It was on the other side of the tracks…literally. You had to walk across the railroad tracks that separated the two buildings in the nondescript industrial park. This was in the quiet little town of Point Richmond California. Not far from nearby Berkley, you’d probably never know this town existed. After all, why would anyone want to go to Point Richmond California?
We did, of course. Richmond was the location of a boutique Northern California animation company called, Pixar. After making an impressive screen debut with their animated film, “Toy Story,” the spirited team of young filmmakers were hard at work on a followup movie called, “A Bug’s Life.” However, their eager distribution partner to the south wanted even more. What about a third film? What about a follow-up to the successful first film? Clearly, dollar signs were in their eyes, and that explains the immediate greenlight for a third feature film even as the second was still in production.
Pixar Animation Studios in the nineties was not the blockbuster producing mega-hit animation company it is today. When we arrived, the little start-up had only one movie under it’s belt and in many ways was still an unproven enterprise. Had the first animated movie been a fluke, some wondered? Could the little company continue to be successful making movies with computers? Only time would tell. We arrived from Southern California to help with the development of film number three. Stretched thin, the modest size film company was in need of help. Unlike today, young artists were not pounding on the studio doors begging for a job. Unknown Pixar scoured the Bay Area practically pleading for people to come and work for them. Sounds crazy, I know. However, I remember those days when few artists considered working for the odd, quirkly little studio owned by equally odd, Steve Jobs. Needing serious back-up, the company looked south to their distribution partner for some needed help. Luckily, I was one of the few veteran artists asked to travel to Northern California to assist the new studio.
The staff of Pixar Animation Studios numbered less than three hundred back in the nineties and the special vibe of being a start-up could still be felt. It was not unusual to walk past studio owner, Steve Jobs chatting with John Lasseter in the hallway and the cool, casual vibe was everywhere. Of course, there was free fruit juice in the fridge and studio caps and t-shirts were given away with no charge. Unlike slick and polished corporate Disney, the Pixar screening room had the look of a garage sale in progress. The room was filled with mis-matched sofas and chairs. They were usually cast-offs brought from home by studio employees. Not surprising, it was this special start-up vibe and creative energy that would propell the studio forward and in time, leave everyone, including Disney, in its wake.
Sadly, nothing ever stays the same and today Pixar Animation Studios feels as slick, polished and corporate as their producing partner to the south. Time marches on, and there is no way a successful company can remain a start-up forever. Of course, this is nothing unique. It is the ultimate fate of every successful company no matter who they happen to be. Soon, the free wheeling spirit is replaced by corporate initatives and goofy, experimental artists give way to serious decisions made by vice presidents. Meetings become longer and less productive and the studio goal is to launch the next feature motion picture with at least a seventy million dollar opening weekend. Like it or not it’s the price that’s paid for success. This is not to say the future is bleak. Far from it. Pixar Animation Studios will have the opportunity to continually reinvent themselves. Heck! Disney has had to do this a number of times. Finally, I’m pleased to say I will never forget my nineties arrival at Pixar Animation Studios and the amazing energy felt during those early days back in 1997. The days when the young Pixar animation company was still unproven, untried and incredibly brilliant.