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 personality, as well: A bustling gift shop with strawberry-scented “Toy Story 3” Lotso teddy bears acts as a façade for the darker, more mysterious corridors where outsider access is restricted.
Pixar Animation Studios, the phenomenally 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 maintain, 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 alumni have managed to breach Pixar’s line of privacy: They got jobs here.
“I remember my first day, and I remember parking in the lot and walking 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 intimidating.”
Alba studied film at the San Francisco 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 logical next step for her, and likened location scouting to painting with real-life locations. After witnessing the filming 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 production that I would like to be involved in,’ ” Alba said.
Meanwhile, Jody Weinberg, a fellow 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” was released.
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 business 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 textures on all surfaces, from the fur 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 CG food look appetizing, the smells of the studio’s personal chef-run Luxo Café wafted through the air. Across the atrium from the café was a kitchen with dozens of cereal dispensers lined up in an easily visible row, granting visiting journalists permission to chuckle good-naturedly at how much Pixar employees love their cereal.
After “Ratatouille,” Alba briefly managed the Sets Department on “Up” before going on maternity leave. Next she moved on to 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 Bachelorette.”
While Alba was working at Pixar’s home base in Emeryville, Weinberg continued to chug away at legal matters from Burbank, a fair drive away. The two former friends and Wolverines had no idea they both worked for the home of Woody and Buzz until they ran into each other at a “Toy Story 3” meeting.
“We both said that the other one seemed really familiar, and then it hit us,” Weinberg later recalled via e-mail. “I still think it is an amazing coincidence.”
The two can take pride knowing that their endeavors helped the film enjoy the biggest opening weekend in Pixar’s history. Now, after a vacation, Alba will begin her work on the upcoming “Monsters, Inc.” sequel, managing the sets department. Weinberg 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 galleries, talking to the employed University alumni illuminated more of the studio’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 construction project going on next door. They’re building another annex for the company, which after 11 smash hits in a row is seeing a level of success unprecedented in the movie business. In 2005 Pixar employed 750 people; now that number is approaching 1,200. If Alba and Weinberg are any indication, Michigan’s presence at this entertainment oasis is sure to increase in the coming years.