It’s been a quieter month in the archives as our two temporary archives technicians completed their contracts and the studio takes a breather from the marketing whirlwind that was Finding Dory. We’ve hung art to decorate the walls of our new facility and we find ourselves giving more and more tours to groups of employees thanks to our close proximity. We have excellent relationships with our frequent clients, but raising more awareness and reaching departments we rarely interact with can be a challenge. Though the archives at Pixar were established in 1998, people both internally at the company and externally have misconceptions about what our archives contain and how we manage it all. Here are the top seven that I’ve come across.
- We only have materials relating to movies
People often forget that Pixar started out as a graphics division of Lucasfilm before becoming a hardware and software company. The studio then created original shorts and animated commercials for television before finally releasing our first feature film, Toy Story, in 1995. While it’s true that the primary bulk of our collection is related to our feature films, we do have a sizeable historical corporate collection that includes documents and art from our days creating work-for-hire commercials, hardware that we produced, and other company items. We even have collections of employee-made Halloween costumes and t shirts that capture Pixar’s unique culture.
- We have animation cels
This idea comes out of a misconception about how animated films are made. Many people not in the animation industry picture traditional hand-drawn animation like Snow White when they think of our field, but computer-generated animation does not actually use animation cels. While it would be awesome to hold a final still from our movie in your hands or display it in a museum, that’s not quite how our process works. There’s a great overview of what it takes to make a computer-animated film for Pixar in a Box, our collaboration with Khan Academy.
- Everything is digital
While some people might assume we’re dealing with animation cels, it’s much more common for people to assume that the Pixar archives only contain digital items. Outsiders assume that our films are made directly in the computer and forget the physical component of design that happens before the first model is built. Though our movies are computer-animated, they all start out on paper, from character design, to storyboards, to handwritten notes on a script. We are still actively receiving artwork on paper or board from current productions, so don’t let anyone tell you that paper is dead! Our artists also work with clay to sculpt 3D representations of characters or sets. These maquettes (French for “scale model” or “little model”) help the artists and director visualize the movie during the design phase. They are cast in urethane resin and preserved in the archives for future reference once a film has wrapped. Because of the scope of our collection, we also do not have all of our physical artwork digitized, much to the chagrin of our artists. Plans are in place to digitize our most heavily used art, but the sheer magnitude of the archives means it’s unlikely that every piece of paper will ever have a digital surrogate.
- We collect moving images
Because Pixar is known for its films, many people assume that the archives is responsible for the actual renders or code or models from each movie. In reality those assets are managed by another department at Pixar with the technical knowledge and expertise. The archives focuses on the materials that help movies get made, especially original artwork and department files that can provide a window into the creation of a film. We’re even more interested in how we created the final product than the final product itself. Context is everything.
- We keep only the best drawings
Often our artists will be shocked at the types of materials we’re interested in keeping, asking “You really want that?” or “Oh you saved that?” A crude marker scribble might look unimportant, but it was the first conception of Archie the Scare Pig for Monsters University, or the first time we saw what Mike Wazowski could be. Because we’re interested in the evolution of a character or story or set we want all the context we can collect. There are legal reasons for this, but also important inspirational and historical ones, as many years later other artists at the studio might want to know exactly how and why that decision was made and where it started. We also can’t always anticipate the secondary uses of our art. For instance, artists often have gag sessions where they draw humorous ideas for scenes or character interactions, a small fraction of which actually make it into the movie. If the archives saved only the successful gags from these sessions, we wouldn’t have been able to contribute unseen artwork to the newly published book Funny!
- We organize materials chronologically
This misconception often stems from ignorance about the computer animation process and what that entails. While the time at which a piece of artwork was created is important in knowing the evolution of design and proving original creation legally, it’s not our most important organizing principle. Our arrangement often depends on the type of material (e.g. storyboards vs. concept art), but date of creation is never the most important detail or principal organizing category. For instance, within concept art we organize items by subject and artist, as future requests are likely to center on how the design of a character or set evolved and what a particular artist contributed. Story materials, on the other hand, are more likely to be organized by scene or sequence, with different groupings for final or out of picture storyboards.
- Everything is already organized
Whenever I tell someone that I’m processing an older film, such as A Bug’s Life or Monsters, Inc., I without fail get the question: “That’s not done yet?” Unfortunately, it’s not. As any archivist can attest, backlogs in archives are, to an extent, permanent. We are constantly receiving new items, both from old and new films, and that means that we’ve had to prioritize collections and at times accept incomplete processing. Before I started 15 months ago, no one in the department was able to focus solely on tackling our backlog because of our other obligations such as answering requests, preparing art for exhibition, and receiving new materials. While I’ve made some good progress in rehousing art and updating our database so that records are accurate and detailed, a lot of work remains. We dream of a day when we are all caught up and only processing materials from new films, but that future is a long ways off. In the meantime we make compromises and prioritize our collections so that we can service requests from the studio and keep forging ahead.