Learning from the Pixar Pioneers

1300 words

6 minute read

While flipping through Netflix options over the holiday break, I came across a 2007 documentary titled The Pixar Story. It tells the story of the origins & accomplishments of the world’s most successful computer animation company, and the transition from hand drawn animation to computer-generated imagery (CGI) animation & 3D computer graphics.

About 30 minutes into the film, I started to realize the many similarities between the story of CGI and the story of Additive Manufacturing (AM). In it's state of nascency, CGI and 3D computer graphics technology experienced many of the same hurdles as AM technology.

Computer animation in film began in the 1970s as visual effects and short animations were crafted using the layering of 2D images. In 1972 Pixar co-founders, Ed Catmull and Fred Park, created the first prototype of a digitally-rendered 3D hand using an emerging and breakthrough technology that would be the foundation for numerous effects and movie masterpieces that followed. However, after the introduction of CGI, the need for 2D animation dropped significantly. Traditional animators felt an enormous loss of moral and will to make good product. It was an art form built up over decades, almost abandoned. Sound somewhat familiar?

I feverishly took notes throughout the documentary. Perhaps there is something the manufacturing industry can learn from this story; can those looking to introduce or embrace AM apply the same principles learned by the film industry with the introduction of CGI? I believe the answer to that question is yes.

I summarized below some of the lessons learned by Pixar (acquired by Disney in 2006 for $7.4B) as they found success in their industry through use of breakthrough technology. I also included key takeaways from those lessons, specifically for those of us working in AM.

Let newcomers take a shot.

Pixar promoted the use of new directors as well as outside directors on various films. After 3 successful films by initial director John Lasseter (Toy Story, A Bug's Life, Toy Story 2), Pixar provided the opportunity to a new director, Pete Docter, to develop its fourth hit, Monsters, Inc.

Monsters, Inc. brought in $62.6 million opening weekend, making it the most successful film for Pixar at the time. Pixar then invited director Brad Bird to join the team as their first outside director, to develop the 2004 hit The Incredibles. Per the documentary, "Anyone with four hits in a row would normally not be open to change. Pixar was different." Not only did Bird develop Pixar's next big hit, he brought in new perspectives as well. "Once we brought Brad into Pixar, we all were learning again."

Key takeaway for AM: Remember, fresh minds bring fresh ideas. Invite them in.

Bring (diverse) groups together.

While developing Finding Nemo, the Pixar team hosted what they called 'Nemo Dailies' each day. There were multiple animators assigned to the film, and each morning they would meet to provide project updates and showcase their storyboards, making it possible for a director to solicit help from Pixar's “creative brain trust” of filmmakers.

If the director needed assistance, they convened the various members of the brain trust group to show the current version of the work in progress. This was followed by a lively two-hour give-and-take discussion, which was all about making the film better. There’s no ego, and no one holds anything back to be polite.

Pixar also understood the value of a diverse group and how that diverse group can best work together. "The important thing is not the idea. It's the people. How they work together and who they are. Business depends on unplanned collaboration. Put people together and promote unplanned collaboration, because innovation happens at the confluence of disciplines."

Key takeaway for AM: Hire people with diverse roles and responsibilities. Perhaps some with direct experience, perhaps some without. Create opportunities for those people to meet each other. Let them thrive.

Watch out for "Second Product Syndrome."

Second product syndrome, also known as second-system effect (or feature creep), is the tendency of small, elegant, and successful systems or products to be succeeded by over-engineered, bloated systems, due to inflated expectations and overconfidence. The Pixar team worked diligently to avoid this after the considerable success of their first film, Toy Story.

Per the Pixar team, second product syndrome is "what happens when we don't really understand why our first product was successful."

Key takeaway for AM: Perhaps we can maneuver our way through the hype cycle more efficiently if we think back to both how and why initial machines, applications, or opportunities were successful. I encourage any business struggling to gain or maintain market share to do so.

Exploit passion, for both the new and the old.

Passion is fuel for achievement. The Pixar Story tells of how employees would sleep on mattresses under their desks to get projects done on time. "Everyone here loves films and just wants to make movies they want to see." As with many new and emerging technologies, the CGI industry is made up of hungry artists and engineers looking to make an impact. “There are so many young people who want to be animators. It’s an inspiring and exciting field,” said Diane Disney Miller, Walt Disney's eldest daughter. But it isn't just a passion for 3D that drives Pixar. "We love 3D, but we also love 2D." Pixar designers value both traditional animation (2D) and new-tech animation.

As well, Pixar leadership ensured to keep the passionate culture in place as they grew. They worked to "keep Pixar being Pixar," and wanted to find ways to "spread some of that culture around Disney."

Key takeaway for AM: Passion is abound in our industry. Just because an engineer embraces a new technology does not necessarily mean they throw out the old. Passionate people will find ways to blend experience. Pixar's appreciation of culture may offer a good lesson for future M&A/integration strategies in our space as well.

And last, throughout everything, be pioneering.

The following, taken from a blog by Josh Spector with Connected Comedy, tells the story of Pixar's head animator, John Lasseter. Lasseter truly retained a pioneering spirit throughout his career.

There's a great story in the documentary about Pixar's head animator John Lasseter during his time working for Disney as a traditional animator (before he joined Pixar). Lasseter managed to convince his bosses to let him create an experimental short film made solely with computer animation. After spending almost a year working on the film, it came time for him to screen it for the Disney executives. They hated it. At the end of the screening, the top executive asked Lasseter if this new computer animation would make it faster or cheaper to produce films than traditional animation. The answer to both questions was no. Then the executive said, “So why the hell would we ever do this?”

Less than an hour after that meeting, Lasseter was fired from Disney.

This story illustrates an important lesson – the interests of the “industry” will likely be very different than your own personal interests – but that doesn’t mean your interests are wrong.

Disney didn’t care about changing the status quo unless it was going to make their products faster or cheaper – they didn’t want to see the future possibilities of this new path because they were comfortable dominating the animation industry at the time.

Lasseter wanted to experiment, to push the boundaries of his industry, and to create his own path. His interests didn’t align with his industry’s and he was willing to find his own way. Ultimately, his interests wound up revolutionizing the industry as a whole and it was Disney who had to play catch up to him.

Key takeaway for AM: You'll face adversity - from your team, your leadership, your suppliers, and your customers. Often times, people push away that which is unknown. Keep pushing anyway.



As always, I welcome any comments or questions at additivealison@gmail.com.

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