A CFQ Retrospective: Celebrating Pixar’s 25th Anniversary

This year marks Pixar Animation Studios 25th Anniversary, although the core group that went on to form Pixar actually dates back before 1986.  Cinefantastique was on the scene to celebrate Pixar’s  first major success, TOY STORY  in 1995, along with their early triumphs in computer graphics for effects work.  As CARS 2 is about to race into theatres across the globe, we look back at the early history of  one of the most successful studios in the history of the motion picture business.


PIXAR: A CHRONOLOGICAL HISTORY (PART ONE)

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In 1979 George Lucas was flush with cash earned from the huge success of  STAR WARS, released in May 1977 and he begin envisioning great leaps in the advancement of computer graphics for motion picture technology. To begin research and development in that area he hired Dr. Ed Catmull, the director of the computer graphics lab at the N.Y. Institute of Technology. “Our initial charter,” explained Catmull, “was to develop technology for digital audio, digital editing, and computer graphics. So I brought in somebody to work in each of those areas.”

By the early eighties, Catmull had proposed a computerized editing system, known as EditDroid; a digital audio signal processor, for sound mixing; and the Pixar image computer, for rendering high resolution images. “At the time computer graphics was viewed mainly as effects,” notes Catmull, “but it still wasn’t economical. We had to solve several problems to make it more practical. First, we had to have motion-blur, if we were going to be used in feature films. Secondly, we had to plan our thoughts and algorithms around the faster computers that we knew would become available in the future. Finally, we had to get to a point where artists could design the models and their appearances. It required a great deal of technical expertise to use the equipment, so we began to design systems that artists could use, not just the technical people.”

The Lucasfilm computer graphics division contributed sequences to a mere three feature films, working under the umbrella of Lucas’s ILM effects facility. And although George Lucas was funding the research, there was a degree of reluctance to trust CGI to actual production. At the time it was still a very new and unproven medium for effects and the few films that had used it extensively, such as TRON and THE LAST STARFIGHTER had not been successful.

In 1984, to gain production experience on the new techniques they had been developing, Catmull began work on a demonstration film, THE ADVENTURES OF ANDRE AND WALLY B. “At the time, we didn’t have another project to work on,” says technical director, Bill Reeves, “so we decided to invent a little short, to show what we could do in CGI.” “The only hitch was we weren’t supposed to be making films,” continues layout supervisor, Craig Good.  “We were a research and development group, not a filmmaking department, so ANDRE AND WALLY was officially just a demo for Siggraph (the yearly computer graphics convention).”

To work on ANDRE AND WALLY Catmull invited Disney animator John Lasseter to Lucasfilm, after he was impressed with Lasseter’s short computer film THE WILD THINGS. “Ed called me and said they had a idea for a short film,” remembers Lasseter. “It was supposed to be about an android character in the woods. Well, it was being made at Lucasfilm, so I thought they wanted to do something with robots. Instead of that, I proposed we do something a little more cartoony. I was inspired by early Mickey Mouse cartoons and I did a bunch of drawings for the main character, Andre. When I showed it to them, I thought they were going to hate it, but instead they said, `this is really great, nobody’s ever done this before in CGI’.”

Since Dr. Catmull’s ultimate dream was to make a feature film in CGI, it soon became clear he was on a divergent course from his employer. “Lucasfilm wasn’t set-up where somebody else could come in and make animated films,” recalls Catmull. “So we approached George, and said, `we want to do things that are different, so maybe you should sell off the division’. We then went through a period of about a year, getting ready to divest ourselves from Lucasfilm.” Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple computers eventually purchased the division from Lucas for what today seems like an incredible bargain: only $10 million. When Disney brought Pixar from Steve Jobs twenty years later the asking price was just a little bit higher: $7.4 billion!

In fact, at the time, George Lucas was a bit worried about whether Steve Jobs would be able to come up with all the money, which delayed the sale for a period of time, but the deal finally went through and the new company was officially named Pixar as they moved across  San Francisco Bay from San Rafael to their new headquarters in Point Richmond, Ca.

As an independent company, Pixar formed a small animation unit and began making short films. “We were doing three pieces for Siggraph in 1986,” recalls producer Ralph Guggenheim. “One was Bill Reeves doing a realistic simulation of ocean waves, another was a whimsical little story about a beach chair, that walks down to the ocean and dips it’s toe into the water and the third was John Lasseter’s idea to tell a story using his desk lamp. LUXO, JR. was born out of that and went on to be the first Pixar success, as it was nominated for an Academy Award.

Pixar went on to make a short film a year, spending about six months researching different ways of improving their software and equipment, while the other six months were spent in making the film which would implement the results of their research. “The short films laid the foundations for the core animation system we used on our first feature film TOY STORY,” explained Reeves. “Then, after we did KNICK KNACK, we realized if we kept making shorts, we wouldn’t have the production experience or staff needed to make a feature. To get more production experience, we decided to make television commercials, because we couldn’t justify enlarging our staff on the basis of the short films, since they didn’t produce any income.”

After TIN TOY won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short film in 1989, Disney and Steve Jobs signed an exclusive 3-picture contract in 1991, with an option for several more films. It was the beginning of a nearly perfect match, which only hit some rough spots when Disney Chairman Michael Eisner nearly lost Pixar when Steve Jobs threatened to bolt to another distributor after Eisner insisted Disney had the sequel rights for all Pixar films.   Luckily, Mr. Eisner was “retired” and his  successor quickly made a deal to buy Pixar outright in 2006.  “Back when Steve Jobs first bought Pixar from Lucasfilm, he agreed to fund all our animation shorts,” says Catmull, “with the belief that at some point we would come through. Looking back, it could have gone either way. But after TOY STORY was a big hit, we lived up to our expectations.”


BEFORE PIXAR: THE LUCASFILM YEARS (1979 – 1986)

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STAR TREK II: THE WRATH Of KHAN (1982)

Jim Veilleux, ILM’s special effects supervisor on STAR TREK II, proposed that CGI be used for what eventually became the Genesis planet sequence. “They didn’t really know what they wanted,” says Bill Reeves. “They just said, `try and come up with something interesting’. Originally, they had these storyboards, where a gray rock in a glass case, turned green. Then, Alvy Ray Smith said, ‘why don’t we have Kirk and Spock looking at a planet and we’ll simulate turning the dead planet into a life-like planet’. So we storyboarded out a whole sequence and designed it as one continuous shot. Then, after spending five months doing it, using particle systems and fractals, we were worried they’d cut away to the actors, right in the middle of the shot. Of course, that’s exactly what they did”

At least the characters were impressed with what they were watching. Spock turns to Kirk and says, “fascinating,” while Dr. McCoy becomes nearly hysterical at the implications of the “Genesis device.”

“We didn’t have much software for that, so a lot of what we did was just a home-brew of different stuff we cobbled together,” explains Reeves. “I did all the particle systems to create the fire, while Tom Duff did the cratered moon. Tom Porter put together the very beginnings of our compositing language and did the star fields as well. Loren Carpenter did all the fractals for the mountains that rise out of the burning planet. It was amazing, because we had all these separate programs that didn’t tie together. Shortly after that we developed a system where everything works together.”

RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983)

Bill Reeves and Tom Duff created the brief scenes of CGI used in RETURN OF THE JEDI. Admiral Ackbar gives a presentation to the rebel fleet, outlining how to penetrate and destroy the death star. He is aided by a holographic 3-D representation of the unfinished battle station, as it orbits around the forest moon of Endor. “We worked with Joe Johnston (visual effects art director) and Bruce Nicholson (optical supervisor) on RETURN OF THE JEDI,” says Reeves. “Joe had a lot of designs and we used on old Evans & Sutherland line drawing display. All it could do was draw lines–there were no pixels or color. We just put a camera in a room, got it pitch black and shot our elements right off the screen. Then we took it to Bruce Nicholson, who burnt it into the live-action plate. Bruce would have to do multiple passes in order to get the different colors (green for the Endor Moon, red for the death star).”

THE ADVENTURES OF ANDRE AND WALLY B. (1984)

After waking up one morning in a (very stylized) forest, Andre encounters a playful bee, who he attempts to elude (unsuccessfully). “I brought in John Lasseter from Disney,” says Catmull, “because he had a vision that wasn’t fitting in at Disney, but it fit in perfectly with what we wanted to do. At first it was on a temporary basis, but it soon became permanent.”

“One of the problems I had on ANDRE,” recalls Lasseter, “was that I had to use all geometric primitives (basic geometric shapes) to build the characters. I wanted Andre to have a sort of teardrop shape, and I thought it would be difficult to make his body that way. Ed Catmull looked at the drawings and said, `I think we can come up with something like that’. So we invented this teardrop shape that was really flexible and I got so inspired I started to animate it real loose, like a water balloon. Out of that came the inspiration for the bee, which had these giant feet, that were just floating below him. There were no legs connecting the feet to the body. Then, when the bee flies off, the feet would just drag way behind and catch-up, which gave us this neat overlapping action.”
“All the forest backgrounds were done using Particle Systems,” says Reeves, “and we used two Cray supercomputers in Minneapolis to render the characters. We were trying to see how fast a Cray computer would go, and it wasn’t very fast.”

YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES (1985)

For the effect of a Knight springing to life off of a stained glass window, effects maestro Dennis Muren wanted to attempt CGI, thinking it would be more effective than traditional stop-motion. “Dennis was interested in seeing what we could come up with,” recalls Reeves. “He came over and showed us the sequence and we all got very excited about doing it. There was a lot of stain glass windows out at Skywalker ranch, so we had the glass studio that had made those windows, build us a little stain glass Knight, which we could use for reference. If we hadn’t come through, Dennis would have probably used that model for stop-motion. He was really taking a chance on us, because at the time nobody really knew if we could do it or not.”

When the CGI sequences were completed, instead of being filmed off a video monitor, the images were transferred directly onto film, via one of the earliest uses of a laser scanner. David DeFrancesco, the head of Pixar’s film scanning dept., developed and built one of the first laser recorders while at Lucasfilm. “That was the first use of a laser recorder to put images on a feature film,” says DeFrancesco.  “Now that recorder is at the George Eastman House Museum as part of their permanent collection.”

THE PIXAR PHENOMENON: THE  STEVE JOB YEARS (1986 – 2006)
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LUXO, JR. (1986)

“LUXO, JR. began as an opportunity for John Lasseter to model on the computer,” says producer Ralph Guggenheim. “John had done animation before, but had never done modeling.”  “It was originally a 15 second test,” recalled Lasseter, “but it kept growing and growing, because I came up with the storyline after I got started on it. I like the idea of bringing inanimate objects to life, so I got the notion of having two desk lamps that were alive. ”

The film is quite remarkable, in that Lasseter is able to create a believable father and son characterization, through a pair of realistic looking desk lamps, in the space of only 90 seconds. LUXO. JR. also showcased a new technique in computer graphics, self-shadowing, which allowed the lamps to accurately cast shadows on themselves. Years ago we came up with a statement, `reality is just a convenient measure of complexity’,” says Lasseter. “At Pixar, we tend to shoot for realistic images, only to help us develop our tools. Then we take a step back and create things that can’t possibly exist, but look very real.

LUXO, JR. is also notable for it’s highly imaginative stereo soundtrack, designed by Gary Rydstrom, who came to the film after Ben Burtt (STAR WARS), was unable to fit it into his schedule. Rydstrom went on to design the sound for all of Pixar’s early short films and most of their features, and eventually left Lucasfilm to join Pixar as a member of their senior creative team.  Rydstrom’s sound design for his many feature films, including TERMINATOR 2 and JURASSIC PARK has won him seven Academy Awards.

R ED’S DREAM (1987)

Perhaps the least known of Pixar’s short films is RED’S DREAM. A melancholy tale about a forgotten unicycle, who on a rainy night dreams of his former glories performing under the big top. The evocative mood and atmosphere captured by the film is quite impressive, as if an Edward Hopper painting were merged with a clown episode from a movie by Federico Fellini. “We actually had two ideas that were happening at the same time,” recalls Ralph Guggenheim. “John Lasseter had a desire to do a story about a unicycle that’s alive and Bill Reeves was doing some realistic rendering of rainfall on city streets.”

“I saw the great imagery Bill was working with,” says Lasseter, “and I thought it fit into this circus story I had, which was causing me some story problems. It was originally going to be about this inept clown, and you find out that the person behind his act is really his unicycle, which is actually alive. So we took the images that Bill had and combined them with my story to make it more of a dream sequence for this poor unicycle. At the time nobody had really done those kind of dark, moody images in computer graphics.”

TIN TOY (1988)

Pixar’s first magnum opus introduced Tinny, the tin toy of the title. Much like the toys in TOY STORY, Tinny attempts to please his owner, a toddler who’s energetic enthusiasm, causes most of his toys to flee in terror under a nearby sofa. “We wanted to push into human characters for the first time,” notes Guggenheim, “so we designed a very carefully worked out story. It was a very complex show for us, 55 shots in 5 1/2 minutes, done by only 6 people.”

“TIN TOY was really an exhausting event for us,” says Lasseter, “because it had all these firsts. It was the first use of our current animation system, our first use of a human character and was twice as long as any film we had done before. We used every different piece of software we had and the baby’s face had 40 different muscles we could use for animating him.”

Most of Pixar’s short were made to show at Siggraph, and took about six months to finish. TIN TOY, due to it’s `epic’ length, wasn’t quite finished for the Siggraph film show. Consequently, when the film premiered, it was only two thirds complete. “We ended on a cliffhanger,” recalls Darwyn Peachey. “Tinny is running away from the baby, and he gets caught in the box, looking up through the cellophane as the baby is looming overhead. It ended right there, with a title, `to be continued’. The whole audience just went, `oh no’!” When finally completed, TIN TOY went on to become the first computer animated cartoon to receive an Academy Award.

KNICK KNACK (1989)

“After exhausting ourselves making TIN TOY, we wanted to do something that was easier,” reveals Lasseter. “During the making of TIN TOY, ROGER RABBIT had come out, and that was really an animators movie. It had just wild animation and after getting excited about it, I went back and looked at what I was doing. It seemed like everybody was standing still. So I was inspired to do something more cartoony for KNICK KNACK.”

“Since we wanted to do something simpler,” says Guggeheim, “John thought, `why don’t we do something like a Chuck Jones cartoon’. So we came up with the idea of a snowman, trying to get out of his glass snowglobe.” “KNICK KNACK has much more of a cartoon sense of reality,” notes Lasseter. “The snowman walks off, and comes back with a blow torch or something else, and is continually frustrated trying to get out of his globe. We just played off those cartoon type of situations.”

KNICK KNACK was done as a polarized 3-D film and each frame had to be rendered twice, to realize the 3-D effect. “The nice thing about doing 3-D in computer graphics,” says Guggenheim, “is after you have your main camera view, all you have to do is set-up another virtual camera, about 5 degrees off center axis to get your second view.”

“We tried not to push the 3-D effects too much,” says Bill Reeves. “We just used it to get the depth. It’s pronounced in a couple of shots, like when he’s falling off the table, but we didn’t want to do the typical thing, and give everyone watching it a headache. Very few people ever got to see it in 3-D, but when we showed it at Siggraph that year, it was a big hit.”

SURPRISE and LIGHT AND HEAVY (1991)

“At Pixar, the characters almost become like employees, you get to know them so strongly,” says John Lasseter. So when Pixar was asked to do some educational pieces for Sesame Street, they thought of using Luxo junior and senior, to visually illustrate the meaning of the words, light and heavy.

“We jumped at the chance to do it,” says Lasseter, “because we all loved Sesame Street.  Luxo is really a very simple character, and we’ve used him as a training tool, so people can learn simple hierarchy.  The way models are structured on the computer, they’re built on simple hierarchies, and with Luxo it’s quite simple, because you just move his base, and that moves him.  Previously, I had used Luxo to illustrate a course at Siggraph. It demonstrated that how fast you move an object, can determine how heavy the object will feel.  So we did a little vignette, where Luxo comes hopping in and starts moving around the exact same size sphere.  First he does it very fast, which makes it seem like a beach ball, then he comes back and does it slowly, putting a lot of effort into moving it, so it feels very heavy.  I showed that to the Sesame Street people, and they liked it, so that’s what we used.”

The producers at Sesame Street told Lasseter that normally they like to repeat things within a piece, to emphasize it for young children. “Luxo, Jr. comes in and hits the light ball to Dad,” explains Lasseter. “Then, Dad hits it back, and the narrator says, `light’. We repeat that, and then junior comes back and pushes the heavy ball, which doesn’t move at all, and the narrator says, `heavy’. Then he comes back and pushes and pushes, until he gets it rolling.”

SURPRISE was a very short 30-second piece, where Luxo Sr. finds a wrapped box and out of it pops Luxo, Jr., surprising his Dad.

TOY STORY (1995)

Back in the summer of 1995, before TOY STORY had opened to great acclaim,  Pixar President Ed Catmull told me what he saw for the future of the company he founded:  “In a way, when Disney agreed to make TOY STORY, it was an experiment, since no studio had ever made a full-length CGI feature.  They said, `let’s try it, and if it doesn’t work, we may lose a little money’

“Well, TOY STORY is turning out very successfully, and when the film comes out, I think there’s going to be a great rush to do computer animation. Now that we’ve done this one, we’re already cheaper than traditional animation. We have a crew of 110 people, vs. the 500 or more on a 2-D feature.  This is our first film and I think it looks beautiful, but because all the technology is brand new and improving all the time, TOY STORY will be the worst looking film that we’ll ever make!”

“We are now the only company to have done a CGI feature film and we know what to do to take the next step forward. Other companies will be doing CGI productions, so at some point they may catch up, but right now we’re way ahead of everyone else. If we’re lucky, maybe we can keep the lead forever.”

Dr. Catmull’s predictions have of course,  gone on to become reality, and after  TOY STORY’s huge success,  Pixar has gone on to make one smash film after another. Today they remain the supreme leaders in the field of  Computer Animation.


THE PIXAR FEATURE FILMS

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A BUG’S LIFE (1998)
TOY STORY 2 (1999)
MONSTERS, INC. (2001)
FINDING NEMO (2003)
THE INCREDIBLES (2004)
CARS (2006)
RATATOUILLE (2007)
WALL*E (2008)
UP (2009)
TOY STORY 3 (2010)
CARS 2 (2011)

About the Author

Lawrence French

LAWRENCE FRENCH celebrated his 20th anniversary as a contributor to Cinefantastique Magazine with his cover story on the making of THE RETURN OF THE KING. As Cinefantastique’s longtime San Francisco correspondent, he has written numerous stories about Pixar and Lucasfilm, and interviewed such genre stalwarts as Vincent Price, Tim Burton, Ray Harryhausen, John Lasseter, Phil Tippett and Ray Bradbury. He is also the editor of the highly regarded website on Orson Welles, Wellesnet.com. His book as editor of Richard Matheson’s Edgar Allan Poe scripts for THE HOUSE OF USHER and THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM was published by Gauntlet Press in 2007, with a second volume on TALES OF TERROR and THE RAVEN due out in the future. For Cinefantastique Online, he currently writes the regular column Supernal Dreams.

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