Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Book - THE PIXAR TOUCH by David A. Price

THE PIXAR TOUCH: THE MAKING OF A COMPANY, by David A. Price, was a fascinating look at the history of Pixar, who we all know is making animated feature films for the Walt Disney Company these days after Robert Iger and Steve Jobs were able to come to an agreement that made Jobs the largest Disney shareholder by a wide margin, made Ed Catmull the president of both Disney and Pixar Animation, and made John Lasseter the CEO of both organizations, as well as principle creative advisor to Walt Disney Imagineering.

But that merger/acquisition is the culmination of a much longer story, and really is nowhere near as interesting as Pixar's history as a company. For example, I had read that Pixar started their existence as a hardware company, but I really didn't know what that meant. The more accurate way of portraying things, according to Price, is that Pixar was always a company, from the moment Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith joined together in New York at the New York Institute of Technology with Alexander Shure as their wealthy patron, that was primarily focused on using 3D computer animation to make a feature film. It was Catmull's interest and it was Shure's interest as well.

The company ended up at Lucasfilm when that organization hired Catmull to head its new computer division. The only trouble with LucasFilm was that George Lucas did not see computers or 3D computer graphics as the future of filmmaking; he saw computers as a tool that could make film production easier, faster, and of higher quality.

The technologies that Lucas was looking for - digital film compositing, digital audio mixing and editing, and digital film editing - existed, for the most part, only in Lucas's own fertile imagination. Catmull would just have to dive in and cope.

Their breakthrough came in 1981 when they were contracted to make a short sequence for the STAR TREK film, THE WRATH OF KHAN. The scene where Kirk, Spock and McCoy watch a simulation of the so-called "Genesis Device" - an animation of a world being consumed by the device and finally coming to life anew as the device worked its magic - that was the one of the first real scenes in a movie that was computer animated entirely, and it was done by Industrial Light and Magic - or more specifically, by the computer division of ILM. The first Pixar film, really.

In late 1983 the group had an opportunity to hire a Disney animator, someone who had just been let go by Disney. You can guess who this was - of course it was John Lasseter. The trouble was that George Lucas did not see his computer division as a filmmaking unit, he saw them as a computer group. Lasseter, an animator and a born storyteller, didn't really fit in. But it didn't stop Catmull and Smith from getting him on their payroll; they gave him the title of "Interface Designer" and they were off to the races.

Can you tell by reading, so far, that I was fascinated by the company's history? The author does a fine job of detailing that history, through Steve Jobs' purchase of the company from LucasFilm, from Jobs' own reservations about the company's ambitions as filmmakers, from the money they lost for Jobs, and finally, for the money they made for him, and for themselves.

But Pixar was never about money, and doesn't seem to be about money today - they are about artistic achievement in 3D computer animation. The book details the progression of their skills and their technology from the first TOY STORY movie, through CARS and RATATOUILLE. The epilogue talks about WALL*E and about the state of the principle characters since the Disney merger/acquisition.

I couldn't put this book down - it rivaled some of the best fiction I've been reading lately. A must read for anyone interested in animation history, in business, in filmmaking, or in Disney.


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