Persist – Creativity Inc Letter

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In Creativity Inc, Ed Catmull describes a letter he received from Pixar animator Austin Madison, which he found particularly uplifting when it came to protecting and promoting Pixar’s culture.

To whom it may inspire,

I, like many of you artists out there constantly shift between two states. The first, and far more preferable of the two is white hot, in the zone, seat of the pants, firing on all cylinders creative mode.

This is when you lay your pen down and the ideas pour out like wine from a royal chalice. This happens about 3% of the time.

The other 97% of the time I am in the frustrated, struggling, office corner full of crumpled up paper mode.

The important thing is to slog diligently through this quagmire of discouragement and despair. Put on some audio commentary and listen to the stories of professionals who have been making films for decades going through the same slings and arrows of outrageous production problems.

In a word – persist.

Persist on telling your story. Persist on reaching your audience. Persist on staying true to your vision.

I think this is a great letter. The audio commentary Austin refers to is what you find in your blu ray DVD. Turn it on sometime. Listen to the struggles the artists and directors when through making that movie.

You’ll see it’s not magic. It’s a lot of hard work. But through the hard work, and persistence, magic can happen. And that is what we all love.

The Alchemy of Animation by Don Hahn

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My son picked up The Alchemy of Animation today from the library. One of the things that struck me is the shear numbers of roles involved in creating a CGI animation. Here they are.

The Team

Director – Chief storyteller
Producer – Team builder, coach, psychotherapist, and cheerleader
Writers – develop the story
Song writers – write the songs
Story artist – someone who can draw and tell a story

Production designer – responsible for the way the movie looks
Art director – sees that the design is executed through every frame
Visual development artists – create art that helps explore and visualize the universe of the film
Sculptors – make 3D models for the animators to digitize so they can draw characters from every angle
Voice actors

The Production Team
Associate producer – worries about x3 things: people, time, and money
Production Manager (PM) – works closely with producers to set goals for each week and manage the daily flow of work
Department heads
Production Department Manager
Modelers – create the elaborate 3D sets
Rigger – takes a modeled character and attaches the animation controls that allow an animator to move the model around

Cinematographer – works with director to plan exactly what the audience sees through the window of the movie screen
Layout artist – designs and creates the films sets

Art and Technology
Technical Director – highly creative jack of all trades who is part artist, part technician. Makes sure artists have user friendly computer screens to work on
Software developer – tests new commercial tools. Builds whatever they can’t buy
Look development artists – create the look of the surfaces on the character

Creating Life
Animators – are actors with a pencil

Animation Tips
Strive for the most effective and clearest extreme poses.
Where do you want the audience to look.
Don’t move anything without a purpose. Holding still is just as important as moving.
Let the whole character tell the story, not just the animator.

Visual effects
Visual effects animator – helps create the feeling of a believable plausible environment.
Lighters – apply final lighting to scenes

All you can do sometimes is just press harder on your pencil to try to make the drawing express what you’re feeling in your heart, and you hope that the audience can feel it as they’re looking at it. – Glen Keane

Designing and Planning
Layout artist – designs the sets for the film
Background painter
Art director – plot the flow of color through a movie

Clean-up artist – make sure everyone is on model

I found this role interesting. Just as everyone’s handwriting is slightly different, every animator has his or her own personal style. So the supervising animator draws a series of ‘model sheets’ to show all the animators on a film how to draw a character.

Ink and Paint
Color modeller

Anyways. It was a cool book and I would recommend to anyone who wants to inspire their kids or to learn more about what goes on in creating a CGI movie.

What makes us cry

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What makes you cry? You know. Really tear up.

  • It can be a picture.
  • A movie.
  • A song.
  • A memory.

You could be cleaning the house, making dinner, minding your own business when out of no where you see it and bam! You’re a puddle.

For me it’s mostly scenes from movies.

I get choked up every time I see this scene from Saving Private Ryan.

This scene from Toy Story II.

The first 5 minutes of Up (Pixar I hate you!).

Or the death of Boromir (geeky yes I know).

I can’t help it. I don’t know why.

I can flip the paper, read about death, destruction, war, not shred a tear, and yet I’ll see this picture of this little girl getting a surprise visit from her dad at school who she hasn’t seen for six months (because he’s been on tour in Afghanistan) and it hits me like a truck.

Does this ever happen to you?

Nothing more than that to this post. Just wanted to share.

Pixar’s Ed Catmull – keep your crises small

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I’m a big Pixar fan, so when I saw this video with Ed Catmull talking about:

  • why SGI failed (0 min)
  • Pixar’s organizational structure (5 min)
  • what iterative development looks like in a movie studio (6 min)
  • the death that nearly occurred on Toy Story II (14min), and
  • how Pixar does retrospectives (26min)

I just had to watch.

So if your a fan of their movies, or you’re just curious to see how they do it, grab a snack, sit back, and enjoy the show.

The Pixar Touch


I just finished David Price’s excellent book titled The Pixar Touch.


It is chalked full of great stories, interesting anecdotes, and is a testament to the shear will power, and creativity of folks like Ed Catmull, John Lasseter, and Steve Jobs.

Here are some little known facts about Pixar:

• Pixar, not Apple, made Steve Jobs a billionaire. Jobs bought Pixar in 1986 from Lucasfilm for $5 million. In 1995, the week after the release of Toy Story, Pixar went public and Jobs’s stock was worth $1.1 billion.

• Ed Catmull, Pixar’s co-founder, dreamed as a youth of becoming an animator, but decided in high school that he couldn’t draw well enough. Instead, he became an early visionary of computer animation as a graduate student in the 1970’s. “Computer animation was sort of on the lunatic fringe at that time,” remembered Fred Parke, a fellow Ph.D. student in Catmull’s class at the University of Utah.

• When John Lasseter joined Pixar—which was then the computer graphics department of George Lucas’s Lucasfilm—he had just been fired from his dream job as an animator at Disney. He became the first person to apply classic Disney character animation principles to computer animation.


• To learn how to make a realistic French kitchen, the producer and first director of Ratatouille worked as apprentices at an elite French restaurant in the Napa Valley.

• Before it became an animation studio, Pixar went through years of struggle and multi-million-dollar losses. It started as a computer company and John Lasseter’s short films, such as Luxo Jr. and Tin Toy, were promotional films to help sell the company’s computers.

• Pixar was almost bought by…Microsoft? Yep: Jobs remained worried about the company’s finances even after Pixar made a deal with the Walt Disney Co. in 1991 to produce Toy Story, Pixar’s first feature film. The Pixar Touch details the effort to sell Pixar to Bill Gates’s company while Toy Story was in production.

• When writing Toy Story, to find inspiration for the relationship between Buzz and Woody, Lasseter and his story department screened classic “buddy” movies, including 48 Hrs., The Defiant Ones, Midnight Run, and Thelma & Louise.

• John Lasseter has instilled an intense commitment to research in the studio’s creative staff. To prepare for the scene in Finding Nemo in which the fish characters Marlin and Dory become trapped in a whale, two members of the art department climbed inside a dead gray whale that had been stranded north of Marin, California.


• Pixar deliberately avoided making the humans in The Incredibles look too realistic. They knew that as animated human characters became too close to lifelike, audiences would actually perceive them as repulsive. The phenomenon, known as the “uncanny valley,” had been predicted by a Japanese robotics researcher as early as 1970. Thus, the details of human skin, such as pores and hair follicles, were left out of The Incredibles’ characters in favor of a more cartoonlike appearance.

• The signature of most Pixar feature films is characters who appeal to children (toys, fish, monsters…), but who have adult-like personalities and are dealing with adult-like problems.

• Prior to the acquisition of Pixar by Disney in 2006, Lasseter loathed the idea of Disney making sequels to Pixar films without Pixar’s involvement—as Disney’s contract with Pixar allowed it to do. “These were the people that put out Cinderella II,” Lasseter remarked.

• Pixar is more than an animation studio. Pixar’s innovations in computer graphics technology pervade movies today. Special-effects houses like Industrial Light & Magic (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) use Pixar’s software to create out-of-this-world places and characters.

(taken from amazon review)

If you want to learn more about the incredible journey this company underwent, you can read the book.

Or you can watch the equally good documentary : The Pixar Story.

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