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Greetings From Pixar

"I'm invited where?!"

It was Friday afternoon and I didn't have any huge plans for the weekend, yet in less than 48 hours I'd be on a flight to San Francisco---for an all-expenses paid trip to Pixar Animation Studios, no less. The reason for this last-minute vacation, of course, was a Press Day for their upcoming release of the Toy Story 10th Anniversary DVD. Our fearless editor provided most of the details that evening. A Disney representative took care of the rest.

Let's get the obvious out of the way: asking a fan of cartoons and animation to take a free trip to Pixar is like asking a serious fan of world cinema if they'd like to give Uwe Boll a gut punch: it's a no-brainer. Even so, it took me a few minutes to decide---after all, I'd never been more than halfway across the country (especially all by my lonesome), and as much as it pains me to admit it, I'd never even been in a plane before. Pretty sad, huh? Even so, I'd have to be crazy to pass up something like this---and even though I'm a little on the crazy side, I went anyway.

Lodging was provided by the Clift Hotel, which I'm told is one of the swankier joints in the area. I liked it for two reasons: one, it was free; two, it looked as if it was designed by David Lynch with a little help from Tim Burton. It's the kind of place that looks like 3:00am, even in mid-afternoon. Long story short: after the long flight, I was ready to crash so Christmas morning could arrive sooner; after all, it's not every day that you can wake up and check something off from your life's "to do" list. Jet lag made it a long night, but the morning couldn't have come any quicker.

9:45am: The Big Arrival
(Unfortunately, there were no fireworks)

After a bit of confusion at the hotel, myself and three other folks were directed to a fancy limo for the short ride to Pixar (no complaints here). Roughly 30 minutes later we arrived at the main gates, received visitor's passes and were excitedly shuffled inside the main entrance. The large majority of the building was "Incredible-ized" and looked fantastic; from the super-high ceilings to the oversized artwork adorning the walls, it was quite a sight to see (above). After signing a confidentiality agreement and nosing around in the lobby area, it was time to begin the tour.

10:00-11:00am: Tour of Pixar Studios
Hosted by Liz Greenberg of Pixar University

From top to bottom, this looked like an amazing place to work…but anyone who's seen the bonus features on their Pixar DVDs already knows that. The entrance area was only a small part of the main lobby, which also housed the employee cafeteria, game room and other neat stuff. This was the only section that outsiders could wander about freely, as the hallways and staircases were blocked by "Closed Set" signs. Liz Greenberg of Pixar University was our guide for the tour---and for those unfamiliar with the "university", it's a series of classes (art-related and otherwise) that employees are required to attend regularly. Guiding us up to the second floor, Liz informed us that pictures weren't permitted up there. Sorry.

For original art enthusiasts, the second floor of Pixar is one of the coolest "museums" you'll ever see. There were tons of early sketches, unused character designs and sculptures scattered about. I glanced into a few employee offices as we made our way around the floor, and there were no cubicles or glaring fluorescent lights to be found anywhere. A colorful display case full of awards and submissions from fans and family members dominated one of the walls. Several background "props" and full-size models from The Incredibles, Finding Nemo and other Pixar films were right out in the open. On several occasions, employees even zipped by on scooters.

It's a safe bet to say that Pixar does a fantastic job of investing in their employees. Artists and writers are encouraged to have fun and loosen up, to work together and play together. Writer's block can be cured by a quick game of Ultimate Frisbee. A long day can go more smoothly after an appointment with the on-site massage therapist. There's also the game room, gym, pool (seen above), volleyball court, soccer field and more. This is a company that makes sure their employees are happy, but here's more proof: they've grown to more than 800 in the last 15 years, and no core employees have quit. You'd have to be crazy to leave, right?

The tour came and went very quickly, but it was an interesting look at a most interesting company. Still, there were a few small disappointments, though they were for understandable reasons. Firstly, there was a bit of sadness in the air, brought upon by the unfortunate death of Pixar employee Joe Ranft just a few days before the event. He passed away at the young age of 45, leaving behind a tremendous body of work that included co-writing credits on many Disney and Pixar films. The second disappointment was the absence of Pixar guru John Lasseter, though it undoubtedly was related to Ranft's tragic death. Even so, it was quite an honor to see behind the curtain of such an impressive and influential young company.

For a further glimpse of the studio---well, at least the areas we were permitted to see, that is---there are a few other snapshots to be seen in the Photo Gallery below. Immediately following the hour-long tour, our group was directed to the in-house Screening Room for some DVD action.

11:00-12:00pm: DVD Preview of
Toy Story: 10th Anniversary Edition

Hosted by Roger Gould (Creative Director) and
Ann Brilz (DVD Producer) in the Screening Room

Here's where the geek factor got tuned up a bit. There probably aren't many companies out there who offer their employees a theater-quality screening room, but this one even had comfy couches. From what I've heard, employees are even permitted to sign out the screening room for their own personal use (DVDs, video games, etc.), which made me insanely jealous.

Anyway, on to the real story: here, we were given a sneak peek at the upcoming Toy Story: 10th Anniversary Edition 2-disc DVD set, due out on September 6th. Roger Gould and Ann Brilz guided us through some of the bells and whistles on each disc, so I quickly jotted down names and running times in the hopes of offering a quick preview to you guys. My initial efforts proved to be in vain, since I was sent a screener copy shortly thereafter---so for those of you who haven't read my complete review of this excellent release (posted on 8/25), take five and check it out.

Read the complete review of Toy Story: 10th Anniversary Edition

12:00-12:45pm: Lunch at Pixar Café
Hosted by the Four Food Groups (plus cake)

The only good thing about never eating breakfast is that lunch always tastes extra good. Pixar put out a nice little buffet-style spread for all of us press vultures, and I could've sworn I even saw the legendary Bud Luckey (Boundin') sitting over in the corner by himself (I didn't have the guts to bug him while he was eating, though). Just for the record, we were seated near the center of the employee game room (see the Photo Gallery), right between some oversized Monsters Inc. artwork and a smattering of classic arcade games. Interestingly enough, a few employees looked to be starting a casual meeting of some sort just as we were finishing up. Their sketches and notes were scattered about on a billiards table.

1:00-2:30pm: Panel Discussions with
Members of the Pixar Creative Team

With Gary Rydstrom (Sound Design), Pete Docter (Supervising Animator)
Lee Unkrich (Film Editor) and Andrew Stanton (Story/Screenplay)

The geek factor rose to incredible heights during the final event, as we filed into an upstairs conference room for a pair of Q&A sessions. First up to bat was Gary Rydstrom (above left, middle), the sound designer for Toy Story and just about every other blockbuster in the last few decades. This session lasted just under 35 minutes as Rydstrom covered a variety of subjects, ranging from his favorite personal projects to his home theater equipment. Rather than reading a hastily transcribed summary, below you can hear the Q&A for yourself. It's not exactly a studio-quality recording, but it's better than a concert bootleg. Sorry for the lack of a formal introduction, but there's still plenty of interesting information covered. Enjoy!

[Q&A #1]

Shortly thereafter, the second panel discussion with Pete Docter, Lee Unkrich and Andrew Stanton began (above right). This was a bit livelier than the first Q&A, with the trio doing a nice job feeding off each other and fielding some decent questions. Among other topics, they briefly discussed their apprehension towards making a sequel to Toy Story, the "early days" of Pixar and the wild success it's been enjoying for the past decade. Again, the complete Q&A can be heard in its entirety below; unfortunately, there's still a lack of introductions that can make it difficult to figure out who's doing the answering. In any case, this Q&A is still full of valuable insight, even if the audio quality of this recording isn't quite THX certified.

[Q&A #2]

2:45pm: The Graceful Exit

Sadly, it was already time to go, but I can't say that it wasn't fun while it lasted. I'd love to get the chance to pay a visit to Pixar again someday, and I'd encourage any fan of animation to make the trip if humanly possible. This is truly a company that loves its work from start to finish: from Toy Story to the upcoming Cars, it's hard to hate any studio that puts so much love into every pixel. I'd like to thank Pixar and Disney for giving me the opportunity to have a look behind the scenes, our fearless editor Geoff for helping an East Coast guy see the other side of the country, and Chris Chiarella of Home Theater Magazine for the conversation on the way back.

As something of a footnote to this report, it was also nice to spend a bit of time walking around the Bay area in San Francisco. The weather was terrific, so I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening just wandering around and taking a few pictures…all the while trying not to look too much like a tourist in the process. Along with a few more Pixar shots, these can be viewed in the Photo Gallery below. Frequent flyers will likely be bored by a few quickies I took out of the plane window on the way back, but I figured I'd throw a few in for good measure. Thanks for reading!

Additional Photo Gallery

Pixar: Me and The Incredibles | Pixar Lobby #2 (Waiting Area) | Pixar Lobby #3 (Front Desk) | The Game Room | View from 2nd Floor Bridge

Other Photos: Near the Bay Bridge | Across from Pier #5 | Fisherman's Wharf #2 | The Trans-America Building, AKA "The Pyramid" | "The Pyramid" #2 | Plane #1 | Plane #2 | Plane #3


Randy Miller III is an art instructor based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in an art gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.

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