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Pixar's Darla K. Anderson's slow & steady path to success

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Pixar's Darla K. Anderson's slow & steady path to success

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Here's kind of a depressing fact to start 2011 off with: 88% of all people will fail to keep their New Year's resolution.  With 45% of those folks falling off the self-improvement wagon by the end of January.

And why is that exactly? To be blunt, it's because a lot of us aren't willing to commit, make the necessary sacrifices, do the hard work that will actually help turn our dreams into reality.

Which is why I'd now like to talk about Pixar veteran Darla K. Anderson. Who -- according to the 2008 Guinness Book of World Records - has the highest average movie gross of any producer in Hollywood history: $221 million per movie.

Pixar veteran producer Darla K. Anderson. Copyright
Disney Enterprises, Inc. All right reserved

So how did the producer of "A Bug's Life," "Monsters, Inc.," "Cars" and "Toy Story 3" get her start? Did Darla K. perhaps have some high-powered friends who worked in the industry who then kicked open a few doors for her?

Nope. To hear Ms. Anderson tell the story, she was just a girl who grew up in Glendale, CA. In fact, Darla's very first job was at the Glendale Galleria, where Darla then worked behind the counter at a bakery.

So how did this kid -- who cleared tables for cash while she studied environmental design at San Diego State University -- wind up as the producer of some of the most popular animated films of all time? Well, there was some luck involved. A chance meeting with someone who was already successful in show business did in fact inspire Anderson to try & become a producer.

San Diego State University

But after that ... To be honest, it was all about perseverance. No job was too small or too menial for Anderson. If she had to work as a PA and then go make coffee for others in order to get her foot in the door at some production company ... Well, that's just what Darla did.

Which - as it turned out - turned out to be a really smart move. By starting out as a PA ... Well, Anderson was then able to learn about the industry from the bottom up. More to the point, by saying "Yes" to virtually every menial task that her bosses threw her way, Darla wound up seeing more - more importantly, learning more - than any of her co-workers.

Take - for example - how Anderson initially got exposed to computer animation. Someone from her office needed to attend this rather boring-sounding trade show in Las Vegas. Darla volunteered. Which is how she wound up sitting in on this demonstration of flying CG logos and then falling in love with this emerging art form.

Copyright Disney / Pixar. All rights reserved

From there, Anderson did everything that she could to learn as much as possible about computer animation. Which is how - one day - Darla found herself at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art. Where John Lasseter was screening Pixar's latest short, "Tin Toy."

And after that ... Well, that was pretty much all she wrote for Ms. Anderson. "Tin Toy" was so sweet, so charming (but - at the same time - such cutting-edge storytelling. Especially when you consider what everyone else was doing with CG back in 1989), Darla knew that she just had to go to work for Pixar Animation Studios.

The only problem was that - at this time - Pixar was just this teeny-tiny company with only 25 employees. More to the point, this animation studio was genuinely struggling to survive at this point in its history. Which meant that Pixar wasn't hiring.

Copyright 2007 Disney / Pixar and Chronicle Books, Inc. All rights reserved

But because Ms. Anderson believed that John Lasseter's dream (i.e. using CG to make a feature-length animated film) was actually doable, she dropped everything. Darla moved up to the Bay Area and then worked menial jobs like flower delivery for 18 months. All with the hope that - if she hung on long enough - Anderson would be the right person in the right place in the right time when Pixar Animation Studios finally started hiring.

And then in 1993, Pixar did call. Only they weren't looking for someone to help out with production of the world's first-ever feature-length CG project. But - rather - Lasseter & Co. were looking for someone to keep Pixar's commercial division arm up & running while everybody else worked on "Toy Story."

It wasn't the world's most glamorous job, producing ads for Listerine and Life Savers. But because it was crucial to keep all that commercial cash flowing into Pixar's coffers just in case "Toy Story" didn't succeed, Darla threw herself into her work.

Copyright Disney / Pixar. All rights reserved

And given that Anderson did such a great job with running Pixar's commercial division, when it came time for this animation studio to get started on its second feature-length project, "A Bug's Life," she was then awarded that assignment.  

But as Darla reminded me when the two of us spoke back in October, there was an awful lot riding on that "Epic of Miniature Proportions."

"People forget how important 'A Bug's Life' was, that this was the film that proved that Pixar wasn't a one hit wonder," Anderson explained. "And you have to remember that John spent much of 1995 and 1996 traveling the world, promoting first the theatrical release of 'Toy Story' and then the VHS version of that same movie. So in his absence, we really had to come together as a team. Do everything we had to in order to make sure that that movie succeeded."

Copyright Disney / Pixar. All rights reserved

And given that Darla really delivered the goods on "A Bug's Life" ... Well, she was then handed Pixar's next problematic project, "Monsters, Inc." Which was this animation studio's first feature-length production NOT to be directed by John Lasseter.

"This time around, we were out to prove that there was really more to Pixar's success than just John," Anderson continued. "Then when you factor in all of the technical challenges that we faced on 'Monsters, Inc.' with Sulley's hair ... That was a tough, tough picture too."

But in spite of all the technological challenges that Darla and the folks at Pixar faced with "Monsters, Inc." and "Cars," she never lost sight of what was really important here. Which was that all of this amazing technology always had to service the story. That - when you get right down to it -- what really made Pixar's pictures special were their characters & story.

Copyright Disney / Pixar. All rights reserved

Which brings us to Darla's latest production, "Toy Story 3." Given that - due to the work she was doing in Pixar's commercial division as well as on "A Bug's Life" - Anderson missed out on the chance to work on the first two "Toy Story" movies. Which is why she was determined not to miss out on working on the third installment of this acclaimed trilogy.

"I actually threw my hat in the ring right after we finished working on 'Monsters, Inc.' I told John that - if we ever went ahead with production of 'Toy Story 3' - I wanted a shot at producing that picture," Darla remembered. "And once Disney made that deal to acquire Pixar ... Well, that finally cleared the way to make this sequel."

And given how hugely successful "Toy Story 3" has been (it was last year's most successful motion picture. Earning $415 million during its domestic run, $648 million overseas for a combined worldwide box office total of $1.06 billion dollars) ... Well, it's easy to overlook all of the hard work that actually went into producing this Golden Globe nominee. Darla and "TS3" director Lee Unkrich - along with hundreds of artists and technicians - worked for 4 ¼ years on this film.

Copyright Disney / Pixar. All rights reserved

 And while Anderson is quick to praise all of the folks that she works with Pixar, it's important to note here that Darla's the one who rode herd on four of the top grossing animated films in Hollywood history. That she's the one who kept everything on schedule, kept everyone focused on the job at hand, using many of the same skills that Anderson developed back when she was waitressing in Glendale, CA.

"That was when I first learned to multi-task. I had to figure out how to work with the people back in the kitchen while keeping the customers happy, delivering what they ordered as quickly as possible. And I'm still doing that same sort of thing today," Darla laughed.

Which brings me to the main point of today's JHM article. Darla Anderson got where she is today because - no matter how menial the task, how difficult the job - she committed. She threw herself into each task and then did it to the best of her ability.

Copyright 2010 MTV Networks. All rights reserved

Mind you, it took almost two decades for Ms. Anderson to get where she is today (Darla will be celebrating her 18th year with Pixar Animation Studios later this year). And I know that - in this age of instant messaging, where people like Snooki & the Situation become celebrities overnight without  actually accomplished anything - suggesting that someone take the slow & steady approach to success, that they actually commit to working hard for weeks, months, years at a time in order to achieve their goals isn't going to be all that popular a proposition.

But even so, I'd like to suggest that - as 2011 gets underway and we all struggle to keep our respective New Year's resolutions - Darla is still a great role model. And not just because her prominent appearance in Pixar's recent "It Gets Better" video.

So  sure. Luck (as in: being in the right place at the right time) really does factor into having a successful career in show business. But given that Ms. Anderson was named Producer of the Year in Animated Theatrical Motion Pictures back in 2006 by the Producers Guild of America, I don't imagine that Darla would be upset if I mentioned her name in connection with Samuel Goldwyn. That legendary Hollywood producer who once supposedly said:

"The harder I work, the luckier I get."

So if you really want to achieve this year's resolution, do just as Darla and Sam did. Work hard. Really commit. Persevere.

Samuel Goldwyn, founder of Samuel
Goldwyn Studios

Beyond that ... Here's hoping that all you JHM readers out there have a healthy & happy 2011.

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  • Thanks for this article! It is very inspiring, especially since I didn't get into this internship/competition I was applying for. I'm in my 4th year of undergraduate and like Darla, I've been working hard as an intern for awhile now at prominent companies in the industry, but sometimes it can get frustrating since I haven't had THE opportunity or chance meeting that would start my career --and I've been proactive too! I will think of this article and Darla's story as I keep going. Thanks!

  • Hey Jim, this was a great article.  More like this please!

  • Jim,

    Thanks for the story; I quoted you in a story I wrote about Darla:



    Kaki Flynn

  • It is so tremendous to see, especially in the video on this page, that Darla is the amazing, beautiful, and wonderful person she is now as she was as a little girl in Glendale, my niece.  Even though it's been decades since we've seen each other, I am proud of the wonderful woman she has become.

    Love always,

    Uncle Sherman


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