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.