Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The Pixar Touch

David A. Price's book, The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company, is a readable history of today's leading animation studio. It's also clearly shows that the company, especially in its early days, was far more than John Lasseter.

Within animation circles, discussions of Pixar naturally revolve around Lasseter, but Price establishes the importance of Ed Catmull to the existence of the company. It was Catmull's vision to create movies with computers and it was Catmull who assembled the team of software engineers at the New York Institute of Technology that started to make them a reality. Once Catmull understood the limitations of Alexander Schure, the head of NYIT, he migrated his team to George Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic.

Catmull's contributions came in several areas. As a software engineer himself, he not only wrote code but had an intimate understanding of the problems that needed to be solved. In addition, he was a natural at management. He not only assembled a stellar team, he created working conditions that kept the team together. He also maintained the company's vision while dealing with the competing visions of George Lucas and Steve Jobs, both of whom owned the company at various times. Lucas never understood Pixar's potential and Jobs only came to realize it gradually after pushing the company into the manufacture of hardware. In fact, Jobs was actively trying to sell Pixar during the production of Toy Story. Finally, Catmull hired Lasseter, someone who saw beyond technical challenges and brought storytelling to computer graphics. Catmull gave him enough autonomy on the creative side of the company to build a team of artists as impressive as the technical team.

Those familiar with animation history know the importance of Walt Disney's brother Roy to the success of the Disney company. Catmull's contributions to Pixar are greater than Roy Disney's, as this book makes plain. Without Catmull, Pixar would not exist and the history of computer animation would be significantly different.

Luxo, Jr. established Lasseter's importance to the Pixar team. The software developers could supply tools and solve the technical problems, but Lasseter could use those tools to entertain an audience. When Tin Toy won the Oscar, Pixar still wasn't out of the financial woods but at least it had proved the viability of the company's vision.

Price is at his best in the period before Toy Story's success. The book is more intimate and has more twists and turns. Once the company is successful, there's far less suspense and the films themselves receive fairly shallow treatment. For instance, the chapter on Monsters, Inc. dwells more on court cases where Pixar was accused of lifting material from other sources than it does on the film itself. The book also brushes past various contentious issues, such as employee unhappiness over stock options or removing directors from projects.

In addition to charting the business history and profiling the people involved, Price does a good job of explaining the technical challenges facing computer animation. His descriptions of texture maps, anti-aliasing and other cgi techniques are understandable, regardless of the reader's previous knowledge.

Artists and fans tend to ignore or misunderstand the business side of the movies. As a result, their expectations are unrealistic and their disappointments are many. They should read this book to understand how precarious Pixar's history was before the success of Toy Story and how it took the right combination of people and an awful lot of luck to get the company on a solid footing.

Producers should also read this book and pay attention to the material dealing with Alexander Schure and NYIT. While he was willing to spend large amounts of money and hire the best people he could find, the resulting film, Tubby the Tuba, lacked entertainment value and box office success. While the business end has to be taken care of, ultimately, a film has to please an audience. Just because people run a company, doesn't mean that they have a clue as to what an audience wants or how to tell a story. Schure's experience is not unique. It was repeated at least as recently as Everyone's Hero.

The Pixar Touch is a solid history and business book that goes beyond public relations to take a clear-eyed look at the early days of computer animation. I'm sure that Pixar will continue to inspire investigations into its history and success, but Price has provided an insightful and even-handed starting point for anyone wishing to learn more about the company.


Floyd Norman said...

I was browsing at a local book store Saturday and picked up the book -- and couldn't put it down. A truly great read.

An added surprise was to find myself quoted in the book. Wow! I sure didn't see that coming.

Anonymous said...

Picked it up at the library a couple weeks ago, and I loved it. Excellent Pixar history.

Thad said...

Thanks for calling attention to this, Mark. I'll try picking up a copy this month.

I'll never be one of the ones who fawns over Pixar. They've done, and will continue to do, things I'm not fond of in animated films.

Anonymous said...

Hey Mark,
remember when we all used to go to the evening lectures at the New School of Social Research in the Village, because that young professor Leonard Maltin was showing rare cartoons? It was you, me, Jerry Beck, John Canemaker, Haskett, Scarborough, Mike Sporn, Lennie Graves, Eric Goldberg and more.

Well, Ed Catmull told me recently he was in the audience also. A car full of computer guys from NYIT would drive over from Westbury. Including Jim Blinn, Loren Carpenter and Alvy Ray Smith.These guys all later became the backbone of ILM's first computer team.

I told Leonard and he said: "Wow! Now I wish had had a camera on the audience back then!"

Mark Mayerson said...

Their attendance in Maltin's class is in the book. When I read it, I was sorry they didn't make themselves known to everybody, though I have no idea what I would have thought of computer animation in the mid '70s.

It's interesting that none of the artists from NYIT ended up sticking with Catmull. Another missed opportunity for New Yorkers. It could be that Tubby the Tuba left such a bad taste in Catmull's mouth that he wouldn't have been interested anyway.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, recognizing what was going to happen with computers then was like when my Uncle Charlie from Newark got out of the Army and wanted to be a neighborhood baby photographer.

An friend told him about NBC was hiring still photographers for a new thing called Television, because the mainstream film cameramen were all boycotting TV.

Uncle Charlie thought about it, then went " Nahhh." and became a baby and wedding photographer.

Starting in TV at that time alongside Pat Weaver and Rod Serling, he could retired a legendary producer !!

Jenny Lerew said...

Hey Tom. I was there too, in the New School class.

I well remember a bunch of regulars(it didn't seem like that many--many 4 or so at a pop)sitting up there towards the back who made a lot of noise. A LOT of damn noise! Geeks & freaks indeed! For my part I walked over from NYU alone, and attended class by my lonesome. ; D

So...that was you, huh? And Ed Catmull?! Jerry I always assumed was there but when I bring it up he seems vague about it.

Leonard was terrific, what a guy(this was right before his book hit the streets). I was chagrined to see that when he did ET not much later he seemed so stiff in his delivery-totally different than he was in class or on the phone. He's improved over the years but he's never seemed as natural as he did back then. Maybe it's because he's minus the irony when he's in front of a camera--he'd get in some eye-rolling at you lot back then as I recall!
Anyway he was a stand-up guy and a perfect presenter of that good stuff.

Jenny Lerew said...

I shouId add that I was in that class for the winter 79-80 session so I likely missed most of you, if it was 5 or so years earlier you all were there.

Mark Mayerson said...

I left New York in May or June of 1978 and didn't return until April of 1980. I can't remember if I attended any of Leonard's classes in 1980 or not. By October of '80, I left New York again.

I think my Leonard years were roughly '75-early '78.

Jenny Lerew said...

Mark-I hadn't realized(though I should have)that he did the class for that long. I'm pretty sure it didn't last much longer-in fact, he might have moved to L.A. just after the spring '80 semester.

That was just a priceless opportunity, to be able to se rare cartoons in 16mm prints culled IIRC from not only Leonard's but his many friends' collections...the organization of each evening was perfectly done: a Fleischer night, a Popeye night, a Clampett night and/or a "censored" night...along with UPA, other Warners, etc.etc.etc. I took notes(long since lost, alas)and soaked up Leonard's every word. As I say, he was so very informed, amusing and personable...I barely spoke to him(I was very shy) but boy, did I admire him. And he was amiable enough that a few years later, after he'd begun his ET job and I was back in Los Angeles, I thought nothing of calling him up at Paramount to ask him where I could possibly locate a print of "Acrobatty Bunny"--and he thought nothing of telling me! I wouldn't try that now-he's too much of a bigshot! ; )