The Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, California, is a campus, except that the students are grownups who love going to class and doing their homework. The 22-acre location is the kind of workplace you see in Silicon Valley documentaries, where the perks and extra-curricular activities seem too good to be true.
Employees stuck in a creative rut can go for a dip anytime at the company pool or organize a basketball game with the guys from the other department. There’s a cereal station across the coffee shop downstairs for those in need of a quick fix. Out-of-the-box meetings can be held at the football field, the 3D cinema, or the mini outdoor stadium. There’s also a gym and museum hall, among other nooks and crannies.
But Pixar is elusive to public visitors. To get in, you need to have a relative, friend, or friend of friend who officially works in Pixar and is willing to take a few hours off to give you the grand tour. I was the latter—the friend of a friend of a friend. My cousins Nicole Mercado and Yoram Savion of Yak Films got an invite from Yoram’s friend, Mathieu Cassagne, Lighting Technical Director at Pixar, and they took me along for the ride.
Even with that golden invite, it wasn’t as free-for-all as a Disneyland Theme Park visit. “You’re not allowed to take photos of the tour,” Mathieu told us as we got our Pixar passes printed at the lobby. “But you can take photos down here,” he said, referring to the ground level where you’ll find the café and Pixar souvenir shop.
The second level is off-limits to cameras because it’s where most of the magic happens. The museum-like hallways are decorated with the Pixar theme of the month. For April it was Monsters University. Mathieu gave us the highlights—from the blueprints to random trivia that made the monsters come to life.
“I hate how we can’t take photos!” Nicole and I said to each other as we got up to the second floor. But I realized that it’s what made this tour more magical. Not having to mindlessly snap souvenir shots made us absorb information and enjoy the experience more.
Like show and tell, there’s a hall where employees get to showcase their art, from sculpture to photography or mixed media. Whether you’re the creative genius who helped draw the monsters or the security officer in charge of screening visitors, you’re free to hang your non-Pixar art on the wall.
We walked past the rooms of the art department members—the names you see at the end credits of Pixar’s digital masterpieces, from Brave to Toy Story. It was how I imagined their workspace to be—an organized mess of post-it notes, toys, photographs, and other colorful knickknacks that help the creative juices flow.
Speaking of Brave, I mindlessly blabbered to Mathieu how much I love Princess Merida, as if I were the only curly redhead fan who thinks that Merida’s character was patterned after her.
As we entered the Brooklyn Building across the Steve Jobs Building, Mathieu said, “Oh look, it’s Mark Andrews, the director of Brave.” I let out a childish squeal as Mathieu tried to approach the director surrounded by a number of guests.
“He might be busy with a meeting,” Mathieu said, and I gave him my biggest puppy-dog eyes look. We entered the building and he asked the front desk secretary if it was a good time to approach the director. “Stay here,” Mathieu said as he approached Mark. I couldn’t figure out what he said, but I saw him pointing to me as Mark grinned. I took that as a yes and excitedly ran towards him.
“Here, let’s take a photo at that Brave wall,” Mark said. The only words I could remember coming out of my mouth during our entire conversation was, “Princess Merida was my Halloween costume!”
After Mark left, my cousin Nicole asked, “So what did you guys talk about?”
My mind drew a blank. “I don’t remember anything!”
Nicole and her younger sister Allyson laughed.
Days later, as we recounted our adventures at Pixar, my cousin asked me again, “Do you remember what the director told you? You were gasping and bouncing like a kid.”
“I honestly still don’t remember anything!” I replied. “All I remember is that I had never been so excited in my life.”
Photos by Nicole Mercado of Yak Films. Additional photos by KateWasHere.com.