Pixar shorts have traditionally been an important source of innovation. Could companies apply the process followed by Pixar to innovate? Learn how in this article.

Pixar started out as a part of Lucasfilm’s Computer Division. The team created a computer called “Pixar” and developed digital filmmaking tools and computer graphics. To show the capabilities of digital animation they made a short film, titled André and Wally B (1984).

In 1985, the Computer Division gave rise to a new company, called Pixar Inc. Although their first task was to sell their computer, the animation department continued to innovate. Each short film presented new challenges that gave them a chance to try out ideas and develop new technology.

In 1991, Disney offered Pixar making a film with them. The film was titled Toy Story. Although, with time, Pixar established itself as an animation company making feature films, they continued to make short films.

Nowadays, the short films are used more as a testing ground for new talent. The process of pitching and creating a short is quite informal. Someone has an idea and proposes the new project to the executive producer on shorts, John Lasseter.

As there isn’t a dedicated short team, they must build small teams when people are not too busy with some feature film. Shorts give technicians ideas to improve the tools and try out new technical developments, and it also allows employees to challenge themselves.

Could be applied the case of Pixar shorts to other companies? Indeed. The process followed by Pixar to create a short film is, in fact, a great example of undirected innovation.

We are talking, in short, about allowing workers to “play”, have ideas and carry out them autonomously. Hierarchies disappear for a while and the roles are assigned according to the skills that are needed to develop each little project.

The aim of these projects is to create new techniques, services and products as well as discover new talents and increase employees satisfaction and self-confidence.

In fact, it is possible that many companies make “shorts” without being aware of it. To illustrate, I will explain a real case.

A year ago, the company where I work launched a new service. Months later, in a staff meeting, one of the managers explained that, despite having published press releases to announce this service, customers still didn’t know it.

As the manager continued speaking, I had an idea: I would make an animated video explaining, in a very simple way, the new service. I would create it from a PowerPoint presentation and its appeal would lie in a hand-made appearance.

Thus, I set to work. I thought a simple plot that could be explained with a few slides and I created the presentation, added animations and converted it to video. The goal was simply to create a draft.

The next day, I showed the video to the manager who had spoken about the new service. She liked it and encouraged me to continue.

My plan was this: the head of the service, i.e., the person who knew it best, along with the head of communications, i.e., the person who best knew how to explain it, would write a short script. I would help them adjust to the timing of the video and, simultaneously, I’d improve the quality of the animations and images.

Once I had the script and the final version of the video, I went to talk to one of my colleagues, known to have a nice and clear voice, and proposed her recording the voice-over. We had to change the timing of some animations, try several microphones and find a room with good acoustics, but we finally got to finish the video.

Then all we have to do was to upload the video on YouTube and share it on social networks. The video could be certainly improved, and I should have added music, but the important thing is that we had fun, we innovated and we self-organized.

It so happens that this example is about animations, but I think it has served to expose the main idea: the best innovations are not always planned or have to come from the innovation department. If we give employees autonomy and we trust in their abilities, both the whole company and our customers will benefit.

[Article originally published in Innovation Excellence, on June 23, 2013.]

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Sources about Pixar:

A.M. Buckley. Pixar. The Company And Its Founders. North Mankato, Minnesota: ABDO Publishing Company, 2011.

Peter Sciretta. “How Does A Pixar Short Film Get Made?”. Slash /Film, December 8th, 2011.