Thursday, March 5, 2009

Art and technology at Pixar

Last night I attended a public lecture by Rob Cook, vice president of software engineering at Pixar Animation Studios. The lecture was organized by the Perimeter Institute as part of their public outreach program. Rob talked about how Pixar makes movies, with a bit of a spotlight on how physics (of the classical, not quantum, kind) is introduced to a cartoon world.

I'm a big Pixar fan, and recognized many of the processes and methods that Bob presented from my close scrutiny of the special features on various Pixar DVDs. He had a couple of striking ideas that I hadn’t previously encountered, though, that to me feel as relevant to user experience designers as to film makers.

The first is his take on John Lasseter’s assertion that “Art challenges technology but technology inspires the art”, which is a comment on how the artists and technologists work together at Pixar. Rob’s spin on this was, roughly, that the artists don’t know that it’s impossible, and the technologists are too proud to admit that it is and so deliver it. What user experience designer hasn't been told by a developer that a design is just not possible, only to see it delivered? Conversely, what developer hasn't been given an 'impossible' design but then found a way to make it work?

The other idea relates to describing what Pixar does as a movie making enterprise and how it related to traditional artistic endeavors (again, paraphrasing from memory here): the team is the artist, and the technology is the brush. This one seems like it has an even more obvious parallel to the creative tension between UX designers and developers, and to the often collaborative nature of creating software products. I really do like this analogy.

I feel like watching Ratatouille or The Incredibles now!

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