Trevor Hogg details the early days of Pixar in the first of a three-part feature on the phenomenally successful animation studio...
Realizing that he could not draw, aspiring animator Ed Catmull decided to change his academic focus to physics and computer science. “In the early 1970s, I headed to graduate school at the University of Utah,” recalled the co-founder and President of Pixar Animation Studios, “and joined the pioneering program in computer graphics because I realized that’s where I could combine my interests in art and computer science.” Catmull was not the only one being inspired for amongst his classmates were Jim Clark, founder of Netscape and Silicon Graphics, and Adobe founder John Warnock. “At the time, computer graphics were almost all black and white. Everything was made up of polygons. But my goal early on was to get to the point where you could use the technology for feature films.” The inspirational idea had one major drawback, there was no such thing as a computer graphics job. “Finally, in 1974, I got a call from the New York Institute of Technology and was asked to head up the computer graphics program there. Five years later, when George Lucas was working on The Empire Strikes Back, he recruited me to start up the computer division of Lucasfilm. Steve Jobs [co-founder of Apple Computers] bought the division from George in 1986 [for $5 million], and we founded Pixar. Unlike most people in the industry, Steve understood the potential of computer graphics for animation. Steve, co-founder John Lasseter, and I shared that vision.”
For Steve Jobs, who served as the CEO of the animation studio until 2006, he has nothing except tremendous pride in the technical accomplishments achieved by Pixar. “All of the software that was used to make Terminator [2: Judgment Day], for example – to actually construct the images that you saw on the screen – or Jurassic Park with all the dinosaurs, was Pixar software.” There was another area in which Jobs wanted the burgeoning animation studio to revolutionize. “Pixar’s vision was to tell stories. To make real films. Our vision was to make the world’s first animated feature film – completely computer synthetic, sets, characters, everything.”
Though he shared the same aspiration with Jobs, Catmull realized it was not going to be achieved overnight. “Creating a feature film was such a long-range goal that we needed other smaller goals along the way. So instead of being secretive about our development work, we participated in the computer graphics community, giving technical papers and showing our short films at SIGGRAPH and other conferences. We won lots of technical awards in those early days which was very motivating. But the key thing was to be clear about where we were headed. I’ve certainly seen R&D groups, typically funded by large corporations, where they bring together a lot of smart people and nothing happens. And the reason nothing happens is that they don’t have a clear goal.”
When assessing whether an objective is a realistic ambition, Edwin Catmull responded, “Until you get there, you don’t really know. Sometimes a leap of faith doesn’t pan out. But there have been many times when people who have worked for me have told me that a project was possible, and I’d look at the problem and say, ‘I don’t think so.’ And they’d come back to me with this fervor and explain why they thought I was wrong and why they should go ahead with it. That’s precisely when you want to let them go ahead. The very act of doubting them, and then letting them proceed, motivates them to go ahead and prove that they’re right.”
The teaming of the animation studio’s Chief Creative Officer and co-founder John Lasseter with Edwin Catmull occurred while both men were attending a computer graphics conference in Long Beach, California. Lasseter persuaded Catmull to let him work at Lucasfilm as an “interface designer” which resulted in their producing the computer animated short film The Adventures of André and Wally B (1984). Originally meant to be an android, André became a boy-like figure who wakes up in a forest where he finds himself trying to outwit a large and bad-tempered bumblebee.
When Pixar was formed, the responsibility of overseeing the development of the animation productions was given to John Lasseter, who counts Dumbo (1941) as his favourite movie. “I’ve studied it from every aspect, from story, to story structure, to art direction,” said Lasseter in reference to the classic which stars a baby circus elephant with big ears that can fly. “It’s very funny. It’s emotional. It’s the most cartoony [of the Disney animated features]. It’s very short. It’s like 64 minutes, and it’s so concise in its storytelling. I learned a lot from it, as a student at CalArts and as a young animator at Disney.”
Playing with a co-worker’s visiting infant son, John Lasseter wondered what a young lamp would look like. Experimenting with the sizes of the various parts (with the exception of the lightbulb) of a Luxo model, the inspired artist came up with a character which would become logo of the fledging company. In the beginning, Luxo Jr. (1986) had no plot until respected Belgian animator Raoul Servais instructed, “No matter how short it is, it should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Don’t forget the story.” Heeding the advice, Lasseter, had a parent and a child lamp playing catch with a bouncing ball which the adolescent accidentally destroys. The offspring’s dejection gives way to excitement when a much bigger ball appears. Catmull viewed the project as an opportunity to test a “self-shadowing” rendering software that would allow objects to cast light and shadows on themselves. Restricted by money and time, Lasseter concentrated on imbuing the faceless Luxo Jr. with childish mannerisms such as raising and lowering the shade of the lamp to indicate feelings of happiness or sadness. The emotional behavior of the inanimate object proved to be so believable that Luxo Jr. received an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Short Film.
To generate revenue Pixar sold high-end computer hardware to government agencies and the medical community; one of its clients was the Walt Disney Company. Determined to replace the ink-and-paint process with computers, the legendary animation studio partnered with its struggling technology supplier to co-develop the Computer Animated Production System (CAPS). With the aid of Pixar Image Computers, character pencil drawings were scanned, coloured, and amalgamated onto a multitude of image layers. The end product was then transferred onto film. The first major trial for the new process was the concluding scene in The Little Mermaid (1989). Ecstatic with the results, Disney converted all of its animated productions to the system which went on to receive a technical Academy Award in 1991.
The crown jewel for Pixar was its rendering software, Reyes, which was retooled and renamed PhotoRealistic RenderMan. Capable of rendering three dimensional images, the computer program had Steve Jobs making lofty predictions, “Rendering is extremely important now as we expect it to become the standard part of all computers in the next 12 to 24 months.” The financial windfall Jobs predicted never came as the product was bought mainly by a niche cliental – movie studios.
Midst the mounting monetary turmoil, John Lasseter produced a series of computer animated short films. Red’s Dream released in 1987, tells the story of a lonely unicycle in a bike shop that fantasies about being adored by a circus audience. Because the dream sequence appeared to be cruder than the rest of the story, it would be the only film to be made on the Pixar Image Computer. With the animation division on the verge of being disbanded, Lasseter decided to draw inspiration from Luxo Jr. and his vintage toy collection. Tin Toy is told from the perspective of a toy one-man band (nicknamed Tinny) who encounters a fickle human baby. The short was three-fifths complete when it was screened at SIGGRAPH in August of 1988. Despite the unfinished state, Tin Toy impressed the audience at the conference so much that the first test run of the RenderMan software was declared a major success. The acclaim would not end there as the completed version would be awarded the Oscar for Best Animated Short.
Lasseter had recaptured the attention of his former employer but he turned down their job offer. “We were all aware they were trying to steal John away from us,” recollected Edwin Catmull, “but John knew we had something important going on here. I remember him saying, ‘I can go to Disney and be a director or I can stay here and make history.’” Fortunately, the first Oscar win for Pixar also impressed Steve Jobs, who gave Lasseter the go ahead to make another computer animated short film.
Recalling the zany stories originated by legendary animator Tex Avery, John Lasseter elected to tell a comedic tale called Knick Knack (1989). A snowman becomes so enamored with a bikini-clad figurine that he attempts to breakout of his plastic globe. The escalating violence and the shrinking circle at the end was an ode to the Looney Tunes cartoons. Singer Bobby McFerrin thought the project was so cool that he provided the musical score for free. When Knick Knack was previewed at the London Film Festival in 1991, the Independent of London declared the short film to be a “a four minute masterpiece”; The Guardian proclaimed that Lasseter was the “closest possible thing to God that has ever graced the electronic images community.”
What followed next for Pixar were a string of commercials for Tropicana orange juice (Wake Up), California Lottery (Dancing Cards), LifeSavers (Skateboard), Listerine (Boxer), Pillsbury (Plump), Trident gum (Quite a Package), and Volkswagen (La Nouvelle Polo). Outside of generating much needed revenue, the television ads enabled the company to establish an international reputation and to build an infrastructure needed to produce a feature length picture.
After five consecutive years of financial loses, Pixar laid off 30 of its 72 employees in 1991. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that a major problem for the company was “that its software technology exceeds the capabilities of the available hardware.” Pixar was too advanced for its time. Attempting to stop the monetary bleeding, Steve Jobs shutdown all of the company’s projects outside of commercials and the development of RenderMan.
On the verge of an economic collapse, Pixar was thrown a fiscal lifeline when it was approached by Disney about transforming Tin Toy into a big screen production.
Check out part 2 and part 3.
Find out more at Pixar's official site, or visit Pixar Planet and Pixar Talk for news and discussion. Animated Views also provide animation news, reviews and commentary.
Thanks to David Price, author of The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company, available at Amazon.com.
Short Film Showcase - The Adventures of André and Wally B
Short Film Showcase - Luxo Jr.
Short Film Showcase - Knick Knack
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.