- The Washington Times - Friday, May 30, 2003

EMERYVILLE, CALIF. — Pixar Animation Studios, located in a postindustrial suburb outside the San Francisco Bay Area, is an antiseptic-looking corporate campus, complete with its own roving security staff in shorts and polo shirts.

Just down the road from Pixar, which houses the technical wizards who produced the animation blockbusters “Toy Story” and “Monsters, Inc.” and the just-released “Finding Nemo,” is a Home Depot and an Ikea furniture store.

It’s about as far geographically and culturally from Hollywood as you can get in the movie business.

Designed by Apple Computer guru Steve Jobs himself, Pixar’s headquarters look a lot like the sinister toy company in the Robert Redford espionage thriller “Sneakers.”

Once inside, after your bag has been searched by a pair of polite men guarding the door, such notions disappear, however.

The building’s main space, an airy glass-ceilinged atrium, resembles a botanical warehouse. It’s a Saturday, but lots of Pixar employees are on the job.

Well, sort of. Work here is done intermittently. Because ideas aren’t necessarily produced between 9 and 5, all-nighters aren’t uncommon. That leaves plenty of time for fun and games.

They shoot pool and play Foos Ball, a table soccer game; sip lattes on ratty-chic couches; zip around on razor scooters; play video games on vintage arcade machines.

To walk into Pixar is to leave the real world; it’s rather like watching one of Pixar’s otherworldly creations.

The high-tech studio’s sophisticated, highly expressive brand of animation is the result of miles of computer code fed into a digital nerve center called the Renderfarm that has breathed human life into toys and bugs; it made child-spooking monsters look like sympathetic, workaday stiffs; and we play merrily, unconsciously along.

Pixar has no peer in creating alternative onscreen universes. To get to that point, the company has cultivated a nontraditional, egalitarian corporate culture that stresses creativity, flexibility and individualism; a laid-back philosophy that’s reflected by the clothes the employees wear and the goofy idiosyncrasies of each worker’s cubicle decor.

Almost everyone is wearing a Hawaiian shirt, and not just because it’s the weekend. Here at Pixar, every day is casual Friday.

“I love doing what I do,” says production designer Ralph Eggleston, “but sometimes stopping and playing pool is relaxing. It gets my mind out of the world of the movie for two hours.

“Subconsciously, I’m thinking about the movie, so when I get back to my desk and I have a problem I haven’t solved, maybe now my batteries are a little more recharged,” Mr. Eggleston says.

This is the kind of company that lets your inner child run wild and your freak flag fly, where the feng shui flows just right.

There’s even a maternity room for nursing moms.

The culture here is a mix of Peter Drucker management theory, Tony Robbins motivationalism and high-‘90s idealism; it’s a company full of nerdy geniuses with Jefferson Airplane and Jerry Lewis as its board of directors.

Other companies have tried this, it’s true, but they probably had a dot in their names and ran out of business around the time the NASDAQ stock index tanked in the spring of 2000.

“I want the studio to be a fun place,” says John Lasseter, a Pixar vice president responsible for the studio’s overall creative product. “I believe that if you have fun while you’re working, it’s going to appear on the screen. That gives me license to be the biggest clown in the place.”

Mr. Lasseter boasts the most comprehensive toy collection of any Pixar employee and the biggest Hawaiian shirt collection, as well. Mind you, this is the guy Premiere, a movie industry magazine, ranked No. 23 on its Power 100 list, along with Pixar partner Steve Jobs.

Taking pleasure in a Pixar movie carries none of the First World baggage of, say, wearing a pair of Nike sneakers. You can rest assured that “Finding Nemo” wasn’t produced in a sweatshop.

Workers may break a sweat, but only during a really hot set with the pickup jam band that’s playing down the hall, not far from the tiki-themed corner designed by the animation department.

“People want to be creatively satisfied,” says Mr. Lasseter, “Toy Story’s” co-writer and director, “and having fun is such an important part of that.”

The studio’s haute bobo culture has impressed the actors who have worked on its movies.

“I like how they do business here,” says Willem Dafoe, the voice of a fish named Gill in “Nemo.” “It seems like a happy medium of art and business.”

John Ratzenberg, who played Cliff on the classic “Cheers” sitcom, has had a role in all five Pixar movies. If there ever comes a day when the studio doesn’t want him for its movies, he says he would happily work on Pixar’s landscaping crew.

Everything about Pixar is designed to foster a creative atmosphere, right down to the way the place is mapped out. The two-story building is divided into four quadrants: Upper and Lower, East and West as in the island of Manhattan.

There’s a space for employees to display their hobby art, and some of it is pretty sharp. A production manager has proudly hung a series of black-and-white art photos taken in various American and European cities.

A rock band, whizzing scooter-riders, caroming billiards and latte lounges — things can seem a little too free-wheeling and downright noisy around Pixar, says supervising technical director Oren Jacob.

But that’s what continually sparks inspiration, Mr. Jacob adds. It’s the mental cost of being creative.

“A couple months ago, they had a mariachi band come out. You’re like, ‘Oh, here come the mariachis again.’

“But this time, this guy Josh Hollander, who worked on ‘Nemo’ and happened to be a full-time DJ and record producer back in New York, brought out his record-scratching turntable thing and was scratching with the mariachis.

“This drew me out of my office,” says Mr. Jacob, “and darn it if I wasn’t transfixed for 20 minutes. That was unbelievably cool.”

Only at Pixar could employees become blase about a mariachi band.

Indeed, when you think about it, Pixar Studios is everything 19th-century capitalism wasn’t. Like the great old economy, Pixar makes boatloads of money, and it does well in the stock market. The difference: It treats its human capital like gold.

Could the rest of corporate America conceivably adopt Pixar’s values? Obviously, some industries, the airlines, for one, could never pull it off in practice.

But if we judge the success of a company by the quality of the widgets it produces, then it’s hard to top Pixar.

“I always laugh at these companies that have these rules saying you’re only allowed to have this or that on your desk. It’s no fun to work at a place like that,” Mr. Lasseter says.

No, indeed.

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