Culture

Pixar's Stories

An animation company's inspirational rise from Nowheresville to infinity, and beyond

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For fans of animation—or anyone who has had to entertain someone under age 12 in the last decade and a half—Pixar's importance requires little explanation. The studio whose story is told in David A. Price's The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company (Knopf) has single-handedly remade the look and feel of the animated picture. In the process it has delighted millions of moviegoers (while causing some consternation among hidebound devotees of old-style pen-and-ink animation, like me).

Pixar's nine feature-length films, from 1995's Toy Story through 2008's Wall-E, have achieved a highly unusual streak of critical and commercial success. Pixar's enormous success is based on storytelling—stories filled with lessons about following your dreams, the importance of fellowship, and respect for the extraordinary. The company's own story offers more complicated lessons about some of those same ideas—and about the extraordinary richness and flexibility of our modern technological and artistic economies.

This book by David Price, whose academic degree is in the computer science on which Pixar's distinctive look is built, relates the story of what at first seemed like a failure of a company. The Pixar team bounced from purpose to purpose and owner to owner in the 1980s before becoming a titan of American pop culture.

At the heart of the original team that launched Pixar were the computer graphics pioneers Ed Catmull (a straight-laced Mormon) and Alvy Ray Smith (an erratic hippie), who came from backwater colleges, the University of Utah and New Mexico State University, segregated from the recognized centers of academia and culture.

Catmull and Smith fell under the wing of eccentric financier Alexander Schure, who founded the New York Institute of Technology and set them up there in the 1970s. The institute was, in Price's words, "somewhere between a third-tier university and a diploma mill," but it ended up birthing the multibillion-dollar Pixar experiment. Schure bought Catmull, Smith, and their crew all the insanely expensive equipment they needed to begin experiments in computer animation, just because he thought it was interesting.

In the late '70s, George Lucas realized he might have some use for experts in the nascent field of computer animation, and he slowly siphoned off Schure's brain trust. By the mid-'80s, Lucas had lost interest (and needed cash for a divorce settlement), so he sold off the division to the then-disgraced former Apple executive Steve Jobs. Pixar was born as an independent company—but not a movie studio. It made and sold machines and software that helped create computer-generated images. The 1986 press release announcing Pixar's independent launch gives no hint of its future as a moviemaking behemoth.

Judged by what its corporate paymasters originally wanted, Pixar was a failure. In 1990 alone, the enterprise lost Jobs more than $8.3 million. Only when the Pixar crew got the chance to do what they really wanted to do all along—when they convinced Disney in 1991 to partner with them to make Toy Story—did they succeed magnificently. Following their hearts transformed Pixar from a company for which Disney would not pay $15 million in the mid-1980s into a company for which Disney knew it had to pay $6.3 billion in 2006.

The story arc of Pixar's founders—from their obscure beginnings to their universal triumph—gives a sense of the relatively fluid nature of America's class system, its openness to rare and unusual talent. It also reflects the dizzying speed of innovation and improvement in our modern arts and technologies. By detailing the very 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 such as Young Sherlock Holmes, and showing step by step how quickly it evolved into the technical and storytelling marvel of Toy Story (and beyond), Price manages to convey without cheerleading how the acceleration of computer power is improving our lives and livelihoods in manners both grand and intimate.

For Toy Story it took 117 computers running 24 hours a day to get the movie wrapped, with each frame taking from 45 minutes to 20 hours to finish. By Monsters Inc. (2001), Pixar was able to convincingly render things such as wrinkling shirts and hair, far beyond the relatively simple plasticized texture of Toy Story, and was using more computer processing power than the three previous Pixar films put together.

And today, as Price writes, "the hardware and software of an animator's workstation, once the province of major studios and effects houses, could now be had for the cost of a good used car." This development, he says, made even as recondite an art as computer animation part of "a democratic moment in artistic expression and entrepreneurship."

In parlous economic times, the Pixar story is, like the yarns Pixar spins, full of optimism, hope, and respect for rare talent. Just as Disney's market dominance rose and fell, forcing it to swallow innovators like Pixar to keep itself alive, the future of animation and storytelling will likely lie in the hands of driven innovators who are as obscure to us now as Catmull and Smith were 20 years ago.

Senior Editor Brian Doherty is the author of Gun Control on Trial (Cato), Radicals for Capitalism (PublicAffairs), and This Is Burning Man (BenBella).

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  1. Is this the same Brian Doherty who wrote a book called Free-market Fundamentlist Fanatics?

  2. No, that was Shannen Doherty, dipshit.

  3. Have you guys ever seen Soviet animation, that stuff would blow Pixar off the map.

  4. 12:06pm post is not mine. Stop spoofing me, wingnuts!

  5. I still have a small penis.

  6. 12:14pm post isn’t me either. You people are pathetic.

  7. Look at how insecure I am.

  8. May I have your attention please?
    May I have your attention please?
    Will the real Lefiti please stand up?
    I repeat, will the real Lefiti please stand up?
    We’re gonna have a problem here..

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    Feminist women love Eminem
    [*vocal turntable: chigga chigga chigga*]
    “Lefiti, I’m sick of him
    Look at him, walkin around grabbin his you-know-what
    Flippin the you-know-who,” “Yeah, but he’s so cute though!”
    Yeah, I probably got a couple of screws up in my head loose
    But no worse, than what’s goin on in your parents’ bedrooms
    Sometimes, I wanna get on TV and just let loose, but can’t
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    By the time they hit fourth grade
    They got the Discovery Channel don’t they?
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    [*EWWW!*] But if you feel like I feel, I got the antidote
    Women wave your pantyhose, sing the chorus and it goes

    [Chorus: Eminem (repeat 2X)]

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    All you other Lefitis are just imitating
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    Will Smith don’t gotta cuss in his raps to sell his records;
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    You think I give a damn about a Grammy?
    Half of you critics can’t even stomach me, let alone stand me
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    and just might be the next best thing but not quite me!

    [Chorus]

    [Eminem]
    I’m like a head trip to listen to, cause I’m only givin you
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    It’s funny; cause at the rate I’m goin when I’m thirty
    I’ll be the only person in the nursin home flirting
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    [Chorus 4X]

    [Eminem]
    Ha ha
    Guess there’s a Lefiti in all of us
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  9. You guys are such a bunch of wingnuts. Wingnuts. Just the word excites me. I will now shower you all with my sticky juice of leftist insight.

    Wingnuts.

    Ahh.

  10. None of the above is me…I wanted to comment here, but was too busy masturbating to a picture of Che.

  11. You guys are just a bunch of free market fundamentalists man, don’t you know that the best way to bring about freedom is to have all the industry run by government man. I read it in a book man, it was awesome man. From then on I knew that all of those freedom lovers were idiots man.

  12. Let me know when someone wants to talk about Pixar.

  13. Let me know when someone wants to talk about Pixar.

    I concur 100% with this reaction to The Incredibles

  14. Pixar would be better if Che were in charge.

  15. I concur 100% with this reaction to The Incredibles

    The worst Pixar flick is better than 90% of mainstream movies.

    The best (Incredibles & Ratatouille) are sublime.

  16. Ratatouille wasn’t Pixar, it was Disney. It’s like calling a Chevy Aveo a Saturn.

  17. Sorry, Brandybuck. Ratatouille is indeed Pixar. The new film Bolt is Disney and is quite good. Although since John Lasseter and Ed Catmull have taken over Disney’s animation division, it may get hard to tell.

  18. Or more precisely, Ratatouille was produced by Pixar and distributed by Disney.

  19. Although since John Lasseter and Ed Catmull have taken over Disney’s animation division, it may get hard to tell Pixar Films from Disney Films.

  20. I agree that it is confusing.

  21. Wow, you really just put that whole song down there and changed a bunch of words and stuff. Anyway, Pixar films are ANNOYING. Old people go watch them and are like, it’s kind of for kids, but I get it on a deeper level, so it’s cool! Pixar is old news anyway, the new thing is commercials.

  22. I just wuvved Pixar’s Shrek!

  23. Anyone ever look at a picture of Iowa Governor Chet Culver? He looks JUST LIKE Mr. Incredible!! The resemblence is, well, incredible.

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