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VIII.2 March 2001
Page: 99
Digital Citation

Interviews: Pixar

Karon Weber

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Tell us about your background and how you became interested in the field of HCI?

I am the Senior Interaction Designer at Pixar Animation Studios. I have worked with technology for nearly 20 years to create and interact with moving images. My roots are in documentary film and I learned my craft at a Public Broadcasting System affiliate station. While I was there, I had the opportunity to touch every aspect of production, eventually working through the ranks into the role of associate director of news and public affairs. At PBS, I learned the art of telling stories. I also learned to work with limited resources under tight deadlines, and most importantly, how to investigate eclectic topics, conduct an analysis from a wide range of perspectives, and deliver a cohesive product. At the time, I didn't realize that my endeavors were an integral part of what user interface designers do.

I discovered the world of the software designer when I joined a lab at Xerox PARC in 1986, where I worked on a project that eventually became known as the Media Space. The project focused on understanding how people could use video in the workplace. By constructing environments and conducting user studies, we explored a wide range of social and technological issues about communicating in electronically mediated environments. During those nine years, I developed a series of tools to support people logging, editing, and archiving moving images.

Xerox PARC at the time was home to an extraordinary collection of human computer interface pioneers—people like Buxton, Suchman, Bly, Halasz, Card, Henderson, and Moran. I had the opportunity and privilege to learn from and collaborate with colleagues who contributed to framing much of the HCI discipline that is practiced today. I left PARC with a solid approach for doing research and a rigorous design methodology.

At PARC we had the luxury of not being concerned with how to get a product built and into the hands of real users. I was trained to produce software designs for manufacture in 1995 when I joined SGI to lead a design team to create feature animation production software for Dreamworks, SKG, and eventually Alias/Wavefront. Tutored by some very talented engineers, I was put through "shrinkwrap" boot camp and schooled in the fine art of the schedule, toolkits, and application frameworks. I learned to engage formal design methods and tailor them to fit the constraints of product development. I also learned how to work with user communities who were under strict deadlines.

These experiences prepared me for the role that I currently perform at Pixar. I have been at Pixar for just about three years and I have contributed to tools developed for the production of Toy Story 2 and the upcoming Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo.


How is user interface/user experience work done at Pixar?

Pixar is the ultimate environment for a designer who practices user-centered system design. My user communities are my co-workers. If I have an idea, or a question, I simply walk to another office and get an answer. I don't need to speculate how somebody would do a task, I go and watch them work. I don't need to invent the content, for it is about to become part of the next movie. It is an instantly accessible environment.

We work on a project basis, which is embedded in the release process. Each engineering release includes a wide variety of projects ranging from fire fighting, to changes in the existing software, to designing completely new pieces of the system. There is more work than there are design cycles, therefore, the design team is assigned to projects which will either significantly impact the user's experience or the technical success of a film.

At Pixar, design is a collaborative activity. No one person or group owns or controls design. Each design project is assigned a design team made up of 2-3 engineers, 3-5 representatives from the end user community and a dedicated designer. Currently, I am the only non-programming designer on staff. The engineers I collaborate with usually have diverse sets of skills, and many have heavy user interface engineering experience. The end users are selected by their departments to represent their community's needs. Their experience consistently spans significant intra- or inter-departmental differences. Pixar's infrastructure team provides all of the documentation and quality assurance testing internally and, occasionally, we hire outside graphic designers to polish our pixels.

Our design practices do not differ much from the work of many software and product design organizations. The length of the engineering release process determines the level of detail to which we can investigate the problem, understand work practices, brainstorm solutions, and evaluate the design. The form of representation we create to depict our envisioned designs depends on the complexity of the idea, the audience we need to present to and the developmental stage of the design process. Most of the time we use annotated Photoshop illustrations pitched as narratives and find that as the design process progresses, the level of detail required increases in order to support the transition from the design phase to implementation.


As a rule we design complete solutions and work to build a delivery strategy breaking down the design into packages of staged components. A delicate negotiation ensues to analyze each feature, prioritizing each segment on the basis of the user's needs, the system dependencies and the requirements of the film projected against the time to implement, the technical complexity and the engineering resources. It is a messy and imperfect world, where we sometimes find that the first version of an application challenges us to find alternative, quick-to-implement solutions that provide the user with a comparable workflow, when we don't have the resources to implement the complete solution in the required time frame.

You work in an exceedingly complex area of UI design. What are some of the greatest challenges?

At first glance, you would think that inheriting 15-year-old, legacy code would be the greatest challenge, because it is built with at least three toolkits and it has been constantly evolving to meet the changing needs of the 10 different departments working on multiple productions at a time. You soon learn that as with most evolutionary processes, only the fittest survive and eventually old code will be replaced by new. The software has evolved together with the production practices and the artists' working styles, such that the resulting tools are often surprisingly well adapted for the way the people at Pixar work. As we design new and improved software we identify the best of the work practices and integrate with them with new techniques to streamline the workflow.


I believe that our highest challenge is supporting the drastically different work practices that exist among our approximately 250 end users. Marionette, our proprietary software system for modeling, layout, set dressing, animation, and lighting is a behemoth engine that establishes precise control over the camera, the sets, the motion of the characters and the look of each frame in a film. Each of the departments has significantly different tasks to accomplish; yet they use overlapping subsets of the system. When we are given the task to design a solution for one department, we need to understand the potential implications it will have for the other departments that use the same application.

Things get even more complex intra-departmentally, since the individual end users' backgrounds significantly influence the techniques they use. For example, the animators come from several animation disciplines, including cel, stop motion, puppetry and 3-D. Each discipline approaches animating a character differently: some animators work primarily with key poses, some work frame-by-frame, some manipulate motion curves, and some do a little bit of everything. Our tools must support all of these different approaches and not force the animators to change how they think about working with the characters.

It gets even harder when different films dictate alternate approaches required for the same department. For example, a new tool for set dressers would have different requirements depending on the locations within a film. A tool designed during the production of A Bugs Life would favor supporting the placement of large areas of organic material; models such as clover, grass, and rocks. The same tool designed during Toy Story 2 would have to support building structural environments, providing features to work with the components that make up airport baggage handling systems and the hundreds of suitcases that move on them.

Pixar has consistently made films that push the technical limits. It is a never-ending struggle to nail down the requirements for a piece of software. As designers we cannot predict what the development department will come up with for the next film. We've learned to expect that future needs will demand software changes, and we strive to find designs that emphasize flexibility, extensibility, and adaptability.

Given that you're always on a motion picture release schedule, what is the average cycle time for work your group does?


On average, we have three to four major engineering releases a year. It is a challenge to align the release dates to the production schedules of several simultaneous feature film projects. At any one time, we have multiple films in different stages of the production pipeline. For example, if Toy Story 2 is in lighting, Monster's Inc. might be in animation and Finding Nemo will be in development. If a solution were released for the modeling department, only the Finding Nemo crew would benefit, as modeling would be complete for Toy Story 2 and only doing fixes for Monster's Inc. Since most of what is delivered targets a specific department and/or a specific film, our Studio Tools management works closely with production management to plan what is included within a release and to understand the technical challenges for each film. New and/or widespread changes to universally used applications must be carefully rolled out and rigorously tested. Our users must be assured that alternative solutions are in place for back-up. Tool development cannot impede production moving forward.

Do you have any words of advice for the people who develop curricula for HCI?

I think many existing HCI programs fall into a few distinctive camps: graphic design, interaction design, software engineering, and technological innovation and thus only focus on one element of the process. While design firms build design teams from across these disciplines it would be regrettable that a student has spent years of their lives designing technology without ever talking to an end user to acquire their feature list or run a study to evaluate a proposed workflow. On the other hand, there are programs that succeed in exposing students to design iteration, and never look at what it would take to implement a solution on a larger scale, or how to structure the solution such that it can be delivered within a constrained time frame or across multiple releases. I am not suggesting that designers need to learn how to write code, but it is important that they understand the basics of software engineering.

I would advise not to short change students. Do not focus on solely the human, or the computer or the interaction. Strive to train the well-rounded designer. I also want to reiterate that this is a craft taught by mentorship. Reading papers and understanding the theory of design are important in establishing a common literacy with colleagues and a framework of historical references, but it isn't going to prepare your students to become practicing designers. They need to spend time working under established designers in design studios or internship programs. Figure out some way to help them get their feet wet and to start to build a portfolio.

And finally, what's your favorite part of your job?

The experience of sitting in a movie theatre with my colleagues watching one of our films for the first time is extraordinary. You celebrate the communal effort and then move beyond the details of what it took to get you there, and enjoy it for what it is – a really good movie.

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UF1Figure. Providing technology to members of the feature animation community requires an understanding of the complex procedures involved in making animated films. The production process is composed of the following stages: Pre-Production (pencil sketch image)

UF2Figure. The narrative structure is defined and storyboarded. The look and feel of the environments, props and characters are iterated upon and translated into a vast collection of 3-D models. Production (wire frame image)

UF3Figure. The basic unit of the film is the shot. Each shot moves through a series of departments that build the locations, choreograph the camera, animate the characters, apply textures and finishes on the models and enhance the mood of each scene with lighting. Post- Production (final rendered image)

UF4Figure. After receiving directorial approval at each step within the production process, the shot is finally rendered and transferred to film. The post-production process concludes with the editing process that joins the visuals with the dialog, foley (sound effects), and musical score.

UF5Figure. Karon Weber

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©2000 ACM  1072-5220/01/0300  $5.00

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