For Pixar it’s fundamentals, not technology

Ratatouille scenePixar, the small movie house that has produced so many excellent computer-animated films over the years, is cleaning up at the box office again with its recent release of Ratatouille, a movie about a rat with culinary inclinations. I personally love Pixar movies, and though I haven’t caught this one yet, I will eventually. It looks great and is getting great reviews, which is nothing new for Pixar. Starting with Toy Story in 1995, they’ve made a habit of churning out great movies using highly innovative computer animation techniques. NASA makes use of Pixar’s technology, and some even speculate that their ideas are used by Apple and others for user interfaces.

The man beyond Pixar is veteran animator and producer John Lasseter, who had an interesting quote in an interview he did a few years back when the studio was releasing their last big movie, Cars:

The most important thing to do as you are learning to do animation, is don’t get seduced by the software or the tools. Take time to learn the fundamentals of animation, hand-drawn or computer. It’s not about the software; it’s about what you do with it. Learn basic design—learn how to draw—because even with using computers, [drawing] is still the easiest way to get your ideas from your head so that you can communicate with other people.

So often I see people bypassing these fundamental classes that teach you basic design, basic drawing: “These things are boring…I want to be making stuff with all these new tools that are out there!” But the most important thing is to realize that the tools will change, and they have tremendously in the time I’ve been working, but it’s always what you do with the tools that makes the difference. It’s the story, it’s the characters.

Lasseter’s quote rings true, for even as my initial reaction to Toy Story (and every Pixar movie since) was an appreciation for its stunning visuals, in the end it’s the heartfelt core of all of their movies that makes me a fan (and has kept Pixar #1 despite scores of imitators). This idea is true in a broader sense as well. Technology is most frequently just a vehicle for human creativity, and any technology-driven enterprise is simply an empty shell if there isn’t something genuinely human in its center.

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