How Pixar Makes a Person

Tech Once Supported Life, Now Life Imitates Tech

How Pixar Makes a Person

Illustration by Lucia Gaia

Emeryville, a quaint, California port just across the bay from San Francisco, is home to Pixar, the prolific animation studio with a reputation for pulling off the impossible: They’ve endeared us to rats, kept Tim Allen relevant for over twenty years, and made the only watchable animated feature to star Barbie. Pixar is a success machine, a hoover for box office billions and Academy Awards, and their ability to pluck at heartstrings is so finely tuned as to be almost algorithmic.

Steve Jobs, Pixar’s co-founder and a man who saw the potential of CGI before most everyone, oversaw the design and construction of Pixar’s Emeryville headquarters into a model that's come to typify the tech working environment. The central hub is a vast, open hangar where the enduring California sunshine pours in, encouraging what Jobs hoped would be a lot of spontaneous networking opportunities. There is snooker, foosball, and ping pong. There is an all-you-can-eat cereal bar. Employees ride on scooters from playdate to meal over indoor wooden bridges. Under the head of a statutory bust is a secret button that, when pressed, causes a bookcase to swing open revealing the “Lucky 7” speakeasy.

“There’s a different culture here,” said John Lassater, the company’s co-founder and ex-Chief Creative Officer (he stepped down in 2018 following allegations of workplace harassment), “and everybody will protect that culture with their lives.”

Since its founding in 1986, Pixar has been both a film studio and a far-reaching tech company. Emerging ten years after Apple and twelve years before Google, Pixar began by creating a computer animation software, Renderman, which was outsourced for other films’ special effects — the liquid metal T-1000 in Terminator 2, the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, the Navi of Avatar, and literally countless others.

Pixar was nurtured, and is now wholly owned, by Disney — the monolith corporation that, like a villainous overload, has come to control the lion’s share of pop culture. In what I consider Pixar’s best years — from 1995 to 2010, beginning with Toy Story and ending with Toy Story 3 — each new success furthered their mythic status as a film studio incapable of faltering. (In 2006, the spell was somewhat broken with the advent of Cars.)

Whatever Pixar produces is sure to evoke their signature mixture of sadness and joy (a combination that manifested as actual characters in the 2015 film Inside Out). Their formula is comforting, and our hunger for their particular brand of comfort is so powerful that it makes usually astute critics rosy-eyed with appreciation. Jia Tolentino, awe-struck in The New Yorker, spent an entire article praising the 2017 film Coco, saying it was “unlike any film I can think of” while quoting her friends saying “I’ve watched it five times this month,” and “I cried so hard I started choking,” and “It’s, like, the best movie of all time!”

The early 21st century has been dominated by the superhero — primarily delivered by Marvel, also vacuumed up by Disney — but Pixar has embedded itself in the culture in subtler but just as significant ways. Today’s cinema of bombast wouldn’t be possible without Pixar’s Renderman technology. Pixar’s own films have taught a generation of children to understand adult emotions and allowed adults to feel like children again. Their tender storytelling and computer animation style, both tackled with greater ambition with each subsequent film, have become ubiquitous in the globalized imagination.

In Soul, their latest film written and directed by Pete Docter — an integral member of Pixar’s creative team since Toy Story, who became Chief Creative Officer when Lassater stepped down — Pixar attempts to answer humanity’s biggest questions: Where do we come from? What happens when we die? What makes us who we are? Considering such questions, it should come as no surprise that the creatives at Pixar, working in the playpen Steve Jobs designed for them, envisioned an interdimensional TED talk, a self-optimization salon where networking opportunities abound before we’re even born.

Soul’s protagonist, Joe Gardner — a New York middle school music teacher and aspiring jazz pianist — dies unexpectedly at the beginning of the film. He then finds himself on the brink of the “Great Beyond.” Severed from his body, Joe’s soul goes on a transcendental quest through the spiritual unknown — from a stellar walkway transporting the recently deceased into an expanse of white nothingness; through “The Zone,” a space between the physical and spiritual; and back to the rolling nursery hills of pre-life, where human souls exist together in the “Great Before” to be shaped into their Earthly, updated iterations.

“We call it the You Seminar,” a helpful guide says of this pre-life pasture. “Rebranding.”

The You Seminar is bathed in soothing blue. The hillsides are blanketed in holographic shards of grass — a digital pastoral. Acting as the You Seminar’s administrators are the Jerrys, the “coming together of all quantized fields of the universe” taking humanoid form to act as guides. Souls themselves, bouncing around like blue-blob cherubs, are herded by the Jerrys into “personality pavilions” where defining characteristics (such as excitability or aloofness) are then “uploaded.” These traits are displayed in a bubble chart on each soul’s belly, gradually filling up with corporate iconography — the type you’d find in PowerPoint slides about workplace morale and projected growth.

“I’m an agreeable skeptic who’s cautious yet flamboyant,” says one soul; “I’m an irritable wallflower who’s dangerously curious,” says another, sporting simple icons like a hand shake, a boiling kettle, a telescope. Soul’s writers knowingly make fun of all this self-centeredness; one Jerry sends a group of new souls to the self-absorbed pavilion, (to become self-absorbed, naturally), to which another Jerry comments, “We really should stop sending so many through that pavilion.”

At the You Seminar, souls are paired with mentors (the recently deceased) who take it upon themselves to inspire the next generation — past examples include Galileo and Mother Teresa. These mentors help souls discover their “spark,” their passion in life. But to fully discover their spark, souls first enter the Hall of Everything to see what might tickle their eternal fancy. If one’s spark cannot be found at the Hall of Everything, not to worry. There is also the Hall of You, where the highlights of a mentor’s life appear as a museum exhibit so their accomplishments might inspire their protege. Whatever a soul is drawn to — basketball, tennis, being a librarian — that passion is imprinted upon the final space of a soul’s chart, completing their personality. They’re ready to be a person.

Visible through a large hole in the ground of the You Seminar is the Earth, floating in space, where the souls will jump and find their place in a human body. “Once they get a complete personality, of course,” says a Jerry.

If Pixar was a person, they’d be a millennial. Born 1986, they grew up with outsized ambitions and an anxious need to constantly outdo themselves. This sensibility, fostered by having fortuitous connections that ensured their success, eventually morphed into an earnest love of self-betterment and “It’s-not-the-destination-it’s-the-journey” life lessons. Aphoristic self-help morality, efficiently delivered via state-of-the-art cartoons.

It makes sense, then, that Pixar would poke fun at the self-obsession of the internet generation while at the same time suggesting that unique identities and life-long passions are universal prerogatives instilled in us before we’re even born, in a world that looks suspiciously like the App Store.

In the beginning, Pixar struggled to render humans. The technology wasn’t sophisticated enough to illustrate skin that didn’t appear plastic, hair that didn’t move like a thick curtain, eyeballs that didn’t look creepily glassy and unfocused. Avoiding these uncanny valleys that would smother the humanity of their stories, they opted for subjects that would work with the technology’s limitations — bugs, fish, monsters, robots (which, when fully charged, hummed with Apple’s old and comforting startup tone). Those touches are what endeared us, personifying inanimate objects into friends.

Whether human or otherwise, each Pixar character is given life through hundreds of thousands of points of articulation. These digital coordinates are isolated and manipulated like marionettes with innumerable strings. An emotional performance is expressed in the slight elevation of an eyebrow, the drop of a shoulder, the twitch of an upper lip, all programmed by Pixar’s talented and obsessive animators (like other tech giants, Pixar’s onsite perks entice employees with a fun working environment while also acting as incentives for them to stay at the office all day, grinding away for hours on a milliseconds worth of frames). This human-as-puppet sensibility made its way onto the screen in Pixar’s Ratatouille, as Remy the rat controlled his human partner Linguini by sitting atop his head and tugging at his hair. Slapstick limb-flailing ensued.

It follows that, over time, Pixar began to conceive of people — our emotions, depths, complexities — as a collection of computable data that could be puppeteered.

In 2015’s Inside Out, also written and directed by Docter, human emotions became characters who controlled the decisions of the protagonist, Riley, the same way Captain Kirk controls the Starship Enterprise, via a vast control panel of buttons and levers. Inside Out was something of a spiritual successor to Toy Story (which was also written by Docter). It captured the wonder of childhood through imagined guardians who were, in some way, figments of the child’s mind — in Toy Story, toys; with Inside Out, the mind itself.

Inside Riley’s mind is a colorful hub: There is a literal train of thought that choo-choos on disappearing tracks, a shadowy pit of subconscious where memories go to fade (and die), and a sealed off chamber of conceptual thinking where thoughts get flattened, distorted, and deconstructed. It’s everything the Pixar Headquarters wishes it could be.

However, Inside Out still managed to transcend its gimmicks and say something about the complexity of a child’s emotional education, no small feat for a kid’s movie. There is nothing nefarious about its vision of consciousness. Where Soul differs is in the collision of tech-optimization lingo and our most profound ideas about what it means to be human, a fusion that reveals just how the language of tech has become so revered at Pixar.

We conceive of life’s great mysteries in the language of the dominant spirituality of the time. Today, that is the language of tech, and of tech-inspired expediency and convenience. Apple stores are fashioned after religious temples, the company’s universally recognizable logo — the apple, as in “of knowledge” — glowing centrally above the doors, sans text, like a cross. In Southern China, paper replicas of iPads and Mac computers are displayed in funerary shops, ready to be purchased and gifted to appease ancestors.

As was once religion’s role, tech now offers the potential of continuity after death. Google is spearheading efforts to upload people’s personalities online so they might be communicated with after their human selves have died. Steve Jobs once said in an interview that early Apple products didn’t have an easily identifiable on/off switch because the concept of “off” seemed a little too much like death. Now our iPhones run perpetually, as we someday hope to do.

Is it any wonder then that Pixar would envision existence pre- and post-life in the focus-grouped hues of Silicon Valley, that our version of heaven should exist, fittingly, in the cloud?

Voice such hangups about Pixar and you risk being labelled a killjoy. These are just kids movies, after all. I myself love Pixar’s films. Unlike Disney’s animated features, which typically offer Euro-centric fairytale romances (and which I also enjoy), Pixar celebrates different kinds of love — friendship (Toy Story), non-paternal fatherly love (Monsters, Inc.), an artist’s passion (Ratatouille) — invaluable representations of love to understand as a child. I grew up in tandem with Toy Story’s leading child Andy, and three films and fifteen years later, watching as those toys were dragged towards an incinerator in Toy Story 3’s climax, at first struggling for freedom and then holding hands and accepting their mortal fate, I remember how deeply it hit me that my childhood was over.

Even so, it is telling that, in Soul, Pixar espouses a non-religious spirituality in the vein of their Silicon Valley roots. This would be harmless if the giants of tech, Pixar’s parents, did not use our reverence for their services against us, avoiding accountability, controlling us invisibly, managing our lives and our data for purposes that they’ve decided we need not know about.

In Anna Wiener’s memoir Uncanny Valley, where she recounts her time working for GitHub, a Silicon Valley data analytics startup, Wiener sums up Big Tech’s brave new world direly: “A world improved by companies improved by data. A world of actionable metrics, in which developers would never stop optimizing and users would never stop looking at their screens. A world freed of decision-making, the unnecessary friction of human behavior, where everything — whittled down to the fastest, simplest, sleekest version of itself — could be optimized, prioritized, monetized, and controlled.”

Tech homogenizes everything it touches. Aesthetically, everything is streamlined, minimal, Helvetica. Either that or it is the colorful, dynamic, joyful figures of the Alegria style, invented by Facebook’s design team and now used in corporate branding everywhere, from Slack to Seamless. “Silicon Valley might have promoted a style of individualism,” writes Wiener, “but scale bred homogeneity.”

This, too, is the effect Pixar has had on animation. When Toy Story premiered in 1995, nothing had ever been seen like it; now every animated film has that same balloon-doll shiny surface. After witnessing Pixar’s lucrative, practically overnight success, the days of Disney’s hand-drawn animation traditions were numbered. Even Studio Ghibli, Hayao Miyazaki’s animation studio known for its exquisite art style, has succumbed to the allure of 3D, and to lifeless effect.

Homogenization is also the lens through which Big Tech views people. We may all be made up of unique personality quirks but, to the algorithm, these are just quantifiable data points appreciated not for novelty, but for monetization. In a globalized economy, the economic interests of Big Tech prefers that our data meet as close to the middle as possible — that for all our difference, we are at core all the same.

Big Tech knows that we know this. They know that almost everyone who religiously uses Amazon and Google and Facebook is also a little suspicious of Amazon and Google and Facebook. Pixar is aware of this too, setting itself up perfectly for Soul’s final revelation.

As Joe becomes frantic about the importance of life’s purpose back at the You Seminar near the film’s end, one of the Jerrys offers vague profundities about how life’s purpose is unknowable, and that finding one’s spark was never about life’s purpose to begin with; that is, of course, what life is for. Then why even conceive of the You Seminar in the first place, Jerry? Why insist on all the preamble of networking with mentors, logging personality types, and finding your optimal career ambition to then turn around and shake it off with ‘Oh, you humans are so literal’?

By Soul’s end, Joe’s love for jazz is labelled narrow compared with life’s simpler riches — his life is an undiversified portfolio, the Jerrys insist, bringing only mediocre returns. (There is much to say about how the film barely engages with a black man’s connection to historically Black American music and that his isn’t merely a limited personal obsession, or how Docter only thought to feature a black protagonist in his film about jazz after he heard a consultant refer to jazz as “black improvisational music,” prompting Pixar to employ their first black director Kemp Powers, in a co-directing role — all of which warrants its own essay.) The aboutface is Pixar’s attempt to dismantle, at the final hurdle, the gospel of self-optimization, suggesting the You Seminar was designed as a critique. Life should be lived to the fullest every moment, Docter warmly coos, without the millennial anxiety of doggedly pursuing one single purpose or passion. So, mindfulness — another notion Big Tech has tidied up and exhausted.

A core tenet of Big Tech is to hide their more insidious agendas behind a go-getter spirit and a warm and fuzzy heart. Pixar is an exemplar of this attitude, mostly without the insidious part, (until you recall that they once attempted to claim intellectual property rights over the Mexican festival Dia de los Muertos in order to protect the merchandise for Tolentino’s beloved Coco).

Pixar began with a nostalgia for the contents of a toy box, for the imagination of children at play. The advanced technology dropped jaws, but what converted so many to Pixar’s brand was their warmth, their soul. They’ve since stirred me and millions of others to tears — think cowgirl Jesse’s painful memory, Wall-E’s starry-eyed longing, Carl and Ellie’s unfinished adventure. Less than a few decades on, they’re able to conjure that same nostalgic longing with a vision of ourselves as composites of Big Tech’s code.

As Joe’s life flashes before him, Pixar’s comforting spell is cast. The complexity of Joe’s jazz piano is replaced by a more simple, sentimental score. Life’s precious moments are distilled to a commercial-like montage — a breeze exciting the leaves, a first taste of pizza, a spiralling seed pod falling through the dappled light of New York’s West Village in the autumn air. It could easily be an ad for the newest smartphone’s camera capabilities, or for those hard-working delivery drivers working through the pandemic, or for that social network that connects you with your loved ones. Or for laundry detergent, or life insurance. It wouldn’t matter, the images would be the same.

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