Designers
Edna Mode (aka

Pixar

Location: California, Emeryville
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Until Pixar Animation Studios began releasing feature films, the terms authenticity and animation seemed oxymoronic. However, since it was founded in 1998 by Steve Jobs and Ed Catmull, Pixar has revolutionized animation through its technological innovations, remarkable spatial illusionism, sculptural reality, and emphasis on authenticity in its stories, set designs, and characters. Its success is based on three factors: its pioneering proprietary software; its talented staff, who work in small collaborative teams; and its belief in and support of traditional animation artistry. In seven full-length films as well as groundbreaking shorts during the last decade, Pixar has replaced the traditional method of photographing individually framed celluloid or paper drawings with the most advanced digital technology available today.

Pixar’s technical and creative teams developed three core proprietary software systems—Marioneet, Rightmaster, and RenderMan— all of which have significantly advanced motion-picture rendering. The process of creating a Pixar film, however, begins largely by hand. The company employs artists, painters, sculptors, and animators; teams of up to twenty people work on the front end of a film before any technology is used. As Brad Bird, director and voice of the Incredibles character Edna, observes, the main job of the technology is to “find a way to do” whatever is necessary to create a believable, engaging story. Once that is achieved, everything else follows.

Each film involves months of research and brainstorming before any commitment is made toward a specific drawing style or character. Creative teams go to great lengths to understand every aspect of the film’s subject matter, often taking acting classes to learn how to convincingly communicate what a character is thinking. During research for the film short Boundin’, Pixar artists learned to shear sheep; and for Ratatouille, they took culinary lessons from a chef and kept live rats in their studios to study the animals’ movements and gestures. Characters are first drawn in two dimensions—resulting in thousands of drawings, sketches, and collages of each. Simultaneously, another group of artists paints oil and pastel paintings of the various landscape locations and contexts in which the action will take place. Once the illustrators and director choose the best angle to shoot each sequence, the storyboards are locked into place; the characters are translated from two to three dimensions (individually modeled by Pixar sculptors); and lighting, shading, and texture are added.

The goal is not hyperrealism, but believability—to capture the “essence” of life rather than record every tiny facial hair and blemish. As Bird observes, although they have the ability to do the latter, they have found that “what you think it looks like is often more ‘realistic’ in perception than the actuality.” For Finding Nemo, the Pixar team replicated the look of ocean water, but found that, when reproduced on the screen, it looked dead. So they started over, this time trying to replicate how water feels, with extraordinarily life-like results.

Pixar’s commitment to authenticity extends to each film’s sets and costumes. For example, there were ninety-five costume changes in The Incredibles. The technology teams learned how to wrap flat clothing patterns around three-dimensional animated bodies. The film’s set designers watched James Bond films and The Jetsons cartoons before designing the 1960s-style fashions; and they included Ludwig Mies van der Rohe furniture, George Nelson clocks, and 1960s stereo equipment in the main characters’ living room. For Ratatouille, Pixar teams toured the sewers of Paris and sampled each recipe Ratatouille teaches the young chef to make in the film. The story, of a young adult rat who initially doesn’t “fit” in his environment, and slowly learns what he was meant to do with his life, is not just geared toward children, but, like other Pixar films, also resonates with adults.

With its emphasis on authenticity of detail, gesture, character, sets, costumes, and actions, an engaging story, and creative blending of human judgment with innovative technology, Pixar continues to lead the field.