While 2001 proved a landmark year for computer-animated features--dominated, of course, by the blockbuster success of DreamWorks’ “Shrek” and Pixar’s “Monsters, Inc."--it also marked the 15th anniversary of Pixar, the company that started it all when it graduated from short-film obscurity to a commanding feature debut with “Toy Story.” With its wonderful blend of wit, sophistication, sincerity and technical savvy, Pixar pioneered the computer-animated feature and made it appealing to child and adult alike, reinventing the Disney storytelling formula for a new generation.
Pixar also paved the way for “Shrek,” “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within,” “Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius” and this year’s “Ice Age.” And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Now, as “Shrek” and “Monsters, Inc.” vie this year for the first best animated feature Oscar, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art pays tribute Thursday night to Pixar Animation Studios. John Lasseter, the Academy Award-winning filmmaker and the company’s executive vice president of creative, will participate in a survey of Pixar’s celebrated features and shorts, as well as a question-and-answer period hosted by “Good Morning America” film critic Joel Siegel.
Considering that 26 of the last 30 films nominated for a visual effects Oscar used Pixar’s Academy Award-winning RenderMan software, including “Gladiator,” “The Matrix,” “Titanic” and “Jurassic Park,” you realize that the animation studio has been at the forefront of the computer-generated imagery, or CGI revolution. “RenderMan has become the industry standard [for taking computer-created shots and seamlessly blending them with other footage] and is so flexible,” said Lasseter, the director of Pixar’s first three features: “Toy Story,” “A Bug’s Life” and “Toy Story 2.” He thinks that 2001 was not only an exciting year for computer animation, varied in both style and subject matter, but that it was also a banner one for blending computer animation with live action.
Of course, Lasseter takes pride in the fact that “Monsters, Inc.” has surpassed “Toy Story 2" as Pixar’s top-grossing film, and that three of last year’s top CGI films used RenderMan: “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and “Pearl Harbor.” “So many people are using our tool in ways that we never would’ve thought of. As I’ve always said, art challenges technology and technology inspires the art.”
But it’s always been that way at Pixar, which originated as the computer division of Lucasfilm, before Apple co-founder Steve Jobs purchased it for $10 million in 1986 and renamed the company.
Pixar initially consisted of co-founders Jobs, Lasseter (a onetime Disney animator) and computer graphics and software guru Ed Catmull. Later, when the company expanded beyond computer hardware and software into shorts and commercials, two very talented filmmakers were brought in: Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter. Stanton went on to co-direct “A Bug’s Life” and is currently directing the upcoming “Finding Nemo,” and Docter directed “Monsters, Inc.”
The shorts, however, have been a testing ground from the start. They include “Luxo Jr.,” about father-and-son lamps, which earned an Oscar nomination for best animated short; “Tin Toy,” about a baby that terrorizes its toys, which won Pixar’s first Oscar; “Geri’s Game,” about an unusual chess match, which earned its second Oscar; and “For the Birds,” the latest about some cruel feathered foes that get a hilarious comeuppance.
While Jobs and Lasseter have the highest public profile, they have a lot of help running the company.
“Steve and John are two charismatic people who inspire others, while I’m the quiet one,” said Catmull, who was recently named president of Pixar and now oversees its internal organization as well as its technology. “Steve is hands-off at Pixar but handles Wall Street and Disney and tells you to never be safe. John is effusive and a very good listener.”
Lasseter, who says he’s thankful he didn’t have to learn computer programming, thinks of Catmull as his mentor. At Lucasfilm, Catmull managed digital film and sound editing, as well as computer graphics and games, but his goal always was to make computer-animated features. From Lasseter’s perspective, “Lucasfilm had the cream of the crop in computer graphics research, and I asked Ed how they did it. He said, ‘I always hire people smarter than myself.’ I was inspired by that philosophy.
After Jobs bought the company, Catmull insisted that the technical and creative people share equal power and fraternize with one another. He contends that the pioneering spirit keeps Pixar prospering. “If we ever figure it out, people will get bored and screw things up on purpose.”
In the future, Catmull says he would like to continue streamlining the hierarchy and lower the tremendous cost of making computer-animated features so it’s easier to take risks. On the creative side, Catmull says diverse subject matter and outsiders such as director Brad Bird (“Iron Giant”) will help keep the films from becoming formulaic.
Lasseter says Pixar can concentrate on content since it has developed most of the technical aspects of computer animation. “Rich color, dimensional form, stylization. It becomes part of you, and when you choose a subject matter for a film, it lends itself to the medium.”
Toys made the perfect subjects for Pixar’s first computer-animated feature because of their plastic look (the more organic you get, the harder it is to “describe” to a computer)--because Lasseter is a toy fanatic.
“‘Toy Story’ started out as an experiment because it seemed like a relatively inexpensive film to make compared to our animated films at the time,” according to Michael Eisner, chairman and CEO of the Walt Disney Co., Pixar’s partner on all its features. However, even though Pixar wrote the graphics programming for Disney’s Oscar-winning Computer Aided Production System back in 1986, allowing pencil drawings to be scanned into the computer, painted and then digitally merged with backgrounds, Eisner agrees with others that the key to Pixar’s success is not technology. “It’s the creativity and the storytelling,” Eisner said. “John is right up there with [Steven] Spielberg and [George] Lucas as a filmmaker.”
Lasseter is very proud of Pixar’s storytelling prowess--it’s a mantra within his ranks. “We’re entertaining the audience, so the technology is used to inspire us. On ‘Monsters,’ we challenged technology to do fur. In the past, it never looked quite real. We wanted the look to be great and be invisible to the animator. As they were testing fur, they used a hairy sphere. It became a character in the film. In ‘Bug’s Life,’ we wanted to do a raindrop landing on the ground next to an ant. It evolved the whole story line because of how cool it looked.”
But despite the company’s huge success, storytelling has never come easily at Pixar, and every feature has been shut down at some point to solve script problems. In “Toy Story,” the characters initially were meaner and not likable enough; in “Toy Story 2,” the characters’ emotions didn’t come easily; in “A Bug’s Life” the plot was originally too hard to follow; and in “Monsters, Inc.,” the concept of what’s beyond the closet door to scare kids wasn’t substantial enough.
Looking at the final results, you realize these are far more sophisticated than mere cartoons: “Toy Story” is about feeling abandoned when you’re past your prime; “Toy Story 2" continues Woody’s conflict by offering him the choice between hollow immortality and momentary human contact; “A Bug’s Life” is about empowerment; and “Monster’s, Inc.” is about overcoming fears and accepting parental responsibility.
Catmull says Pixar’s awareness of the significance of storytelling can be attributed ultimately to “Tin Toy.” “When the baby walked up to the couch and the toys cowered underneath, we realized that the adults laughed and the kids didn’t,” he said. “And when the baby fell over, the kids laughed and the adults didn’t. That taught us how to achieve the physical layer for children and the cerebral layer for adults.”