It’s high noon at Pixar Animation Studios. The cubicles, beanbag lounges, and candy pit-stops are strangely serene. The off-deadline Nerf battles, the scooter races in the corridors, the toy-action-figure jousts are all on hold. The circuslike area where the animators work is as dead as an SAT testing site. The eerie calm can mean just one thing: Work is in progress.
Disney needs film. Michael Eisner, chairman and CEO of Disney, is waiting. Stockholders are waiting. Rival movie studios are not waiting. A Bug’s Life, Pixar’s much-anticipated, four-years-in-the-making follow-up to its box-office smash Toy Story, is down to the final production sprint.
The pressure to produce is relentless, and it’s not about to let up. In January, Pixar and Disney inked a monumental deal with a monumentally hurry-up timetable. Pixar has committed to making five feature-length, computer-animated films in the next decade or so. By the year 2000, if everything goes as planned, it will become the second studio in history (after Disney itself) to produce three animated feature films in three years.
Each of Pixar’s 400 employees has a clear but potentially crushing mission: Be more creative than ever before. Produce more than ever before. And do it all twice as fast as ever before. Which might seem like a formula for burnout and attrition. But the employee-turnover rate is holding steady at less than 5%. And one reason is that Pixar knows more than a little about helping people recharge their mental, physical, and emotional batteries.
Pixar focuses on things both big and small in order to keep folks charged up. Big thing: The techies and the animators are treated as equals. Little thing: Each Friday, there’s a company-wide beer bash at which everyone watches “weeklies” of films in progress. Big thing: no contracts. People are free to leave whenever the place starts to suck. Little thing: extracurricular activities, such as lunchtime basketball and Lego auctions, that are organized through email lists. Big thing: Three years ago, the company created Pixar University (PU), an in-house operation that features free classes in data programming, tai chi, gesture drawing, improvisational acting, and juggling. Little thing: The classes are catered.
To find out if things great and small are really working, I ventured to Pixar’s world headquarters in Point Richmond, California, submitted to wearing a name tag (“A Stranger! From the Outside!”) and caught up with five hard-charging Pixarians: an operations guru, a film director, a computer-programming wizard, an animator, and a high-level administrator. Each of them has a very good reason to feel brain-dead – and each has a very real strategy for avoiding that fate.
PU’s 15-member improvisational-acting class is in progress. Katherine Sarafian, 29, arrives about 45 minutes late. She’s having one of those days from hell. Formerly the manager of the art department, where she oversaw the production of about 4,000 drawings for A Bug’s Life, Sarafian has moved into a critical new role. As creative-resources manager, she works with outside companies that want to make or merchandise products related to Pixar’s short films. She took the new title – grudgingly – because the company had a need and she was best suited to fill it. Now she’s wondering what possessed her to say yes.
Sarafian’s workload is outrageous: She’s still working part-time in the art department. She’s racing to prepare a pressure-packed presentation to Pixar Chairman and CEO Steve Jobs. The word “PANIC” is taped to her office door. “I’m the one who can’t get down the hall fast enough, so I sprint,” she says. “Burnout? I’m high-risk.”
But Sarafian is convinced that easing up won’t help. She’s hardwired to move fast, and so is Pixar. “I don’t have time for a lot of slowdown-type things,” she says. Tonight, after the improv class, she’ll throw herself into a volleyball game. She also plays in a highly competitive basketball league two nights a week, takes an amateur drawing class, and performs from time to time with the Pixar Singers, an a cappella group.
“When I first signed up for improv, a friend told me that I was insane – that I should try yoga instead. But yoga doesn’t calm me down; it calms down the person next to me. When I play hoops or go to improv class, I usually get results.”
In improv, the energy boost comes from using a part of the brain that lies dormant during the workday. “You can’t set up a scene unless you open your mind to it,” she says. Being in the “now” and no place else has a potent restorative effect. “By break time, I usually can’t remember what was pissing me off before I arrived.”
Tonight’s class is tough going at first, but Sarafian eventually gets into the scene setting, the endless riffing – even the mind-melding “one-voice” exercise, in which four teammates attempt to answer questions in perfect unison.
“Can you tell us the scientific name for your pet turtle?” someone shouts. There is a long pause as the teammates face the audience and say nothing. Then, with nary an out-of-sync note, comes the nonsense reply: “TorrrrrrtttaaaaaaLLLLEEEEEnnneee! Tortellini!”
Class ends. Sarafian doesn’t dawdle on her way out the door, but when she leaves, she is smiling.
“The whole thing was like the moon shot,” says Andrew Stanton, 32, who helped create Buzz Lightyear, the kid icon from Toy Story. He’s recalling the making of that film, for which he cowrote the screenplay – an achievement that earned him a codirectorship on A Bug’s Life. “We didn’t know enough to realize that what we were doing couldn’t be done. But now we know exactly what’s up.”
In a word, expectations are up. Way up. Toy Story was a breakthrough, Steve Jobs told Stanton. But what’s the next blockbuster? Stanton recalls committing himself to a completely new creation: “I said, ‘I guess the only thing I can promise you, Steve, is that I’m too stupid to give up.'”
It’s now T-minus four months, and counting. The release of A Bug’s Life is set for Thanksgiving. Stanton’s every working minute is booked. Flextime is dead. His wife and two kids are near-strangers to him. After enduring a four-year marathon to make the movie, he has unleashed a mad sprint to the finish line. Running on empty? Hardly. Disney may be antsy, and parts of the film may still be a work in progress, but damn if Stanton doesn’t look completely carefree.
His prescription for preventing burnout is simple: Laugh hard, twice daily. “Something is horribly wrong,” he says, “if I don’t crack up at least a couple of times a day.” His point shouldn’t be laughed off. Humor is getting more and more attention even from bottom-line management types.
According to Peter McLaughlin, author of CatchFire, “laughter and a state of fun stimulate many of the same positive physiological changes as exercise: deeper breathing, lower heart rate, decreased blood pressure, and a general feeling of relaxation.” Writes McLaughlin: “Humor engenders a powerful, even somewhat miraculous sense of balance, perspective, and joy that allows you to flourish in the midst of a tough business environment.”
At Pixar, the mirth can’t be half-assed. “The people who work here know when someone is trying to manipulate them,” says Stanton. “For example, someone organized a tug-of-war game at one of our company lunches, but I didn’t play. I don’t like people telling me when it’s time to have fun.”
Most of the time, “fun” at Pixar isn’t forced – it’s allowed to flow freely. Stanton no longer has as much time to goof off. But he maximizes the opportunities for levity that come his way. “Say we’ve got five minutes left in a production meeting and 10 more people to talk to,” he explains. “Right around then, the 12-year-old in me takes over. Afterward, nobody seems to mind working hard all over again. Myself included.”
On a Tuesday evening, Oren Jacob and Jimmy Hayward come rushing into a class on animated short films at the Academy of Art College in San Francisco. It’s one of the most popular classes in the school’s history, and these two Pixarians are teaching it.
On the surface, they don’t seem to belong together. Hayward, 27, one of Pixar’s top animators, makes almost everyone around him look a little dull. Leader of the company skateboard clan, he sports the bleached hair of a young Billy Idol. His computer-wizard sidekick, Jacob, 27, looks as wholesome as the Beaver.
But in one significant way, Jacob and Hayward are exactly alike: They teach in order to recharge. They get their kicks in other ways too: Hayward rages on a skateboard ramp in the Pixar parking lot; Jacob snowboards the black diamond slopes at Lake Tahoe. Still, teaching packs the best adrenaline rush they know of.
“When you work at something for years and years, you sometimes slip into a ‘that’s-my-job’ rut,” says Jacob, a seven-year Pixar veteran. “But when you’re in front of a class of students who have infinite enthusiasm for your field, their zeal rubs off on you. I’ll come into work the next day, and whatever was driving me nuts is gone.”
Classes often extend past 10 p.m. and continue at a pub across the street. Hayward might blow off steam by talking about a boss who went “superneuro” on him when he made a mistake. But even as he semi-disses a supervisor, he also acknowledges that he benefits from oversight. Hearing himself say so puts into perspective some of the stress that he feels at Pixar.
Jacob started teaching four years ago, at a crisis point in his tenure at Pixar. Against his wishes, and just when Pixar was directing most of its resources to Toy Story, he was assigned to work on a television commercial for Listerine. He contemplated quitting the company, but his father talked him out of it. Later he won a Clio for his work on the Listerine “arrows” spot – one of the most sophisticated animated commercials ever made. He also got to work on Toy Story during the closing stages of its production. He credits his teaching gig with helping him not to lose his cool in the meantime.
“It was pointed out to me that being around a dozen intellectually ravenous people who are new to the field would renew my enthusiasm,” says Jacob. “The person who said that was absolutely right on.”
Randy Nelson, the dean of PU, stands on a makeshift stage. Before an audience of 15 Pixar employees – students in a gesture-drawing class – he juggles foot-long knives. Nelson, 44, wears a billowy red-and-yellow silk shirt, a glittery silver sash, and black gaucho pants. He is not your father’s administrator. A former member of the flying Karamazov Brothers, he has juggled knives on Broadway and chainsaws in Chicago.
As Nelson grandly drops to one knee to snag the pinwheeling daggers, the animators and the techies erupt into applause. Then they sketch like fiends. They’ve got three minutes to render the dean in action. His feat will keep folks buzzing for the rest of the afternoon.
Nelson’s mandate is daunting yet simple: to help Pixar’s people to perform at their peak. Make no mistake, he is anything but a showman on lease. Through trial and error, Nelson is working out a game plan for sustaining the company’s energy level over the next 10 years. Herewith, three of his road-tested strategies for combating stress and building energy:
Get smarter. Take a course, find a mentor. Getting stale is the fastest way to burn out, says Nelson. PU offers a slew of opportunities to help people advance their technical skills. General-interest classes, such as improv, are another way to keep the creative juices flowing: They make people take risks, work collaboratively, and think on their feet.
Get exercise. Whatever the form, whenever you can. In the “need a release” department, there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all brand of exercise, says Nelson. The menu of sports at Pixar is long and purposely varied. Most employees put themselves on activity-based email lists. So if they’re stressed out and have a hoops jones, for example, they can round up a game by simply dashing off an email.
Get outside the box. Try hobbies that challenge, amuse, and resonate. A class like juggling works on multiple levels. For people who punch code all day, juggling is more than a spunky game that tests hand-eye coordination – it’s a physical release.
Advanced jugglers won’t even attempt to field a poorly thrown pass, says Nelson. But he insists on it. “I tell people to throw me whatever junk they can manage,” he says. “We put the onus on the receiver, not the thrower. In business, people are going to throw crap at you all the time. Once you learn how to handle it, you’ll never wind up on the fast track to burnout.”
Todd Balf firstname.lastname@example.org, a contributing editor at Outside magazine, writes frequently for Fast Company.