What I learned at my Pixar Masterclass

Like many of you I’m a huge Pixar fan. How can you not be? I mean other than Cars 2, and arguably Cars itself, they’ve consistently made more good movies than just about anyone else over the past 15 years. So, when I stumbled upon the Pixar Story & Animation Masterclass, it was a no brainer for our team to go.

Unfortunately, they did not allow any audio or video recording of the class and they requested that we not blog any of the specifics of what was shared so I’ll be limited in what I’ll be able to share here but I’ll do my best.

Day 1

Our instructor for Thursday was Matthew Luhn, a story artist who starting working at Pixar on the original Toy Story! I about fell out of my chair when he told us he was the one who figured out how the fish in “Finding Nemo” would escape from the dentist’s aquarium and into the ocean! I guess we just assumed that the instructors would be a little further removed from the action, boy were we wrong!

Basically, we spent all day listening to Matt talk about the Pixar process of story development and it was incredible. I’m not sure I’ve ever been to such a practical class on the creative process as this was. In my experience, most faith-based arts events and creativity conferences are much more touchy feely than this. In fact, there was nothing “artsy” about it. Matt was completely down to earth and never resorted to using flowery language to describe the magic that Pixar clearly makes. You got the sense that while they love “artsy” movies, they understand that their movies can’t be overly artsy because of their wide audience demographic and yet they don’t want to compromise their artistic integrity for mass appeal.

I guess I would say the biggest lesson I took away from the first day was that the team at Pixar go through many of the same struggles that we do! It was amazing to hear that during the development of UP they began to wonder if it was even a story worth telling! That’s encouraging given how good that movie is! The point is, that when you get so close to a project, it becomes almost impossible to remain objective about it. Inevitably, self-doubt creeps in on even the best and without some kind of lighthouse for your ideas, it can be easy to lose your way.

Day 2

Day two was all about animation. Our instructor for most of the day was Andrew Gordon, an animator whose start at Pixar included working on Monsters Inc. animating Mike Wizowski. Also, Ricky Nierva, who’s a production designer at Pixar (that basically means he’s responsible for the way the movies look), did a guest lecture which was pretty interesting as well.

What really struck me on day two was just how much work goes into animating one of these films. I always knew they poured over every detail of their films, that’s pretty obvious when you watch one of them, but it was amazing to see just how detailed they get.

Andrew spent hours talking about hand gestures, appealing character poses and acting techniques among other things. It was all terribly interesting and incredibly useful to us as stage presenters, actors and performers. I really came away with a new appreciation for animators and actors.

I think it’s always a good idea to sit and listen to anyone who’s a master at their craft, because here’s what I’ve found, it doesn’t matter what discipline they work in, the underlying principles are always the same: Work hard, ruthlessly evaluate everything and don’t settle for anything less than excellent.

This is precisely why I don’t usually read the latest books about creativity. I’d rather read books like “The Making of The Dark Knight Trilogy” or “The Art of The Incredibles” because I think there’s more to be learned from how an actual project was created practically rather than reading about ideas only in theory. I’m not saying books on the creative process are useless, but I think it’s easy to get wrapped up in the novelty of the process and never actually achieve anything of note.

I think there’s a lot the church could learn from one of these Masterclasses (obviously). The team from Pixar had a well-defined process and language that they were able to explain well. Most church conferences lack that. They focus almost entirely on inspiration and I get it, when it comes to the creative process (and a few other things for that matter) most of us don’t really know what we’re doing, we’re just sort of feeling our way through, so it’s hard to define it for others. I fall into that trap often, but I’d love to see the church embrace a more tactile approach to creativity rather than the overly abstract one we seem to have now. I feel like the focus is often on trying to blow the audiences mind with some new idea rather than more thoroughly explaining the ideas we’re already aware of.

So, the good news for you is that this experience has only renewed our drive to make Seeds Conference 2013 as practical as possible. Trust me, we love inspiration and there’ll be plenty, but we’re already HARD at work developing ways of sharing WAY more detail this year than we ever have before.

If you’d like to check out one of Pixar’s Masterclasses I suggest you visit the VanArts website for upcoming dates and events.

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Whitney George
Lead Pastor
Whitney George is the Executive Pastor at Church on the Move, where he oversees the operations and ministries of the church. Whitney is passionate about the local church and loves connecting with other church leaders. He and his wife, Heather, have five children and he loves Notre Dame football.
@whitneygeorge