Michael Johnson Talk Report


A reader who wishes to remain anonymous, has sent in this report of of a talk with Pixar’s Michael Johnson. Enjoy! (sorry if some of the formatting is a bit skewed. It’s difficult copying from a document to blogger and retaining the formatting)

Building Tools, Telling Stories, Making Movies at Pixar
A special event with Michael B. Johnson

The Intro

I only heard about this event a week before it was on, but after hurriedly booking some train tickets, and managing to secure a place on the talk (it was heavily oversubscribed, but luckily, for me, someone dropped out) I was revved up and ready to go. I’ve watched the Human Story of Computer Animation video of Ed Catmull, Alvy Ray Smith, Andrew Stanton and Brad Bird, and listened to both Andrew Stanton and Brad Bird in their splinecasts, so was excited to see what Michael Johnson had to say about Pixar.

Keep reading after the jump….

The talk, as advertised, stated “Michael Johnson will discuss and show some of his work at Pixar, exploring themes of creativity and collaboration, art vs. craft, design vs. engineering in constructing Pixar’s unique entertainment experiences.” Who’s Michael Johnson, you ask? The BFI (whose National Film Theatre the talk was hosted in) provided this information:
“One of the leading figures in the development of CGI in the film industry over the past 15 years or more, Michael Johnson heads the team which designs, develops and supports the pipeline for film development, story and editorial at Pixar Studios.
Dr. Johnson first came to Pixar Animation Studios in May 1993, where he worked on custom tools for production; since then he has been responsible for the creation of tools and applications which have transformed film production and helped Pixar win seven Oscars. He wrote and developed a pre-visualisation system for A Bug’s Life, completed additional pre-visualisation work and wrote lighting tools for Toy Story 2, created animation tools for Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo. He designed animation, review and story tools for The Incredibles and Cars. For the studio’s latest release, Ratatouille, his team redesigned the entire story/editorial pipeline, moving it over to a completely digital one.” It sounded like the talk was going to be good.

Before I get going on just how good the talk was, a brief story on my journey down there. On the train down to London, I sat next to an overseas student from Colombia who was over here learning English. (I always find it embarrassing meeting overseas students who can speak English, as we just seem to be rubbish at learning other languages, mostly because of the global dominance of English.) Although her English was really good, conversation was a little stifled, and I’m sure she misunderstood me on several occasions as she kept laughing at my jokes. However, when conversation turned to what I was going down to London for, I asked “Have you seen Toy Story?” “Yeah, I love it!” “Monsters, Inc.?” “Yeah, I always cry!” “The Incredibles?” “Yeah, it’s so good!” Then I get out my copy of the film magazine Empire and show her the Ratatouille feature, I begin to ask “This is their next film”, but she cuts me off and goes “Oh, Ratatouille! Oooh, I really want to see this, my sister has seen it and said it’s really amazing and that I have to see it!!!”

The Talk
I arrived at the NFT, and was immediately surprised by how many industry people were there, for some reason I expected it to be full of students or general Pixar fans. I try and do a little networking before we get seated, but I’m rubbish at it, and after Michael was introduced by the event organisers and hosts, the talk got underway.

Personally, what hits me first when listening to an American speaker, is how authoritative, passionate, and inspirational they sound. The other day, my friend was watching a video from E3 and some English guy was introducing a game, trying to get the crowd excited by saying this spiel: “This [new game] will allow you to do [cool thing] … do you want to do [cool thing]?” Hearing that from an English guy, I just think “Meh, maybe later”. But I swear, if an American had pitched that, I would have been like “Yeah I want to do that cool thing right now! Where can I do it, what do I have to do to get it!” Just my personal opinion, but Michael came on and we all instantly enjoyed his presence.

He opened with an anecdote of how he discovered where the name Pixar actually came from (something I had always wondered). So he went to the office opposite his, and a colleague told him where the name came from. So he left that office and was walking down the corridor when he bumped into Ed Catmull, who said “Hey, you still want to know where the name came from, I can tell you. When we first spun off from LucasFilm, I had a lunch with Lauren Carpenter and Alvy Ray Smith. Alvy wanted something with art in, Lauren wanted something with pixels in it, and I wanted something like Kodak, really small, two syllables.” But Michael then goes “Hmm, that’s not what I just heard”. “Oh, really? What were you told?” “That Pixar was a moon off some distant planet” – and Ed goes “Oh, that’s a much better story. Use that.” And that’s what Pixar is all about – the best story. Finding the best characters, with a well researched world, drawn out rules that make sense, and using characters that inhabit that world to tell a particular story about that world.

Michael then moved on to tell us about the history of Pixar, which is fairly well documented by now. The main points are it spunoff from LucasFilm in 1986, when Steve Jobs bought it from George Lucas (who was looking to get rid of the unprofitable companies) for $5m. It started with roughly 40 employees, and today in 2007 it has roughly 900.

So what is Pixar’s philosophy when it comes to its employees? Casting. Casting Casting. Getting the world class people, people who are in some way accomplished. That could mean they come from a good university, or they’ve made a great little short film, or you can just tell they’re on a trajectory that’s like this: they’re young, 19, 20, 21, and you can just tell these people are going places, so you want to get those people. Ed Catmull always says “Hire people ‘smarter’ than yourself” (I love Brad Bird’s joke that “luckily they scrapped that rule right before I joined.”). Randy Nelson, the Dean of Pixar University, always looks at Pixar, and what they do there, as art as a team sport. Making movies there is fundamentally collaborative.

Michael then gave us a general overview of how the Pixar pipeline works:
Pre-production: 1-3 years, involving 1-40 people.
Production: 1-3 years, involving 100-250 people
Post: 6 months

Then he screened five minutes of Ratatouille footage, adding that it’s the one film they’ve made that hasn’t yet been released over here. (Not that I’m bitter or angry, but October is still a long time away). It was taken from the 9 minute preview put up on MySpace and other places, and everyone in the room found it hysterical, laughs all round, which was great to hear.

Going back to the pipeline, he showed an overall schematic of the Pixar pipeline, which looked awesome, but for this talk he didn’t have enough time to go into each and every part in detail. He started, though, with stating how Hollywood, more or less, is producer driven. Either they’ll option some material, or give a writer an idea, or buy an idea from a writer. Pixar is director driven – it’s the director’s stories, the ideas come from them.

But, recalling what Michael said about making a movie is collaborative, the director then needs to get across that story, idea, and vision, to the artists in order for it to be made. In other words, telling a story is selling a story. They need to pitch their ideas. He then showed a brief clip midway through Andrew Stanton’s pitch for Finding Nemo, where he (brilliantly) pitches the moment where Nigel finds Marlin and Dory. After that pitch, one thought went through the audience (who were the artists): I want to make that movie!

So the next step is the Story Department. And they’re always asked what this department does. The script? Drawings? Dialogue? Gags? The answer is, it does all of them. One way to think of it is they’re the architects of the film, and fundamentally for Pixar, if it doesn’t work here, it won’t work anywhere. All you’ll be doing later on is polishing something you don’t really want to be polishing. And this mantra is the fundamental difference at Pixar. A lot of people do storyboarding, they do animatics etc. But Andrew Stanton says when the reels are put together, in order to get feedback, the worst thing to do is to allow the story artists to fill in the gaps, because they’re going to fill them in in the best possible way. But when you go away and fill in the details yourself, then come back with them, those people are going to be a little disappointed – even though they’re on your side – because it’s not quite how they saw it. So Pixar’s storyreels are very “done”. They do them, then again, and again, and again.

And the people who do this work are the Story Artists, who need to have certain qualities. They need to be able to draw fast, draw well (either in poses, composition, pacing or ideally all three), and the best ones always have another idea. Almost like a writer’s room for a TV series, just throwing ideas out there. And other ideas. And even more ideas. But, more than any of those things, 51% of a Story Artist’s quality must be “plays well with others”. You’re spending a lot of time with these people, so it’s kind of important you get on with them.

(This process was done in the analogue way with pen on paper, or nowadays with a drawing tablet.) And what we want to be happening when we do these storyboards is, again quoting Andrew Stanton, “I want to fail as quickly as possible”. I want to put that thing up there and for you to tell me the seven things that are wrong with it (also, the two things that are right with it). The fundamental idea here is that they’re not doing it once, they’re iterating over it, and criticising it. And that’s a key term. Iterate and Criticise. Michael then used Brad Bird’s anecdote of Gower Champion, the theatre and film director of the 30s, who walked into a theatre to see the cast just standing around on the stage, the choreographer just sitting there in the second row with his head in his hands. Gower goes “What’s going on?” “I just don’t know what to do next”, the choreographer goes. Gower replies “Well do something, so we can change it!”. And that’s a fundamental Pixar idea, just keep moving, just keep trying, and something will come up. The late, great, Joe Ranft said “Trust the process”.

Michael illustrated this point by showing a storyboard sequence from The Incredibles, where Helen’s plane, flying unknowingly to Syndrome’s island, gets shot down by the missiles. But in the storyboard, Helen wasn’t flying – the character Shnog was. Also, Violet was too scared to try and put a forcefield around the plane. Importantly, Shnog was killed in the explosion as Helen, Violet and Dash survived. Now Brad killed Shnog for something he was desperate to show: these bad guys are real bad guys – they kill. So when John Lasseter saw the storyboard sequence, his reaction was “Wow, awesome! But, we’re killing a character in the centre of a movie”. This was a problem, because we cared about Shnog, but only a bit, he was only a minor character. So Brad could have put Shnog in the beginning Glory Days sequence that the film opens with, as he was a guy who helped supers who couldn’t fly around, like Helen, to fly around. But Brad was trying to cut down the length of the movie as it was, and adding more material wasn’t an option.
But that wasn’t John’s note, which is great, because you don’t just want to go “Well, that sucked” and for you to go “yeah, yeah cheers for that”, you want to help, you want to propose a solution. So John proposed this solution: have Helen fly the plane. Why was that a good note? Firstly, in a way it was Violet that killed Shnog, so she’s living with that guilt for the rest of her life. Also, while Bob’s powerless, you have Mom saving the day. There’s a lot of nice things with that. Finally, in the film Syndrome hears that there’s children on the plane, but the fact that he carries on the attack shows he’s evil.

He then moved onto Editorial. The film is more or less cut like live action, but this brings up the saying “be careful what you wish for”. In live action, the Editor will often exclaim “Agh! If only I had a medium shot of this character’s face, it would solve this whole scene’s problem”. But at Pixar, the storyboard is being cut together as it’s being made, so if the Editor needs that medium shot, he can tell the Story department, they do a medium shot . . . and the scene still sucks.
The Editors are the spine of their filmmaking, as Pixar make movies twice, once with storyboards, then once with the actual animation – and the Editors are there both times.
Finally, what a lot of people don’t realise is that more than half of the Editorial department is sound editing. Lee Unkrich, when editing Toy Story, cut together nine takes of Tim Allen for one of Buzz’s lines.

Then we were treated to a bit on voice casting, where he stated they use existing dialogue of actor’s they’re interested in and animate the character with that dialogue. He showed us a hilarious clip of a red Buzz Lightyear with Billy Crystal’s coffee-table outburst from When Harry Met Sally. Billy, of course, turned down the role of Buzz, but later got the part of Mike in Monsters, Inc. So together, Story and Editorial become “Storitorial”, who get the movie onto reels.

Story reels. These generally take three years, and if you can’t get the movie to work on the storyreels, it’ll never work. Ratatouille went up onto storyreel, watched, taken back down, reworked and put up again a total of five times. He showed us the storyreel of the 9-miunte Ratatouille clip where Remy is trying to escape the kitchen. He ended this segment by revealing there were 90,000 storyboards in total that were worked through for Ratatouille.

Art. The ColourScript gets across the flow of the movie. (I saw some of these in the 20 Years of animation exhibition). They’re pastel, and contain every scene from the film. John Lasseter says “doing research is when you build the world”. If you do the research, when you get stuck, you’ll have something to fall back on.

He then took us through how the Edna character from The Incredibles came about, from various styles and looks to one, using magazine texture cutouts, that worked and instantly got the character across. Then, from this, questions such as “what world does this character live in?” More and more research took place. The result of all this research was shown to us in the clip from the film where Bob takes Edna his suit to get fixed.

Looks Development. This is the final part of the art department, where they do paintings of heightened reality and see where we go with it. He showed us a live action shot taken underwater, looking up to a school of fish, and one test was to see if they could match it in CG. They tried, and succeeded – with the original live action next to the matched CG shot, it was impossible to tell which was which. But they do it to just know their power, to know they could. As John Lasseter says, “It’s not about being real, it’s about being believable.”

With time, scarily, becoming short, Michael then focused in on the work he does at Pixar, which is to develop tools.

“Tools Change Things”. Good tools obviate bad processes. But, if you remember your Spiderman film, “With great power, comes great responsibility”. And the thing about tools is that they’re all about power, about where the power lies. He distinguished between tools in the Marketplace, and tools developed In House. In the former, tools are generally about consolidation, taking from the many and giving to the one. For example, the laser writer, would take many many disciplines. Tools take multiple tasks, and they merge them into one thing.

In House, it’s done differently – it’s all about redistribution. It’s about taking something that was done in one department, and giving it to another department. But that becomes tricky, because it can make things better for one department “Woohoo, we no longer have that problem any more”, but worse for another “Now we’ve got it.”

One of things that happens when you’re trying to decide what tools to write is that you’re trying to identify problems. And when new people come to Pixar, Michael normally tells them “Look, here at Pixar we’re kind of off in our own little world.” Some of the most crucial developments in computer animation were done by people at Pixar, Ed Catmull among them. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t amazing commercial products elsewhere, that do certain things better than some things Pixar do, it’s just that they don’t use those products.

So there are four types of problems. First: “That’s stupid, lets fix it”. Second: “Actually, it’s subtle, and a feature, not a bug.” Some people just find it useful to have to turn to that one person, or to have that bottleneck, as just part of the process. Third: “That was a problem at the last place you worked, not here”. Fourth is what they call “Nail in the head” problem. It’s like when someone comes to you and points out “Hey, you have a nail, like right there, right in your head.” “Oh yeah, yeah I know”, “You want me to take that thing out? I can just pull it right out” “Yeah, but you know what, you might pull it out and I’ll just be bleeding to death. No, I’m just going to leave the nail there.” And these are the types of problems where you try and fix this problem maybe seven times, and every time you’re done, it’s just broken in a different way. You have to remember that making movies is hard. You’re not necessarily going to make things a whole lot easier, you can make them more fun, but not easier. If it was easier, everyone would be doing it. And, I don’t know if you’ve seen some of the movies this summer, but not everyone’s doing it. So with that fourth problem, unless you have a 100% guaranteed solution . . . just walk away.

Michael’s work is largely based around the pipeline at Pixar, about lowering the barriers of communication and collaboration between departments. Certain departments shouldn’t be hating other departments. So they want to make the workflow between departments faster and easier.

For the final part of his talk (final part?! Time had flown), Michael focused on a case study, “Pitch Docter”. He’d spoken before about storyreel, and the “Storitorial” process, but how do they actually get there? Well, in the old school, you had the story artist as a performance artist, where they act out and walk the audience through the storyboards. So the artist gets notes, they artist draws some more, it goes back to Editorial, who does first assembly, where they try to mimic the timing of the pitch. If all goes well, it’ll become the story reel. If it doesn’t, finger pointing may ensue…

But then in 2002, Michael developed a piece of software on a dare. It was written simply and fast, in about two weeks. It was then developed further with two other engineers over about six months. Before he showed us what the Pitch Docter was, he played a clip of Mark Andrews, who was head of story on The Incredibles pitching the sequence where they’re all fighting the big omnidroid in the city. It was an amazing performance by Mark, given with passion, enthusiasm and it really bowled you over (we were told you know when Mark’s in the room). But Brad’s reaction was “Too big, too many drawings” (remember that he was trying to cut the length of the movie down).

But then Mark found out about this little tool they had written, and used that to present his storyboard. Michael was surprised, but pleased, that not only Mark had found Pitch Docter, but that he taught himself it and was using it. He then played us a clip of Mark using Pitch Docter to present the same sequence as before. Instead of Mark physically being there, taking us through board after board of storyboards, he could splice them all together and narrate them, getting across the same enthusiasm and passion, but in far less time.

So why did it succeed? Well, at Pixar they’re making movies, but the old process was more of a performance art, whereas Pitch Docter was a big step towards the animatic, the story reel. It let artist seek criticism earlier, and it would ground the criticism in the medium they’re working in – film. In other words, it was obviating a bad process. Nowadays, rather than scanning in their paper drawings to use with Pitch Docter, they can draw them straight onto the computer using a piece of hardware (that I have never heard of) called Wacom Cintiq. This was used in conjunction with Photoshop, which the artists were initially against using, but later in the bar, Michael told us a story. Someone had taken a picture of [EDIT] a story artist [/EDIT] asleep in what was quite an awkward position. Like wildfire, this photo was passed around the offices, and in those three hours the story artists learnt a ton load about Photoshop, more than they ever would have done if they had been forced to learn it, and they made pictures of the asleep John Lasseter riding horses, etc etc, finding out about layers and other parts of Photoshop, then sharing that knowledge “What’s that, how did you get rid of that part? With this button here, oh cool…” So, the moral of the story is, if you want your department to learn a new tool, give them a picture of your boss in a compromising position.

The talk was wrapped up with some Parting Thoughts. First and foremost – story drives everything. The best idea wins. Never forget you’re making a movie, it’s always about the world, and the characters that inhabit that world. Don’t think about the theme park, or the lunchboxes, or all the other merchandise, because that comes from the movie first. Also – art as teamsport. Finally, passion will get you through.

A round of applause from the entire room, it was a thoroughly enjoyable talk.

Q & A

The host of the event asked the first question, which was about ego, because when you’re dealing with people that talented, does ego play a part?
Michael responded with his “51% must be plays well with others” criteria, because there’s no chance of you being the smartest person in the room. It’s bruising for your ego to constantly be mixed up in that, so try and find some kernel of self worth. Despite all the ego and acumen, the overriding thing that comes from the group is usually “We wanna see something cool!”

The host then asked about extra curricular, about the work people do outside of the office hours.
Michael stated that there are two kinds of age groups, the older guys, who tend to have other commitments such as family – they just have stuff to do, so they usually clock off at five. The younger guys, in the 20s upwards, are sometimes single, and generally have less on, so they can dedicate more time to the extra curricular.
But there’s also Pixar University, that has a whole range of courses, including a screenwriting workshop. In that workshop, several scripts are developed (feature and short) and one is usually picked at the end and produced. (He said one short that had just been produced was called “Violet”, and may be appearing at some festivals, so look out for that). And it’s through these classes that you meet other people and learn about a whole load of stuff that’s outside of you department, from Art to Accounting.

I forget was the lead into this, but Michael then related an Ed Catmull anecdote from the 70s, when he was still at LucasFilm. An intern came rushing up to him and went “Mr Catmull sir, I’m from Utah University, and I love all your work, I hear you’re working on Star Wars 2, and I just feel like the world’s passing me by, so I was wondering if you could tell me how I get involved in it all? Honestly man, I’ll do anything you say.” “You’ll do anything I say” “Yeah, anything”. “Anything?” The guy was getting a little unnerved, “Yeah…” and Ed goes “Go back to school”. Michael then asked Ed if that guy became John Lasseter or someone: “Oh no, we never hear from him again.” The trouble with people like that is they never finish anything, they’ll do two months of floor cleaning then they’ll want to art direct, you know?

What Michael does at Pixar is to make really cool software, and you want people like that, people who are really good at what they do. That doesn’t mean you can never change, but you need to find people who are passionate about the things that you need them to do. There are so many people who come in for an illustrators position, but they bring along some computer stuff as well. So these people are asked “Well, what do you want to do?” “Oh, I love it all, I love it all!” “Well, we tend to hire people for one thing, so what would that one thing be?” “Well . . . . what I really want to do is to direct”. Then there’s silence, “Yeah, we all do, but in the meantime….”

The floor was then opened up and I managed to bag the first question. Ever since I heard Michael Arndt was writing Toy Story 3, I had wondered if he had any animation experience, or a background in animation, as all of the main people involved with story seemed to be these amazing artists too.
Michael replied: “No, he just tells great stories”.

Other questions that were asked didn’t seem to get a notable answer, but ones of interest were Do Pixar research/test their ideas on children? Well most of the directors have kids, and kids are normally inside the studio all the time, but outside that, there aren’t any focus groups, it’s more or a less a gut feeling (though you’re always checking yourself).

Our time in the theatre up, we all went to the bar, for some drinks. I failed some more at networking, but kind of hang around the group that was asking Michael more questions, and managed to bag a couple more myself. Still interested about Michael Arndt, especially now I had learnt he’s not an animator, I wanted to know if, when he’s working on ideas for the story of Toy Story 3, does he do so on his own primarily, or is he given feedback from artists/animation people; because coming from a live action background, does he have to adapt his thinking to that of animation in any particular way. For example, is he told “Well, that idea wouldn’t really work in 3D animation” or “well that’s good, but with 3D animation we could do this, which does that better”. Unfortunately, I clearly didn’t get my question across clearly, because Michael seemed to think I was trying to get tidbits out about the plot of Toy Story 3 and he just said “I’m not willing to discuss Toy Story 3.”
After that, I wanted to know how they felt about Ratatouille’s reception at the box office, and not wanting to get misunderstood a second time, and seem shallow, I said “It’s clear that Ratatouille is a brilliant movie, it’s just obvious, it looks superb. So you guys must be thrilled and really proud of it, but do you take in to consideration its reception at the box office, is there a kind of feedback process that goes on, do you think about it when developing new ideas?
Michael said that, while you obviously want to cover your costs, this summer has just been “brutal”. Almost every week we’ve had a threequel blockbuster – Spiderman 3, Pirates 3, Shrek 3, or just other sequels. Also (despite, in my opinion, Ratatouille being one of the best dramatic and comedic premises I’ve heard in a long time) it’s a hard sell. So it’ll never make as much as Finding Nemo. But, the good thing about being acquired by Disney is that there’s more avenues to make money from the film. For instance, there was a wealth of information created for the story world and characters, far more than will ever be in the film. So one possible avenue is to use all this information to, maybe, create an area of Disneyland dedicated to the world of Ratatouille. (Does that mean it’s happening? Who knows…) Also, this was a major point of consideration when deciding whether or not to be acquired by Disney. If they had gone out on their own, and Ratatouille had done this kind of business . . . things would have been tight.

Someone else asked about the system used to create the 2D animation, the kind seen in the Monsters Inc, Incredibles and Ratatouille credits sequences. I forget what was actually said about them, but apparently they’ll be a 2D – yes, 2D – short in the Ratatouille world on its DVD.

My final question came from what Brad Bird often laments about, and excellently gives his viewpoint on in his splinecast, about the other animation studios, and whether they’ll ever move away from copying Pixar.
Michael thought that Shrek was a move away, with its ironic take on the fairytale, and use of pop culture references. I wanted to ask if that was a good move away – the question of jeopardising a movie’s timelessness comes to mind re: pop culture references – but thought better of it. He did say, though, that Antz and especially SharkTale bugged him. Apparently, with the latter, Mr. Katzenberg did hear that they were doing a fish film, and decided to put one out himself. He added, “I know the people who made SharkTale, but I don’t know anyone who’s proud of it.” But then Michael said something that really surprised me, when someone said “Arr, I know kids who love SharkTale”, and he said “Oh, if kids love it then fair enough”. How good hearted is that? I, personally, would have had to have stopped myself from going off on one about taste. But he did then say “Yeah, but then my daughter loves the Barbie movies, so…” and he kind of hung his head.
One final thing about Michael Arndt, was that apparently he gives this great talk (why never over here?!) on 3rd act deaths. “Yeah, the thing about 3rd act deaths is, they’re hard. A 2nd act death though, you can get a great 2nd act death in. Look at Obi Wan in Star Wars, that’s a great 2nd act death, then when he comes back at the end, it’s great.” Then he says something that makes you go “aaaaaaaahhh, oh yeah!” Which is that, in Little Miss Sunshine, Grandpa is the Obi Wan character (see, there you go, “aaaaaaaaaaah”)

Other questions asked ranged from the question of political correctness given the audience is global. Apparently , that question wouldn’t have been asked had we seen Ratatouille, but it’s more a sense of taste, and common decency. For example, in Monsters Inc, you remember that dome that was put over the sock in the factory, and it went dunf and vaporised it? Well, originally, when Boo was discovered at the restaurant, after it had been evacuated, a much bigger dome came down and vaporised the restaurant. They had this great shot of Sulley and Mike running down the street, the blast blowing past them, over their shoulders. But then, with 9/11, that was cut….

The same guy then asked about secrecy, and how they manage it, because he was just amazed that no major secrets had been leaked out, when all the time we hear about leaks from [our homeland secret service] MI:5 and places. “It’s all down to trust and love of what we do”. Sure, they probably sign documents, but no one would ever do it because of the culture that’s established at Pixar, it would just be betraying their workers. For example, if, halfway through production of The Incredibles, Michael had leaked the storyreel he showed with Shnog in, would that have been fair on Brad? Of course not, it was an unfinished film, but now it’s okay because it’s all done and finished. (What annoys them is when the leak comes from Disney).

Someone asked about live action, and Michael mentioned that Brad Bird was doing a live action for Pixar, but wasn’t sure if he was allowed to say more than that. “Is that 1904?” I ask, trying to remember what project’s name, “No, 1906, there was no earthquake in San Francisco in 1904”.

After a while, the evening eventually drew to a close and we were all ushered from the bar area and, after thanking Michael for a brilliant talk, I went on my merry way.


The more I read, listen and watch about Pixar, the more I absolutely love it. Even on my (screenwriting Masters) course, I can’t find anyone who cares, or even knows, that much about Pixar, so it was great to finally meet people and other students who shared that passion. And one thing I’ll never forget – Michael Arndt isn’t an animator. I “just” have to learn to tell a great story.

After, I meet a friend and we go for some dinner. “Do you ever think about going to America”, he asks me. “Every day, at least several times”.

* * *

Without Upcoming Pixar I wouldn’t have been alerted to most of the articles and insights on Pixar that I have been. So in that respect, it’s great to finally give something back, and I hope you’ve enjoyed my recap of this Michael B. Johnson talk.

Last modified: July 19, 2007