Michael B. Johnson: Making movies is hard fun

Michael Johnson set up his presentation today by giving us an outline of what he was going to be talking about. Going from a brief history and overall philosophy of PIXAR to how they work and function as a studio. He delves into how PIXAR started as a spin off of Lucas Film, and eventually merging with Disney.

The company of PIXAR itself is “all about casting” (as he said). The most important part of PIXAR is the group of people working for them. Michael Johnson described PIXAR as “art as team sport”, it is the ultimate in collaborative art. With that many creative people on a project the type of culture that begins to develop is a “best idea wins” kind of culture. This is a great strategy because it drives the creative force to only get better as the company grows older and gets bigger. As John Lasseter said “quality is the best business plan”, and it’s a plan that has seemed to work well for PIXAR since the first Toy Story in 1995.

Photo courtesy of Michael B. Johnson

Going into the process of making a movie Michael Johnson broke it down into four basic steps.

  • Make a Believable world
  • Create a character that is believable in that world
  • Create a story
  • Repeat until done

It was at the last bullet that he had the whole room laughing. Because very rarely do you ever present a project for the first time and it’s perfect, exactly how they want, absolutely nothing needs to be changed. A lot of times even, you have to start over completely. But that is just really in the nature of being in commercial art.

Another interesting aspect to Michael Johnson’s presentation was when he talked about the process of creating the art style. When developing the scenes and choosing the different color schemes they get boiled down to color strips of the colors being used in each scene, they called these strips of color “color-scripts”. The interesting thing is that when color is chosen so carefully, as it is at PIXAR, just looking at all of the color strips from a movie together just can get a sense of how the story progresses over time. You obviously don’t get any detail, but with color you can feel the general emotion in the movie, which I feel is much more important.

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.
Though we would like to think that making a movie is easy, it was made clear to us today that it is not. That is not to say that it can’t be fun. A reoccurring theme in the conference is that if you don’t have fun with what you do, (even if its “hard fun”) then you should find something that you do have fun doing. Work at a job where you actually want to go into the office (or wherever), in the morning and you will have more of a chance to succeed at what you do.