Danielle Feinberg painted a picture of what it’s like to work as a woman at Disney Pixar, the animation studio behind 21 feature films that have together generated more than $13 billion at the box office.
As the opening speaker at the Girls in Tech Catalyst conference, she said her teams try to solve problems and create a “world that no one has seen before” in films like Coco, Wall-E, and Brave.
But it hasn’t been an easy path. Though Feinberg has a degree in computer science from Harvard University, she said she was crestfallen when a male coworker questioned why she had come to a “technical meeting.”
That individual is no longer with the company, and Feinberg, a 22-year industry veteran, was recently promoted to supervising technical director, a position few women have held to date. She’s currently working on a secret film at Pixar, which has been owned by Disney since 2006.
She talked about creating “awe” with beautiful world shots in Coco and putting human emotion into Wall-E’s eyes that defied real-world physics.
Likewise, she said her team had some interesting discussions when the director of The Incredibles told them the character Violet had to have long hair. In those days, hair was an unsolved problem, as the physics of how it moves and reflects light is a difficult computing problem. But the team pulled it off, and shy Violet was able to hide behind her hair.
After Feinberg’s talk, I spoke with her about creativity and inspiration and how kids like my daughter, who took the photo of Feinberg for this story, can someday work at Pixar. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
VentureBeat: It was an interesting challenge for a lot of the speakers. You want to encourage and inspire people to follow in your footsteps, but you have to be realistic about the challenges. The headlines tell us all kinds of bad news about workplaces, how bad they’ve been over time, but you want to encourage people to be interested in joining those. I wonder how you balance that challenge.
Danielle Feinberg: As a person, I try to be real about things. I think that arming people with the knowledge of what they might run into can create a different outcome. If I stand up there and say that everything is going to be totally joyful if you go off to college and you’re one of a few women in your computer science classes, then you walk in thinking everything’s going to be fine and you’re faced with something else — it’s a bigger leap. There’s even more of this “What’s wrong with me that this isn’t okay?” Trying to be real about that, but also trying to show that you can make it through that stuff, and here are some of the things that helped me get through. It’s not the end of the world, and it means you get to do these incredible jobs. The payoff is tenfold.
A mix of being real — I’m certainly cognizant of not overplaying it, by any means. Not like, woe is me. But also trying to give some amount of — this is how I made it through it. I got through it because of these things about my personality. And then the reward of doing that. Also, I do think it’s better now than it was. Certainly the numbers are better. It’s nowhere near 50-50, but you can choose a school like Harvey Mudd and be in computer science classes where it’s at least 50-50. It also arms kids, I hope, that as they’re looking at what college they want to go to, that becomes something they think about. If you don’t have the right numbers, I’m not coming here. Hopefully that helps too.
VentureBeat: How have you seen a place like Pixar change? Has the nature of the technical job changed as well?
Feinberg: Pixar is this wonderful place where we get to make these great movies. It’s full of smart, talented, creative and technical people, storytellers, all these great people. One of the cool things here is that the culture of Pixar really is to be nice. One of the lovely things — almost never have I run into any kind of meanness or anything. It’s a great community and dynamic for thriving here in that way.
VentureBeat: Some of that Steve Jobs origin didn’t rub off on the place, then.
Feinberg: He was such a positive force here. It’s funny when I hear stories about Apple. He was wonderful here. He left the filmmaking to the filmmakers in this wonderful way. He’d come in and have an observation here or there, but somehow his thing here was really different than at some other places.
VentureBeat: He was on the down side of his career at that point. Maybe he was a little nicer.
Feinberg: Well, he was on the upswing of his career, too. Maybe we had him on both sides. One of the things I actually marvel about — he was this super brilliant person, but he let the filmmakers make the films here. He didn’t assume that he knew how to make films just because he was standing there and he was really smart. I thought that was part of his magic, appreciating people’s skills and not just having an ego that said he knew better because he was this really smart guy.
VentureBeat: You work in a place with a lot of brilliant people. If you’re a normal young person walking into that place, how do you work around those people or adjust to that kind of workplace?
Feinberg: That’s part of this culture of people being friendly and not competitive. When you walk in, you’re around nice people. There aren’t people trying to jam their superiority down your throat. [laughs] You’re making movies. It’s this very collaborative endeavor. It works out well that people have varied talents that can plug in. I don’t think you work here unless you understand what a team project it is to pull together a movie. All of that works well in tandem. Having people of all talents leads to people appreciating all those talents.
VentureBeat: One of the things that you often hear is that the best preparation you can do for a job like yours is to study computer science and get a lot of grounding in science and math. But I wonder if that’s still the best advice, given that a lot of these programs people work with now are not so code-heavy. Do artists and people who are interested in storytelling still need to learn the computer science side?
Feinberg: I don’t think any of our story artists ever learned any computer science. I don’t think that’s particularly important. If you know how to program it opens up a zillion jobs to you, because certainly programming has not gone away in any fashion. The more you know how to do hands-on coding, rather than menus and drag-and-drop stuff, the more advanced you can go, the deeper you can go, the bigger the impact you can have. For people who enjoy programming on some level, that’s fantastic, because it opens up all kinds of things instead of closing down your options, which is what it always felt like as you went through school. You had to make more and more decisions that narrowed you in. That’s actually opening all kinds of things up.
To follow that, there are plenty of jobs out there where if you want to be a story person at Pixar, what you have to study is story, story, story. Our storyboarders are artists. They tell the story through gesture drawings and storyboards. They’re drawing all the time. That’s the thing to put your time into if that’s what you want to do. But certainly computer science is just as valid as it’s always been.
VentureBeat: You have Toy Story 4 coming out the door. Was that a good experience for you? I wonder how you avoid having to do so much crunch when you have a launch like that.
Feinberg: I didn’t work on it, so I can’t speak directly to it, but I think everyone’s pretty excited about it. We only work on one project at a time. It’s too hard. The technology changes, and you get used to what the director wants, so everyone’s on one project at a time.
VentureBeat: For a technical director, I was surprised that you were the only woman to get to that level. Can you describe what that level is?
Feinberg: To be exact, it’s supervising technical director. Technical director is a term for all of our technical people here. Supervising technical director is the person on the movie who’s overseeing all the technical on it and working with all the heads of departments to make sure that they have — sort of a technical plan in place. But part of it is working with them to make sure everything is going to go smoothly in their department — partnering with the production manager, the associate producer, and the producer to get the film done. Usually it’s a pretty purely technical and managerial thing. On this film, hopefully, it’s a little more of a combination of technical and creative, because I’m coming in with 20 years of creative jobs behind me.
The last woman to do it was on Toy Story 2, a woman named Galyn Susman, so it has happened before. But there’s a couple of us lined up now. It just so happened that — it’s a funny thing here. The lighting department is a good portion women. Half of the lighting DPs were women. If you look at the producers, they’re mostly women. If you look at the special effects department, it’s almost all men. We get into these pockets of imbalance, but Pixar has been putting in a lot of great effort in the last five years to make a visible difference in the hallways. People work at Pixar for years. I’ve been here 22 years. People don’t leave here. We’re not growing. It’s slower to create change when we’re not a Google or Facebook that’s growing by leaps and bounds all the time. It’s taken a while, but I think we’re making good progress on that front.
VentureBeat: Are you at hundreds of employees, or thousands by now?
Feinberg: I don’t know the exact number now, but we’re usually around 1,200 or 1,300, all in Emeryville. We’re owned by Disney, but they’ve left everything exactly the way it was. Everything stayed in Emeryville, and all our people stayed the same.
VentureBeat: You had the big leadership change at the top. How does that affect the organization and your own job?
Feinberg: I don’t know that it affected my job so much. A few different people have gotten promoted, and then we have Pete [Docter] running the creative. Everyone adores Pete. He’s a brilliant guy. It’s more excitement around what the future holds.
VentureBeat: Do you see ways that Pixar can diversify more? Do you do any advising on that front?
Feinberg: We have a diversity and inclusion person — vice president of inclusion strategies is her title — and she’s been here for almost two years, Britta Wilson. She’s been doing a ton of stuff around diversity. She’s been doing fantastic stuff. Before she came on, there were different people doing grassroots kinds of things, trying to do all kinds of stuff. I got Pixar to host the Girls Who Code summer camp for three years. That was a lot of fun. We were all trying to do our part at making change.
Britta came in with a bunch of experience. She’s been able to make even more changes, recruiting at different schools, finding students from schools we hadn’t normally targeted that are much more diverse. Going to historically black colleges and universities and doing a bunch of events with them. Just reaching much farther out to continue to change the diversity of the studio. As I said, over the last five years that’s changed significantly. We’re on a great path. It’s exciting, because getting to work on a movie like Coco, where we’re talking about Mexico and celebrating its people and culture, and you see how much that means to people when they see themselves up on the big screen, or having directors that are from different backgrounds getting to make movies and tell stories that they haven’t been able to tell before — there’s a lot of exciting stuff happening here right now in terms of diversity and inclusion.
VentureBeat: My kid is studying digital art in college and wants to know how to prepare herself for working at a place like Pixar in the future. It’s interesting at that stage, where they’re learning things like special effects and animation, drawing, everything, and they don’t really know yet where their art is going to wind up. They just know it’s digital art. It could be games or film or animation. It’s an interesting state of flux for people in training. What do you think about the kinds of skills people should pick up?
Feinberg: There are so many different aspects of filmmaking that — there are all kinds of ways you could go. But on some very basic level, there is learning how to work with people, because you’re always going to be working in some form of group to get something done. There’s the storytelling aspect of it, where if you’re, say, a writer or a director, you have to know how to tell a story, which is conveying why something is meaningful. If I’m sitting in the producer’s office and I’m trying to tell her a story about something that has happened and why we need to do this to help the film, it’s all storytelling in a way. I’m not saying it’s fiction, but you’re telling a story where you’re trying to get people to listen to you. That’s an important skill.
If you’re getting down to nuts and bolts of the real hands-on of filmmaking or doing digital art, that becomes much more about what part of the pipeline you’re plugging into. Are you going to end up in an art department? Are you going to be an animator, a lighting person, a technical artist? There are so many different kinds of things that as you — the beauty of school is that you shouldn’t have to choose that kind of thing. You get to experience all of them and find the thing you really love. There are late hours making movies, it turns out, and so you’d better love the thing you choose so that you’re having a great time when you’re at work.
VentureBeat: I thought the story you told about Violet’s hair was interesting. It’s the combination of the technical and the artistic, and storytelling as well. You must run into that kind of example all the time.
Feinberg: It’s one of the fun things here. They’re so linked together. They play off each other. It’s one of my favorite things to be involved in, but also to sit and watch sometimes, when it’s not my department, and see how things evolve.
VentureBeat: Do you think that in some way you’re an interchangeable person in your role? Could you go over to Sony to work on a video game, or go into a different part of the film business as well, given what you do? Or do you think you’re very specialized for where you are at Pixar?
Feinberg: One problem is that I’ve been working here so long that I’m really familiar with Pixar’s pipeline and some of the tools we use here. We have our own proprietary software, and then we use some outside software. Most of my knowledgebase is centered around that. I’m sure I could potentially go to another company that makes animated films and there would be plenty of things that are familiar enough that I could figure it out after a while. Going to video games, there’s some overlap, but there are some big differences. Less so now as the technologies come together a bit, but that would be a bit of a different beast. It depends if it was a creative job or a technical job.
It’s definitely not interchangeable. How you generate everything and how everything moves through the pipeline can be critical and very specific. There’s certainly overlap, but it’s not plug and play.
VentureBeat: You gave this inspirational talk to us in the audience. Where do you go to, who do you go to for your own inspiration?
Feinberg: I have a couple of people here who have been mentors to me. Sometimes going to them — certainly, there’s all kinds of artistic stuff that inspires me. But a lot of it is about giving those talks, talking to people afterward and having them tell me how much Pixar films have meant to them, or how much it means to them to see a woman standing up there talking about tech.
Just after the talk at the Catalyst conference, a woman came up to me and said she was from Mexico. She had three kids, a one-year-old, a four-year-old, and an eight-year-old. She said that the eight-year-old especially, before Coco, had stopped speaking Spanish because she was, in a sense, rejecting her Mexican heritage. When they went and saw Coco, she said it totally changed her daughter’s connection to being Mexican. She started speaking Spanish again. It was really cool.
There’s nothing that makes you feel more revitalized, whatever hardship you’re having in your job that day — it’s just not of any significance when you can create something that makes a difference to people. A lot of my inspiration at this point comes from talks and talking to people about how much those things mean to them.