Turns Out Pixar’s Toxic

Note: Trigger Warning for discussions of sexual harassment and assault, especially for Cassandra Smolcic’s article linked below, which I am going to quote from. I will quote the less triggering stuff, but even still, the warning applies. And if you do choose to read Cassandra’s entire article, this Trigger Warning applies even more, as she discusses what happened to her before she got to Pixar, and it’s…. disturbing. That said, I do recommend reading Cassandra’s article; just keep this Trigger Warning in mind if you do.

Earlier this month, John Lasseter left Pixar and Disney amid “vague” accusations of sexual misconduct (note: I don’t think they’re so “vague”, personally… and I believe them).

John Lasseter, Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios’ chief creative officer, will leave both companies by the end of 2018, following revelations last year that he sexually harassed employees, according to The New York Times. Lasseter has been on a leave of absence from the studio since November, when he first acknowledged what he worded as “missteps” that left his employees feeling “disrespected and uncomfortable.” In the months since, media organizations and entertainment industry critics widely speculated on whether he could return to Pixar, or whether Disney would force him to resign.

“I’ve recently had a number of difficult conversations that have been very painful for me. It’s never easy to face your missteps, but it’s the only way to learn from them,” Lasseter wrote employees in a memo in November, when he started his six-month leave of absence. Not coincidentally, the memo and Lasseter’s decision coincided with the publication of numerous misconduct allegations by The Hollywood Reporter, which published its story on Lasseter as part of dozens of others accounts of harassment and assault that came to light during the beginning of the #MeToo movement last fall.

Cassandra Smolcic, a former Pixar employee, published a tell-all in Medium’s Be Yourself on June 27, highlighting the frankly disturbing reality of what it was really like working there as a woman…

Just four days after receiving my master’s diploma, I found myself walking the sparkly halls of Pixar on the faraway planet of San Francisco, California — a city, state and studio I’d only ever witnessed on screen. Elated to gain access to the famed animation campus as one of two graphic design interns, our morning orientation felt like some otherworldly dream. But before I even had the chance to sit down in the fancy swivel chair in my new office, a seasoned employee waved a red flag about the kind of behavior (or misbehavior) I could expect in the studio.

“Oh, John’s gonna LOVE you,” he remarked about one of Pixar’s highest ranking executives, teasing and warning me at the same time. During the next few days, male and female employees alike told me that the company’s Creative Chief Officer, John Lasseter, could be touchy-feely with members of the opposite sex; that he had a tendency to make sexually charged comments to and about women; that interactions with him were often uncomfortable or even mortifying for female Pixarians. The women who endured this unwanted attention often had a less flippant take on it, but on a broader level there was a collective attitude of, “Oh, ha ha; that’s just our John.”

But John wasn’t the only prominent male personality in the company to have his own whisper network. I was likewise told to steer clear of a particularly chauvinistic male lead in my department.

She goes on to highlight, in detail, just how toxic the atmosphere at Pixar was for women. It seems as if nearly all the men in power, not just John Lasseter, treated the women who worked there as sexual objects rather than as people. Based on Cassandra’s write-up, it’s almost like Pixar was stuck in the 50s from a social perspective.

I’m going to highlight one of the “tamer” things she experienced at Pixar…

During week two of my internship, I was making tea in one of the company kitchens when the production designer I’d been warned about approached me to introduce himself. When I told him my name, he said, “I already know who you are,” with a sideways grin while he looked me up and down with predatory volition, insinuating that my reputation preceded me. When he said he recognized my surname and my look from his part of the world, the hair all over my body stood up on high alert. He told me he was excited to finally have a beautiful face from his motherland in the studio.

I smiled and nodded, said nice to meet you and scampered off down the hall so fast I burnt my hand with hot tea. Even though his intended compliment creeped me out, in some ways I felt relieved that I was “his type” and might dodge the insults and bullying that he was known to dish out to women he didn’t find attractive. When I turned the corner to my office I peeked back down the hall. Sure enough, he was still standing exactly where I’d left him, watching me walk away with wolf-like intensity.

For the record, that is not a “compliment”. A compliment is usually about something specific, like “those are some awesome shoes”, or “you know, your hair has always looked great, so I hope it’s okay that I’m asking, but… I really need a new place for haircuts. Do you have any recommendations?”, or “you’ve got an awesome sense of style. Where do you get your clothes?”, or “oh hey I saw what you did on that project. It was really well done. How did you think of that?” or “you know, your sketchbook was open when I walked by your desk just a minute ago, and wow are you incredible. I could use someone with your skill on my team for this project. Would you be interested?” or… well… you get the picture.

What that guy did? That’s treating her like a sexual object, who is at the company purely to fulfill his sexual needs. She also includes a bit from an anonymous ex-employee of Pixar. I won’t quote that here, but you need to read it.

Cassandra continues here experience with this…

But my tactic of “going along with the program” wasn’t the most fruitful for my career path either. In 2010, shortly after I’d started working on my third feature film, Cars 2, my female art department manager approached me to relay some unsettling news.

“We’ve decided it’s best if you don’t attend art reviews on this production,” she announced, looking over the wall of my cubicle. “John has a hard time controlling himself around young pretty girls, so it will be better for everyone if we just keep you out of sight,” she said with a shoulder shrug, referring to our film’s director and the company’s CCO. Before I had a chance to respond, her floating head disappeared.

My face flushed red hot with shock, then disappointment, then rage. At the time, I’d never formally been introduced to the animation demigod. But true to his reputation, just about every time I passed the well-known director on campus — who was always being whisked from point A to B by an entourage of eager assistants, sidekicks and wranglers — he would look me up and down with the cheek-to-cheek grin of a Cheshire Cat and the jovial, carefree strut of a powerful man who knew he pretty much owned the place.

I’m sorry, but that’s absolutely disgusting. Cassandra says it herself; they were doing this to protect their reputation rather than confront John Lasseter’s grossness and change the toxic atmosphere that had been cultivated there. And it wasn’t just John…

Not surprisingly, tactless behavior towards women had a way of trickling all the way down through the ranks. About halfway through my time at the studio, I had a more intimate, disturbing physical encounter with a brazen male employee from outside my department. During an after-work celebration at one of Pixar’s employee-run bars, the coworker smacked and then grabbed my ass with a considerable amount of force while I was waiting for a volunteer bartender to make me a drink. Like a deer in headlights, I froze until my violator stumbled drunkenly away from me. The bar was loud, low-lit and filled shoulder-to-shoulder with intoxicated employees. I looked around, but no one seemed to have noticed what had just happened.

Cassandra’s article is long, harrowing, and definitely requires a number of trigger warnings. However, it’s important to read. And yet another reason is because she talks about Brenda Chapman’s controversial time at Pixar.

Brenda Chapman, for those who don’t know, was the original director of the animated film Brave. She was taken off the film, however, initially for supposed “creative differences”. However, while Brenda did not go into detail, she did speak more about it on August 15, 2012 in Entertainment Weekly

While she still does not go into any specifics about why she was removed from the film, Chapman makes quite clear she did not agree with the decision. “Animation directors are not protected like live-action directors, who have the Directors Guild to go to battle for them,” she writes. “We are replaced on a regular basis — and that was a real issue for me. This was a story that I created, which came from a very personal place, as a woman and a mother. To have it taken away and given to someone else, and a man at that, was truly distressing on so many levels.”

Cassandra goes into more detail, albeit through the lens of her own second-hand experience with what happened…

Curious about the downfall of such an accomplished, groundbreaking woman, I began taking the company pulse soon after Brenda’s firing had been announced. To the general population of the studio — many of whom had never worked on Brave because it was not yet in full-steam production — it seemed as though Brenda’s firing was considered justifiable. Rumor had it that she had been indecisive, unconfident and ineffective as a director. But for me and others who worked closely with the second-time director, there was a palpable sense of outrage, disbelief and mourning after Brenda was removed from the film.

One artist, who’d been on the Brave story team for years, passionately told me how she didn’t find Brenda to be indecisive at all. Brenda knew exactly what film she was making and was very clear in communicating her vision, the story artist said, and the film she was making was powerful and compelling.

“From where I was sitting, the only problem with Brenda and her version of Brave was that it was a story told about a mother and a daughter from a distinctly female lens,” she explained. It would never fit neatly into the Pixar canon of films made exclusively from and for the male perspective, she explained with audible heaviness in her throat. I would later hear these same kinds of sentiments echoed even by male crew members who lived through the director change.

So Brenda Chapman, an already accomplished story artist, filmmaker, and director by the time she was hired by Pixar, was pushed off of Brave, a story which she wrote and envisioned, mind you, because it was a story about women written by a woman, and this simply wasn’t going to work for the men of Pixar.

It goes without saying that this casts a dark shadow over Pixar as a whole. To be fair, I’m not much of a fan of animation (and I will always insist that Disney’s entire Princess line of films are overrated… The Lion King is probably their best animated film, and I don’t go out of my way to watch even that; and I straight up hate Beauty and the Beast… don’t get me started), but on the very rare occasions that I do enjoy animated films, they are more often Pixar films than any other… Toy Story I, Wall-E, The Incredibles, and Brave are some amazingly good films. But all of these revelations are disturbing, to say the least. I hope that Disney takes a scalpel to Pixar and forces changes to this grotesquely misogynistic culture at Pixar. Things really need to change there. Maybe it’s time for women to take over and run the place for a while, so that the pendulum can swing in the other direction, before eventually evening out and Pixar can be a place where men and women can work together without all of this grossness.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    This of course raises some serious questions about that other Steve Jobs company, the one with the reputation for rigid internal hierarchy and squeezing off every leak tighter than Dick Cheney’s ass…

  2. blf says

    Yonks ago — last century — I interviewed for a job at a connected company. It was clear at the time there was an aggressive power hierarchy, albeit I cannot and do not say it was obviously sexual, only dominating and macho. Job-wise, some of what was happening was interesting, but the extreme (even for the time) machismoism, both in the apparent-culture and filmwork being produced, was so severely offputting I told them I did not think we could work together. (There were also other considerations.) There are certain film series I absolutely hate, the hatred of at least one of which is, in part, a result of seeing what the “tech wizards” behind the effects were actually like.

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