The Historical Case of Pixar

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Welcome back to our month of Animation! So far we have covered animation history, the Disney Exodus, and the beginnings of some of our favorite animation studios. But today we are going to focus on one particular studio that hopped into the animation world back in the mid-1980’s, and completely changed the game. 

Since its first feature film in 1995, Pixar has been a symbol of animation excellence. Not only that, it became known for rich, original storytelling that engaged audiences while pulling on their heartstrings. Although Pixar has been owned by Disney since the mid-2000’s, for the most part it still stands on its own under the mouse-ear umbrella.

Today we’re taking a long look at Pixar Animation Studios; and we’ll start, as always, from the beginning. 

Humble Beginnings

    • Our story begins in 1979, when director George Lucas had an idea.  He wanted to create a company that would work on creating new digital tools.  Among these goals were nonlinear film and sound editing systems, a laser film printer, and further advances within computer graphics.
    • His solution was to create a Computer Division of LucasFilm, dedicated to making these advancements in film technology. He hired Ed Catmull to head the team. 
  • Key Players

    • Ed Catmull
      • Ed wanted to be an animator so he drew a lot but he didn’t believe that he had enough talent. As a young man he went to The University of Utah School of Computing where he took a class.  It was Physics and Computer Science and he fell in love. It married everything he wanted; science, art, and programming all together. Here he would create a short computer animated film of his left hand which would be later featured as the very first use of 3D animation in a live action film.  The film was Futureworld, a science fiction film from 1976.
          • Futureworld is the sequel to Michael Crichton’s Westworld
        • After graduating he was hired by New York Tech to be the leader of a new computer graphics department.  Their goal was to create art using new computer tools and techniques. This is where he developed “Tween,” which gave the ability to draw and paint straight into the computer.
    • Alvy Ray Smith
      • Smith graduated with an M.S.E.E. and P.h.D. in computer science at Stanford University.  In the years 1975-1979 he would be the senior scientist at New York Institute of Science. 
      • In 1980 he was hired on to be the Director of Computer Graphics for the computer division of Lucasfilm.
  • Computer Division’s Graphics Group 

    • In 1982 the Computer Division’s  Graphics Group got to finally show what it was made of.  In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan they put the first completely animated sequence in a feature film.
      • Each new project was a chance to challenge each other. To make both better art and better technology.
        • Lasseter in the 2007 Netflix documentary “The Pixar Story” says “The art Challenges Technology, the technology inspires the art.” 
    • John Lasseter
      • John Lasseter was attending CalArts (founded by Disney) where the teachers were those who came out of retirement to teach- yes some of “The Nine old men” such as Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas.  Some of his classmates were greats like Tim Burton, John Musker, and Brad Bird. The atmosphere was collaborative, fun, and creative. After graduating CalArts in 1979 he was immediately hired by Disney and helped with such films as The Fox and the Hound.  
      • Although there was a big opportunity for computer graphics within film at this time there was also a little bit of fear in it.  Would animators lose their jobs? Would this take away jobs? Lasseter was willing to take the risk and pushed forward to make it happen.
      • He was given the chance to put together (with his team) a storyboard for The Brave Little Toaster in which he would finally get to be a director.  In this movie he would also be able to show off the blending of traditional animation style with that of computer generation. As we talked about last week and before this would not come to be.  After pitching the movie to the head of the studio (Ed Hansen) and being asked how much it would cost, he was told there was no reason to do computer animation unless it cost less than their current methods or was faster.  Approximately 5 minutes after the pitch he was called into Ed Hansen’s office and let go, for his project had been completed. 
      • In 1983 he was asked to do freelance work for Lucas Films’ Computer Graphics Group.  By the following year he was hired full time as an Interface Designer. This title was meant to be looked over and to not draw attention.  He would be their key to character animation.
    • Early Achievements 

      • The Adventures of Andre and Wally B
        • Directed by Alvy Ray Smith, this was the first use of character animation within the computer animation realm. This new type of animation lent itself well to complex characters, hand painted textures, and motion blur.  Motion blur had not been a possibility with traditional animation, which made this computer graphics animation special.
        • When Lasseter conceived  this particular animation he remembered how geometric Mickey Mouse is and realized how well geometric characters would work within computer generated shorts.
          • Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) -Available on Prime Video
            • In this scene a stained glass man comes to life and readies a sword meant to murder the character of Vicar within a church.
            • This scene took a total of a year and a half to make a 31 second scene.
            • It’s Visual Effects were nominated for an Academy Award and many did not know how it was accomplished
    • In order to improve speed and resolution they created the Pixar Image Computer.  This was, at the time, the most powerful graphics computer of its day. It had the ability to convert high resolution imagery into 3D and because of this was implemented in medical imaging and satellite photo analysis.  
      • The team tried to sell this technology in limited markets to stay afloat but ultimately it did not sustain their needs or George Lucas’s attention.
      • Lasseter and Catmull were set on the ultimate goal of making animated films but the budget was just not there.
        • In order to keep the team together Catmull and Alvy Smith convinced Lucas to allow them to branch off from the graphics division and create a new department named after their graphics machine, Pixar.
          • What they needed now was an investor. 
  • Steve Jobs

      • Steve Jobs had been 21 when he co-founded the Apple Computer. By 30 he was a multimillionaire.  While he was still with Apple he met Alan Kay, who told him about Pixar– their history and potential.  They hopped in a limousine and went for a visit to Lucas Film. Jobs met Ed Catmull and believed in him and his dream.   
        • He was Pixar’s financial savior in 1986.  He invested $10 million to launch Pixar.  

PIXAR

    • Now that the team finally had the funding they needed, Lasseter suggested that they make a short film introducing themselves to the world. This manifested into what would become their mascot and symbol of optimism and determination.  It was of course “Luxo Jr.” 
      • Lasseter wanted to build upon the geometric ideas of The Adventures of Andre and Wally B and keep the integrity of an object’s movement.  As he was staring at a traditional Luxo lamp, he began to play around with it and thus the idea came.   
        • It was the first three dimensional computer animated film to be nominated for an Oscar and John Lasseter’s directorial debut.
        • After success with Luxo Jr the team starts to produce more shorts such as…
          • “Red’s Dream” about a unicycle that wanted to perform in the circus.
          • 1988’s “Tin Toy” where a wind up toy is victimized by a baby.
            • In 1989, it became the first 3D animated short film to win an Oscar
          • 1989’s “Knick Knack” about a snow globe snowman who essentially just wants to party.
      • Disney attempted to hire Lasseter back after each new short film he made. Lasseter suggested that he could just make a film for Disney while at Pixar, but Disney insisted that all Disney animated films will always be made at Disney.
        • What changed their mind was Tim Burton. Burton (while employed at Disney) developed an idea for The Nightmare Before Christmas. Burton went on to become a successful live-action director and tried to buy the idea back from Disney. They eventually asked him to simply make the film for them. This opened the door for John and Pixar to show what these niche animated films could really do.
    • Commercials
      • During the 1990’s in order for Pixar to make money they started to do what anyone would. Commercials.  Not for themselves but for companies such as Trident, Listerine, and Tropicana. In order to streamline this process they hired two recent graduates from CalArt: Pete Docter and Andrew Stanton, who would later go on to direct some of Pixar’s later films.
      • As they continued to produce commercials, they got their first agreement with Disney in 1991.  The agreement stated that they were “to make and distribute at least one computer-generated animated movie.”  Pixar then began to work on what would eventually become Toy Story.
        • Toy Story went on to be a huge hit, making over $363 million worldwide. As traditional hand-drawn animation was becoming less profitable, attention would quickly turn to Pixar as the future of the industry.
          • The next big step would be to figure out how often they needed to produce a film in order to sustain the studio. Lawrence Levy, whom Steve Jobs had hired as the Chief Financial Officer, said in his 2016 book that  “Another option was to release a film every eighteen months. We could still hit the two big release windows, a summer release one year, a winter release the next, although the financial numbers did not work as well as they would if we released a film every year. We would need big hits, and any disappointment would hurt more. But we could make a case that a film every eighteen months might work, and this is where we compromised.”
      • In 1996 after putting out Toy Story, Pixar announced that it would cease making commercials in order to focus on making feature length films. 

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  • The Lunch

    • In 1994, Pixar was finishing up Toy Story. As the question of what would come next loomed above their heads, director John Lasseter and writers Pete Docter, Joe Ranft, and Andrew Stanton went out to lunch for a brainstorming session.
    • During this meeting, the men came up with the rough ideas and sketches for the Pixar films that would astound audiences for years to come: A Bug’s Life, Monster’s Inc, Finding Nemo, and WALL-E.
      • Those four movies made nearly 1 billion dollars, and were together nominated for 15 Oscars.
    • Andrew Stanton was quoted saying, “There was something special that happened when John, Joe, Pete and I would get in a room. Whether it was furthering an idea or coming up with something, we just brought out the best in each other.”
    • A Bug’s Life
      • Pixar’s follow-up to Toy Story was meant to be an epic about a small world; they specifically wanted a new story instead of a Toy Story sequel, because they wanted to be inspired by new characters and ideas.
      • It borrowed from the Aesop fable: The Ant and the Grasshopper. 
      • The movie was a critical and box office success and cemented Pixar’s status as an animation giant.
    • Monster’s Inc
      • In 2001, Monsters Inc brought storytelling at Pixar to a new level. They had shown audiences the perspective of our toys, and the point of view from the ants on the ground. Now, audiences got to see the world through the eyes of the monsters that hide in our closets.
      • The creator’s behind Monsters Inc were tasked with creating an entirely different world. This was the first Pixar movie to do this! 
      • Directed by Pete Docter, Monsters Inc also seemed to hold a new level of emotion that the other films had just touched on. When you ask someone who grew up with Monsters Inc, they often cite it as a movie that makes them emotional, something Pixar is now known for. 
    • Finding Nemo                   
      • Released in 2005 it included a re-mastered version of “Knick-Knack” at the beginning and was directed by Andrew Stanton.
      • The supporting characters were drawn with inspiration from classic movies.  Examples would be Gil had Clint Eastwood’s squint, Bloat was based on George Kennedy’s character in Cool Hand Luke, and the Tank Gang borrowed the neuroses of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. 
      • The drop off was both metaphorical and real.  It required Nemo’s dad to brave the unknown outside his home and the terrifying reality of how deep the ocean truly is.
    • WALL-E
      • Wall-E performs the entire first act of the film alone, a feat that no other Pixar character has been tasked with. The filmmakers gave him enough personality through pantomime that audiences fell in love with the little robot by the time more characters were introduced. 
      • Filmmakers used a Star Wars film veteran Ben Burtt to help with the sound design, because every noise was part of Wall-E’s language. 

Conclusion

  • We will cover more about Pixar and its evolution as a film studio some other time. Heck, we might even do some episodes about their specific films! *hint hint* 
  • But, until then, just remember that with hard work and 10 million dollars, you can make anything happen!

Sources

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