Thursday, October 14, 2010

Pixar vs. Disney

I've been thinking a lot about what I learned as I read THE PIXAR TOUCH, and was amused to consider the origins of both businesses. Disney's origins are in a far flung past, when things were different. Pixar's origins are more rooted in a near-past from which things have not changed all that much up until today.

Walt started the Disney Brothers Studios on a shoestring - he had virtually no money, except for a few hundred dollars from his uncle and whatever he and his brother could plow into the business. He had arrived in Los Angeles with virtually no money, but he did have a mostly finished print of his Alice film. Using this print, he was able to get a contract to deliver short films to a New York distributor and, as part of the contract, get some advance money to allow him to hire a few people and finish the one he had and film and produce more of them.

Walt struggled to keep things afloat in those early days, but it was the newness of the medium that really allowed him to begin. There was not a lot of competition in what he was producing at the time. Yes, there were places doing some animation, but not too many of them were trying to combine story and animation as Walt was doing. He sold his productions as he made them, and was paid for them as he sold them. He took chances, gambled on animation being capable of far more than anyone thought it could ever be. Later he gambled that an amusement park could be far more than anyone thought it could ever be, too. Both gambles paid off big time - SNOW WHITE and Disneyland resulted in huge successes for his company.

By contrast, Pixar really began in college laboratories - first at the University of Utah, where computer graphics were being developed, then at NYIT, where the administration (in the person of wealthy entrepreneur Alexander Shure) shared Pixar's founders' filmmaking aspirations.

While it seems that both companies started with something "new" (animation, more or less, with Disney and 3D computer graphics/animation with Pixar), it also seems that the computer 3D graphics takes a LOT more money to get started. Hence the private origins of Disney, while Pixar had to exist as a division of something first. The hardware needed for the research that eventually made Pixar's products possible was cost-prohibitive except to a larger organization. So Pixar by necessity had to start under the auspices of a institute of higher learning, then continue its existence as part of Industrial Light and Magic. It finally earned its independence when Steve Jobs bought them for around 5 million dollars. And even that was not true independence - because Catmull, Lasseter, et al, still had to pretend that their hearts were in the hardware side of things.

So what is analogous today, or in the near future? I don't really know - I'm not an avid reader of those tech magazines that might be writing about the next big thing - but I wonder if it will be something that we can all do on our laptops, or is it going to require even greater technology than 3D computer graphics did at their inception? Walt needed a camera, but he could get cameras at pawn shops and in equipment liquidations by photo houses and such, and while it may have been a struggle, he could swing it. No way could Pixar have afforded the computers that the first digital projects were done on - the Cray computer system that Pixar "borrowed" time on to make Lasseter's The Adventures of Andre and Wally B. costed 10 million dollars at the time.

Most of the computers we take for granted today have greater computing power than the Pixar Imaging Computer that was so powerful (and expensive!) in its day. While I'm sure there is a "next step" to be taken, and probably to be taken by someone outside of the major studios, I'm not at all sure when it will happen or what direction it will take.



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