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Thursday, April 27 2017 09:04

Cars 3: A Visit to Pixar Animation Studios

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Over the past few years, I've had the good fortune to have been invited to some fairly magical places that most of the general public will never have the chance to experience first-hand. Thanks to my friends at The Walt Disney Company, I've been able to go beyond the gates of several legendary facilities, including the famous lot of The Walt Disney Studios, Walt Disney Animation Studios, DisneyToon Studios and ABC. While I've spent a decent amount of time at all of those places in Southern California (even dropping by the Animation Research Library and the former Imagineering center), there's a couple spots further up the coast that I've always wanted to visit, and I finally crossed one of those off the list with my recent adventure inside Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, California. As part of the promotional ramp-up to the theatrical release of Disney•Pixar's Cars 3, I was able to get a look at the campus where some of the most iconic animated films of the past few decades have been created.

Pixar Studio Tour

Located across the Bay from San Francisco and just to the side of neighboring Oakland, the Pixar campus sticks out like an oasis in downtown Emeryville. As my group made our way through the gates, we were quick to notice that the Cars 3 logo was already painted onto the asphalt, carrying on a Disney tradition of decking out their facilities to celebrate the theme of their current project.

Pixar Studio Tour - Toyography
Since toys and CARS are two of my specialties, of course I had to do some "toyography" with my 1:55-scale Mattel version of Lightning McQueen and the famous Luxo Ball.

Undoubtedly the most-photographed feature of the Pixar campus is the iconic Luxo Lamp and Luxo Ball. Made famous in John Lasseter's 1986 short film, Luxo Jr., the most surprising thing about these large-scale outdoor pieces of artwork is that they were not originally a part of the campus, nor were they commissioned by Pixar. When a traveling Pixar exhibit hit Australia, it was a museum down under that had the lamp and ball created as a part of their local promotion. When the exhibit came to an end, the gifted the pair to Pixar and had them crated and shipped to California.

Pixar Studios Tour - Luxo Lamp and Luxo Ball

At night, the lamp shines brightly, illuminating the ball most of the time. Even though the Pixar campus is not open to public tours, there's enough wear and tear on the Luxo Ball from the private tours that it occasionally needs to be refinished. Removal and replacement of the ball is a process that can take up to six weeks, so there are occasions where the ball is not-so-mysteriously absent. 

The Steve Jobs Building bears the name of the famous Apple founder, but that wasn't originally the case, either. Re-christened after his passing, the building owes its overall design to Jobs, who led Pixar for nearly two decades and guided the development of its campus, right down to the "brain" concept of the main building - with the creative and technical sides divided (left/right), but united by common paths. There's also a "New York" vibe, with locations noted by terms like "Upper East Side," etc. In keeping with that, the newest building on the lot is called "Brooklyn."

Pixar Animation Studios Tour

Around every corner there's a nod to the legacy of the studio, with famous characters and beautiful artwork on display throughout. The Studio Store also managed to make more than a few bucks off of me.

Long before getting invited to Pixar myself (my first invite came during the production of Inside Out, but I couldn't make it), I, like many film/animation fans had searched for information on a studio tour. One thing you will find is common in such reports (and mine is no exception) is that many areas are off limits to photography, and that's pretty standard for all studios in keeping potential spoilers out of the public eye. While Cars 3 was the focus of my visit (we saw 42 minutes of the film while we were there), production is in full-swing for the upcoming Coco as well, with many things needing to be kept under wraps. 

Pixar Studio Tour

As a storyteller and sometimes performer myself, visiting Pixar was an inspiring thing that definitely helped to get the creative juices flowing again. Whether it be writing new screenplays or comics, or even jumping back into the acting realm, it is undeniable that the environment fosters inspiration to create. In speaking to several staffers, there's also a feeling that they take great care of their people - from health clubs and a swimming pool to basketball courts, soccer fields and community gardens and an outdoor kitchen, there's a strong emphasis on family and personal well-being that makes me hope that if I ever do take a long-term gig with a large company again, that it will be with someone like Pixar.

About Disney•Pixar Cars 3: Blindsided by a new generation of blazing-fast racers, the legendary Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson) is suddenly pushed out of the sport he loves. To get back in the game, he will need the help of an eager young race technician, Cruz Ramirez, with her own plan to win, plus inspiration from the late Fabulous Hudson Hornet and a few unexpected turns. Proving that #95 isn’t through yet will test the heart of a champion on Piston Cup Racing’s biggest stage!

See Cars 3 when it races into theaters on June 16, 2017!

P.S. - So what's the one Disney-owned facility in Northern California that I still have yet to visit? Skywalker Ranch - Lucasfilm. It's still on my list, and I do believe that The Force is with me. To be continued...

James Zahn

James Zahn is not a journalist, nor a blogger, though he may be credited as such by others, or even accept the title... depending on the circumstance.  Instead, he considers himself largely to be an "entertainment and lifestyle writer," bringing 25+ years of experience in the entertainment and publishing industries into the family realm as THE ROCK FATHER™.

As a media personality, commentator, adventurer and raconteur, James now finds himself raising a pair young girls - The Rock Daughters™ - along with his wife from their Illinois home.

He is a member of The Toy Insider Parent Advisory Board, a writer for the Netflix #StreamTeam, and serves as a Brand Ambassador and spokesperson for several Globally-recognized pop culture and lifestyle brands in addition to consulting for a number of toy manufacturers. Current special projects include promotional campaigns for PJ Masks (eOne/Disney Junior) and Beat Bugs (Netflix). 

Creatively, James has directed/edited music videos, lyric videos, and album trailers for bands such as FEAR FACTORY, has appeared as an actor in feature films and commercials, written comic books, and performed in bands. He currently serves as an artist manager and video director for Napalm Records' PRODUCT OF HATE.

James and/or his work have been featured in/on CNN, NBC, ABC, WGN, G4, The Chicago Tribune, BusinessWire, Babble, Fangoria, Starlog and more. He's appeared as a music expert on CNN's AC360 alongside Anderson Cooper, and has been interviewed by Larry King. In the past he served as a writer for  Fandango Family and PBS KIDS, penned articles for Sprout and PopSugar, and was a contributor to Chicago Parent.

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