Summer Stories -Maureen Fan, Pixar

Both my left and right brain giggled with anticipation as I pushed through Pixar’s glass doors and flew over the rainbow into a world where dreams really do come true – where fish speak, toys have insecurities, and robots fall in love.

My left and right brain constantly war with each other. At Stanford, the struggle was between Computer Science and Art, so I did both. During my 5 years at eBay, I debated between business school and art school, conducting business during the day, and figure-drawing by night. I blame my pre-school teachers who forced me to switch from left-handedness to right-handedness.

Obviously, my brain didn’t quite make the switch cleanly. It only seems natural, then, that I would be passionate about Computer Animation, a medium that creates worlds unconstrained by reality and limited only by the artist’s imagination.

Practicality, however, had always won and I postponed filmmaking. Finally, this summer, I was able to experience the industry that I’ve followed for the past 10 years, not in a dark movie theater tag heuer replica for sale , but inside Pixar’s walls. Though Practicality gave me grief during the RC year and would have preferred that I take a more traditional MBA position in the entertainment industry, I wanted a chance to work with artists and engineers to create the final product – to point to the film and say, “I worked on that scene.” HBSers, please go see Toy Story 3 when it comes out!

This production internship allowed me to turn this abstract notion of making animation into a reality. I sponged up information about working in a large computer animation studio; felt and analyzed the pros and the cons.

Armed with this creative experience, I am much better equipped to determine what industry to pursue post-business school. And most importantly, I’ve struggled with and redefined what “success” means to me. I am determined to achieve that potential, my “success.”

The Emerald City
The dream factory contains rocket scientists, Computer Graphics geniuses, and some of the world’s most talented artists. They all have something in common – they are ridiculously passionate about making good films. No matter what dramas flare up, no matter how much more they can get paid elsewhere, they want to make an amazing movie. And they’ve followed interesting paths to get there. My manager, for example, earned a Master’s in CS from Brown and was a Google engineer. She then left to make films. Chris who is the shader on my team? He toured with Jimmy Buffet after graduating from a music conservatory (undergrad in Physics). One day, he decided that he wanted to make movies. Another artist on my team had been an architect first. This is the same artist that decided he was going to try to speak Chinese the entire day even though he only knew five phrases. My manager then decided that she would speak in Swedish. Needless to say, our meetings were quite interesting that day. I have never met such a concentrated group of talented, interesting people all in one place. I was honored to work with these people daily. Their passion was inspiring.

Don’t be silly, Toto. Scarecrows don’t talk breitling superocean replica.
I worked in the Toy Story 3 Sets team as a Production Intern. This is similar to being a Product Manager in the tech world, managing artists and engineers to implement the director’s vision. Remember the restaurant, Paris, and the sewers in Ratatouille? The Sets team is responsible for modeling, dressing, shading, and painting all of that. For my main project, I developed processes to better manage my Sets team and to improve the production pipeline. After interviewing technical directors, department leads, and production staff from several productions, I determined the types of information that employees needed to excel at their jobs. I then created a flexible data management system for my team to manage assets (such as artwork) and collaborate with other departments like Layout and Art. My anthropology background helped me to research different employees’ needs. My strategy background helped me to synthesize this information into a tool. My Computer Science and UI background came in handy as I coded this system through several iterations. My art background and experience in the live action film world was useful when attending meetings with the director and the art department.

The project was a perfect introduction to the Pixar pipeline, since it required that I understand all the inputs and outputs between the various departments. TOM helped quite a bit as I examined the way each production was organized. What were the advantages of arranging the pipeline as an assembly line versus cell-based pods? Which personalities are better suited for one versus the other? What are the different management styles that Producers employ? I had always been told that concepts that apply to other industries just don’t apply to the entertainment industry. While there are many differences, especially in personality, I was happy to see that business concepts are indeed applicable wherever you go.

My main project wasn’t the most challenging aspect of my job, however. Production management is largely about finding ways to motivate different and sometimes extreme personalities, like artists and engineers, while navigating the maze of entertainment politics and hierarchy. As we learned in TOM, managing art and science is not always easy. But it’s rewarding when you’re working with those who are similarly passionate and proud of their product.

That’s how we laugh the day away, In the Merry Old Land of Oz
Of course there were perks of working at Pixar. Movies, all the time! I got to see movie screenings in the plush Pixar theater before the films were released. Pixar even screened Ponyo on a Cliff, Miyazaki’s newest film, the very first US showing. Often, the films’ creators would come to discuss their films and answer questions. The beach volleyball court, special swimming pool, fine dining, soccer field, and the gym are enough to keep you at work at all hours. My favorite pastime, however, was going into artists’ offices and seeing how they personalized their own spaces – filled with art masterpieces, music, and books.
Other shenanigans. One day, all the animators dressed up as characters from the TV show, The Wire. The animation interns dressed as boy scouts every Friday. They even had a bake sale in the middle of the atrium. For car fanatics, Pixar organizes Motorama, a BBQ/ car show every summer.

During off-hours, I took Pixar University classes, company-sponsored classes for just about any subject, from gesture drawing to Pilates.

I’d bet, however, that even if you moved Pixar to Idaho and got rid of all the perks, most of employees would gladly follow to continue to work with such talented people and to make quality films. To confer, converse, and otherwise hob-nob with my brother wizards.

To top it all off, some of the most talented art directors allowed me to run PR for the Totoro Forest Project, a fundraising exhibition/auction to benefit the Japanese non-profit organization “Totoro No Furusato National Fund.” This organization is dedicated to protect Sayama Forest, a large park outside Tokyo that inspired the iconic animated film, My Neighbor Totoro, by respected Oscar-winning director, Hayao Miyazaki. The world’s top film animators, comic book artists and internationally recognized illustrators have come together to pay tribute to Miyazaki and to contribute to this cause.

Horse of a different color
Speaking of tension, how do you balance creativity and commerce? Traditionally Pixar has always chosen creativity, sparing nothing to make works of art. I was inspired to have found a place where pursuing art with abandon still yielded stellar financial returns. All their films have been successful, a difficult task for any film studio. What other company would gamble on an almost silent film about robots falling in love? This philosophy allow
s them to attract the best talent. However, I am curious to see how it will transition from a small startup to a larger studio. How will commerce stand up next to art and how will they continue to attract and retain top talents, who are driven more by passion than by money? How will the Disney partnership affect the corporate culture if at all?

Follow the yellow brick road? Well, now which way do we go?

Power, influence, and money. As with most students at business school, I subscribe to certain societal measures of success. Turning down more lucrative internships was difficult, but I have always wanted to work in Computer Animation. What better opportunity to try with little risk, than during a summer internship? Through the summer, I struggled with what success means to me.

Living on an extremely meager salary is difficult in the Bay Area. I struggled with the thought of making close to minimum wage (industry standard) for many years until making Producer, with less influence than I had before going to business school. I asked myself how I would feel about all of my friends, classmates, and old co-workers surpassing me in the pay and title scale. Would I still be able to spend time with friends when they chose more expensive venues for socializing? Would I be happy? Which industry would allow me to be genuinely myself? The tech startup world offers a fast pace suitable for any ADD-prone individual, a relatively flat structure with plenty of growth opportunities, and people who are incredibly genuine. The computer animation world offers the ability to create without bounds.

Strategy teaches you that decisions are about tradeoffs, where you invest. Don’t straddle. But maybe there’s a land in a lullaby where head and heart match. Trust me, if there is such a place, I’ll find it.

September 2, 2008
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