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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Pixar pulls back the curtain on Vancouver studio

Pixar, cars, 2, animation, studio, wallpaper, news, poster
As the debut looms for the first locally produced Cars ‘toon, Pixar’s new Vancouver studio is shifting into high gear.

The world’s leading animation studio on Thursday threw back the curtain on the 30,000 square foot facility it is creating inside the brick shell of an old office building in Gastown.

It also gave a preview of the 75-person studio’s first piece of entertainment, a five-minute cartoon entry in Pixar’s Tall Tales series featuring folksy tow truck Mater from its 2006 movie Cars.
Pixar Canada will specialize in short films featuring iconic characters such as Buzz Lightyear, Woody and Mater.

The definitive review on the first cartoon, Air Mater, won’t be public until its intended audience gets its youthful eyes onto it when it’s released Nov. 1 as part of the DVD and Blue Ray packages for Cars 2.

The Pixar Canada studio, on the other hand, warrants immediate raves. The location, barely a block from the Downtown Eastside, is grittier than a Northern California suburb, but it’s potentially a high-tech hub that could be the next Yaletown.

It has expansive views of the Vancouver waterfront, Burrard Inlet and the North Shore mountains, an outdoor patio, an open, inclusive floor plan, a huge lunchroom and lounge with bar stools and long wooden counters, plump couches, a gas fireplace, indirect lighting and plenty of B.C. cedar accents to soften the look of the walls and work stations.

The computer server room, linking the Vancouver satellite studio to Pixar’s primary campus in Emeryville, Calif., just north of Oakland, is big enough that Pixar needed BC Hydro to install a dedicated transformer to service the power load.

Eighteen months ago, the Vancouver studio had less than 20 staff in 7,000 square feet on one floor of a four storey building on Water Street, but was able to negotiate for two more floors.

They essentially gutted the building down to its shell, pillars and floors — and were surprised to find walled-in staircases, decommissioned elevator shafts, and other unexpected relics including horsehair insulation in the walls.

Pixar is tight-lipped about the cost of the redevelopment project, and wouldn’t allow reporters to use video recording equipment inside the studio.

But staff and studio executives were otherwise open to questions.

“What you are seeing is the result of nearly two years of looking for space and building it up,” chief technology officer Darwyn Peachey said in an interview.

Putting the team together, finding “the right people” was the biggest challenge, Peachey recalled, with Vancouver’s international reputation as a livable city giving the recruiters a distinct edge.
“We knew that Pixar as a brand would be a powerful tool in recruiting good people. What we found is that Vancouver is also a very powerful draw.

“We hired a lot of our people here in Vancouver, but some came in from New Zealand, Australia, the Far East, the U.K., and getting those people here in Vancouver was pretty easy.”

Amir Nasrabadi, vice-president and general manager of Pixar Canada, said the studio arose from the company’s desire to have a “dedicated, high quality team” to focus on production of animated shorts — a feature of less than six minutes can take seven to nine months to complete.

“We felt like Vancouver had a very mature, very good talent pool. It’s not the biggest but it is a very good pool.”

Having a studio in the same time zone as Emeryville was also a priority, one that ruled out Eastern Canada.

“The last thing was [that] the tax credits are really quite helpful for us,” Nasrabadi said.

The convergence of building renovations and production deadlines was challenging as well “but we took the long term approach, which is [to] find a place that we really love, that we think we can call a home for a long time and then really just take a little bit of pain early on to make this the right place for us,” he added.

Creative director Dylan Brown said the open floor plan reflects an aspect of Pixar’s conviction that collaboration breeds creativity.

“Great ideas can come from anywhere,” Brown said, who laughed at himself for paraphrasing one of Pixar’s own characters, aspiring chef Ratatouille.

“If everything has to run up some kind of rigid chain, people at the bottom of the chain may have great ideas that never see the light of day,” Brown said.

“It can be an intern that started yesterday that’s got the right idea that makes that thing better or funnier or more heartwarming.”