Inside Out: Pixar, Programming, and Magic

Every now and then, I have one of those days. A day where seemingly unconnected events come together to remind me of the role of art in programming. Today was one of those days.

It is the responsibility of an artist to develop as much technical skill as possible, then to use that skill to make the audience feel something. Great art succeeds when virtuoso technique is used not for its own sake, but in service to the delivery of a journey or feeling or truth. Baryshnikov has always possessed supreme technique, but what makes him legendary is his ability to move his audience, no matter the style.

So, on to today…

I began my day watching this talk by Ashley Nelson-Hornstein from AltConf 2015. She presents several examples of technology focused firstly on user experience: the innovative Polaroid camera, the beautiful video game ‘Never Alone’, and finally, the films of Pixar. All of these are great examples of technical skill allowing the user/audience to participate and feel something.

Later in the day, my wife and I went to see the movie ‘Inside Out’. While watching anything from Pixar, I am first struck by how technologically advanced it is. But that doesn’t last long. Within a minute, I’m wrapped up in the story. And therein lies the great art of Pixar films. They put the user experience – the story – above all else. All the power of technology is used to draw the audience in and elicit a full range of emotions and feelings. Pixar could dazzle solely with technology, but they have always understood that their business is storytelling.

As developers, we find beauty in code. That beauty can be appreciated by our peers and it is easy to get caught up in the technical aspects of programming. We strive to acquire more technical skill and to write better code. But days like today remind me that the real art in programming lies in using that skill to deliver a great experience to the user. We can focus all we want on the ‘Inside’, but the ‘Out’ is ultimately what matters. That’s where the magic is.

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