8 Creativity Lessons From A Pixar Animator

Pixar creates films with monsters, toys, and flying houses that make grown men cry. How do the studio's animators stay so inspired?

Sometimes immersing yourself in the creative world of people doing amazing things can bring unexpected results.

My son Justin is interested in 3-D animation, and my daughter Chloe is into screenwriting, and so it was a thrill to take them on a tour of Pixar Animation Studios, courtesy of one of the Pixar animators.

Bernhard Haux is a "character technical director," which in his case means he models characters and works on their internal motions (I think—I didn’t fully grasp the lingo). Which means he is just a small piece in the larger Pixar machine, but a piece that’s aware of what everyone else is doing too. He’s worked on major movies such as Up, Brave, Monsters U, and others in the last six years.

Bernhard was gracious enough to show us around the Pixar campus, and while we couldn’t really dig into their super-secret process, we did get a few glimpses of the magic.

And as a result of these small glimpses, I learned some surprising things.

I’d like to share them here, in hopes that they’ll inspire others as they inspired me.

Bernhard actually answered a whole bunch of our questions, and I was too polite to record it all, so here are a few things I remember:

1. Tenacity matters.

Bernhard told a story of a friend who did a drawing every day, for more than three years, and became amazingly good by the end of that stint. He shared Looney Toons legendary animator Chuck Jones’s assertion that you have to draw 100,000 bad drawings before you have a good drawing. Bernhard said you might not seem very good at something when you start out, but if you’re persistent, tenacious even, you can get amazingly good.

2. Art is your particular telling of reality.

When we talked about letting go of preconceived ideas and drawing what you actually see, Bernhard compared it to a night out with one of his friends. While Bernhard might just recount that night by saying, "We went out and had some food and went home," his friend might have noticed a lot of interesting details that Bernhard didn’t, and tell a story with those details in a way that’s interesting and hilarious. Same experience, different interpretation, different details.

3. Feed off others’ ideas.

When Pixar artists create characters, it’s not a matter of one artist sketching out how he thinks a character should look. They all sit around a table, each drawing ideas, putting them in the middle, and others taking those ideas and riffing off them. Dozens and dozens of sketches come out from this process, until they find the one that works best. This means everyone’s creativity builds on the creativity of everyone else. This, BTW, can help you even if you don’t have a bunch of other geniuses to work with—find others who are creating cool things, and riff off them, and share your riffs.

4. Let go of ego.

Imagine if you’ve put a great sketch into the pile, and you think it’s the one that should be used. But because so many talented artists are throwing ideas into the pile, the fact is that most ideas/sketches won’t be used. They’ll be discarded. If you want your idea to win, you’ll fight for it, but this only hurts the process. Pixar animators have to let go of their egos, and put the best interests of the project first. I think this is true of any creative project.

5. Everyone should know the mission well.

Some studios outsource their animation work overseas, but then the animators often don’t know what the movie is about, and don’t really care about the final process, because they’re just doing one tiny piece. But at Pixar, everyone involved is pushing forward, trying to create the best movie possible, and they take pride in this mission. That means that everyone is invested in the mission, everyone truly cares about the work they’re producing, and it shows in the final creation.

6. Lots of hard work, tiny but amazing results.

When Pixar created Brave, deleted scenes that didn’t make the final cut would have made the movie five times as long. A ton of little visual jokes didn’t make the movie. That means that hours and hours of creative, brilliant work were thrown out, and only the best of the best of all of this creative process actually was used. That’s a lot of amazing stuff, to get very little. That means what we actually see is of incredible quality.

7. Surround yourself with heroes.

When Bernhard was interviewed at Pixar about six years ago, it took all day. The list of people interviewing him was a list of his personal heroes. That’s who he works with, the best in the world. How inspiring is that? You’d jump out of bed to get to work each morning, wouldn’t you? Of course, not all of us are that lucky, but we can surround ourselves with the work of our heroes, and use them for inspiration, maybe even reach out and meet one or two of them someday. Shoot for the stars, or at least illuminate your life with their light.

8. Help those just starting out.

Bernhard took the time out of his day to give us a tour, because a teen-age young man is interested in computer animation. That’s exceptional. His reasoning: "I was where Justin is right now, and it’s nice to pass on what I know today. Passion and dreams are important to keep alive." How many of us do that?

Bernhard, thank you. And thank you to everyone out there who is making something, inspiring others, letting go of ego, taking time to help those just starting out, and showing us that tenacity pays off. We all owe you, for what you put into this world.

This post originally appeared on Zen habits, and is reprinted with permission.

[Image: Flickr user Braden Kowitz]

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1 Comments

  • James Newman

    He "works on their internal motions"...Pixar characters poop? That's taking the Uncanny Valley to the next level isn't it.