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Animating a Blockbuster: How Pixar Built Toy Story 3

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Screenwriter William Goldman once famously declared that the most important fact of life in Hollywood is that nobody knows anything.

It was his way of describing a reality that continues to haunt the movie business: Studio executives have no idea which pictures will make money.

Unless, of course, those pictures are made by Pixar Animation Studios. Since 1995, when the first Toy Story was released, Pixar has made nine films, and every one has been a smashing success.

Pixars secret? Its unusual creative process. Most of the time, a studio assembles a cast of freelance professionals to work on a single project and cuts them loose when the picture is done. At Pixar, a staff of writers, directors, animators, and technicians move from project to project. As a result, the studio has built a team of moviemakers who know and trust one another in ways unimaginable on most sets.

Which explains how they can handle the constant critiques that are at the heart of Pixars relentless process. Animation days at the studio all begin the same way: The animators and director gather in a small screening room filled with comfy couches. They eat Capn Crunch and drink coffee. Then the team begins analyzing the few seconds of film animated the day before, as they ruthlessly shred each frame. Even the most junior staffers are encouraged to join in.

The upper echelons also subject themselves to megadoses of healthy criticism. Every few months, the director of each Pixar film meets with the brain trust, a group of senior creative staff. The purpose of the meeting is to offer comments on the work in progress, and that can lead to some major revisions. Its important that nobody gets mad at you for screwing up, says Lee Unkrich, director of Toy Story 3. We know screwups are an essential part of making something good. That's why our goal is to screw up as fast as possible.

The proof is in the product. The average international gross per Pixar film is more than $550 million, and the cartoons are critical darlings the studio has collected 24 Academy Awards. Nobody in Hollywood knows anything. Pixar seems to know everything.

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