You'd think that -- given that I've been writing about the entertainment industry for a couple of years now -- that the thrill of getting to go visit a new studio lot and/or animation studio would have faded by now. That a really-for-real reporter would have become jaded about this sort of experience by now.
Not me. I have to admit that I still get a thrill whenever I gain access to some previously unauthorized area. Which is why I was truly jazzed last June when VES president Tom Atkin invited Nancy and I to come to the kick-off event for "VES 2002: A Festival of Visual Effects." Which was a private party at Pixar.
The festivities weren't officially supposed to get underway 'til 5 p.m. But -- if I'm remembering correctly -- we rolled our rental car right up to the gates of this pseudo-industrial looking complex well before then. The nice gentleman in the guard shack checked to see if our names were on the list (I'm always surprised when they actually are ... the geek boy from New Hampshire with access to someplace truly cool like Pixar), then directed us into the visitors lot.
As we strolled up to the entrance of the main building of Pixar's new studio complex, I couldn't help but recall all that I'd read about this place. How Steve Jobs had paid $5.8 million for an old Del Monte cannery, then flattened that factory in order to spend over $80 million on the construction of a brand-new state-of-the-art computer animation studio. Which -- from the outside, anyway -- still looked a lot like an old factory.
But that of course, was the whole point of the design scheme behind Pixar's new 16 acre campus. That the studio would blend in with its surroundings, not try to attract attention to itself. (Though that enormous metal "Pixar" sign that arches over the guard shack is a bit of a giveaway...)
Anyway ... The main building on the campus is enormous. 215,000 square feet ... or so I've heard. But -- in the Pixar tradition -- it was the little, close-up details that really sold the show. The many different colors of brick that were used in the construction (among them "mojave" and "coral") that make the place seem warm and inviting.
Well, Pixar's new studio WOULD seem warm and inviting if we weren't be stopped every 10 feet or so to check in VES staffers who were determined to make sure that we were actually on the list for the party.
Seriously, Nancy and I were stopped by someone with a clipboard on the walkway up to the building, then had to check in with yet another VES staffer who was positioned at the door. Next -- after signing in at Pixar's own security desk -- we had to get in line at the party check-in table. Where -- once again -- Nancy and I had to give our names to someone else wielding a clipboard before we could be checked off a list and finally be issued our name badges.
I was just starting to grumble, muttering darkly about "What's the big deal? Why all the security? It's just a party after all ..." when Nancy said "Isn't that George Lucas over there?"
Sure enough. Standing in a far corner of Pixar's massive atrium lobby was the old Jedi Master himself. (This seemed to be a deliberate choice on Lucas' part. As if George was somewhat unsure what to expect from a room full of visual effects professional. So Lucas kept his distance initially. Appeared a bit stand off-ish. Though -- I'm pleased to report that -- before too long, George appeared to loosen up. And by the mid-point of the party he was right in the thick of things. Mingling and schmoozing with folks like FX pioneer Ray Harryhausen.)
And, no ... I didn't race up to Uncle George and ask for his autograph. Nor did I ask him all sorts of geeky questions. I mean, I may be from the woods of New Hampshire, but I'm not a total rube, you know. After all, I know my CCACAC: The Californian Code for Acting Cool Around Celebrities. Which is:
When you encounter a celebrity and/or a person of power in Hollywood in a non-professional setting (I.E. out shopping or dining, out for a day at Disneyland with their family, or if they're attending a private party), you should always:
Be respectful. Keep your distance. Nod, smile .... but don't point. Absolutely no autographs & photographs.
That way, the celebrity that you sighted actually gets to have a private life. Which some of them seem to enjoy. And you get to feel good about yourself -- because you didn't behave like some start-struck ass -- when you attempt to work that seemingly casual "Guess who I saw yesterday?" anecdote into all your conversations over the next couple of days.
Anywho ... Let's get back to what it was like to wander around inside Pixar, shall we? As you might expect, there were lots of fun things to see. I mean, even the studio's security desk had a sense of whimsy about it. As a nod to the then-still-in-production "Finding Nemo," there was a clown fish lamp next to the sign-in sheet.
And -- right next to the desk -- there was this impossibly small German car. An authentic 1964 Messerschmitt, painted fire engine red ... with a large Mike (you know, the "one eyed creten" from "Monsters, Inc.") plush doll crammed into the front seat.
Beyond this, the full sized Mike and Sully stand-ins (you know, the ones that you saw in movie theater lobbies all over America just prior to the release of "Monsters, Inc.") were available for photo ops. As was an enormous Heimlich plush ... which was peeking out from under the open bar.
Even the bathrooms in Pixar's lobby area got into the act. The men's room was designated by these enormous stylized images of Mike and Sully which were attached to the wall just outside the restroom. The ladies room featured pictures of Boo and Celia. (A nicer, subtler touch could be found in the metal signs just outside the entrance to each of the restrooms. The men's room featured the international symbol for "Male" as well as the silhouette of Woody from "Toy Story." The ladies room featured the international symbol for "Woman" as well as a silhouette of Bo Peep).
Another thing that struck me was the immediate sense of community you got upon entering Pixar's headquarters. EX: There was this handmade sign on the security desk congratulating the crew who worked on "For the Birds" for their 2002 Academy Award for Best Animated Short. The sign showed all of the nasty little birds from this Ralph Eggleston film still seated on that telephone wire. Only this time around, it wasn't the big gawky bird who was weighing down the wire ... but an Oscar.
Clearly, Pixar seems like a fun place to work. To the right of the immense, open airy lobby is the foosball tables, a pool table as well as a Xenon pinball machine. There are lots of comfy couches scattered about ... right next to the studio's communal mailroom.
The art -- back in June of 2002, anyway -- that was decorating the lobby were huge blow-ups of concept art from "Monsters, Inc." Though it should be noted that Pixar's employee cafeteria -- the Luxo Café -- featured an enormous version of the first test images of "A Bug's Life."
As Nancy and I wandered deeper into the lobby -- and amused ourselves by watching the reaction of the other party guests when they suddenly realized that George Lucas was in the room -- we kept noticing things that made us think that Pixar must be this really fun place to work. Like those signs that were plastered all over the place, inviting employees to that Saturday night's screening (at 11 p.m., no less! Don't these Pixar guys ever sleep and/or go home to their familes?) of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" in the Pixar Studio theater.
Oh ... Just so you know, folks: Contrary to what you may have seen on your "Monsters, Inc." DVD, I never actually saw a chimpanzee wandering around the studio. But I did see a couple of dozen Pixar employees whizzing through the building on their razor scooters. Which may have explained the "Please walk scooters and skateboards in narrow hallways to avoid injury to yourself and others" safety signs that were prominently posted around the building.
As for the food that was served at the VES / Pixar party, it was a buffet that mixed Italian finger food with California cuisine. So you had these itty bitty pizzas tastefully arranged right next to these great big bowls of guacamole.
As guests continued to arrive at the party, Pixar's employees were still hard at work. Staffers moving with purpose across those two enormous steel bridges that span the lobby. Story meetings were still going on in those huge glassed-in conference rooms on the second floor that overlooked the party. (Periodically, someone in one of these conference rooms would wander up to the window and look down into the festivities. Then -- if you watched closely and/or could read lips -- you could actually catch the moment when they suddenly pointed downstairs and said "Hey, isn't that George Lucas?")
Yeah, it was a pretty great party. Courtesy of Pixar, by the way. Ed Catmull, the President of Pixar Animation, saw to it that his studio picked up the tab for this Visual Effects Society reception.
Speaking of the VES ... sometime around 6 p.m. Tom Aktin stepped up to the mike and thanked everyone for coming. He then spoke a bit about the history of the Visual Effects Society and its four charter/honorary members: FX industry vets Linn Dunn, Peter Ellenshaw, Ray Harryhausen and Albert Whitlock.
Aktin then told the story about how just before he died, Linn Dunn thanked Tom for finally putting together a professional organization that honored visual effects story telling. To create a sense of community among a group of artists who traditionally work alone and in secret.
Aktin then announced the Visual Effects Society's fifth member, which was FX legend Douglas Trumbull. As part of Trumbull's introduction, Tom told the story about the time when he apologized to Doug. It seems that the first time Atkins saw "2001: A Space Odyssey" (the landmark Stanley Kubrick film that Trumbull handled the special effects for), Tom was stoned.
Upon hearing this apology, Doug just laughed. He then explained that the only reason that "2001" survived long enough to become a cinematic classic was because of the stoners.
To explain: Normal movie-goers initially rejected Kubrick's visionary film and theater owners were going to pull the picture ... when they noticed that the front rows of their movie theaters were filled with stoners. It seemed that pot smokers really enjoyed "2001" (particularly when they were under the influence. So they told their friends, and so on and so on ...
Cinematic sophisticates eventually embraced Kubrick's film. But only because the stoners had kept "2001: A Space Odyssey" alive long enough so that cinephiles could "discover" the movie. (Which -- now that I think about it -- is pretty much what Disney Studio vets used to tell me about "Fantasia." That this animated feature was always considered an artistic failure by Mouse House management until its 1960s era re-release. That's the stoners reportedly embraced "Fantasia." Which is what finally put the picture into the black.)
Anyway ... Tom apologizes for the somewhat slapped together nature of Doug's VES induction ceremony. But -- in the fine tradition of the way most everything is done in the world of visual effects -- it "took us to the very last moment to get this done." Atkin then handed a limited bronze maquette of Ray Harryhausen's skeleton puppet from "Jason and the Argonauts." To commemorate Doug's induction as the fifth honorary member of the Visual Effects society, he was given the No. 5 (out of a run of just 82) statues.
FYI: If you're a real fan of Ray Harryhausen's work and would like to get your hands on your very own "Jason and the Argonauts" skeleton, VES is actually selling these limited edition bronze statues. This nifty items were created by the folks at the Visual Effects Society and Gentle Giant Studios who used a three dimensional scan of one of Ray's original stop motion fighting skeleton puppets used in this 1963 Columbia Pictures release to help create the finished piece.
Get more information on the VES's limited edition "Jason and the Argonauts" skeleton statue here.
Getting back to Trumbull's award presentation ... Doug now stepped up the mike and said that he was "deeply honored" to be singled for recognition by his peers. Trumbull -- who genuinely seemed to be a humble guy -- made sure to credit much of his success to "the amazingly talented people I've had the good fortune to work with over the years."
Doug then went on to explain how he'd spent the past few years "out on the fringe." AKA working with digital technology to push out the frontiers of visual effects. Trumbull went on to say that everything in film-making is a special effect. He closed by saying that he was "very humbled, very honored and very grateful to be feted like this."
Ray Harryhausen himself then stepped up and presented Doug with his "Jason and the Argonauts" bronze. As Trumbull posed for pictures with Harryhausen and Atkin, Tom mentioned that the second floor of Pixar was now open for those of us who wanted to explore.
As soon as we heard that, Nancy and I raced up the stairs -- taking them two at a time -- and discovered ... Next: The conclusion of "Partying at Pixar" ... which includes the tale of the hacksaw as well as what's in the trophy case.