Wednesday, June 30, 2010
The Michigan Daily - michigandaily.com
Plotting out the path to Pixar
'U' alums make it big
with the folks behind
'Toy Story 3'
By ANDREW LAPIN
Editor in Chief
EMERYVILLE, Calif. - In the
courtyard beyond the tightly guarded
gates of the studio's entrance stand
bright, cheery sculptures of the lamp
and ball that have come to define the
world of modern animation.
The cavernous atrium that serves
as the central hub of the film studio's
headquarters has a distinct split per-
sonality, as well: A bustling gift shop
with strawberry-scented "Toy Story 3"
Lotso teddy bears acts as a fagade for
the darker, more mysterious corridors
where outsider access is restricted.
Pixar Animation Studios, the phe-
nomenally successful production team
that has made the most critically and
commercially adored family movies of
the past 15 years, understandably has
to protect its secrets. But it also has a
sunny and Disney-fied image to main-
tain, which explains the curious mix of
friendliness and intimidation that this
Mecca of moviemaking has perfected.
Coming from the University, this
blend seems recognizable - kind of
like arriving in Ann Arbor on your first
day of classes. Only much scarier. But
two Michigan alums have managed to
breach Pixar's line of privacy: They got
"I remember my first day, and I
remember parking in the lot and walk-
ing down the front ... walking into the
middle of the atrium, going, 'Oh my
God,'" said Lourdes Alba, a manager
for Pixar and a 1991 graduate of the
School of Art & Design. She gestured
around the two-story foyer, which
was filled with bustling employees,
visitors and small children; replicas of
the company's many Oscars and other
assorted awards glistened in a newly
constructed trophy case nearby. "This
is where I work. And it was completely
overwhelming and completely intimi-
Alba studied film at the San Francis-
co Art Institute after graduation and
worked with location scouts in Hawaii
throughout the mid-'90s as assistant
film commissioner for the island of
Kauai. She noted that the job was a log-
ical next step for her, and likened loca-
tion scouting to painting with real-life
locations. After witnessing the film-
ing of "Jurassic Park," Alba became
inspired to try a career in the newly
emerging field of computer-generated
(CG) animation. So she moved back to
the Bay Area in 1999 with the ultimate
goal of landing a job at Pixar.
"CG was something very new and
very exciting, and I was completely
taken with it and I started to think
about, 'Well, wow, that's an area of pro-
duction that I would like tobe involved
in,' "Alba said.
Meanwhile, Jody Weinberg, a fel-
low 1991 alum and freshman-year
friend of Alba's, was pursuing a career
in entertainment law. She landed a job
with Disney in 1995 thanks in part to a
studio lawyer and Michigan alum who
put in a good word for her, and worked
with Pixar for the first time that same
year when the original "Toy Story"
Weinberg, an LSA grad who wrote
for The Michigan Daily her sophomore
year, began working as a contractor
for Pixar in 2003, when the company
started acquiring its own lawyers. In
2006, she became one of the studio's
associate general counsels. Presently
she negotiates deals for the talent
(actors, writers, etc.) and other busi-
ness and legal affairs.
"I always say that as far as lawyer
jobs go, I have the best one," Weinberg
said. She added that she still keeps her
Michigan alumni license plate holder
on her car.
Alba finally achieved her dream job
in 2004, when she was hired at Pixar
as a staff manager. For her first film,
"Ratatouille," she managed the Shade/
Paint Department tasked with placing
on the rats to the glistening oils of the
exquisite culinary artworks that are
made in the movie.
As Alba talked about the challenges
of making CGfood look appetizing, the
smells of the studio's personal chef-
run Luxo Caf6 wafted through the
air. Across the atrium from the caf6
was a kitchen with dozens of cereal
dispensers lined up in an easily visible
row, granting visiting journalists per-
mission to chuckle good-naturedly at
how much Pixar employees love their
After "Ratatouille," Alba briefly
managed the Sets Department on "Up"
before going on maternity leave. Next
she moved onto the Art Department
and then the Promo group for "Toy
Story 3," playing a key production role
in everything from Visa commercials
to clips of the fashion-obsessed Ken
doll giving dating tips on "The Bach-
While Alba was working at Pixar's
home base in Emeryville, Weinberg
continued to chug away at legal mat-
ters from Burbank, a fair drive away.
The two former friends and Wolver-
ines had no idea they both worked for
the home of Woody and Buzz until
they ran into each other at a "Toy Story
"We both said that the other one
seemed really familiar, and then it hit
us," Weinberglater recalled via e-mail.
"I still think it is an amazing coinci-
The two can take pride knowing
that their endeavors helped the film
enjoy the biggest opening weekend
in Pixar's history. Now, after a vaca-
tion, Alba will begin her work on the
upcoming "Monsters, Inc." sequel,
managing the sets department. Wein-
berg will continue to handle business
and legal affairs for the entire Pixar
production and development slate.
By the end of the studio visit, the
fog of quirk that at first threatened to
cloud the Pixar mystique seemed to
have cleared a bit. Even though the
tours still won't allow photography
through any of the upstairs art galler-
ies, talking to the employed University
alums illuminated more of the stu-
dio's process than any of the life-sized
LEGO statues or scooters casually
leaning against tables.
On the way out of Pixar's studio, it
was hard not to notice the giant con-
struction project going on next door.
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COURTESY OF ANDREW LAPIN
Lourdes Alba at work in the atrium of Pixar Studios, where she has held a job for six years.