Pixar creates some of the most recognizable products of any company: Its animated films all display a distinctive style marked by a certain combination of realistic movement and an almost Impressionist use of color and form. The mingling of the realistic and the cartoonish, of the vulgar with touches of high art, the tongue-in-cheek commercial with traditional narrative tropes has given the studio a series of hits that have managed to be commercial successes while at the same time avoiding the air of commercialization that hounds their closest rival, Disney.
Even though Pixar's films too are accompanied by a very wide range of merchandise, the studio's films stand on their own more than do most of those of other studios. This paper examines the organizational culture of Pixar that has allowed it to achieve commercial success as well as to create a distinct style of animation and storytelling. While the company's successes can be attributed to the exquisite cleverness of its technical expertise, there are many other factors that are at least as important.
The overall culture of an organization is always key to its successes or failures, and it is only through an analysis of the values of a company (as manifested in every aspect of how it conducts business, from the benefits that it provides its employees to its attentiveness to environmental concerns to the politics of its stockholders' meetings) that one can come to understand both its strengths and its weaknesses.
Company History and Overview
To provide a context for the examination of Pixar, it is important to note a few of the company's highlights in terms of its past successes. Since the debut of its first feature film in 1995 -- Toy Story -- the company has made ten additional movies. A Bug's Life (1998) was followed by Toy Story 2 (1999), Monsters, Inc. (2001), Finding Nemo (2003), The Incredibles (2004), Cars (2006), Ratatouille (2007), WALL-E (2008), Up (2009) and Toy Story 3 (2010). This last release from the studio was the highest-earning animated film ever. The movie grossed over $1 billion. Altogether, the studio has an average gross (for all eleven films) of over $600 million, which is the highest of any studio -- in either the United States or in any other country.
These figures suggest the immense financial success worldwide), in 2010. All eleven films that Pixar has produced have been largely successful, both critically and commercially. The $602 million average gross of their films is by far the highest of any studio ever. This high level results in some measure from the fact that Pixar films do not incur some of the highest costs of non-animated films, especially the costs of A-list stars. The films do, however, employ major actors as 'voice talent', such as Tom Hanks, who provided the voice of the star in all of the Toy Story movies, which is not as high an expense as employing actors to appear (as well as to be heard) in a film.
The technical craft that goes into Pixar films is not inexpensive, although since most of the computer technology that the company uses it has developed itself, which substantially reduces its costs since it has the proprietary rights to the software. The sophisticated software (along with the hardware needed to run it) makes the type of films that Pixar make possible to begin with. However, this does not mean that the use of this software is not expensive because it is so time-consuming. Anyone who has ever watched the credits of a Pixar film is likely to have been impressed by the number of names listed as being a part of the film's team.
Each of Pixar's eleven films are among the top fifty grossing animated films of all times and four of the films -- Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Up and Toy Story 3 are ranked among the top fifty grossing films of any sort. Given the fact that Pixar has had to compete against very well-established companies (and especially against Disney, which was a behemoth of children's entertainment that many industry experts believed could not be taken on) and yet has been able to become an industry leader in so short a period of time. (Disney would in time buy out Pixar, which has a very complicated corporate history, especially given how young the company is.)
According to the company's background (pixar.com), Pixar has also been able to make a name for itself on artistic grounds, an accomplishment in and of itself for a new company, but especially striking given that there is always an uneasy relationship between profits and artistry. But the company has, despite its financial success, been consistently rewarded for its artistic vision. Oscars for Best Animate Feature have been given since 2001, and all of the Pixar films released since then have been nominated for this highest cinematic award. Six of those nominated films have taken home the Oscar statuette. In addition to this, of the three animated films nominated for Best Picture in the entire history of the Academy Awards, two of them were Pixar pictures.
Pixar's artistic vision, while it seems highly unified at the moment, was in fact extemporaneously created. The company was born not out of a unified artistic goal but rather from frustration with various existing corporate structures, primarily those at Lucasfilm, George Lucas's company that specialized in a range of technologically dazzling effects. However, while Lucas was determined to create cutting-edge pieces of cinematography, a number of the engineers and designers at Luscasfilm wanted to venture off in new directions, according to a book written on the founding of the company (Price, 2008).
The collection of talent that set off to make the new company knew that they wanted to create a new kind of movie, but they had few specifics in mind beyond that. The company was also hindered in some measure because Lucas insisted that the new team be housed at his Marin County headquarters. Most animation artists were at the time located in Hollywood, and many were reluctant to move two-thirds of the way up the state. Many also may have been daunted by the fact that the shift to computer-generated imagery seemed a very long technical and philosophical way from the world of hand-drawn cells.
The company, under the direction of George Lucas, tried to overcome the understandable reluctance of traditional animators to make the shift to computer-generated images, designed its software (called "Marionette") so that it would be as intuitive as possible to artists (Price, 2008, p. 48). Because of the lack of traditionally trained and experienced animators, many of those who came to Pixar as it started out came straight to the company from college or graduate school or from a field outside of animation altogether (Price, 2008, p. 5).
The fact that most of the first cohort of animators at Pixar did not have substantial experience in the field proved to be a problem in some ways because the team had essentially to reinvent the metaphorical wheel in many ways. This would have been true to come extent anyway given the fact that the software itself was radically new. However, had the company's original group of animators come to Pixar with more experience in other companies, they would in all likelihood have recreated the organizational culture of other companies.
One of the artists profiled on the company's website -- identified only as "Gini" -- fits the kind of anomalous illustrator that has set Pixar apart. She is unusual because most animators are still men:
…nowadays I see more and more women in the field. I remember someone advising me that it was "such a man's world, you have to elbow your way in." But for me, what got me through was that I wanted to animate and keep learning. My experience at Pixar was that if you do good work, you are recognized. I haven't had to elbow my way into anything here. All I want is to animate. I suck in as much as possible, and we have a good collaborative environment here. What they care most about is that you have a solid art background.
… After graduating I went into advertising for about five years in Guam. It was great, because I was a big fish in a small pond. I was able to work with big clients, like Nestle, that I would never have been able to work with at my age here in the United States. After a while I burnt out and wanted to go back to school.
There was a course in computer animation at the School of Visual Arts in New York City…. it's funny, because I can tell you when I knew I didn't want to be an animator. ... [I decided to become an animator] [w]hen I discovered 3-D animation and realized the computer can do the in-between drawings. But you're still wrestling with the computer…