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Beating the Standards: The Moviemaking Behind Pixar

In the early decade of 1980, Hollywood was trying to innovate. Sagas like Star Wars and Star Trek demonstrated to the world that the era of special effects was just coming. They made it thanks to George Lucas and his computer division within Lucasfilm, the beating heart as far as the effects in Star Wars are concerned. In 1982, Lucas’ computer division completed the Genesis effect shown in Stark Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which depicts an initially lifeless planet being rapidly transformed by dense vegetation. This scene became the first completely computer-animated sequence in a film. The computer division became more and more popular when, in 1984, John Lasseter joined the team and created a short film called The Adventures of André & Wally. In 1986, Steve Jobs purchased the division, establishing it as an independent company, which new name was Pixar.

Their business went through a long set of events and the objectives they were pursuing together changed accordingly, investing in new creative minds that suddenly joined the same studio company. This is actually why Pixar shifted from being an animation company that produced commercials and motion pictures –until the early 80s– to focusing only on creating its own animation features (Pixar, 2023) hence, becoming one of the most recognizable animation production companies in the film industry.

How, then, can a new animation company set the tone, quality standards, and animation style to give shape to modern animated movies? It is clear how nothing of this would have happened without constant innovation. For instance, if one was to look at some of the features of that time, Luxo Jr. and Red’s Dream became the first short films ever to be rendered by the Pixar Image Computer in 1986 and 1987, respectively. The short Tin Toy became the first computer-animated film to receive an Oscar Award in 1989, settling a new animation standard and gaining an agreement with Disney for the production and distribution of a movie that finally premiered in 1995. Starring stars like Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, Toy Story achieved Oscar Awards in Best Original Song, Best Original Score, and Best Original Screenplay in 1996.

Figure 1: Luxo Jr. (Pixar, 1986)

Although any film studio has its workflows and process, the industry standard process of moviemaking has five phases as a backbone, MasterClass (2023) showcases them:

  • Development

  • Pre-production

  • Production

  • Post-production

  • Distribution

There is no precise amount of time that it takes to produce a movie, however, Stephen Follows (2021) writes that, on average, it can take from 1 up to 3 years to make a film, depending on the genre. Now, according to the documentary series Inside Pixar, episode 11 (2020), it can take from 3 to 6 six years to complete a Pixar movie (Inside Pixar, 2021).

The process of moviemaking behind Pixar starts when the director has an idea, a personal observation, an experience or a vision. In contrast with many studios that produce four movies a year, Pixar makes sure that their movies feel personal and vivid and tell a story that reflects the director’s life, here is when the development starts and the script is written.

Once the script is ready, the storyboard process starts along with the pre-production phase of the movie. The storyboard is the art of depicting the script with images, and frames that turn the script into something visual. This is the phase where the actors record their voices and the score team adds a rough piece of music. The editor's job begins when the storyboard is completed as he gets the visual images, the music, and the dialogues together in a rough visual reel called animatic. Once the animatic is completed, the reel –which running time is almost the same as the full movie shall be– is shown in a private screening test. If the screening test shows that the audience does not like it, or if it does not understand it, the team starts over again from the script. On the other hand, if the test is successful, the production phase begins (Inside Pixar, 2021).

Figure 2: UP storyboarding process (Pixar, 2009)

It is important to note that Pixar only produces 3D animated movies, this means that every movie is made under the same technique of animation in the production phase. The 3D animation technique is made when a virtual world is created using a three-dimensional space, which is height, depth, and length. This virtual world is created by 3D artists and is known as layout (Dream Farm Studios, 2023).

Once the layout is completed, the characters are animated according to the movements or actions described in the script and the dialogues they may have. It is important to remember that the actors dubbing were already made, so the animators' team use these records to animate the mouth of the characters as they speak according to the voice dubbing. When the team has finished the layout and the animation, it comes to the part of virtual filming. Within the animation software, the animators add a camera that has movement, hence, the virtual camera films the animation and moves along with the characters to create several shots.

Here is when the post-production phase begins. The editor gathers the digital footage and puts them into an actual movie, just as a conventional editor would do. Finally, the post-production team adds some final foley sounds, textures or special effects. The scoring team adds the complete music and finishes the sound mixing. This is the process of moviemaking of any 3D animation feature. What makes Pixar different from any other animation studio is its workflow in the long-lasting pre-production phase, where it can take up to three years to have a rough reel ready for screening tests.

Figure 3: A Bug's Life layout process and camera (Pixar, 1997)

After the long success of Pixar, the animation industry set out to outdo the company in quality and style. Producers into animation and investors always seek to achieve and surpass the so-called “Pixar Look”, according to Christos Obretenov (2022), a VFX artist who worked on A Christmas Carol, Mars Needs Moms, Bolt, and Monster House. Nonetheless, there was one movie, several years later, that not only did not seek to imitate the Pixar Look but tried another style different from the standard fearing it would be too risky, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

“We’d worked on this for already a year and a half by the time it came out. The world hadn’t seen any of it, and some of the things we were trying to do felt like risks, and we thought there were too many. We thought the majority of the people might hate it. We thought it was divisive.” Said Sony Pictures Imageworks animation supervisor Joshua Beveridge following the worldwide Spider-Man trailer release, according to Ian Failes (2019).

Vox producer Edward Vega (2022) identifies the difference between Spider-Verse animation style and Pixar’s this way:

  • Spider-Verse has no motion blur, Pixar does.

  • Spider-Verse has no depth of field, while Pixar does.

  • Pixar renders according to physically based references. On the other hand, Spider-Verse renders under non-photorealistic settings.

Figure 4: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse still frame (Sony, 2018)

Concisely, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse animation style was based on a comic-imaging reference, setting a game-changer in the newest animation features whose goal was to outdo the Pixar Look, a look that Pixar did not intend to stereotype, as in, a look sought to imitate only by its competition.

Premiering a new feature every 2 or 3 years, Pixar will continue to captivate audiences all around the globe using its technique of telling charming stories. Pixar's animation technique will not change for them as it has not changed since its beginning.

What makes Pixar movies so long in the making? The answer, according to Pixar itself, is the long planning of pre-production, an extended process that enhances quality and captivation for all audiences.

Bibliographical references

Adib, A. N. a. P. (2023, February 9). Animation layout; brief guide + before & after sample video. Dream Farm Studios.,to%20demonstrate%20the%20story%20visually.

Failes, I. (2020). That Moment When You Have to Reveal Your Work to the World. Befores & Afters.

Follows, S. (2021). How long does the average Hollywood movie take to make? Stephen Follows.

Kaplan, T. (Director). (2021). Inside Pixar (season 1, episode 11). Pixar Animation Studios.

Lasseter, J. (Director). (1986). Luxo Jr. Pixar Animation Studios.

Lasseter, J. (Director). (1987). Red’s Dream. Pixar Animation Studios.

Lasseter, J. (Director). (1988). Tin Toy. Pixar Animation Studios.

Lasseter, J. (Director). (1995). Toy Story. Pixar Animation Studios, Walt Disney Pictures.

MasterClass. (2020, November 8). Understanding Filmmaking: The 5 Stages of Film Production - 2023 - MasterClass.

Meyer, N. (Director). (1982). Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Paramount Pictures.

Persichetti, B., Ramsey, P., & Rothman, R. (Directors). (2018). Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Sony Pictures Animation.

Pixar Animation Studios. (n.d.). Pixar Animation Studios.

Smith, A. R. (Director). (1984). The Adventures of André & Wally B. The Lucasfilm Computer Graphics Project.

Vox. (2022, September 10). How “Spider-Verse” forced animation to evolve [Video]. YouTube.

Visual references


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Carlos Loaeza

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