While the computer animation film studio Pixar did not officially become a computer animation film studio until 1986, it can be argued that the company was actually founded in 1979, 40 years ago. Many people know Pixar for its partnership with Disney, but the connection to that company even in the seventies, albeit an indirect one, was eerily prophetic for what was to come. Even though Disney owned Pixar in 2006, in a way it was actually Pixar who owned Disney, as the leadership from Pixar suddenly became the leadership of Disney animation. Even in the eyes of Bob Iger, Pixar was seen as the dominant animation studio of the 21st century. For a long time, Disney was the king of animation, so where did Pixar come from and how did they take over Disney’s kingdom?
The origin of Pixar goes back to Alexander Schure, an entrepreneur and founder of the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT). Schure was a fan of animation and in the 1970s he used his money and resources to make an animated film that he wanted to rival Disney.
The film he produced and directed was Tubby the Tuba (1975). Back in 1947, Tubby the Tuba had already been the star of a stop-motion animated short by George Pal which was nominated for a Best Animated Short Oscar, but this new film would be feature-length and hand-drawn animated.
The only problem was that while Schure loved animation, he knew nothing about how to make an animated film, and he found the hand-drawn animation process tedious. This led to an interest in another type of animation process: computer animation.
He recruited consultants from NYIT who knew how to use computers to see if they could make Tubby the Tuba computer-animated instead, but it was not a sufficient way to make an animated film in the seventies. The technology was not there yet, although the film would have been way more interesting if they had gone through with it, because the resulting film was a disastrous flop that audiences could not even stay awake to watch.
The consultants for the non-existent CG version of the movie had stayed together at NYIT at the Computer Graphics Lab, its four original members being Edwin Catmull, Alvy Ray Smith, Malcolm Blanchard and David DiFrancisco. Schure kept the lab financed, but the tech people there had ambitions to work at actual film studios.
Luckily people like Star Wars director George Lucas saw the potential of computer animation as a tool for future filmmaking, and Lucas offered the tech guys at NYIT jobs at Lucasfilm.
The Graphics Group, which was one third of Lucasfilm’s computer division, was launched in 1979 and Edwin Catmull was put in charge of the Computer Graphics Lab, where he reunited with fellow NYIT alum Alvy Ray Smith, who was made the director of the Graphics Group. Along with Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), these computer animators were shaping the future of cinema, inventing many techniques and animation tools that the industry would adopt in the coming decades, including Pixar’s own films with the photorealistic 3D rendering software RenderMan.
The group first started working with ILM on special effects in 1982, including Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Young Sherlock Holmes.
Throughout this time, Edwin Catmull had greater ambitions for his team of animators. A fan of animated Disney movies like Pinocchio and Peter Pan, Edwin Catmull had hoped to eventually split from Lucasfilm and make his own animated films. There was a drop-off in Star Wars revenue after the 1983 release of Return of the Jedi, and rather than be sold by Lucas to another company when they were no longer needed, the Graphics Group went independent in 1986 under the new name Pixar. Edwin Catmull was the president and Alvy Ray Smith was the executive vice president.
The technology was still not ready for a feature film, so they became a hardware company in the meantime, and the Pixar Image Computer was how they advertised themselves.
The Pixar computer was sold primarily to government agencies and the scientific and medical community as a composer of high-end visuals. It was a powerful machine but it did not sell in quantity.
Right around this time, Apple founder Steve Jobs was a hot commodity because he was just fired from his own company and focusing on his new company NeXT. Catmull and Smith convinced Jobs to invest in Pixar. Jobs could tell Pixar was a quality company with a lot of artistic ambition, so he paid George Lucas $5 million for technology rights and invested another $5 million cash as capital and became the biggest shareholder of the company and a chairman on the board of directors.
Pixar had made a few animated shorts in the eighties to demonstrate the capabilities of their technology such as Luxo Jr., Red’s Dream, Tin Toy and Knick Knack, and they were often shown off at the computer graphics industry’s biggest convention SIGGRAPH (Special Interest Group on Computer GRAPHics and Interactive Techniques). While the animation department that made these short films failed to make money off of them, the company was kept afloat by Steve Jobs’ investments and its work making commercials for outside companies like Listerine and Tropicana.
The story of Pixar’s working relationship with Disney actually goes back to The Little Mermaid. Although the majority of the film was done with traditional ink and paint, some scenes from Mermaid were done using Pixar’s Computer Animation Production System (CAPS), which migrated the ink-and-paint process to computers, which was easier and more practical. The first Disney film to be fully animated using the CAPS system was The Rescuers Down Under and from that point forward it would be used in every traditionally animated Walt Disney Animation Studios film from Beauty and the Beast to Home on the Range.
The idea of Disney working with Pixar to make a computer-animated film can be traced back to the moment Pixar first hired John Lasseter.
Lasseter had previously worked as a hand-drawn animator at Disney after graduating from CalArts but he was inspired by the possibility of computer animation after being amazed by the visuals in the movie Tron (1982).
Before The Brave Little Toaster came out in 1987 as a hand-drawn animated movie, Lasseter had pitched the movie to Disney as a CG film, but the idea was rejected and Lasseter was fired, so he went to work for Lucasfilm instead and became one of the founding members of Pixar.
John Lasseter was the man responsible for directing Pixar’s short films and these were the films that first showed that Pixar was a force to be reckoned with in the animation industry. Even Luxo Jr., a film about two lamps with no faces, limbs or voices, managed to show off Pixar’s storytelling skills just as well as it showed off their skills with realistic animation.
After Lasseter’s 1988 film Tin Toy won an Oscar, Disney started to regret letting Lasseter go, so Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg invited Lasseter to come back to Disney as a feature film director, but Lasseter decided he would rather stay at the ambitious new computer animation studio and make history.
Disney CEO Michael Eisner still saw potential in Lasseter and Pixar, so in 1991, Pixar had made a deal with Disney to make three animated films for them, the first one being Toy Story. Because the technology was not quite there yet for human characters, a film about toys was an inspired idea.
After negotiations with Disney executives and convincing weary Pixar animators to work with Disney, a company with a reputation for working their animators too hard, Toy Story was green-lit.
The movie went through a ton of changes. Early in the making of the movie, the characters Woody and Buzz Lightyear were not even in the film. Lasseter and three other CalArts classmates Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter and Joe Ranft wrote the story and, by the way, were also learning how to write a movie at the same time since this was their first ever feature film. The script went through many drafts and writers like Joel Cohen, Alec Sokolow and Joss Whedon were hired to help shape the story at various points in development.
When the movie finally came out in 1995, it was the first fully computer-animated feature film in history and was a huge hit with audiences and critics who found it hilarious, heartfelt and unlike anything ever seen.
The film was an instant classic that was so successful at the box office, it paved the way for an entire Toy Story franchise that included three sequels, three short films, two TV specials and the spin-off TV series Buzz Lightyear of Star Command, not to mention future Pixar films A Bug’s Life, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up, Brave, Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur, Coco and Onward. Many of these films are also brilliant and their success at the box office is unparalleled.
Pixar was responsible for the creation and production of all their feature films after Toy Story and Disney was responsible for their marketing and distribution. Even though the profits and the budgets were split between the two companies, Disney would own the rights to all of Pixar’s films, characters and the rights to any sequels of Pixar’s films whether Pixar is involved in the making of those films or not (This almost led to Toy Story 2 going straight-to-video and Toy Story 3 being made without Pixar’s involvement at all).
Pixar was never really happy about Disney’s control over their company, but the resentment was put to rest when the issues of ownership were made irrelevant after Pixar agreed to become a division of The Walt Disney Company following its acquisition of Pixar in 2006, making John Lasseter Chief Creative Officer and Ed Catmull president of both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios.
It was Bob Iger who formulated the idea after realizing that Pixar’s popularity was eclipsing the popularity of the animated Disney movies of the 2000s and came to the conclusion that without Pixar, Disney would be losing money on animation. Bob Iger’s trustworthy relationship with Steve Jobs actually helped convince Lasseter and Catmull to agree to the acquisition.
While the 2000s felt kind of like the fall of Disney and the rise of Pixar, Disney and Pixar continue to work together in harmony and now both animation studios are powerhouses at the box office, at awards shows and with critics, although John Lasseter has stepped down following sexual misconduct allegations and has been replaced by Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc., Up, Inside Out) as the new Chief Creative Officer of Pixar, and Ed Catmull is also stepping down in his leadership role starting in July 2019, so it seems Pixar is in the middle of entering a new era. As someone who has been a fan of this studio since before Toy Story was even released, I have anticipation for each one of their films. That has not changed since first grade and it likely never will.