Business and Industry

Friday Mini Book Review: The Pixar Touch

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The mini book reviews of days gone by.

The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company, by David A. Price (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008). For fans of animation—or anyone required to keep someone under age 12 amused in the past decade—Pixar's importance is self-evident. The animation company whose story is told in this book has single-handedly remade the look and feel of the animated movie. (This is undeniable even if you, like me, prefer a more traditonal animated style and don't much like the general Pixar "look.") In its nine feature-length films starting with Toy Story in 1995, it has achieved a highly unusual streak of endless success, both commercially and critically, and added many fresh characters to our national mythology.

Author David Price, whose degree is in the computer science in which Pixar's success as the king of computer animation is rooted, doesn't deliver much for the enthusiastic fans fascinated by the Pixar crew because of their filmic imagination. This book is more for readers of Wired or Forbes than for those thrilled (and amused) by the plight of the captured clownfish Nemo (from Pixar's 2003 Finding Nemo, the bestselling DVD in history) or cheering the culinary success of the rat-chef in Ratatouille.

The Pixar Touch is a book of popular business journalism (with a light techy edge) rather than cultural commentary or criticism. It tells the detailed story of a seeming failure of a company that bounced from purpose to purpose and owner to owner in the 1980s before becoming one of the unarguable titans of American pop culture.

As such, the book details the unpredictable contingencies that guided a gang of computer geeks with a love for animation to wild success. They fooled their corporate paymasters—no less a pair of business and culture giants than George Lucas and Steve Jobs—into thinking they were a computer software and hardware endeavor when all they really wanted to do was put on a show: make animated films using computers rather than pen and brush.

When Pixar's masterminds finally got to do what they wanted to do all along, convincing Disney to partner with their innovative computer graphic techniques to make Toy Story, they succeeded magnificently. Somewhere in there is a lesson in executive decisionmaking that author Price does not belabor. Price doesn't belabor any particular theme, in fact, allowing the facts and characters to speak for themselves. But some inspiring lessons arise nonetheless.

By detailing the halting, and recent, beginnings of computer animation, in five minute shorts seen only by tech conference geeks or seconds of special effects in mainstream films, and showing how quickly it evolved into the technical and storytelling marvel of Toy Story, the dizzying speed of innovation and improvement in our modern technologies and arts is convincingly hit home.

Another lesson of the Pixar story is how dynamic America's economic class structure can be. Pixar's founders, computer graphics pioneers Ed Catmull (a straight-laced Mormon) and Alvy Ray Smith (an erratic hippie), came from backwater colleges the University of Utah and New Mexico State University, not any recognized center of academic or cultural juice. Interesting new ideas and hard work can turn nobodies far from standard centers of power and influence into giants.

Catmull and Smith fell under the wing of eccentric financier Alexander Schure, who founded the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT) and set them up there in the 1970s, buying them all the insanely expensive equipment they needed to begin experiments in computer animation, just because he thought it was interesting. The NYIT was, as Price writes, "somewhere between a third-tier university and a diploma mill," but birthed the multi-billion dollar Pixar experiment.

In the late '70s, George Lucas realized he might have some use for experts in this nascent field of computer animation, and slowly siphoned off Schure's braintrust. By the mid-'80s, Lucas had lost interest and sold the division off to then-former Apple exec Steve Jobs. Pixar was born as an independent company—one that made and sold machines and software that helped make computer-generated images. The press release from 1986 announcing Pixar's independent launch gives no hint of its future as a moviemaking behemoth.

Price delivers just enough of the technical details of computer animation—dropping terms such as bicubic patches, Z-buffer, and texture mapping—while staying rooted in the human and business realities of executive pissing matches, stock option shenanigans, and sweet success after a long battle. Disney passed up Pixar for $15 million in the mid-1980s, and then paid around $6.3 billion net for it in 2006. Everyone who has ever dreamed of showing doubters what they can achieve will be inspired by some element of the Pixar story.

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  1. Hey. I was just running a Pixar quote contest in the thread below.

  2. My takeaway – a colossal cultural, artistic, and commercial success story like Pixar arose under a decentralized system without any state help, and outside of the ambit of the usual gatekeepers for artistic and cultural matters.

    Said gatekeepers, and state-support of the arts, can boast no similar successes, here or abroad.

  3. This post is all lead up to a single quote. The quote is one of the most profound, in the Zen sense, I’ve ever heard.

    On the DVD extras of “The Incredibles” is an animation short called “Boundin”. The film was written, directed, narrated and featured the musical composition and performance of veteran PIXAR animator Bud Luckey. There’s also a short bio on Bud Luckey on the DVD. Bud has been in the animation business for a long time. Early in his career he did work for Sesame Street. For those of you old enough to remember, his works include “The Ladybug’s Picnic” and “The Alligator King”. He is one of the few animators to make the transition from old school pen and ink to CGI. In the short bio he encapsulates his career, it’s effect on the greater world, and it’s evolution, thusly:

    “I taught kids numbers using animation, and now those kids are teaching me to animate, using numbers.”

  4. Sounds like a great story. Somebody should make it into a movie.

  5. “By the mid-’80s, Lucas had lost interest and sold the division off to then-former Apple exec Steve Jobs. ”

    Ah no – Lucas didn’t lose interest. Lucas was going through a nasty divorce and needed cash. Jobs stepped up.

  6. “I taught kids numbers using animation, and now those kids are teaching me to animate, using numbers.”

    I loved the short and the bio.

  7. cheering the culinary success of rat-chef Ratatouille.

    The chef’s name is Remy.

  8. toy story II
    mr. potato head in the toy store when he comes (had…to…hold…back and not … write…cums) upon the aisle of Barbies:
    “Whoa!!!”

  9. Swill—Did I mention I don’t care for their actual movies that much? Forgot that detail. Fixed now, thanks.

  10. My ex made me watch Finding Nemo against my will and I thought it was absolutely brilliant. I loathe the snarky, pop-culture filled movies usually put out for kids (e.g. Shrek) and prefer animated movies that take place in their own universe. Been meaning to check out their other movies, if they follow a similar style…

  11. I like all the Pixar movies and only Cars was conspicuously weak. They’re not the only first-rate computer animation company; another of their strengths is excellent storytelling which has quite a bit of depth. Toy Story 2, for instance is about the temptation of a sterile immortality.

  12. Brian Doherty | October 3, 2008, 1:28pm | #
    Swill—Did I mention I don’t care for their actual movies that much?

    Oh Brian *sigh*. I understand an appreciation of, and preference for, old school animation. But the Pixar pics are Teh Awesome in many ways. I mean consider this line of dialog from the one you just dissed:

    I don’t like food… I Love it. And if I don’t love it, I don’t swallow.

    Now that’s a great line. And don’t even get me started on The Incredible. The retro-jazz score alone is worth a couple thousand words.

  13. PM770 | October 3, 2008, 1:46pm | #
    No Capes!

    Edna Mode is the most engaging character to hit the screen since Insp. Jacques Clouseau. I hope Brad brings her out again.

  14. Been meaning to check out their other movies, if they follow a similar style…

    Do it. You won’t be disappointed. Even the weakest Pixar flick has its great moments, and they are never less than pretty damn good, IMO.

  15. Warren—I can dig it. I have great respect for a lot of the writing in most of the pixar’s I’ve seen (except CARS which I didn’t like at all); but the LOOK of them gives me the creeps.

  16. Disney passed up Pixar for $15 million in the mid-1980s, and then paid around $6.3 billion net for it in 2006.

    Of course if they’d bought it for $15M in the 80s they would have run it into the ground. It took Pixar’s incredible success and generation of beloved characters like Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Nemo et al for Disney to realize how much they needed Pixar.

    If you have any doubt, just read what John Lassiter wrote about working as an animator doing pioneering hybrid computer and cel animation at Disney, and getting fired for it.

  17. I’m a former digital artist at Industrial Light & Magic. I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know how much of what I’m about to write is in there, but here’s a few insider tidbits.

    At the time there were two warring factions at ILM, the old school guys who wanted to keep doing stuff the old fashioned way using optical printers, and the digital guys. This wasn’t so much just the 3D guys (which became Pixar) but was a general shift in visual effects as a whole.

    The software developed at ILM was called Renderman. This is the essence of what Lucas sold to Jobs and which became Pixar. Lucas, however, retained a lifetime license to use Renderman. Thus Jobs was free to do what he liked with it, and Lucas was free to use it forever. ILM still uses Renderman for the bulk of its rendering today.

    Back during the time of Terminator II there was a young buck at ILM named John Knoll. He and his brother Thomas had written this awesome digital image processing program. When the digital effect for Terminator II were being developed they used this program to do some of the compositing. It was grueling, slow, frame-by-frame work, but it looked awesome. John’s brother’s name is Thomas. Eventually John and Thomas sold their program to a company you might have heard of, Adobe, who named it Photoshop. If you launch Photoshop and look at the names of the engineers the name Thomas Knoll still appears first in the list.

    Another bit of useless trivia: at the time of Jurassic Park nobody, not ILM or Steven Spielberg, had any idea you could make a dinosaur on a computer. The plan was to use intricate stop motion animation. A “rogue animator” named Spaz Williams did a quick walk cycle test on the T-Rex. They brought in Spielberg and all the motion control guys in to take a look. One of the motion control guys (I forget which one) is rumored to have taken one look at the T-Rex and said, “Well, looks like we’re out of a job.”

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