creating Cars Land at Disney’s California Adventure for three reasons: We had a completely blank canvas to start from with very few limitations, I learned so much about storytelling and engineering from the Imagineers, and, lastly, because Cars Land lives on every day for our guests, who absolutely love it.

Cynthia Lusk, Director, Creative Film Services

Photo by Atiba Jefferson

Why is collaboration so important to creativity at Pixar? 

Collaboration is about crafting something together.  It’s working together to figure out a puzzle, paint a picture, or develop a process. It’s a layering process to which everyone at Pixar contributes.  

How important do you think risk taking is to your role and the ideas that come out of Pixar as a whole?

Risk taking is essential - and part of the Pixar fabric.

Although they are different on the surface, what do you think all Pixar movies share? 

A commitment to telling compelling stories with spectacular visuals.

How does working in collaboration with others fuel your own creative process? 

I’m lucky enough to work with a fantastic team.  Everyone’s great idea sparks another idea – not always great, but always leading to something that may eventually yield greatness.

Is there a film you loved working on most? 

There are several. Finding Dory, because it was incredibly challenging [to make] but revealed an incredible resiliency. And Coco, because it’s Coco.

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