Michael B. Johnson: Pain Is Temporary, Suck Is Forever

I think the word Pixar invokes excitement and awe from most people who hear it so needless to say I was excited to hear Dr. Michael B. Johnson of Pixar talking today at TYPO London. And boy, was he given an introduction by Erik Spiekermann.


Photo: Gerhard Kassner

He finished his introduction by saying that Michael makes him feel stupid if he spends more than an hour in his company because Michael is “so fucking bright”. And there is no doubt that he is indeed bright. However I am more in awe of his sense of family spirit regarding Pixar than his intelligence.

When Michael describes the space that Pixar works in he refers especially to the huge open area that greets you when you walk in. He said Steve Jobs (RIP) insisted on having this space because he wanted people to come out of their offices and interact with each other. The open space can be used for anything and has even been used for playing badminton.

The underlying theme of the talk is teamwork and Michael often quotes words of wisdom from his fellow colleagues. John Lasseter one of Pixar’s founders has said: “Quality is the best business plan”, or as another colleague put it “Pain is temporary, suck is forever”. The Pixar family very much keep these mantras in mind, always striving to do things better. American film & theater director Gower Champion has been quoted as saying “Do something so we can change it”. They create an environment of constructive criticism, they call it giving a good note. To do this you must point out a problem, propose a solution and give it at a time when they can still use your solution.

Michael is very modest and always refers to ‘we’ when discussing the groundbreaking tools he has developed to make the process of making animated films as easy as possible. Again the team is at the forefront. His tools have revolutionised the storyboarding process, he has also changed the way the team give and receive criticism by making everything as interactive as possible. Storyboarding has moved from being a huge board on which you stick drawings to a digital presentation that includes voiceovers and can be done in real time to make it more accurate. He has changed the way people give and receive criticism by making it possible to draw over and make notes directly onto sketches which immediately are available on an online system for the team to view.

Michael B. Johnson

Michael B. Johnson

Dr. Michael B. Johnson leads the Moving Pictures Group at Pixar Animation Studios. His group is responsible for the design, implementation and support of the pre-production pipeline for Pixar features and shorts. This includes Story, Editorial, Art and the review process, as well as Production Management. His team works directly with the directors, editors, producers, production designers, art directors, artists and production folks who start the process of bringing Pixar stories to the screen. Dr. Johnson has been at Pixar since 1993 and has written tools for all of Pixar's feature films (and many of their short films), including storyboarding, pre-viz, layout, animation, modeling, lighting, rendering, and editorial tools. Prior to Pixar, Michael attended the University of Illinois where he earned his undergraduate degree in Computer Science Engineering. He studied abroad for a year in Swansea, Wales and also worked for NCSA, Thinking Machines, IBM and MIT’s Media Lab. He completed his Masters of Science in Visual Studies and his PhD in Computer Graphics and Animation at the MIT Media Lab, where Dr. Edwin Catmull (founder & President of Pixar) was on his thesis committee. He lives in Oakland CA with his wife and daughter.
Everything Michael does is for the benefit of the team, to make the team function better and to diffuse as much technically created tension as possible. It seems that once Michael is making the Pixar life easier for everyone, he’s a happy man!

Text: Lynsey Power, Graphic BirdWatching


  1. Michael B Johnson|October 22, 2011

    two corrections: “Mark Lasseter” should be “John Lasseter” and “Pixel member Gower Champion” should be “American film & theater director Gower Champion”.

    Please fix in the body. Thx.

  2. TYPO Doku Team|October 22, 2011


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