A lot of people have heard of Pixar's A113 reference in it's films. In case you haven't, I'll catch you up quickly.
What is A113?
A113 (spoken as "A1-13") was the classroom number at the California Institute of Arts where many Pixar staff studied. It's said to make an appearance in every Pixar film including as the license plate number on Ms. Davis' van in Toy Story, the camera model number in Finding Nemo and the room number in Syndrome's lair in The Incredibles. See the gallery below for more examples.
But WHY A113?
I searched for a few days, trying to find any instance where John Lasseter or Brad Bird of Pixar made mention of WHY they started using A113. The closest quote I could find was this:
"A1-13 was the animation classroom at California Institute of the Arts in the Character Animation Program," John Lasseter, chief creative officer at Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios explained. "Cal Arts is one of the best animation schools … and a lot of the students … as they created films—short films and feature films, they've kind of hidden A113 in the movies."
So, ultimately it hails back to the fact that it was where these Pixar founders got their education. Which says more about their culture than it does their creative Easter Egg.
Pixar has created an environment where creativity and learning are valued and what better way to talk about their quest for continued learning than by placing A113 in their films?
Why Continued Education?
Kenneth R. Lutchen, the dean of Boston University's College of Engineering, talked about the importance of teaming businesses with the continued research of local universities.
"Both industry and academia stand to benefit from long-term cooperation," Lutchen said. "Companies will gain greater access to cutting-edge research and scientific talent at a time when corporate R&D budgets are increasingly under pressure. Universities will gain access to financial support and partners in research at a time when government funding is shrinking. Most importantly, society will benefit from a stream of previously unimaginable advances — in life sciences, biomedical engineering, communications, environmental sciences, artificial intelligence, and more — that will vastly improve everyone’s life." (Read more of what he said here.)
How Pixar Fosters Continual Growth
Pixar is one of the best about creating a work environment that fosters continued learning.
Research. Ed Catmul, Pixar's founder, wrote, "We strongly encourage our technical artists to publish their research and participate in industry conferences. Publishing may give away ideas, but it keeps us connected with the academic community. This connection is worth far more than any ideas we may have revealed: It helps us attract exceptional talent and reinforce the belief throughout the company that people are more important than ideas." (How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity)
Freedom to Communicate. Pixar has a unique environment in this regard. They allow members of any department to approach anyone in any department to try and solve a problem. They don't have to work through the "proper" channels. "This means recognizing that the decision-making hierarchy and communications structure in organizations are two different things," said Catmul. "It means that managers need to learn that they don't always have to be the first to know about something going on in their realm, and it's OK to walk into a meeting and be surprised. The impulse to tightly control the process is understandable give then complex nature of moviemaking, but problems are almost by definition unforeseen. The most efficient way to deal with numerous problems is to trust people to work out the difficulties directly with each other without having to check for permission."
Secondly, Pixar purposely set up a campus-like environment with an atrium center that maximized chance encounters and employee interactions
Emotionally Safe Environment. The term in research is called "psychological safety" and it's important in marriages, friendships and business. Amy Edmondson, in the video below, explains the importance of psychological safety, it's importance in different work environments (particularly medical fields), and how to foster psychological safety in your work place.
At Pixar specifically, they get daily feedback about their work but they are also allowed and encouraged to email notes to the creative leaders that detail what they liked and didn't like and explain why.
The brain trust. In creating an environment where all people can provide feedback, Pixar has developed something called the "brain trust."
"This group consists of John and our eight directors," Catmul explains. "When a director and producer feel in need of assistance, they convene the group ... and show the current version of the work in progress. This is followed by a lively two-hour give-and-take discussion, which is all about making the movie better. There's no ego. No body pulls any punches to be polite. This works because all participants have come to trust and respect one another ... After a session, it's up to the director of the movie and his or her team to decide what to do with the advice; there are no mandatory notes, and the brain trust has no authority. This dynamic is crucial."
That dynamic is crucial because it allowed the team to take advantage of the knowledge of these successful founders while also understanding that they just wanted the best for your film and success. Catmul explained that it took them a long time to figure that out and they even tried using that same set up with more technical teams and it didn't work. This set up really helped their creativity though.
So much more than an Easter Egg
So, the next time you see A1-13 in a Pixar movie, remember that it's more than just an Easter Egg, it's a symbol of Pixar's commitment to continued education and building creative environments that work.