Bay Area beckons a wannabe animator (and his dad)

Visitors admire “Star Wars” memorabilia at the 2005 open house for filmmaker George Lucas’s new Letterman Digital Arts Center in San Francisco.
David Paul Morris/Getty Images
Visitors admire “Star Wars” memorabilia at the 2005 open house for filmmaker George Lucas’s new Letterman Digital Arts Center in San Francisco.

Besides the grand lettering of the company name above the main gate, you’ll see few signs of its product as you stroll the pristine Pixar campus in Emeryville, Calif. There’s no giant Buzz Lightyear balloon tethered above the offices, no grinning, anthropomorphized “Cars” in the parking lot.

The sole nod to the animation studio’s smile-making motion-picture legacy is the oversized desk lamp that looms over the walkway to the Steve Jobs Building. The lamp looks down on a giant yellow ball, a tribute to the starring objects from Pixar’s groundbreaking first film: the two-minute animated short “Luxo Jr.,” which demonstrated the vast potential of computer-generated imagery when it debuted back in 1986. The film was added to the National Film Registry last year.

My son Sam, 17, and I gazed up at the lamp late one afternoon in August, on our way to a prearranged tour of Pixar headquarters. As a boy, Sam once amazed his mother and me when he casually counted off the frames in the cartoon he was watching. His mind has always worked in visual terms; one day maybe he’ll work at Pixar, or another animation studio.


On a family return to the Bay Area, where we lived for several years, we planned our schedule around visits to the secret labs of film illusion: the Pixar compound, home of the “Toy Story” franchise, the upcoming “The Good Dinosaur,” and a dozen more wondrous feature films, and Lucasfilm’s Letterman Digital Arts Center, the nerve center of Industrial Light & Magic.

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Any “Star Wars” fan is welcome to stop into the lobby at Lucasfilm, which is situated on another perfectly manicured campus, this one built on the rolling hills of the former military base in the Presidio of San Francisco, the national park near the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. A statue of the grandmaster Yoda presides over a fountain in the courtyard outside, an immediate sign that you’re about to enter another galaxy.

The reception area feels like an overlarge den, with clusters of comfortable chairs and tall bookshelves lining the walls. The one thing disrupting the collegial air is the ominous presence of an original Darth Vader costume, which stands sentry over the room.

To get past the security turnstiles, you need to have made arrangements with an acquaintance who works at Lucasfilm. Our guide, Pete, grew up in Western Massachusetts and went to high school with my wife’s cousins. We could not have asked for a more accommodating host.

Visits to Lucasfilm begin — where else? — in a darkened movie theater, a state-of-the-art screening room that presents a 20-minute highlight reel each day at noon. We caught a sneak peek of the upcoming blockbuster “Star Wars: Episode VII The Force Awakens,” followed by clips from the absurdly influential special effects work of Industrial Light & Magic. In addition to the Lucas franchises, ILM teams work as contractors on films outside the umbrella. A fast-paced montage of action snippets representing films ranging from “The Mask” to “Tomorrowland” bore that out.


Long hallways and a glass skywalk between two of the Lucasfilm buildings serve as museum-quality display spaces, with art and memorabilia from scores of film projects celebrating the staff’s work and inspiring new ideas. George Lucas, who sold Lucasfilm to Disney in 2012 for a reported $4.05 billion, owns a vast collection of movie-related artwork, and the walls inside the Digital Arts Center are covered with huge framed posters from classic films, many of them from foreign-language theatrical runs.

There’s a scale model, about 4 feet tall, of Count Olaf’s creepy house from “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.” Another model, this one of the Golden Gate Bridge (from the 2003 “Hulk” movie), occupies a wide windowsill just below a spectacular view of the actual bridge.

But for Sam, the highlights of the visit were our stolen glimpses into the animators’ workspaces: darkened rooms festooned with Christmas lights and blinking toys. Here were hundreds of grownups gainfully employed, making the same kinds of visual magic Sam does every day in his room.

A scene from "The Good Dinosaur."
Pixar-Disney via AP
A scene from "The Good Dinosaur."

A few days later, Sam and I took the rapid transit system over to the East Bay, to Pixar headquarters in Emeryville, just north of Oakland. Arriving at the security booth, we were given visitor passes and made our way to the lobby of the Steve Jobs Building, where we met our host, Sarah. A Pixar editor, Sarah has pixie-ish facial features that were modeled for Princess Merida, the star of “Brave.”

After Jobs’s death in late 2011, Pixar’s main studio was renamed in his honor. It is the only building designed by the late Apple cofounder, who invested in a spinoff from Lucas’s Computer Graphics Division in 1986, which would become Pixar.


The all-glass Jobs Building, located on the 22-acre grounds of a former canning factory, was designed with creative collaboration in mind. Jobs’s insistence on a surfeit of communal space — the building’s cavernous atrium houses its cafeteria, fitness center, meeting rooms and, at least in the planning stages, the only bathrooms — has fostered a spirit of teamwork that was his biggest contribution to the company.

Past a reception-area display case stuffed with awards and an original Woody cowboy doll from “Toy Story,” wide staircases flanking either side of the atrium lead to two mezzanine-level gallery halls. The displays rotate according to Pixar’s release schedule. During our visit, one exhibition featured conceptual art from “Inside Out,” the studio’s most recent feature. The other offered a preview of “The Good Dinosaur,” with character sketches and short video segments demonstrating various CGI rendering specialties: how to make clouds, fire and reptilian skin appear true to life.

(In the latest effort to present some of the studio’s original artworks to the general public, the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York recently opened an exhibit called “Pixar: The Design of Story.” The show runs through Aug. 7, 2016.)

Across the walkway, inside the lobby of the newest building on the Pixar campus, visitors are greeted by life-size figures from “Monsters, Inc.” Reluctantly, Sam stood still just long enough to let his dad take a photo of him with Sulley, the cuddly big blue “scarer” voiced by John Goodman. (Sulley’s full name, as my kids have been reminded incessantly over the years, is James P. Sullivan, which is just one middle initial removed from my own.)

But enough about the aging characters. The future belongs to the kids, and right now, to “The Good Dinosaur,” which came out Thanksgiving weekend. In light of the possibilities our gracious guides at Lucasfilm and Pixar showed our young animator, the movie’s tagline seemed especially fitting: “A single moment can change everything.”

James Sullivan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.