Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Pieces of the Pixar Pre-Production Process


I love Pixar. I love their films. I love their artistry. And I'm fascinated with their process. There's a great e-mail interview with Dr. Michael B. Johnson who runs the Moving Pictures Group at Pixar. The article is part one of a series by Adaptive Path Blog (via John Gruber's Daring Fireball.) In the interview, he discusses various aspects of the pre-production process.

On Prototyping
They created a story reel workflow built around proprietary software called Pitch Docter:

I also started working on a digital storyboarding tool for Pete Docter, who had just finished Monsters Inc. I originally called the tool “Pete Docter’s Tool”, a nod to Pixar’s original animation system “Motion Doctor Tool”, but then Angus MacLane suggested “Pitch Docter”, which is what we went with...

...On Ratatouille, for the first time we had many of the story artists working full-time in Photoshop, leveraging its brushes, layers, and actions to streamline their workflow. They used Photoshop in conjunction with Pitch Docter, which let them time out their pitches, add sound and dialog, and round trip with Editorial...

...The important take-home point, though, is that Pixar loves their films so much, we make them twice :-). Compared to the final product, the first time we make it is sketchy and rough - but the most important thing is that it’s still a film. To be clear - our prototype exists in the same medium as our final product. This allows us to judge it by the same standards that the final film will be judged...

He goes on to make a very interesting point regarding prototyping:

I think this is an important lesson for a User Experience Designer to understand - paper prototypes and ethnographic research are great, but if you’re trying to build a prototype that you want use as a blueprint, it should exist in the same medium as the final product. My group (which does lots of ethnographic research and Photoshop/OmniGraffle prototypes) firmly believes in this, and practices it daily.

How does this translate into an interactive workflow? Basically, this means creating a click-through prototype (a version of the interactive experience with clickable buttons and active sections but minimal design, layout and animation.) This allows people to immediately understand the tempo and flow of an interactive project through experience as opposed to relying on their imagination. (A tip 'o the hat to former Visual Goodness Director of Operations Nick Kierstead for coining the term "Temporal Spec" which was a document that defined the cause & effect of every interaction over time.) This rapid prototyping is something that Visual Goodness executes when time and budget allow.

(In fact, it's a necessary step in every live video project we create. We shoot someone on green reading through script and acting out all interactions with the site or banner. It raises the level of creative possibilities and cuts down on uncertainty.)

The thing is, most interactive budgets don't have the space to allow for a full prototype. Until interactive as a medium can consistently guarantee the same measurable impact that broadcast does, interactive budgets will stay where they are and prototyping will be stuck in the land of R&D and rare flexible budgets.

Angry People == Bad Information Flow
One of my heuristics for thinking about how we (the designers and technologists) can help with production management is to look at where people are getting mad each other. This usually indicates some frustrating breakdown in the information flow. When people are getting bad/late/incomplete/stale information, they get frustrated. These projects take a long time to make, and like any business, there are always going to be areas where communication breaks down. When that happens, our team works on fixing the information flow.

What's this tells me is that Pixar has strong leadership. (Huh? WTF?!? How do you figure that?) Pixar's problem is the keeping a smooth and constant flow of information, not what to do with the information. Let me explain.

Too often, people are saddled with naked information and are left asking, "Okay, what is this supposed to mean for me?". If the people you lead understand the goals of the group and their roles as individuals inside that group, then they're ready for that steady stream of information. It's incumbent upon strong leadership to set those goals and define roles in order for them to efficiently dismiss or act on that stream of information like a kid plucking the wings off a fly. It's about molding and maintaining a constant context and framework for the information.

On Production Management and Morale
He goes on to quote Pixar director Brad Bird:

“In my experience, the thing that has the most significant impact on a movie’s budget–but never shows up in a budget–is morale. If you have low morale, for every $1 you spend, you get about 25 cents of value. If you have high morale, for every $1 you spend, you get about $3 of value. Companies should pay much more attention to morale.”

It's one of those quotes that makes you hope to dear Lord on high that they have empirical data to back this statement up. And then you give the deed to your house to obtain said proof.
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