The synthetic organization, part 2

pencils 2 by Paul Worthington

The Synthetic Organization, Part 1 }

Pixar is different from every other movie studio. Why?

One aspect is mentioned in the article – a leader at Pixar for one movie becomes a follower and supporter for the next. They remain engaged in each other’s projects. The success of one helps the success of all.

But I also believe that there is a little more than this. Because each Pixar movie is more than just telling a story; it is adding to the tool box being used by all the innovators at Pixar. The impact of each movie to this continually enlarging storehouse of knowledge engages these innovators who work at the leading edge of technology.

There are other computer animated movies that are quite good. Kung Fu Panda , for instance. But many of these are really no different at their basis than regular 2-D animation. That is, the movie would not have been much different using classic cel-based animation. The gags would have been the same and just as funny.

On the other hand, each Pixar movie, besides the obvious need to create an enjoyable experience, seems to have another motive for being created. Each actually seems to be an exercise in solving a difficult technical question, one that can only be examined using computer animation.

Toy Story proved that a compelling story told by computer generated animation could actually be accomplished. A Bug’s Life examined the problem of opening up the world, from the relatively claustrophobic, medium shot world of Toy Story to an almost Cinerama widescreen not seen since How the West Was Won .

Toy Story 2 brought increased pathos and emotionality from animated characters, indicating that these completely virtual creations could twist our emotions like regular actors. Monsters, Inc. stretched the reality of the computer animated world, taking it into fantastical directions impossible in any other medium, while using increases in technology to address things like animated hair. Finding Nemo added the problematical world of water, something always very difficult to do with any animated approach.

The Incredibles began an examination of an effective animated caricature of the human form, something that had just looked too weird in previous movies (even Monster, Inc. covered up Boo in a costume for large periods of time) and was thus often avoided.

Cars demonstrated an increasing sophistication by creating normally inanimate objects that could actually act. That is, they only had eyes and mouths to convey emotion. No arms or legs to help demonstrate emotionality. It is as if an entire movie was made with only head shots.

Ratatouille now combined all the lessons previously learned into human characters that could emote. While the human figures in The Incredibles often acted in grand gestures and seemed larger than life (well, they were superheroes), the people who inhabited Ratatouille looked and acted much smaller, like regular people.

The characters did not have to ‘shout’ to convey action but could tell us what they were thinking by a subtle change in facial expression. Ratatouille was the first computer animated movie that seemed to have actual human beings occupying the screen.

And WALL-E is the solution to a dandy problem. Can a computer animated character be created that is emotionally engaging but has no human eyes or mouth, who does not speak? Essentially, could an animated movie be created combining a robotic Buster Keaton with the first 20 minutes of 2001:A Space Odyssey ?

Now illustrating a great story has been done with computers before and they can make enjoyable movies. But each Pixar movie has been on the path to creating singular movie characters that can emote on the same complex level as human actors. Pixar has put together a tool chest that no one else has.

So part of the way Pixar has kept its creative people engaged is to provide them opportunities to succeed at solving very difficult questions using tools no one else has. Recreating all of this elsewhere would be difficult.

Each of these very difficult questions (realistic animated characters, realistic surroundings, emotional connections, toolbox of techniques) had to not only be answered but had to be done inside a commercially successful creation. Simply solving these problems, as if they were some sort of Labors of Hercules, was not enough. Pixar movies also had to be have narrative that was worth the price of admission. Simply pushing the envelope would not be successful.

Pixar set itself up to attack very complex problems that required solutions at many different levels in order to achieve success, with the added problem that success would be measured by box office response. Success at just one of these levels only would result in failure.

Pixar has been able to do this because it seems to be designed along different lines than many multinational or MBA-driven companies. It is synthesizing the knowledge it learns to create something not seen before, and developing methods of organization to sustain this synthesis.

As discussed in the Harvard article , Pixar’s innovators lead some times and provide support at others. I’ll talk more soon but check out The Unplanned Organization by Margaret Wheatley to get a hint of where I am going…

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