By Andrea Gronvall andreagronvl@earthlink.net

The Gronvall Files: To Canada (And Beyond?): PIXAR Canada Creative Director Dylan Brown

Animation has remained one of my cherished film forms since childhood, and today movies from Pixar are among my all-time favorites. Toy Story, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, and Wall-E rank up there alongside works from Walt Disney (classic Disney as well as titles from the Michael Eisner-Jeffrey Katzenberg era),  Hayao Miyazaki, Lotte ReinigerOskar Fischinger, and those great cartoons from Warner Bros. So when the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival brought in Dylan Brown, long-time Pixar animator who is now the creative director for the company’s Vancouver outpost, Pixar Canada, I made a beeline to talk to him.

Following a screening of crowd-pleasers from the new Blu-Ray/DVD & Digital release, Pixar Short Films Collection: Volume 2, the California-born Brown was a bouncing human wind-up toy in a Q&A lasting a full hour. Tall, trim, and still boyish-looking at 42 (he has no wrinkles, a good indicator of job satisfaction), he demonstrated how animators act out the characters they’re creating in order to get the movements right; explained that sequels are made because there are still stories to be told about beloved characters, and that the shorts exist to keep the characters “alive” between features; and that would-be animators don’t require expensive equipment to start out—some Legos, or clay, and a cell phone to take photos are all one needs to make a stop-action film. Then he devoted another 45 minutes to meeting with fans one-on-one, the best way to get to know your audience.

Founded two years ago with a mission to provide support to the parent studio by creating shorts starring the existing characters from the various Toy Story and Cars films, Pixar Canada has produced four shorts to date, including Partysaurus Rex, which made its debut this fall in front of the theatrical release of Finding Nemo: 3D. The busy Vancouver satellite has a staff of 80, and fields employment applications from all over.

Andrea Gronvall:  There were a number of aspiring animators in the house today. What does Pixar Canada look for in its hires?

Dylan Brown:  Usually when someone applies for a job, they submit a reel and a resume. What I look for first is the work. I don’t care about the resume or their background. If the work shows growth and potential, if it’s good enough, that rates an interview maybe 49% of the time. For about 51% of the candidates, I’ll look at a resume to learn where they’ve been and what it is that sparks their interest, why they have the need to entertain. When we get to the interview stage, what I want to learn is how well they take feedback—that’s very important—and also, their curiosity and artistic impulse, and not just regarding the world of film. One of my favorite interview questions to pose is, “Is there anything you wanted to be asked that I didn’t ask?”

AG:  For decades through its National Film Board Canada has fostered an appreciation of animation among filmgoers, kids and adults alike. Do you find your Canadian applicants to be particularly attuned to the medium?

DB: I actually haven’t thought about it. Without a doubt, they definitely have a Canadian sense of humor, a little more off-the-wall; it may be related to the cold! They’re really funny people. In terms of animation, we have a house style that is not rigid: the playing field is very broad, but there’s still an out-of-bounds area. There’s a lot of room at Pixar to spread your wings, but it’s channeled in a certain way.

Animators are like actors. I felt our Vancouver animation team needed to be better actors, so I found them a great acting coach. Now for two hours every Monday they study acting!

AG:  Over the past few years there’s been a glut in animated features—a number of them made to cash in on the vogue for 3D—and more than a few were not successful. Yet every new theatrical release from Pixar somehow feels like an event. How does the company keep up that momentum?

DBSteve Jobs used to say, “Do one thing, and just make it great.”  And John Lasseter says that quality is the best business plan. When you go to see a Pixar movie in a theatre, you will get, first, the trailer for one of our upcoming movies, then a short, and then the feature attraction. [To make a comparison,] the way they package objects in stores in Japan is as careful, thoughtful, and artful as the gift itself. We are a well vertically-integrated company.

I always want us to strive to be the best animation studio—the best film studio—in the world. I want to punch up production values on new films, and have our studio be a beacon in Vancouver of amazing creativity. I feel the right thing to do is the thing we haven’t done yet.

AG:  Like maybe the TV specials that have been announced?

DB:  Our first works at Pixar Canada were six-minute pieces, and some one-and-a=half-minute films, which we call shorty-shorts. But we set up the Vancouver studio to produce the 22-minute specials. Pixar in California is currently working on the first one, called Toy Story of Terror.

AG:  On the new DVD, my favorite short is the very funny Small Fry, which your Pixar Canada team did. Jane Lynch voicing Neptuna, the leader of a support group for outmoded promotional giveaway toys—who comes up with these ideas?! But another short, Air Mater, is kind of sweet, as well as dynamic. It looks somewhat like the upcoming Planes—judging from the trailer, which also appears on the DVD. Was the short supposed to be a run-up to the longer film?

DB:  We had done nine Mater’s Tall Tales at Pixar [in Emeryville] before we did Air Mater at Pixar Canada. The Walt Disney Company knew they were going to do a spin-off of Cars. So, Air Mater was designed as a way to introduce some of the characters in Planes. I think that the last line in Air Mater [where Mater’s new flying pals, the Falcon Hawks, call him back into service] is a little too much like advertising in that it’s a little too on-the-nose. But the short is self-contained.

AG: You’ve been with your highly successful company for 17 years, 15 of which you’ve spent in leadership positions. In all the literature on corporate strategy that’s been published in recent years, are there any books, from the bestseller lists or otherwise, that you feel offer valuable insights into business success?

DB:  Not really, and I’ve looked at a lot of those books.  But there are other kinds of books that do. Right now I’m reading about Ernest Shackleton and the voyage of the Endurance to Antarctica. Over the course of several years, during all that hardship and danger, he promised his men that no one would die. He didn’t care about the rules; he led his men by pairing different personalities with each other in ways no one else would have thought could work. And he succeeded: nobody died.

I’ve spoken with plenty of psychologists and coaches over time, and have been fortunate to have been led by Steve and John. Glenn McQueen, the supervising animator before me, was also an important mentor. And there’s another book I can mention:  Tribes,” by Seth Godin. It’s about the differences between leaders and managers; it’s interesting, and, for myself, accurate.

AG:  So, what question haven’t I asked you, that you wanted to be asked?

DB:  About reaching the top. People talk about getting to the top of the mountain, or the top of the corporate ladder. I’ve actually come to believe that I don’t ever want to reach the top of the mountain. Sometimes you need to rest at a plateau, either to celebrate, or take in the view. Sometimes you’re just out of juice, and you’re not going upward anymore. And sometimes you simply need to go downward before you can find another way to head toward the top.

One Response to “The Gronvall Files: To Canada (And Beyond?): PIXAR Canada Creative Director Dylan Brown”

  1. Gray Catbird says:

    I believe the line in Air Mater he’s talking about isn’t the one where Mater is picked up by the Falcon Hawks, but the very last one, where Mater says “They oughta make a whole movie about planes”….

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