Inside Pixar Canada studios in Vancouver
As we neared Water Street, I could hear the toothy tow truck, his thick Southern accent could be heard from two blocks away.
"I wasn't tractor-tippin'," Mater insisted.
The red race car came into view. He looked shinier than ever -- it must have been the new headlights, the fresh coat of paint.
Lightning McQueen and Tow Mater were in Vancouver last week. The two starring characters of Pixar animated feature Cars 2 were promoting their new animated short film, Air Mater.
Beneath a large white tent, McQueen and Mater welcomed media with open wheels. I was in the press shuttle, with reporters from DVD Town, Tribute, GeekSugar, CBS. Some of the reporters flew in from California and Toronto for the event.
With the long lineup and camera flashes everywhere, it was impossible to get any closer to the Pixar stars.
I sat down with Pixar's Rob Gibbs, Dylan Brown, Amir Nasrabadi and Darwyn Peachey, before it would be my turn to meet the celebrities.
McQueen with best friend Mater, Photo by Anja Konjicanin
Inside Pixar Vancouver
The old, cobbled streets of Gastown led the reporters to Pixar Canada studio on Water Street. The 30,000 square-foot facility, a 110-year-old building, houses the 75-person Academy Award-winning computer-animation giant. Inside, Pixar art was everywhere, with character portraits hanging on the walls.
"There's history that goes way back with Pixar, back into the Point Richard days," Pixar creative director Dylan Brown said. "It's important to remember that history and to be and feel a part of it."
Brown recalled the company's early days.
"It was very much like living in your parents' garage, and it was a little cobbled together," he said. "It was nice, and we could do great work there. It was also a smaller studio."
He talked about their "giant" campus in Emeryville, where they would go next before finally moving to Vancouver three years ago.
On the third floor in the kitchen area, there was Sulley, holding a permanent smile and a wave. Nearby, a piece of wood, taken from a tree from John Lasseter's garden. They said that the other half was in Emeryville, that it was their way of connecting the two studios.
Not too far away were other Pixar characters Mike (from Monsters, Inc.) and Bruce (Finding Nemo). The lighting team wanted Bruce for their space at the bottom floor.
Photo sourced from mylot.com
I also caught a glimpse of three-dimensional prints of Buzz Lightyear and Sheriff Woody. They stood inside a plastic clear cube, like unopened toys.
"It's like an ink jet printer for paper, but it's got a third dimension," explained one of the staff members. It prints glue with ink, printing form and colour at the same time. A bit of glossy nail polish is added to make the eyes "sparkle" from the paper.
"Even if people came here and didn't work on Monsters, Inc. or Nemo or whatever, they feel a part of the company that did -- it's their company too," Brown explained. "To feel inclusive in all of that, and to feel ownership is extremely important and to help that spirit stay alive here."
Things are still getting completed around the studio. In the early stages of construction, they found an abandoned elevator shaft (which they intend to keep) and uncovered a stairwell. They found horse hair on the third floor, as well, as old wall insulation.
Director Rob Gibbs compared the environment to Club Med. People do laps in the swimming pool, there are exercise classes, basketball court, volleyball court. "It's very active," he said. "This is not going on all day," he assured, letting out a hearty laugh. "It's a really fun environment to be in." The open-floor concept with low walls that divide the double-cubed work stations encourages communication and gets people to get up from their desks.
Brown talked about the natural element of wood in their Vancouver campus. They use locally sourced wood, mostly cedar.
"Living in B.C. and the history of B.C. is all about the lumber industry. We wanted to celebrate that. Let's remind ourselves of where we are," Brown said. He stressed the importance of being surrounded by organic materials, especially because the Pixar staff work mainly with "unnatural" materials such as plastic, metal and fluorescent screens.
Currently, Cars and Toy Story are the studio's primary focus. Brown pointed to a picture of Loxo, the animated lamp. "That's kind of what started it all," he said.
Photo sourced from Pixar.com
Rob Gibbs, director
Rob Gibbs joined Pixar Animation Studios in 1998. His first Pixar project was the hit animated film, Monsters, Inc.
"I loved working on that film," he said. "I went on to Cars and fell in love with that world also." The 117-minute feature film took one year to complete. "You're so limited with what you can do with a car. They don't have hands, so you kind of invent ways, and that became a really fun process."
He talked about the Cars animation and the idea process that goes into the animation.
"There have been times when (Pixar chief creative officer) John Lasseter has come up to me and said, 'You know, kids love monster trucks and they love professional wrestling. Can we put those together and put Mater in there and throw McQueen somewhere in the middle?" Gibbs said.
"Going from the drawings, the early storyboards, to seeing them animated...it's taking it from a kind of 2-D drawing to this three-dimensional thing," he said. "So many more possibilities happen in that stage. It's really exciting."
As a youth, Gibbs was inspired by the Looney Tunes. He still revisits the Warner Bros. cartoons as a reference for his short films today.
"I love the old Popeye cartoons, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. I wasn't interested in some of the flatter animation that was being done in the 70s, 80s, but I loved some of the more classic, and of course all the Disney films. That was a huge inspiration," Gibbs said.
"For these shorts, we've gone back and looked at some of the timing of Bugs Bunny and learned from that."
Dylan Brown, creative director
"Where I tend to get really excited, consistently, is at this intersection between art and technology," Dylan Brown, Pixar Canada's creative director, said. "I think that is something that is at the heart of what we do here at Pixar."
Originally from California, Brown became creative director for Pixar Canada in 2009. He worked as an animator at Pixar Animation Studios and worked on image compression and colour mapping for "Toy Story Animated Story Book" and the "Toy Story Activity Center" CD-ROMs.
Brown went through some of the more "toonie" animation, drew animation at school. He said he loved watching it and was admired people who did it. But he realized that it wasn't for him.
"It didn't speak to me -- holding the pencil all day just didn't speak to me," he said. "But holding the mouse, a digital pencil, did."
Amir Nasrabadi, Vice president and general manager
Nasrabadi had a somewhat unusual starting point for someone who works with Pixar -- he started out working in finance.
"It was a good career, and I liked it, but I really wanted to be a part of a more fun environment," he said. "I wanted to be a part of a company that produced a product that lots of people enjoy and that lived forever."
Nasrabadi was one of the three founders who arrived in Vancouver in 2009 to manage start up. In only 18 months, the studio had 75 staff members, leased and built-out space, set up production, and completed one short film.
And that "fun environment" Nasrabadi was looking for? He found it at Pixar.
"We have a group of animators here who somehow got their hands on a bunch of Nerf guns," he said, describing a typical day at the animation studio.
"So I just get up to go to the bathroom, and I get bullets shot at me. Now I hold up pads of paper to protect myself."
Darwyn Peachey, chief technology officer
Darwyn Peachey joined Pixar Animation Studios in 1988. He left his hometown of Saskatoon and moved to California to pursue his career. Peachey started as a software engineer and got to work on some of the early technology.
He recalled working the four to five years he spent working on theToy Story films, which used cutting-edge 3D technology to bring animated characters to life.
"That was very exciting because it was the first time a completely computer- animated film had been made, and we didn't know for sure that it was possible with the technology that we had in those days, the computers that we had," he said.
"It was very difficult but very exciting, and the end result was something that we were all immensely proud of."
Today, he's responsible for the technology used in making the films. He supervises technical aspects of production which includes a large part of the production process. He oversees technical artists who light, shade, model, and create visual effects.
Amir Nasrabadi and Darwyn Peachey
The rain came dripping down
While the studio was in the process of building out their "giant computer farm," they had the ceiling opened up -- and panicked when rain started to come into the building.
"We had it sealed off, but we didn't realize that water was getting in somewhere. Water finds its way through," Brown said.
The rain came dripping into Pixar Canada's server room, and staff members were scrambling to prevent the rain from damaging their computer.
"I came into the office, and these guys were running around, grabbing plastic trash cans," recalled Brown. Luckily, the water damage was minimal, and the studio just lost one network switch.
"That was amazing," Brown recalled, with an air of disbelief. "It rains inside in Vancouver."