Creative Endeavors

By Beth Mirza Apr 1, 2011
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Attending college, Lori McAdams dreamed of joining the production crew of a major motion picture. She graduated with a communications degree, but the experiences that helped her land her first job with a filmmaker—Lucasfilm Ltd.—were her summer jobs working in entry-level HR.

Now, McAdams has her own profile page on the Internet Movie Database at www.imdb.com. It lists credits for films including “Wall-E,” “Ratatouille” and “Cars.” Instead of working in a production role, however, she’s the vice president of HR for Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif.

Pixar has produced 11 feature-length computer-animated films since 1995, winning more than 40 Academy Awards. Each movie was in the top 10 grossing films the year it was released. And the studio’s 1,250 employees in the United States and Canada are constantly innovating and creating technologies. Pixar fuses engineering and art to produce movies that have become part of popular culture. Its achievements rest on the talents and work of its employees—all of them.

Lori McAdams

Education: 1983, Bachelor of Arts in communications, California State University, Chico; 2001, Master of Human Resources and Organizational Development, University of San Francisco.

Current job: 2004-present, vice president of human resources, Pixar Animation Studios, Emeryville, Calif.

Career: 2003-04, interim HR director, Tippett Studio, Berkeley, Calif.; 1998-2003, director of human resources, Electronic Arts/Maxis, Walnut Creek, Calif.; 1986-98, director of human resources, Lucasfilm Ltd., Nicasio, Calif.; 1984-86, personnel assistant, Lucasfilm Ltd.

Personal: Age 49; born in San Pablo, Calif.; husband Dan; three children.

Diversions: Visiting family and friends, gardening, playing with two Australian Shepherds and playing games online.

Connections: (510) 922-3000, lmcadams@pixar.com, www.pixar.com.

To build such a winning team, Pixar has developed an employment model that stands out in the movie industry. Instead of contracting with freelance artists and engineers for each project, the studio hires full-time employees. These employees aren’t just there for one movie; they are in it for the long haul.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of using the same team for every film?

In the film industry, people are often freelancers. They come together for short periods of time—anywhere from three months to as long as a year—to work on a project. Ed Catmull and John Lasseter, creators of Pixar, wanted to create a community that solved technical and creative challenges together and stayed together. So we do tend to hire most of our employees as regular, full-time people. It’s a tremendous benefit. People get to know each other and have a sense of commitment and engagement. They know each other’s actions, and they don’t have to worry about getting to know a new team that’s not going to be together very long. There’s a bond and trust that comes over time, and so we benefit from that with every project.

How do you retain people when a film can take years to create from start to finish?

Because of the culture, it’s not too difficult. People who have studied animated filmmaking or computer graphics want to work in a company that does terrific work. They are naturally attracted to us. Developing the technology is challenging and interesting, and the creative environment is invigorating. Most people at Pixar like to work collaboratively and in a collegial environment. They enjoy that camaraderie. We are also a company that tries not to have a lot of rules. People are given freedom to do their innovative, best work and to manage themselves. Employees enjoy that responsibility and freedom to be treated as collaborators and capable people.

What happens when they make mistakes?

Well, that’s part of our learning community. Since our founders have been in academics, it’s something they understand and appreciate and, in fact, encourage. You only learn from making mistakes. We don’t want people to be in a mode of trying to avoid mistakes. Instead, we want them to learn to recover quickly. Mistakes, as long as they aren’t safety issues, are fine. We try to have people acknowledge and own mistakes quickly, and then we work to support what we need to do to fix them. We do a lot of reflection and review of our work here, whether on individual tasks or huge projects. If you’re going to try something new, chances are you’re not going to succeed the first time. That’s just the way it works. We want people to know we recognize that errors are part of the learning process.

People working on the films conduct daily reviews of the previous day’s work—and those reviews can get ruthless. How do you help new employees acclimate?

That’s an important part of why we are a community and why we hire regular employees full time. You have to have that sense of security to be open to that feedback. We spend a good amount of time when new employees come to the studio helping them acclimate. I say to new leadership and management employees, “You’ve probably come from an environment where when you were hired, you felt you had to contribute and demonstrate your worth right away. But we aren’t that way. We know you are great because we picked you, and we want you to be part of our community and company. Take your time. Your initial time should be spent observing and absorbing everything around you. You don’t need to stand out quickly. Take time to know how we work, and eventually it will be time for you to contribute in some visible way.” They’ve usually had the chance to see someone else receive feedback and realize the work only gets better because of it. By the time their turn comes along, they are a little more comfortable. As an artist and a professional, you may feel your work needs to be very high-quality before you show it to anyone. But we say no, get it out there and you’ll get better ideas and feedback.

How does the vice president of HR get film credits?

All Pixar employees who have been here for a certain amount of time while a film was being made receive a film credit. That includes all the operations and support groups, including human resources, facilities, safety and security, and café workers. Because it takes all of us working together to get our films made, we all feel like filmmakers.

The interviewer is senior editor for HR News.

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