Out Pixar producer Darla K. Anderson shares her keys to success

Out Pixar producer Darla K. Anderson produced Toy Story 3, the winner of this year’s Oscar for Best Animated Feature, as well as A Bug’s Life, Monster’s Inc. and Cars. With her movies grossing more than two billion dollars worldwide, she is one of the most successful women in the industry. She counts hands-on mentoring from Steve Jobs and John Lasseter early in her career as part of that success.

A Pixar public relations representative says that Anderson has always been out at work. Recently, she joined some other Pixar employees for an It Gets Better video.

“Pixar is made up of just a crazy combination of people,” says Anderson in the video. “Most of those unique individuals weren’t the most popular in high school and junior high. Thank goodness, we hung around, and found each other, and created this familial tribe of people.” She adds, “I had a choice to make – would I be true to myself, or would I live a life of lies? I got to get married to the love of my life.”

Before being mentored by Jobs, who bought what became Pixar from George Lucas, she picked up skills now fundamental to being a top producer while waiting tables between environmental design classes at San Diego State University.

“Waitressing was when I first learned to multi-task,” Darla told entertainment reporter Jim Hill. “I had to figure out how to work with the people back in the kitchen while keeping the customers happy, delivering what they ordered as quickly as possible. And I’m still doing that same sort of thing today.”

Darla grew up in Glendale, Calif., where her very first job was working at a bakery in the Glendale Galleria, and her favorite toys as a kid consisted of Hot Wheels and “a thousand stuffed animals on my bed.” She was inspired to work for Pixar after talking to Lasseter when she went to go see a screening of his short Tin Toy at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Modern Art. Impressed with him, she moved to the San Francisco Bay area and worked for a flower delivery service and other jobs for 18 months until she was finally hired.

This was 18 years ago, back when it was a very under the radar place to be and “none of us were making any money at all, and we were all very extraordinarily poor,” as she says while speaking on a panel at the Santa Barbara Film Festival (see clip below). Darla had the chance to be mentored by Jobs because in the early days of Pixar, he was around the offices up to 40 hours a week.With only around 25 employees at the time, that meant he had a lot of time to spend with Anderson.

That little company has since grown to over a thousand employees. She’s also seen Pixar’s gender gap narrow. At one time, she was the studio’s only female producer, but now one-third of the animators and half the technical team are women, she points out to the SFGate.com.

Just as powerful as her production duties is her position as the only woman on what industry insiders refer to as the “Pixar Brain Trust,” a group of storytelling gurus that includes Lasseter, Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo), Pete Docter (Up) and Ed Catmull (Pixar co-founder). Darla says the group is not for the faint of heart, because telling each other the truth is a big part of being committed to each other’s stories.

“The creative process just brings you to your knees. It just does,” says Anderson during the SBFF panel. “You wrestle with it. You try to tell the best story. That’s the cool thing about making a movie. No matter what, no matter how many times you’ve done it, it brings you to your knees, it just does.”

There is, of course, the fun side to working at an animation studio. As she told the Kansas City Star, “Pixar encourages your inner child. When we’re kids, our emotions are unfettered. I’m 50 but feel like I’m 20. Working here gives me a false sense of suspended youth … and I’m fine with that.”

Her advice to aspiring storytellers? She says that she “puts a premium on passion, since these films take up to four years to make.”

With Toy Story 3 wrapped up, Anderson has not yet announced what she is doing next, but, as she told the KC Star, “this being Pixar, you can be pretty sure that it will be lots of fun.”

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