13 for 13

This is not a post about triskaidekaphobia, but today would be a good day for one. No, it’s a simple question:

What if Pixar came to your church?

This is Pixar Animation Studio’s track record: 13 for 13.

That’s thirteen films since the studio’s launch in 1995, every one of them a smashing success. What’s their secret?

Their unusual creative process.

Unlike the typical studio that gathers all the necessary personnel to produce a film and then releases them after it is finished, Pixar’s staff of writers, directors, animators, and technicians moves from project to project.

The result: a team of moviemakers who know and trust one another in ways unimaginable on most sets.

My wife and I saw “Brave” recently, and it reminded me of an article in Wired magazine from a couple of years ago on how Pixar does it, using “Toy Story 3” as the example. You can read the whole article here, but take a look at their step-by-step process in a nutshell:


  • Day 1 – coming up with a great story. The creative team leaves the campus for an off site retreat, and knocks out a quick storyline – which they promptly discard.
  • Day 3 – working from a series of plot points, screenwriter Michael Arndt begins drafting the script. Director Lee Unkrich and the story artists start sketching storyboards. The storyboards allow the filmmakers to begin imagining the look and feel of each scene.


  • Day 36 – character design begins. Working in digital images, sketches, and clay figures, each character comes to life in a process called simulation – a constant negotiation between the artistic and technical teams.
  • Day 123 – the storyboards are turned into a story reel that can be projected, much like an elaborate flip book. This allows the team to watch along with an audience and determine what works and what doesn’t.


  • Day 380 – actors come into the studio to record all the lines – dozens of times. The actors are also being filmed, so the animators can watch the actor’s expressions and use them as reference points when they animate the characters’ faces.
  • Day 400 – shaders began to add color and texture to character’s’ bodies and other surfaces that appear in the film. Complex algorithms are used to simulate the effect of light and shadow on different toy surfaces like plastic, cloth, or wood.


  • Day 533 – the pictures are moving, defined by up to 1,000 points of possible movement that animators can manipulate like strings on a puppet. Each day the team starts by reviewing the previous day’s work, ripping it apart to make each scene more expressive.
  • Day 806 – technical challenges pile up. The studio’s design which places essential facilities in the center allows the team to have unplanned creative conversations while on the way for a cup of coffee or walking to the bathroom.
  • Day 898 – the animators hit high gear, working late into the night in customized and personalized offices.
  • Day 907 – rendering, the process of using computer algorithms to generate a final frame, is well under way. The average frame (a move has 24 frames per second) takes about seven hours to render, though complex frames can take nearly 39 hours of computer time. The Pixar building has two massive render farms, each of which contains hundreds of servers running 24 hours a day.


  • Day 1,070 – the movie is mostly done. the team has completed 25 of the film’s sequences and is finishing the most complicated scene of the move. It has taken 27 technical artists four months to perfect that single scene.
  • Day 1,084 – Only weeks away from release, the audio mixers at Skywalker Sound combine dialog, music, and sound effects. Every nuance is adjusted and readjusted. Director Unkrich: “We don’t ever finish a film – I could keep on making it better. We’re just forced to release it.”

And you thought getting a sermon ready for Sunday was difficult!

The process depicted above can be highly constructive for you and your team. Granted, you don’t have either the budget or the time to produce a film like Toy Story 3, but you can take the principles above and apply them in your context, resources, and time frame.

So, how about it? What Pixar creative magic can you put to use this week?


2 thoughts on “13 for 13

  1. Pingback: Where Did the Creativity Go? « 27gen

  2. Pingback: A New Way to Play Follow the Leader « 27gen

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