Skip to main content

Studies That Stretch to Infinity, and Beyond

As Pixar launches "Toy Story 3," we look at research the innovative animation studio has inspired.
  • Author:
  • Updated:

Pixar Animation Studios has produced 10 consecutive smash hits, representing "a standard of consistent excellence with few historical precedents," in the words of Slate film critic Christopher Orr. This spectacular success can be traced to its succinct set of operating principles. The first two — "everyone must have the freedom to communicate with anyone" and "it must be safe for everyone to offer ideas" — foster a relaxed corporate culture and encourage creative thinking. But we at Miller-McCune are particularly drawn to the company's third and final principle: "We must stay close to innovations happening in the academic community."

To that end, the professionals at Pixar — like their colleagues over on Sesame Street — maintain a strong set of links with the wonking-class world. Creative and technical types (at Pixar, the two are often interchangeable) regularly write academic papers describing their evolving techniques. Meanwhile, independent academics parse everything from the company's management style to the gender-relation implications of its plots and characters. As the studio's 11th feature, Toy Story 3, reaches audiences this summer, we look at some of the research and analysis the creators of Finding Nemo, WALL-E and Up have inspired.

It's one thing for a studio head to boast about its product to Entertainment Weekly; it's quite another to write a lengthy essay for the Harvard Business Review. That's just what Pixar president and co-founder Ed Catmull did for the September 2008 issue, sharing with the nation's current and aspiring CEOs some of the company's core guidelines, which emphasize openness and fallibility. "Management's job is to build the capability to recover when failures occur," he declared. "We must constantly challenge all of our assumptions and search for the flaws that could destroy our culture." A somewhat different philosophy than, say, Enron.

Pixar has been presented as an example of enlightened management in publications ranging from the Journal of Cardiovascular Translational Research to the Proceedings of the National Conference on Outdoor Leadership. (Apparently both heart surgeons and scout leaders can learn lessons from Buzz Lightyear.) Its 2006 merger with The Walt Disney Co. has been widely praised for bringing value to the larger company while preserving the innovative culture of the smaller one.

That culture includes offering employees in-house courses, so, in Catmull's words, "people from different disciplines [get] the opportunity to mix and appreciate what everyone does." It also means sharing breakthroughs with the outside world via conference presentations and research papers. "Publishing may give away ideas," Catmull explained, "but it keeps us connected with the academic community. This connection is worth far more than any ideas we may have revealed. It helps us attract exceptional talent."

One of the first such papers was published in the Proceedings of the 41st International Computer Conference (COMPCON '96). In it, four Pixar staffers discuss the techniques they developed creating Toy Story, the first full-length feature film produced exclusively by computer animation technology. One section, labeled "Shading," gives a good example of the level of thought that goes into the on-screen imagery; it describes how a window ledge in a boy's bedroom was given its highly specific appearance.

"In order to provide the withered, old look that has been painted multiple times," they write, "it is divided into more than five layers: a layer for the wood grain, a hand-painted layer to indicate where the base coat of the paint lies, another painted layer to describe where this paint is chipped and scratched, more layers of paint for color, and finally, a layer of dirt and scratches to provide the aged affect."

But a windowsill, however weathered, looks different at dawn than it does at noon, or when a lamp has been switched on. To capture such subtleties, the shading department encodes into its work a lighting model, which "describes a surface's shininess and reaction to lights, and may be as simple as plastic or as complex as satin," the staffers explain. "At its completed stage, a shader will have anywhere from 10 to 200 lines of code to accurately describe its surface under a variety of lighting conditions." A perfect reflection of the company's dedication to detail.

The Pixar people concluded that early paper by putting their technical breakthroughs into context, asserting that story and character remain the most important elements of filmmaking. Film scholars tend to agree, and over the past 15 years many have weighed in on the recurrent themes they spot in Pixar films and how they reflect contemporary ideas and values. Unlike its parent company, Disney, Pixar does not turn to traditional fairy tales for inspiration; stories are developed in-house and reflect the personalities and preoccupations of their creators.

Also unlike Disney, Pixar films almost always have male protagonists. While this has engendered some criticism, the husband and wife team of Ken Gillam and Shannon Wooden contend these movies are presenting viewers with a welcome new model of masculinity. Writing in the Spring 2008 Journal of Popular Film and Television, the scholars note that in Toy Story, Cars and The Incredibles, an "alpha male" character discovers the limits of his powers and suffers a period of "acute loneliness and vulnerability" before coming to understand he must embrace such traditionally feminine virtues as cooperation and teamwork to achieve his goal. In the end, these films "achieve (and teach) a kinder, gentler understanding of what it means to be a man," the researchers write.

Another recurring theme in Pixar's movies is a warning not to lose touch with your individual gifts by giving into the pressure to conform. In terms of political ideology, this can play out either way. The Incredibles, which features a family of superheroes who are legally mandated to rein in their powers, was compared by The New York Times' A.O. Scott to the novels of Ayn Rand. But in WALL-E, the residents of a spaceship colony established when a polluted Earth became uninhabitable are the guests/prisoners of an all-powerful corporation. Theirs is a non-coercive conformist society, in which consumption is one's highest calling, and everyone is literally fat and happy.

The "fat" part of that equation caught the attention of University of Calgary obesity researcher Charlene Elliott, who analyzed the film in the Red Feather Journal. To her, the characters of WALL-E resemble the "kidults" or "adultescents" described by political scientist Benjamin Barber, who warned of infantilized societies in which a childlike ethos of self-centered indulgence becomes predominant.

"WALL-E's cautionary tale warns about the consequences of both unbridled consumption and the abdication of stewardship," Elliott writes, noting that the turning point of the film occurs when the ship's captain realizes a plant seedling rescued from Earth requires nurturing. The fragile life form sparks something deep inside his brain telling him it's time to grow up and start taking care of someone, or something, else.

Similarly, the old man in Up finds the culmination of his long-deferred childhood dream is the chance to mentor a kid in need of a father figure. Are these happy endings? Sort of, but the underlying message — one must put away childish things — inevitably contains a whiff of regret. In Pixar films, layered emotions are rendered in delicate shades — just like the windowsills.