Friday Mini Book Review: The Pixar Touch


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.