How a high school dropout went from being a massage therapist to an MIT robotics engineer working at McKinsey and Pixar
This interview is with Naomi Davidson, film finance lead at Pixar Animation Studios, creator of the feature film “Brave.” (Download the audio recording of this interview.)
Q. Tell us about your background.
A. Sure. I’m 40 years old, and I studied mechanical engineering at UC Berkeley for my Bachelor’s degree and MIT for my Master’s, with a focus on robotics in both places. When I graduated, I went to work in consulting at McKinsey & Company. I stayed there for four years and left as an Engagement Manager and came to work here at Pixar Animation Studios, where I am currently a Film Finance Lead.
Q. Tell us how your career path has taken you to where you are today.
A. I was a late-comer to college, and in all transparency and truthfulness, I was not a great student in high school, and I dropped out before graduation. I really got it in my head that I probably wasn’t college material, and I had originally gone the route of deciding to be a trades person, essentially. I was working as a massage therapist, but I got really bored with it.
I saved up some money and went traveling in Southeast Asia for a while, and around then I had one of those little “a-ha” moments when somebody said something to me, not particularly insightful, but it was just the right thing to say to me at the right time, which was that with enough effort, you could do pretty much anything you want. And it was what I needed to hear.
So when I came back, I enrolled in a junior college and started taking classes to study engineering. I thought of it as being applied physics. I was always fascinated by physics, kind of as a couch physicist. And I thought it would be a practical thing to do, so I figured, hey, why not? It’s worth a shot.
It turned into something that I loved and, through my efforts, I got pretty good at it. And because of that, I ended up being able to study at some fantastic schools. In the course of that, there were a couple of entrepreneurial competitions I did, which really started opening my eyes to the world of business and engineering, and what was possible if I saw myself not just as an engineer, but possibly as an entrepreneur as well.
When I graduated with my Master’s, I was trying to figure out where I was going, because I loved research, so should I focus on going down an academic route, or should I focus on getting out into the world and trying my hand at something more practical?
I really just started to do some interviewing and looking at those options. And the more I interviewed with consulting firms, the more I felt like the questions that they were asking, the things they were thinking about, I found really fascinating.
In my mind, consulting seemed like a laboratory for business and what business school would be like if I went to McKinsey. Because McKinsey has an almost academic approach to the way they do things. So, in a way, I was resting on my academic experiences and abilities by seguing into management consulting. But it was a big switch and it wasn’t something I had pictured myself doing originally.
McKinsey was a fantastic place to work. It was definitely what I thought it would be in terms of it being a kind of “business lab.” But it was also just a really grueling lifestyle. So I knew pretty early on that I was not going to be a career consultant. My goal was to become an Engagement Manager and then leave, to build up those basic skills, the basic building blocks that I thought would be really helpful for me later on. And then to just keep an eye out for what I wanted to do next.
I had always loved animation, and I’ve always been a big animation fan. One thing I had found through working at McKinsey was that a lot of what was missing sometimes, in terms of a feeling of gratification when you go home at the end of the day, is working toward a product or something that you believe in. And I really wanted to know what that felt like.
So I said to myself, well, why not just reach out to Pixar? I always thought that would be one of the coolest places in the world to work, and I wanted to see if I could do it. I was really happy because there actually happened to be a McKinsey alumnus working at Pixar at the time, so I was able to leverage my network, and I was lucky in terms of timing. And that’s ultimately how I came to work at Pixar.
Q. Tell us what you do day-to-day as a Film Finance Lead at Pixar?
A. Well, the Film Finance Lead role is interesting. It’s a particular type of finance role where you are really hooked up to the production itself. As opposed to a corporate finance role where you’re supporting a corporation, we are supporting the making of a film.
So the things I do on a day-to-day basis are, one, I manage the accounting. There is an accountant who works with me, and they take care of all the payments for things like talent, payroll, accounts payables, and all the invoicing. Which is good because you really need a good eye for detail and memory for all the different rules involved.
Where I spend most of my time is working with the producers to make sure all the pieces of the puzzle are going to land in the right place at the right time to make our movie. And the way we make movies, at an operational level, is actually essentially a big manufacturing problem that we’re constantly solving.
Through the course of the month, we’re making plans on both a grand scale and increasingly fine scale across different departments, like animation, simulation and effects which is things like hair moving and things exploding in the background, all the way through lighting a shot and rendering it in the render farm. Really, all the way through that pipeline, and even back to story again, we’re creating plans and making sure all the bits and pieces that start off as a really high-level concept eventually get refined all the way down to a single shot that’s been touched by many different hands. So it’s a lot of operational and logistics planning that I focus on.
Q. Who are the stakeholders you work with most frequently as a Film Finance Lead?
A. We actually work very little with the finance people because our primary interaction is with the film itself. So the majority of the time, I’m working with the producers; I would be working with the associate producer and the production manager in particular.
The production manager is the one who works really closely with the manager of each department. And those departments are: story, art, layout which is pulling in the pieces from everything, animation, simulation and effects which is all the bells and whistles that make things look cool, and finally lighting. So we have all these departments, and the production manager makes sure they all have what they need to get stuff done. The associate producer oversees everything, making sure the plan and all the pieces are headed in the right direction. My primary interaction is with those two.
And then it branches into working with the department managers and supervisors. The department manager is a production arm that makes sure everything is coordinated in terms of the right animators working on the right shots, them getting the inventory when they need it, and getting them review time with the director. Then the supervisor is a technical or artistic supervisor for what that department is doing. Those would be the next level of people I work closely with.
Q. It’s well-known that Steve Jobs was instrumental to Pixar. Before he passed away, did he ever come by the studio and was he involved in production?
A. Yes, actually I sat really near him in a screening once of the movie that we just finished that I was working on called “Brave.” He would come to our screenings and he would give us notes on the movies we were making. And there was a time when he was very actively involved in the formation of our strategy in terms of how many movies we were making a year and how we were organizing ourselves around making those movies.
He even had a hand in how our building was designed. He had this idea that the more collaboration in this type of environment, the better. So he was a strong proponent of getting the flow to force us to hang out in the atrium together and eat together and even go to the bathroom together! He actually just wanted us to have one bathroom, but obviously that wasn’t going to work. But yes, he was very instrumental in shaping what Pixar became, and our approach to how we do things. He was well-loved at the company and we really mourned his passing.
Q. I read the Pixar building is designed to encourage people to interact with other employees they may not normally interact with to help foster encounters that might lead to new ideas. Is that true?
A. Yeah, I think one of the things that is really common for animation studios, and probably any film studio, but particularly in animation, is that we have a really wide range of different personalities here. You’ve got production people who are getting stuff done, they’re making lists, and they’re the planners and coordinators. Then you’ve got these really creative types, and these are the animation folks, the story folks, the editing folks. And finally you’ve got super technical people. I mean, these are people who are designing software that is literally modeling environments like water flows and doing some really serious math and cutting-edge programming and technical work. So you get these really different perspectives.
And I think Steve Jobs got that and he really wanted to force conversations to happen between those people, because in their natural state they’re like oil and water — they go off into their own worlds. Steve particularly feared the technical people would do that.
So day-to-day, what you see is, because we are forced in some ways to be interacting more through the fact that we don’t many different cafeterias to eat at and all that kind of stuff, it’s just difficult to go off into your own world and not see people.
So what you see is a lot more appreciation and cross-talk between different departments. One of the animators was saying to me just yesterday that he believes Pixar is extremely unique in that it’s balancing the need for the artist to really explore with the need to get things done more than at any other studio he’s seen. And I think that comes out of that appreciation on both sides.
In fact, Ed Catmull, when he talks about it, says the more we can create almost an unstable balancing act between those three different heads, the better off we’ll be. If we ever tip the scale and become super production-focused, that’s when creatives will suffer. But if we’re always in this uncomfortable balance where they are almost vying against each other, we’ll be doing our job. And I do think we experience that tension constantly and it’s not always comfortable, but the result is that we value each element highly.
Q. Maybe that’s part of the “secret sauce” to the creativity in Pixar films?
A. I think so, because when you get that much positive tension, there is a lot of creative energy generated, and I think that is evident in the movies we make.
Q. What is most exciting about your role, and what do you most wish you could change?
A. The thing I love most is just learning about the movie-making business. It’s fascinating and it’s not what I thought it would be. I didn’t imagine it was going to be such an amazing logistical problem. I think I assumed it all somehow just managed itself. So that’s part of the happy joy I have of being able to come here and grapple with cool problems with people who are really passionate about doing it well. That’s my favorite part.
I think my least favorite part is that it means I’m often spending more time in Microsoft Excel than I had ever really planned to or have any real desire to! So somehow if I could do that more from sitting back and thinking big thoughts and not having to run a bunch of scenarios, that would be my perfect role.
Q. Where do you see yourself in the future, and how will what you’re doing today help you toward that goal?
A. Well, I feel like I am at a point where I am starting to imagine another possibility for myself in the future. Not necessarily leaving Pixar, but just incorporating something new into my life, which is pursuing social entrepreneurship.
Right now I’m really interested in building a non-profit that’s focused on robotics. I’m trying to make assistive robotic walking devices available to people who need them and can’t afford to buy them because the technology is still quite expensive. So where I see myself in four or five years would be a much more experienced or savvy contributor to the production world at Pixar, and hopefully also a successful social entrepreneur, on the side, having made robotic legs available to people who can’t walk today but could be able to walk tomorrow.
Q. Tell us more about what you’re working on with your non-profit.
A. Sure. Well, it’s interesting that you talk about Steve Jobs, because I remember he gave a famous speech at Stanford, the “Stay Hungry; Stay Foolish” speech. That talk affected me a lot, and I remembered it and I continue to go back to it at different points in my life. One of the things I remember he talked about in the speech was about following your passion, and in retrospect things would make more sense than they often do when you’re doing them. He used the example of how he loved calligraphy, and his love of calligraphy ended up being an incredible part of the word programs and value that computers brought.
For me, it feels like this non-profit I’m focusing on is starting to bring together elements I always had thought were disparate: my love of robotics; I personally was deeply affected by paralysis in that my brother was injured about 15 years ago and became quadriplegic, which was really painful for our family and has always been a struggle. And so through my love of him and my desire to help him, and my love of robotics and the things I learned at McKinsey, and basically the space and time that Pixar allows me, because it’s a very lifestyle-friendly place, and a very creative place, it’s definitely inciting me to do more creative things.
So in the non-profit that I’m working on right now, I’m actually working with the same people I used to build robots with when I was a student at UC Berkeley. And we’ve been working on robotic legs that basically can help people who are elderly, or stroke victims, or people with MS be able to walk again. And the technology has finally gotten to a place where it really works and it works consistently. The problem is that these devices cost about $50,000 to $100,000 minimum.
And people who are disabled are potentially not making that much money, so it just seems like obviously we need a non-profit here. So I’m working on basically building out a set of mobile clinics, which are just vans, that are going to take these walking legs out to people in the environments where they need to be able to use them. And providing access to the disabled community to build out their goals and raise funds online on their own to use the legs.
So there will be a web portal element and will also be this walking element. Eventually in the future when the technology gets there — because right now, it’s very therapeutic and not really a replacement for a wheelchair — but when it becomes a replacement for a wheelchair, we’ll actually be enabling people to raise funds to make their own purchases. So it will be like a Kiva or Kickstarter model where people can be empowered to do their own fundraising for their own medical devices online.
Q. That’s pretty inspiring and seems to come from a deep personal family experience.
A. It really does. I definitely sometimes look at people who are disabled and I just imagine that maybe I could help them be able to walk, and it just gets me all gushy inside. And the hope that one day I could do that for my brother as well is my dream.
Q. What advice do you have for people who might be interested in exploring some of the roles you’ve had?
A. I would go back to the advice that Steve Jobs gave, which is being led by your passions and the things you really love to do versus what you think you should be doing. I feel like it’s amazing how flexible things can be if you are willing to make changes and put yourself out there.
One of the things I always try to tell myself is that it’s better to have asked and gotten a “no,” and then just keep asking until you get a “yes,” versus assuming you’re going to get a “no” off the bat. You’ve already failed if you do that. But if you give yourself the opportunity to fail and to correct, it’s amazing how far you can actually go. I would say that’s an attitude that is really important. And finally, I can’t emphasize enough — because obviously I got my job by leveraging my network — but just really building a network and fostering it and giving to it is really important.