Sun, May 26, 4:42 AM CDT

The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company

Jun 17, 2008 at 12:31 am by gToon

Book Review: The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company

Author: David A. Price
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Publication Date: May, 2008
320 pages with photos

Pixar Animation Studios has won 8 Academy Awards for computer animated films such as: Toy Story, Monsters, Inc, and most recently Ratatouille. Their work in association with the Disney Company has made them the pre-eminent animated film company in the world. In fact, Pixar has become the modern equivalent of the older, classic Disney Studios of the 1940's. Each film is highly anticipated not only for it's extraordinary technical achievements, but also for the film's stories of self-realization and self-discovery. I don't think there is another film company today that has the kind of success and recognition that Pixar has among both children and adults. And people like Ed Catmull and John Lassiter have become literally demi-gods in the animation industry (much to their chagrin).

Hard to believe that this thriving, brilliant company was the product of a geeky University of Utah Computer Science Department in the 1960's. As David A. Price points out in his book “The Pixar Touch: the Making of a Company”:

“Now and then in history one finds a time and a place that seems to be charmed,
where talent has assembled in a way that appears to defy all laws of probability...
one of the lesser know among these is Salt Lake city in the 1960's and early 1970's”

John Warnock, Jim Clark, Nolan Bushnell and Tom Stockton would all go on to invent/design innovations in computers that are taken for granted in the early 21st century. Ed Catmull, who is basically the godfather of what was to become Pixar, joined this extraordinary group of people at the University. While studying for his doctorate, Ed got the idea that since he couldn't draw and he had always been a big admirer of Disney animation (he even created “flip books” for a hoped career with Disney), perhaps computers would allow him to do animation. In fact, he could even create feature-length animated films.

The computer graphics group of the Lucasfilm Computer Division, 1984. (L-R): Loren Carpenter, Bill Reaves,
Ed Catmull, Alvey Ray Smith, Rob Cook, John Lasseter, Eben Ostby, David Salesin, Craig Good and Sam Leffler.
Not pictured: David DiFrancesco, Tom Duff and Tom Porter.

This seed of an idea, plus the heated atmosphere in the Computer Science Department, led him to create his first animated film for one of his graduate classes. He set out to digitize and animate his left hand by making a plaster-of-paris mold of the hand, criss-cross it with tiny triangles and polygons (borrowing the idea from geometry that curved lines could be represented by a mesh of triangles and polygons). He then measured the co-ordinates of each of the corner points of the polygons and type them into the computer with an old Teletype keyboard. Then using a 3-D animation program he wrote, he reproduced the hand on a screen and animated it. Since there was no hardware at the time that allowed the resulting 3d images to be processed into animation, Catmull used a 35-millimeter film camera rigged to take pictures from a CRT screen. The final film was amazing; about a minute long, it showed his hand opening and closing and at the climax the camera flew up inside of the hand.

His success with his “hand film” led him to further create “bi-cubic patches”, which were smoother than polygon mesh, and an amazing invention the “Z-buffer” which solved the graphics display problem of what parts of a computer object created with bi-cubic patches could be seen by the viewer and which parts could not. And finally, he was able to figure out “texture mapping”, which allowed an image to be projected onto an objects' exterior.

While Ed Catmull's accomplishments were monumental for the future of computer graphics, no one really knew much about it then (1974). So he ended up taking a mundane programing job just to put food on the table. And there he would have languished if it hadn't been for an eccentric millionaire with deep pockets and a growing fascination with movie-making and animation in particular.

Alexander Schure heard about Ed Catmull's accomplishments and in a very forward thinking move brought him and several of his friends to his New York Institute of Technology located on Long Island, NY. Schure saw that traditional animation was costly and was coming to the belief that computers could reduce the amount of time involved in creating animated films. He contacted Catmull and hired him to be the director of the Institutes Computer Graphics Lab with an open budget and carte blanche to hire anyone he felt could help him develop computer graphics with an eye toward making computer animated films.

“...the NYIT Computer Graphics Lab was an ocean of opportunity and freedom:
Your job was whatever you thought was important, so long as you were filling in
a piece of the computer animation puzzle”

Two years later, in 1977, Ed Catmull had brought together an extremely diverse and talented team of individuals like Alvy Ray Smith, Dick Shoup, Jim Clark and David DiFrancesco. With major creations of “bump mapping” and “tweening software” under their belts and with a brand new “frame buffer” purchased by Mr. Schure, the Lab created their first animated short film: Tubby the Tuba.

It was a disaster.

As David Price relates in The Pixar Touch, one distraught young animator stood up after a screening of the film and exclaimed, “I've just waisted two years of my life!”. But smart, committed individuals like Ed Catmull are not deterred by failure. In fact, it was the failure of “Tubby the Tuba” that led him to understand that he needed to learn how to tell stories in addition to creating the technology for computer animation. This discovery led him to realize that he had to go to where story-telling in animated films was understood – the Walt Disney company.

But it was a long time before Disney came calling to what would eventually become Pixar Pictures. A trip to Lucasfilm where Catmull and most of the others working at the NYIT would move to. However enthusiastic George Lucas was about developing the relationship between computers and film, he was really only interested in hardware side of the equation. So, Pixar created the Pixar Image Computer for Lucasfilm which generated a lot of interest especially at the Disney Studios, but the only real sales were to government agencies and some parts of the medical industry.

The Pixar Image Computer II (shown with a monitor). 1989.

While being diverted into developing hardware by Lucas, Ed Catmull never forgot his commitment to creating computer animated films. He hired the ex-Disney artist, John Lasseter, using creative accounting; Loren Carpenter, upon seeing his film computer animated film, Vol Libre; and Brad Bird, a recent graduate of the California Institute of the Arts. The caliber of talent coming to Pixar now that they were aligned with Star Wars creator George Lucas, was top notch.

But Lucas was frustrated at the poor sales of the Pixar Image Computer and wasn't really interested in Pixar creating animated films, he wanted them to start making money. Catmull and Lasseter had to look for ways to sell their computer graphics inventions. Their first major success came with Star Trek II, and as David Price points out that while not the first use of computer animation in a feature film “it was arguably the most dramatic visually”. And we are talking here of the “genesis sequence” in Star Trek II where an entire planet is literally eaten up on screen. Pixar's work on this sequence created a sensation in the effects community.

Continued development in such areas as “motion blur” and “anti-aliasing” led Catmull and Lasseter to present a short film at Siggraph (an elite graphics convention that occurs once a year) in 1984. “Andre and Wally B”, which succeeded in wedding classic Disney animation techniques (move characters realistically, make them appealing, make them 'act' as real characters) to developing computer animation technology. Ed Catmull's peers at Siggraph went berserk over the film, but Lucas thought the film was awful. But, Lucas's indifference was only the beginning of Pixar's problems. Because of a costly divorce, Lucasfilms was starting to re-organize its holdings, and Pixar, since it was not pulling it's financial weight, was ordered to be sold; and Catmull was the one who was told to find a buyer.

Enter Steve Jobs.

Steve Jobs, who had recently been fired from Apple Computers (a company he co-founded) was looking for a new project. He found it in the Pixar Image Computer. Thinking that with a re-design he could use the Pixar graphics computer to compete with Apple (and get revenge), he purchased Pixar from Lucasfilm after tough negotiations brought the asking price down to 5 million dollars, with an additional 4 million towards developing the company.

Remarkably, at the same time Disney under the new leadership of Micheal Eisner had begun a project to modernize it's animation department along with Roy Disney, who chose to oversee the animation department. They began to see the Pixar Image Computers as their way of doing that. David Price makes the point in The Pixar Touch that it was Disney's effort to evolve and progress that brought them into a closer relationship with Pixar, first as a customer for their computers and later as a co-partner in producing and creating computer animated films.

Steve Jobs, by all accounts, is about half genius and half madman. His “managing” of Pixar would prove this to be true. Completely uninterested in Pixar as an animated film company, he pushed and pushed and screamed for Pixar to develop hardware.

An interesting offshoot of the Pixar Image Computer II was the rendering software that came with it. Pat Hanrahan, who was in charge of the software for the computer, felt that the Pixar could separately market the rendering software (called “Reyes” at the time) and had talks with Adobe to use the software in tandem with Adobe PostScript. After collaboration with Jaron Lanier and Bill Reeves, a new 3d language was born along with 3d rendering software which used that language. Steve Jobs approved of the software being sold separately. So, in 1986 Pixar anounced the Renderman Developers Toolkit as new products being sold by Pixar, Inc.

“Three-dimensional rendering, as Jobs saw it, was soon to take it's place
alongside desktop publishing as an instrument of communication”

While Lasseter and Catmull were still creating innovative animated films like Red's Dream, which they would preview to wild enthusiasm at Siggraph, Jobs and other members on the hardware side of Pixar were wondering what was going on. Despite some minor interest in the Pixar graphics computer by the medical industry (an interest most likely ruined by Jobs arrogance), as a company, Pixar, Inc. was not paying for itself. And that had Steve Jobs upset.

John Lasseter, at Lucasfilm in 1983, animating his Luxo lamp as an excercise.
This project would eventually become the short film Luxo Jr.

One film in particular, Tin Toy, which was ostensibly created to demonstrate the PhotoRealistic Renderman software, became a huge hit when it was presented at Siggraph in 1988. Lassiter, who directed and wrote the film, won Pixar's first Oscar for Tin Toy and the film became a milestone in computer animated films. With this one film, the viability of computer animated films as a commercial and artistic medium were established. Uncharacteristically, Jobs was impressed with the Oscar award and started pushing Pixar to do more commercials and film work. However, when Jobs “pushed” he alienated important people with shouting and screaming matches. Five years of operating at a lose, led to Jobs revoking the employees' stock shares at Pixar, an act that is as despicable as it sounds. Massive layoffs, poor morale, little or no profit should have killed Pixar in 1991.

And then the Disney Company came to the rescue.

As the relationship continued to grow between Pixar and Disney, the idea of Pixar creating a full-length computer animated feature film became a possibility. After protracted negotiations with Jefferey Katzenburg, the head of motion picture development, a three picture deal was struck where Disney would finance and distribute and Pixar would produce the negative of the finished film. Of course, computer animation was still somewhat of an experimental medium and Disney made sure they had script control and a lot of room to bail out if the films fared poorly at the box office. The first film on the list was a little picture called “Toy Story”.

“Toy Story gave validation to the view of Lasseter and his team that an animated
feature could eschew fairy-tale plots and instead focus on adultlike characters
with adultlike problems, while still providing entertainment to children..”

And the rest is history. Toy Story saved Pixar films and made a fortune for the Disney Company. It went on to become the highest grossing film of 1995 and the first animated film ever nominated for an Academy Award for best original screenplay. The first of a line of massively popular films like: Monster, Inc, and most recently, Ratatouille, which won the academy award for best animated film in 2007.

Ed Catmull with the "render farm" used to render Toy Story.

Eventually, after Steve Jobs made billions in stock from Pixar (of course, many long-term employees did not, since Jobs had divested them of Pixar stock), he sold the company to the Disney Company in 2006 for a little over 7 billion dollars. Disney paid a high price, but with Pixar films adding up to almost 40% of their business, they had no choice it seemed.

In The Pixar Touch (it's title alluding to the phrase “the Lubitsch Touch"), David A Price manages to convey the scope and detail of the Pixar story very well. What I've described here in general, he lays out in great detail. He conducted many interviews with major players in the company and has a good feel for how individual personalities developed and clashed over the years. From the macro to the micro scale, The Pixar Touch is filled with detail and incidents.

The first part of the book is the best, I think. It seems far enough away to be told with a more complete sense of the time and place where the events were happening. Later in the book, at around the point where Steve Jobs comes into the picture, the Pixar Touch changes from one of innovation and movie making to the nasty politics behind sleazy deals and tough negotiations. Frankly, I would have liked less of the Hollywood sleaze and more on the making of the films themselves. It's as if as the films become more popular, Price becomes less interested. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover the background of each film well, he does (with the exception of Ratatouille which is presented in a very sketchy fashion), but he seems to be more at home describing the boardroom brawls and angst of the participants than in Pixar movie-making. He also fails to really look deeply into the films and try to find out what made them so popular. I missed comparisons to other great filmmakers like Hayao Miyazaki. Where Pixar often remains formulaic and sentimental in it's story telling, Miyazaki uses the same ideas to much greater and more mature effect. Sadly, no such comparisons or discussions appear in the Pixar Touch.

However, I recommend The Pixar Touch, as it is a readable and well-researched book. There is a complete bibliography and notes which are almost as interesting as the text. I did find the writing a bit stiff at times and, as I mentioned, there is too much of the sturm and drang of Hollywood business deals to make it a definitive work. I suspect that in tandem with To Infinity and Beyond: The Story of the Pixar Animation Studio written by Karen Paik, Ed Catmull and John Lasseter, these two books together would probably get you as behind the scenes as you could get. That and the actual DVD Extras which are on each disc of films like Toy Story, The Incredibles and Cars.

Pixar CEO Steve Jobs, Walt Disney Studios chairman Dick Cook, and Pixar senior vice president-creative
John Lasseter (L-R) arriving at the premiere of Finding Nemo on May 18, 2003.

Pixar is an extraordinary film company with an equally remarkable history. The Pixar Touch is a good introductory guide. One that will most likely lead you back to the films themselves (especially the early Siggraph films) which is what a book like this should do. Recommended.

The Pixar Touch: the Making of a Company, available at


To Infinity and Beyond: the Story of the Pixar Animation Studio is a lavish, well illustrated coffee table book with none of the padded material you find in most books of this type. Highly recommended.

Leslie Iwerks, (granddaughter of famous Disney illustrator, Ub Iwerks) created a documetary (not seen by this reviewer) called “The Pixar Story”, which was released in July of 2007. From the trailer, it looks great.

Pixar has released a superb DVD collection of their early films under the title Pixar Short Films Collection: Volume 1, which includes the early film Luxo Jr (1986) and Knick Knack (1989), all the way up to short films created recently, like the absolutely hilarious Lifted (2007).

Of course, each film has excellent supplements included on the DVD version of the film. I highly recommend both Brad Bird films (I didn't even to talk about him in the review!), The Incredibles and Ratatouille, which have highly interesting (and entertaining) documentaries and commentaries on the their supplements discs.

YouTube, believe it or not, has some excellent Pixar-related material. The Computer Museum has posted the entire 2006 “Pixar – A Human Story of Computer Animation”, which features Brad Bird, Ed Catmull and a host of other Pixar greats recounting the history of Pixar and the ideas behind the company.

In addition to dozens of Pixar-related short films and outtakes, there is also an extended Charlie Rose interview with Steve Jobs and John Lasseter. At almost an hour, it's well worth the time.

And, of course, the Pixar website is very well-designed and features a ton of content, including a basic history of the company and lots of clips and behind-the-scenes material.

Ricky Grove [gToon], Staff Columnist with the Renderosity Front Page News. Ricky Grove is a bookstore clerk at the best bookstore in Los Angeles, the Iliad Bookshop. He's also an actor and machinima filmmaker. He lives with author, Lisa Morton, and three very individual cats. Ricky is into Hong Kong films, FPS shooters, experimental anything and reading, reading, reading. You can catch his blog here.


May 12, 2008

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