What Is It Like to Visit Pixar Animation Studios?

A longtime friend of mine has been an animator at Pixar since Ratatouille. He's been gracious enough to send my boys Pixar posters over these last few years. Posters that cover their walls in their rooms.
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Answer by Ken Miyamoto, Produced screenwriter, former Sony Pictures script reader/story analyst, former Sony Studios liaison

I'm happy and thrilled to say that this dream came true this very day.

First and foremost, to me, Pixar Animation Studios is the equivalent to Disney during its early heyday (1930s-1960s). For the millennials (and for my children's generation), it's arguably their direct equivalent to Disney. John Lassetter, Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, and other Pixar giants are this generation's Walt Disney. They've brought amazing storytelling to animation. Storytelling that not only enthralls children, but adults as well. My two boys (9 and 6) are Pixar fanatics. And so am I.

Onto my visit to Pixar Animation Studios...

A longtime friend of mine has been an animator at Pixar since Ratatouille. He's been gracious enough to send my boys Pixar posters over these last few years. Posters that cover their walls in their rooms.

This week, I flew from Wisconsin to Mountain View (Silicon Valley) to attend a Quora Top Writer event, as well as some consulting meetings. I contacted my Pixar friend on a whim to see if there would be any way I'd be able to visit the studio. Thankfully, he insisted...

A Unique Experience

Unlike other studios (Sony, Fox, Warner Brothers, Universal), Pixar does not open their campus to the public for tours. You have to know somebody within. Even then, it's difficult to be let into the restricted areas beyond the main building's lobby (see below). Thankfully, since my friend is an animator, I was allowed beyond the lobby and into the animation offices, development offices, and their maze of game rooms, bars, facades, etc. Sadly, I couldn't take any pictures in those areas, so you'll have to rely on my account, which is fresh in my head.

But first, let me share the pictures I was allowed to take and offer you a peak into the experience of visiting Pixar...

The Outside

Note: All pictures have been taken, with permission, by me, thus the rights are solely mine and can only be copied and shared with my permission and/or due credit with links back to this answer.

Pixar Animation Studios is located just outside of Oakland in Emeryville, CA. When driving to the studio, you'll likely be looking around wondering how such an exclusive animation giant can be located near such a poverty-stricken community (at least from where I was driving from), until suddenly you see the environment change as you get closer. Emeryville, at least surrounding Pixar, is a charming neighborhood. In fact, you could look at Monster's Inc. (and other Pixar films) and see many reflections of the town within the story. It's clearly obvious that the animators were inspired by their surroundings on many occasions.

You pull up to the gate and patiently wait your turn. My visit happened to fall on family and friends day at Pixar, where lucky family and friends of Pixar employees were allowed to enter the campus and see a screening of Pixar's Inside Out. I was offered a ticket by my friend, however, I opted out because my two sons (and wife) were jealous enough. I'd want to see the film with them for the first time anyway.

At the gate, you receive your charming little pass that must be worn at all times.

You proceed to the outdoor parking lot and make your way down this walkway...

What first catches your eye, especially for you fellow Pixar fanatics out there, is...

Yes, the Luxo Lamp and Luxo Ball, two of Pixar's earliest icons that have appeared in almost all of their films.

The campus is beautiful. In the back, you'll see an amphitheater that they likely use for events. To the right is a soccer field.

If you walk past the main building, you'll find...

A basketball court and beach volleyball court beyond it
A grill area
A lap pool and Fitness Center Building (not pictured)

But you'd likely not go far beyond the initial Luxo Lamp and Luxo Ball because right behind them is...

The Steve Jobs Building

(You can see my reflection in the right door)

This is the core of the campus. The original building. Steve Jobs, if you didn't know already, was the previous head of Pixar many, many years ago. He oversaw the design of the building from beginning to end.

So you take a deep breath, open the door, walk in, and see...

You've likely glimpsed at this building in the Blu-ray or DVD extras of Pixar films, but it's a whole different experience when you are actually there.

You check into the security desk using an iPad...

You're greeted by two familiar friends...

And others...

To your right, you'll see Pixar's collection of Academy Awards and additional accolades as well...

There's a Pixar Store (not pictured) where I spent perhaps a little too much money, followed by many commons areas offering unique Pixar art.

In this case, each Pixar employee was featured utilizing pictures and names.
A mail room of sorts.
Entrances to the main screening theater.
Cafe Luxo

Before I get to the juicy, behind-the-scenes stuff... take a look at the newer Pixar building just a short walk away from The Steve Jobs Building...


I don't know the reasoning behind the name of the building, but it is the newest edition of the campus.

Here's a brief peak inside...

Behind the Scenes

Now, let's go back to The Steve Jobs Building.

Here we have "The Atrium"

Pixar thinks of this whole building as a brain. And as you know, each side of the brain is responsible for various functions of the whole.

So we have the left side of the building...

Beyond "The Atrium" lies security-locked doorways into the various technical departments (likely those working with servers, computers, functionality, etc.).

And then you have the right side of the building...

Up the stairs and down the first floor halls you have security-locked doors to the animation offices, development offices, story department, motion capture (the "acting room" where animators can film themselves or other beings for animation references), etc.

And yes, in the middle, is where both sides of the "brain" converge for meals, events, etc.

But let's focus on the right side.

Let's go in, shall we...

No Pictures Allowed

I'm sorry to say that I wasn't allowed to take pictures beyond this point as my animator friend took me behind the security doors. I wish, wish, wish that I could have snapped a few but I also know that the pictures wouldn't have done that place justice.

Behind those glass doors was a maze of Disneyland-like facades, with each section of the area with its own theme. All with attached offices for animators, story department, etc.

Now, I say "offices" loosely because a majority of them are Disneyland-like exhibits. You know when you are entering a Disney ride and the design of the area building up to the actual ride is an experience onto itself? THAT'S how many of these offices are.

Employees are given freedom to do with their offices as they'd like, within reason.

One office was a built into a tiki cabin. Another employee constructed a whole second floor to his office, complete with a bed, etc.

Even more impressive was one that was recently completed by an animator. He utilized foam to create what appeared to be a Mayan Ruins facade. Both the outside AND inside of his office resembles, in amazing detail, a Mayan Ruin, complete with ferns coming out of the "rocks". So basically, it looks as if he works in a cave. It was amazing to see.

Next, my animator friend took me over to another office where I met another animator. He and his co-worker turned their office into the cabin of an old plane that crashed into the jungle long ago. No joke. I walked in and felt like I was on the set of "Lost". It was complete with REAL tree branches coming out of the walls and into the office... and, oh, it also had a smoke machine that he graciously turned on for me.

Spread throughout this side of the building are hallways leading to commons areas that each had different themes. Their video game area is under development and will apparently have a spaceship facade in place. There are many bars throughout the area, each with their own themes as well. These are utilized for after hour celebrations and relaxation.

Then my animator friend took me into his office.

Here is where the magic was even more enhanced because he demonstrated his animation process right before my eyes.

The Magic

Pixar was working on a Saturday, which is unusual. They're in overtime putting the final touches on the upcoming November 2015 release A Good Dinosaur.

I'm not (and can't... and wouldn't anyway) offer any spoilers. I will say that my friend cued up a scene that he's animating for the film. It was of the main dinosaur character and the human child.

I watched as he utilized the software to manipulate the images in any way, shape, or form that he choose. He went on to demonstrate the process of injecting the character emotion, heart, and soul that we've seen in so many amazing Pixar films. Animation is clearly not just about moving animated pictures. It's so much more. The attention to detail that Pixar exhibits is amazing and I can't put into words how utterly enthralling it was to see how they do it.

A Dream Come True

As a storyteller myself, as a kid at heart, as a film lover, and as a father of two boys that love movies just as much as I do, this experience was a dream come true.

Imagine going back in time and getting a tour of Walt Disney Studios during those golden years of the 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s. Imagine being able to peek behind the curtain. I did that today. I walked through a magical world of imagination.

On the upper level of the off limits area, there is a gallery of art for whatever film is about to be released (in this case Inside Out). Again, this isn't open to the public and isn't even open to most guests. We walked through the endless gallery of conceptual drawings, models, art work, etc. It's a visual feast as you watch the concept grow and evolve into what it would eventually become in the upcoming film. It's magic. Present day magic encompassed by imagination. Imagination that seems to be ever-so distant and unfamiliar to most these days yet here we have hundreds of talented people that get to explore and "exploit" their imagination hour after hour for the later benefit of all.

It was a dream come true. And if you happen upon anyone that works there, or knows someone that works there, I highly recommend you put a foot forward and try to step into that magical realm called Pixar Animation Studios.

And, oh, my favorite picture of the day...

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