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Sounds from Beyond! @ Pixar

by Brian Dunning, Jun 02 2011

Pixar University had placed these flyers all over the building to advertise my talk. How cool is that??

A couple weeks ago I had the ultimate nerd weekend in the San Francisco bay area. It included visits to Skywalker Ranch, Pixar, Google, and SETI. Skywalker and SETI were social visits, while Pixar and Google were talks I gave. Today I’d like to tell you all about the Pixar talk.

I’d had a morning business meeting that ended up being canceled at the last minute, so I had the morning free. I was staying with my friend John who’s a technician at Skywalker Sound (has been for more than 20 years), so I went into work with him and hung out, as I’ve done a number of times in the past. Though I knew it was improbable, I’d been secretly hoping that John Lasseter might attend my presentation at Pixar University. Alas, it was not to be: Turns out a lot of folks from Pixar were there at Skywalker Ranch working on (ahem) something… and wouldn’t you know it, I bumped right into Mr. Lasseter as he was heading into the restaurant as we were heading out. I restrained my native dork urge to fanboy out.

Morning sunlight over the tech building at Skywalker Ranch

Skywalker Ranch is a really nice place, acres of lakes, vineyards, grass, oak trees, and beautiful landscaping everywhere you look. It’s way out in the middle of Marin County, a long drive from anywhere, so the artists and techs who work there enjoy some magical solitude that us city folk can’t imagine. As I drove in past the security gate and followed a half mile of meandering roadway, I had to dodge a dozen or more deer.

Unlike Google and Pixar, Skywalker Sound is a pretty sterile, corporate environment. You’ll find no X-wings or stormtroopers posed around to take your picture with. Security is hardcore. But the facilities are not only beautiful, they’re topnotch, and the food I’ve had in the restaurants there walks all over the others. (They’re really cafeterias, but the word just doesn’t fit.)

I pose impressively in the center of Pixar's expansive lobby.

So at last, 45 minutes south in Emeryville, I arrived at Pixar to give my talk. Pixar is different. The energy is palpable. Everyone has a grin. People are buzzing all over the building, loving what they do so much that they’re practically laughing out loud (and it shows in their work). My host was Craig Good, whom I’d met a year before at SkeptiCal, and Craig is kind of a big deal at Pixar. He’s worked there 29 years, and his name is in the credits of their very first film (which actually predates Pixar itself), The Adventures of Andre and Wally B, made when they were still a division of the Lucasfilm group, which I used to go and watch at CG festivals in Berkeley in the 1980s. They’d invited me to show up early so we’d have time to tour around.

Craig was detained, and so I had another spot of good luck: Another gentleman came out of the woodwork (artwork) to take over the hosting duties: Chris Ford, and he’s kind of a big deal too. Chris is the business director for RenderMan, Pixar’s principal software product that owns the world of computer animation. Way, way back in the old days, when it was MacRenderMan, I had a copy on my computer (probably pirated, it was at least 20 years ago) and tried playing with it and dreamed of getting into computer animation. But I digress. Anyway it was a surprise treat to get to meet Chris and spend so much time with him and Craig. Our tour didn’t get very far, mainly because I wanted to discuss so many aspects of how the animation works: How they do the mouth movements of speaking characters, where is the line between art and physics when a physical object is moving onscreen, and so forth.

L to R: Chris Ford, Brian Dunning, Craig Good

Finally it was time for my talk, about which I’d nearly forgotten, in fact we were all almost late for it because we were checking out a render farm and hadn’t kept an eye on the time. So we ran next door to Brooklyn, Pixar’s brand new building; so new, in fact, that its first residents were only starting to move in that same week, and it was almost all vacant. Its brand new main theater, downstairs, is where I was to give my talk. I am officially the first person to ever give a Keynote presentation in Pixar’s Brooklyn building. I’m sure they’ll erect a sculpture or plaque or something.

That’s not necessarily a good thing. Furniture was scarce, and someone had to run around the building searching for something that looked enough like a table that I could put my laptop on it. Someone else had to run around searching for cables that could run from my laptop’s DVI adapter to their projector’s inputs on the wall. Yet another tech had to run around searching for audio cables. I made the humorous observation that at Pixar, you’d expect somebody to be able to get images from a computer onto a screen. Perhaps somebody was amused. I hope so.

Meanwhile the theater was filling up. And fill up it did, to capacity in fact, a testament to Pixar’s active skeptic community. They even have their own internal skeptical email list, and they were all there, in force, along with as many innocents as they could fetch along. And right there in the front row was a guy named Tom Duff, and to those in the world of CG, Tom is yet an ever bigger deal than Craig or Chris. Tom is one of the old school original computer scientist guru wizards. And I would have fanboyed over him like a schoolgirl, except through my native cluelessness, I recognized his named only vaguely and it wasn’t until I Wikipedia stalked him later that I realized what an opportunity I’d missed. Hopefully he enjoyed my talk. Lasseter Shmasseter.

Anyway I gave my talk – Sounds from Beyond! – it’s one that’s heavy on fun and light on hard science. Most likely the highest quality theaters and sound system I’ll ever give the talk in. Afterward we toured throughout the Brooklyn building and I saw all sorts of wonderful and amazing things.

The next day was slated for Google and SETI. More on those later.

If you’d like Sounds from Beyond! or one of my other talks at your company or school, check out my speaking page.

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3 Responses to “Sounds from Beyond! @ Pixar”

  1. Chris Howard says:

    Well, suddenly that speech I gave last week at the corner of LBJ, and San Antonio seems a bit “less than.”
    I’m envious! Congratulations.

  2. Monty says:

    Brian, I am so jealous. I’d gladly trade an audience of 550 engineers for one room of Pixar people. I bet they wouldn’t check the math on a PowerPoint slide!

    I so enjoy Skeptoid. Many episodes I listen to twice to make sure I get the most out of them. The recent one on Roanoke was most excellent, as I had researched that a few times in the past. Keep up the good work!

  3. Mark Edward says:

    So maybe there will one day be an animated Skeptologists? That would be fun.