Human beings cherish a wide range of materials, sensations and possessions but they seem to hold nostalgia closest to their hearts. It is easy to reckon the reason for this phenomenon, we cherish glory days, the ones that are in the past, unalterable by the present course of actions and destined to be eternal sources of joy. For an individual my age, nostalgia boils down to childhood memories, often coloured by wonders we witnessed and imagined. A vivid part of every 90’s and 2000’s kid’s childhood is the classic animated masterpieces they saw.
With this month’s blog, my attempt is to unravel the behind the scenes anecdote of one of the most prolific studios, Pixar.
Pixar’s story is parts fascinating and parts muddled up with complexities. In 1974 two young gentlemen, Edward Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith led Computer Graphics Laboratory in New York Institute of Technology. The pair of them shared a common passion for computer generated graphics, with ambitions to explore and trail blaze the field of graphics. Five years later in 1979, Star wars famed director and producer George Lucas invited these young academicians to join Lucas Films and head the computer division. Lucas brought them in with hopes that they’d be able to optimise and upgrade his digital editing software, digital audio converters and advance the computer generated graphics. Ed Catmull was an unrecognised prodigy and in a collaboration with Industrial Light and Magic Studios, he presented his first endeavor the “Genesis Effect”. This digital spectacle graced the screens as a part of terraforming scenes in the second installment of popular movie franchise “Star Trek”. From a current perspective this effect may seem to be basic but at that point in time it was a notable milestone in the world of CG. Although Ed possessed sheer brilliance in his domain but he was no animator, the next piece of puzzle in the success of yet to be named Pixar was John Lasseter. John was a lifelong Disney fan, who was awestruck by animation since his childhood. A gifted animator and short movie director, he finally joined as an animator in his Disney. After landing his dream job, John was willing to push the envelope further in the terms of animation. Alas , the corporate culture in Disney was diametrically opposite to their on screen products. John pitched his first project, a feature length animated special and was met with harsh criticism regarding the expensive nature of his proposed creation. Disney higher ups saw digital animation as a means to reduce time and labour rather than an avenue to explore with creative intent. Soon after this unfortunate proposal he was laid off from his job and booted out. In the year 1983, John Lasseter met Catmull in a convention and both bonded over their love of computer generated animation. John joined the Catmull and his team and the next year they came up with experimental animation techniques like motion blur, smooth action frame transit and figure flexibility. These groundbreaking techniques were incorporated in their next short film, “Adventures of Andre and Wally Bee”. Lucasfilm’s computer division had an impressive resume with regards to top notch animation but were yet to draw funds from the market. To bolster the financial side Ed Catmull created the Pixar computer, a device capable of converting high resolution images into 3d. He made efforts to sell the software and hardware to the medical industry and defence sector, in order to show some financial compensation. Discerning the current financial of the computer division, George was willing to put it up for sale. Ed and Alvy convinced Lucas to let them find a suitable investor and George permitted them.
To save the computer division from bankruptcy entered the entrepreneur extraordinaire and Co founder of Apple, Steve Jobs. Steve came in as the patron saint for the computer division (yet to be christened as Pixar). He paid Lucas a grand sum of 5 million dollars and sanctioned another 5 million dollars to Ed Catmull as their working budget. With renewed financial reinforcement, the computer division was back on track to create animated gems. Under their new boss, Ed and team created Luxo Junior, a short movie about a certain lamp, which went on to win an Academy Award for Best Animation. Luxo Junior became the mascot for the newly christened Pixar studios and it symbolised the bright future that lay ahead of them. A batch of short films followed Luxo, but Pixar was yet to find a well paying gig. To kick start earning, they got a pair of young animation artists, Pete Docter and Andrew Stanton on board. With so many competent animators on board they bagged a well paying job, computer generated advertisements. They began working on computer generated commercials for renowned brands like Tropicana and Listerine. Later in the 1980’s, Pixar received the silver ticket to Hollywood, Disney had requested a collaboration with them. With their prowess combined with Disney, Pixar crew developed CAPS (Computer Animation Production System). The software drastically decreased labor costs for inking and simplified various post production processes. It was a key reason Disney’s “Beauty and Beast” was majestic and comparatively frugal. Disney on the tail end of its glory days of animated cinema were anxious to hop onto the next rising trend of computer generated animation. For capturing the rising market, Disney tried tooth and nail to get John Lasseter back as the director for their feature length animated movie. John refused the offer and presented a counter offer to the Mouse. He was able to fetch about 26 million dollars from Disney for Pixar to produce the world’s first completely computer generated animated movie. Pixar was now on walking on eggshells, for them this moment could etch their name in history and end the repeated financial droughts they faced regularly or completely decimate any hope of existence for their venture. As soon as Pixar began treading towards their accomplishment, they realised Disney was extremely hands on with creative interference. Disney requested odd creative guidelines and then rejected drafts based on the same eccentricities and rudely labeling them as crass and edgy. John Lasseter finally cut all creative ties from Disney and re-wrote the plot according to his own creative instincts.
The plot was from the perspectives of toys which came to life in absence of human presence. On 22nd November 1995, Toy Story made its debut in theaters after a challenging production process. It was a massive box office hit earning a net of 350 million dollars, the highest grossing movie of that year. Pixar had hit their stride and changed the landscape forever. They finally established themselves as a legitimate studio and went public the very same year. Disney generously collected their share from earnings and had a tight clutch around merchandising rights. At this junction, Pixar knew that they had to hit another couple of movies out of the park to further gain independence from Disney. Pixar also renegotiated their contracts, they put forward the proposition that Disney and they be 50-50 partners and they be allotted around 150 million for producing classics going forward. Disney obliged them after changing a few clauses in the contract, which was named 1997 contract. Pixar also had the looming threat of Second Product syndrome. Second Product Syndrome, a concept introduced by Steve Jobs that if a firm finds phenomenal success in its first product, it may find it a colossal failure in the form of its second product, due to not being able to comprehend the proportion of elements of success in the first one. Jobs had faith that if they weathered this storm, they’d truly make it big time. Pixar caught lightning in a bottle for the second time with their second movie, “A Bug’s Life”. It was another classic, which graced theatre screens on 25th November, 1998 and was the highest grossing movie of that year. After their second success Pixar laid the foundation of their Emeryville Studio, the home of all their creations going forward. The 1997 contract with Disney seemed to be an upgrade for Pixar but by 1999 Disney started using the fine print as a leverage to oppress Pixar. In accordance with the 1997 contract, Pixar had to provide Disney with 3 theatrical releases before 2000’s and rights to sequels would be reserved for Disney exclusively. Disney was hell bent to make the sequel to Toy Story a direct to video release therefore not included in the contract. Pixar was able to cajole Disney into greenlighting the theatrical release of the sequel. Disney persistently poked fingers during creative processes but somehow John and his team managed to have the film made according to their choice and it was another feather in their cap.
For next few years, Disney retreated back, allowing Pixar to grow tremendously and incorporate industry defining graphics in their portfolio. Meanwhile, John was on a hiatus and Pete took the creative helm in his place. With every release, Pixar nailed another effect and enriched their art beyond comprehension. With “Monster’s Inc.”, they found a way to animate realistic fur on their characters, “Finding Nemo” saw the water being animated in the presenting medium and so on. By 2004, the tenuous relation they shared with Disney reached its rupture point and their contract was dissolved on account of Disney being unwilling to increase their budget. In a feat of retribution and public humiliation, Disney launched their own computer generated animation studio and tasked it to create Toy Story 3. At this point, Pixar were still looking for a new patreon and this news struck them like a thunderbolt. John Lasseter who just got back from his hiatus was distraught that his brain child was now under the thumb of Mickey mouse. The CEO of Disney who broke the deal, named Mike Eisner, lost his approval rating due to this take no prisoners approach and was replaced by Bob Iger. Bob saw the fine qualities that the renaissance Disney movies like Little Mermaid, Jungle Book and Beauty & Beast had, were also present in the products created by Pixar. Bob’s first order of business was to open a channel of communication with Pixar and renegotiate with them. Pixar without a shred of mean spiritedness entered another much more relaxed contract now and were later acquired by Disney. John Lasseter was appointed as the chief of Disney Studios, which now co-existed with Pixar still headed by Ed Catmull and rivaled it in terms of technological prowess and narrative glimmers.
I’m personally a fan of Pixar Studios, especially the initial releases. While I marvel at the technological wonders they synthesize, what separates their movies from other movies is the nuanced story telling. I’d personally recommend two jewels from their filmography, “Up” and “Wall-E”. Both of them are exceptional in all aspects yet retaining the human facet of fiction. Pixar is still churning out great flicks every year but I feel that the current crop is a tad bit lackluster and commercially curated with unnecessary shoehorning of topical issues.
I believe that it is an individual’s right to crown the magnum opus of their favorite artist, therefore I’d urge you to go ahead and drench yourself in the wholesomeness Pixar offers.