Inside the Pixar Studios
Last week, we asked Karen Paik, author of To Infinity and Beyond!: The Story of Pixar Animation Studios, if she would take us behind the scenes and share what it was like to compile twenty years of Pixar history (and more than 500 images!) into one impressive volume. She kindly obliged…
How long have you worked at Pixar, and what do you do there?
I started working at Pixar in 2000, in the creative development department, where I still work today. This is the department where directors work on their new stories until they are ready to begin production. Since every director comes in at a different point in the creative process—some are just beginning to come up with possible ideas; others have been mulling their story over for years and are ready to start writing—it’s a very dynamic and interesting place to be.
How did this book project come about?
The project was initially proposed in the fall of 2004. Leslie Iwerks was already working on a documentary (The Pixar Story), and the thought was that her interview material and research could also be used in a book. The project took some twists and turns and I ended up coming on board as the writer at the beginning of 2005.
Leslie sent up transcripts of the terrific interviews she’d done, and I had a copy of a previous version of the manuscript, but I was given the freedom to do whatever I felt the project needed, so I did a lot of interviewing of my own and ultimately wrote a new and quite different book. I think that has been to the benefit of both the book and the film, since it means that each project covers the subject in a different way. For example, because of Leslie’s background (she’s the granddaughter of pioneering animator Ub Iwerks), the film spends more time talking about Pixar in the context of the overall field of animation, especially in relation to Disney and hand-drawn animation. And because I come from Pixar, the book spends more time on the details of what it was like to be inside the company when all these different things were going on.
What was the biggest challenge you encountered while working on the book?
From a writing point of view, twenty years (more, counting backstory) is a long time, and there were a lot of people involved along the way, so it was tough to try to do justice to all the cool things that were going on at any given point in time while also maintaining an overall throughline.
For the most part, people know Pixar through its films—which is exactly as it should be; the whole point of the studio is to make these films. But for those who are interested enough in the company to read a book like this, I thought it would be fun to see how those projects fit in to Pixar’s own ongoing story—to see how each project has helped make the studio a slightly different place. After all, whenever you work on something, you really end up remembering not just the end product, but the whole set of experiences that went into making it. So my goal was to try to convey some of that to the reader—to show them a little of what it was like to be inside the studio working on the films.
From a logistical point of view, a book like this is a pretty major undertaking—it took a lot of work by a lot of people to get it across the finish line! I tip my hat to our editors at Chronicle and to the book’s project manager, Kat Chanover.
What’s the Pixar archive like? It must be impressive!
The Pixar archive actually has two parts. There’s a lending library, with reference books and films for the artists to look at, that’s located in one of the production buildings. Then there is the actual archive, the bulk of which is production art. Mostly any place that holds archived materials is cold (to protect the art), and full of boxes! Inside the boxes, though, are all sorts of cool things: slides, photographs, pastels, maquettes, storyboards, concept art, script pages…
Do any of the visuals used in the book particularly stand out in your memory?
Personally, I think the pictures of the Pixar folks back in the very early days are fantastic. Leslie and Christine (Freeman, Pixar’s lead archivist) really collected some wonderful stuff; people were great about sharing things from their personal collections. First, it’s always fun to see pictures of people you know now from ten or twenty years ago. But mostly I find the pictures very touching and inspiring because back then none of them had any idea whether any of this would pan out—they were just trying to make a living so they could keep doing the work they loved. It reminds you that for all the success the company has had, nothing was ever for certain along the way.
Did you make any surprising or unexpected discoveries during the project?
I already knew a fair bit about Pixar before I started on the project, but I think the most surprising single piece of information I learned while working on it was that Pixar’s first idea for a feature was an adaptation of James and the Giant Peach, by Roald Dahl.
Other than that, I remember being consistently surprised by what a small world computer animation is. Of course, part of this is because the field has grown so quickly. But part of it is also because the medium exists at the intersection of two fields that were pretty small themselves not so long ago. Pixar got started when CG was just beginning to really go mainstream, and animation was warming up after a relatively dormant period—so the respective professional circles were pretty tight. People grew along with their fields, so nowadays, at the more senior levels of computer animation, or animation, or computer graphics, it seems like everyone has known everyone for a very long time.
Do you have a favorite Pixar film?
Hmm…I love all of the studio’s films, but I do have a particular soft spot for Ratatouille because it’s the first Pixar film I ever worked on, and I was able to watch it develop from almost the very beginning.
Which Pixar character do you identify with most and why?
Well, they used my hair as reference for Violet’s in The Incredibles, so it’s very cool to be able to say I have a teeny tiny link to one of the actual Pixar characters.
Personality-wise, though, I am probably most similar to Remy, because I too love to geek out about things I’m interested in. However, I can only aspire to his culinary genius…
Any last thoughts, observations, tidbits, or secrets to share with our readers?
It’s probably hard to believe considering the book ended up being over 300 pages, but there were actually a lot of things we would have loved to include but couldn’t. You have to stop somewhere, though!
We all really enjoyed working on it—I hope people will enjoy reading it!
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