How Michael B. Johnson creates space by creating spaces for fluid conversation

Happyplaces Stories (video)

Michael works at Pixar and creates tools and software that helps the movie makers to makes movies better and make better movies. By providing them the tools they can use to rapidly shift from idea, to drawing, to a rapid prototype animation, the film makers have more space and possibility to try out ideas. To learn what works best. Michael repeatedly states that he is NOT the one making the film, he indeed is not the one drawing the characters or writing the storyline, his tools directly help to make the movie. Making a movie takes several years, and if you only have one try to see how a joke plays out in animation, you have to be able to try-out several options in time, setting, expression, lighting, etc. His tools help to make that happen, going from hoping it’s funny to knowing its funny, without adding years or even more people to the production of a movie. Moviemaking comprises an awful lot more of what you see and hear while experiencing them.

Maichael at Mastermundo 2007

I got to know Michael, or Wave, in 2007 when I organised a conference with my students. He was speaker at PICNIC in Amsterdam, and Monique, PICNIC’s program director at the time was so kind to forward my question to come and speak at Mastermundo to her speakers. The idea was simple: when you want your students to have the opportunity to reach their full potential, they should have access to the best people in the world. And so it could happen that we had someone from Pixar speaking at our very first humble, but highly ambitous, event. We have been on occasional contact since. When I learned he was in Amsterdam, I visited him in his hotel.


‘I think, in a way, making a movie is kind of shared hallucination. Where you have got this idea of the movie you want to make, and it is in a bunch of different people’s heads. So different people, the crew, are going to contribute to different things. Making the film, to get it made. You need to build a space where people can contribute to the conversation. Some people can act things out. Some people can maybe pick up a camera, a virtual camera, move it around, show framing and compositional things. The difficulty is a sort of a technologically fluid place for getting people to get the idea that’s in their head, out someplace that other people see it and comment on it. And that can be really hard to do. The worst thing that can happen in those sorts of conversations is, people having an actual conversation about: ‘We can do this, but what if we try this, if she came in and she acted like this? What if the room felt like this?’ And the worst thing that can happen is that somebody goes and says: ‘Okay, I see what you are saying, give me two days and I come back.’ Then the conversation is dead. You can’t have that. Those people, basically, get excluded from the conversation. Because it is going to take them two days to formulate their answer. That continues to be a challenge.

In the beginning you can do this for the people that can draw, really quickly. They were the conversation. That was where everything was about. Those drawings that they were making. And you get it into the editorial bay and people would start cutting it. And, as things got more fluid in that space then, you could draw something and then, right away get it into the editorial system and cut it, and look at it, and see it as a film. But the people who are more on the three-dimensional side, the lighting people, the animation people, the camera people: they were not in that conversation because they couldn’t move fast enough. They couldn’t speak fast enough, in that space. And that is, I think, where we are trying to get to: how can you make it so people can all talk?

At least to me, it’s not about making the movie faster. It’s about making it with less people. Ideally, in a perfect world, you would make a movie with as many people you could fit in a room. So that everybody that you needed to make this movie, was there. Was in the conversation. Was able to sketch. In whatever their medium was, really really quickly. Whether they’re acting, whether they’re the musician, whether they’re the cinematographer, whether they are the people coming up with ideas for what the movie is going to be about. All of them would be able to be in the room, together, to see each other, to be able to react on each other. That’s when the best stuff happens, when you have got people just interacting with each other: ‘O yeah, that a great… Maybe we could… Oh, yeah…’ That sort of interaction versus: ‘Now I know what you want. Let me go away for two days, a week, and take what I have in my head about what you said and try to do something with it.’ And that’s still a very important part of the process, but what you really want is people to be able to be in the moment and be able to accomplish something, and be able to move forward in making the thing. In the room.

My friend Ronnie del Carmen… We were in a story meeting, I was there just because of technology they were using so I wasn’t contributing to the story meeting, I was just there, but a bunch of folks around the table. And they were working on this idea. And they kind of were arguing about: ‘Oh, maybe we should do it this way, or maybe we can do this…’ And I could see Ronnie getting a little frustrated and he walked over to the computer. He started drawing. He drew for a couple of minutes. And then he said: ‘Hey everybody!’ And then everybody turned around, looked at him. And then he pitched the idea that he had, that they were talking around. And it was great. It were four of five drawings and it kind of answered the question. And everybody moved on then. I saw Ronnie a couple of hours later, and I said: ‘Ronnie, that was really great, that thing that you did.’ And he said: ‘You know Michael, you know those guys, it could be this, it could be that — it could be done.’ And I like that. It was like: this is not the right answer. So let’s put that answer out there. Let’s move on to the next thing. Because we’ve got to get this whole structure figured out. And we can’t get caught up in this little moment right here. We have to figure out the whole thing. The sketch in broad strokes. And then you can comment on it. Then you can be like: ‘This should go over here, and maybe we don’t need that, and maybe this can go over here.’ But if you are just noodling around in that small little moment, it’s a forest for the trees kind of thing. And, when you’re working on something for a very long time, you need… Building out the whole thing, building out the structure, that you can see it, that you can feel it and then you can make decisions based on that. And not get caught up in the minutia and this one little moment.

How is it, when you work on a movie for five, six, seven years, and when it lands, it ships it is somehow in the zeitgeist that people think: ‘That’s so contemporary, it’s so relevant to what’s now happening in the world’? That just happens. People like to find patterns in things. I remember, back when I was an undergrad, and I worked in kind of scientific visualisations and you had these big data sets. And you would make images from them, scientific images so you get all of this data into this sort image so that you could have understanding about it. And I remember that we were preparing a videotape of it for SIGGRAPH, which is the big computer graphics convention. We put music to the computer graphics that we had done. And it was fascinating, because we just put the music in. It wasn’t composed for the thing. We had some music that we liked that we put in there. And you immediately started to see cues in the music keying to things that were happening in the animation. You found the patterns in there. And it was fascinating because it was not designed. It was not intended. So I think that films are like that. If you build something that is rich enough, that has the potential to be seen as something with a lot of layers, different ways of approaching the meaning of the thing, I think people find patterns. People find their own meaning, their own way through it. Thats why it’s interesting to them. Because it is saying things to them, which are very personal to them, that are very of the moment for them. And then it is when you have been successful, I think, in making a very rich thing. Because it means different things to different people.

I work a lot at work, in a crowd alone. We have a bunch of cafes, so I sit in a cafe with a computer and I’ll be working on programming. But I’ll just be by myself. There will be lots of people around. And I like that. I like sitting in a place where it is just you, but it is all these people who bustle around. And I do think there is an element of that of where you’re… There are multiple conversations are going on in a space. And one of those conversations is you and the problem that you are trying to work on. And sometimes, there is long silences in that conversation, of that thing that you are trying to build. Because you can’t figure it out. Or you’re in a rat-hole, or you’re not making progress. Because you’re in this space, and there are other conversations around you, you can sort of be in that larger conversational flow. And I think it can settle you down, and it can let your mind find the answer to that problem that you, you know, be able to answer that question of that other conversation that you’re having. I think when you are in a room by yourself, the problems, with that one conversation that you’re having that is not going well, would so overwhelm you, that you would never be able to answer the question that you are trying to answer. But being in a larger context where multiple conversations are going on, and that you can switch between these different conversations, that actually is very helpful.

I think at the end of the day you have to do the thing that you are good at. And that is probably the thing that is going to make you happiest. I was with a friend of mine, talking about another friend of ours, who wanted to do a thing that he was probably not going to be allowed to do. And my friend said to me: ‘Isn’t it great that we like to do the thing that we are good at?’ There is something really sad to me, this is a really personal thing, there is something sad about people who are not really good at the thing they really desperately want to do. I don’t know when I have arrived at the point where I know the thing where I’m actually really good at. Maybe it is, that I found the thing I was good at and that’s what I ended up doing. But I think, it’s important to… When you work on a film you can’t make it by yourself. You need to work with other people. I like to work with other people. I like to work with people that are really good. I like to work with other people who think I’m very good. In order for me to have them think I’m very good, I need to do something very well. And I need to do something very well that they can understand and appreciate. So you get in this cycle of that’s what you sort of do. In a movie, all these different roles in a computer graphics movie, those roles are somewhat ill-defined. You can sort of make up what your contribution to it is. If your contribution is positively contributing to the outcome of the thing and the people who you work with see what you are doing as a positive, then you are in a good place.

I don’t think about, you know my audience is not the audience for the movie, my audience is the other film makers. There is an expectation there, of you trying to build something for them that they can use to make the film. So for me the expectations are different. But you have the same, not problem, but you have the same situation of where, if you build a piece of software that does something quite well for them, they really like. That’s like making a movie that they like. And there is a pressure to make a sequel. And working on sequels, the next version of the software, is a very comfortable thing to do. Because it’s a known space, it’s a known activity that you can make better. You can revisit that problem, you can come in and you can change this thing and add this thing and you can take this new direction. But it is sitting on top of this base, this thing, that your customers like. And then there is this other idea, where it is you wanting to build a new thing. You want to build a new application, want to build a new tool for them. That does something completely different than the tools that you have built. That’s ‘a new movie’. That’s a scary thing. Because it can fail.

Sometimes you work on a sequel, you work on that new version of the software, and it is very possible to screw it up. But it is much more possible that you will do something that people will like. Because they already liked that thing that it comes from. But to do something new, to do a new tool, to do a new process, a new something for them, that can be both exciting and terrifying. Because it could fail. It could fail much more so than the new version of the existing thing. And I think you want to have both of those. You want to have the thing that is an improvement of the old thing, or another variation of the whole thing. But you also want to have that exciting new thing. You need to have both of those. Because they feed different energies. One of them is very comforting, and a little bit of a challenge, but not as much of a challenge. The other one is terrifying. But the pay off is amazing if you can come up with a new thing people really like. That’s the grand prize. That’s what you’re shooting for. Something that they didn’t know they wanted. And once they have it, they can’t imagine a life without it.’