Toon Times: A Pixar’s Life

    Some of the men behind Pixar's success, including John Lasseter (second from left). Photo by nicogenin on Flickr. Licensed under the Creative Commons.

    From Rugrats to The Simpsons, at some point in our lives we’ve devoted time to watching cartoons. Whether you have been depriving your inner child of animation for who knows how long or are an active Disney/Nickelodeon/Comic Strip-phile like I am, this is an inside look into something you may not know about animation. Enjoy this free issue of the Toon Times.

    “Animation is the one type of movie that really does play for the entire audience. Our challenge is to make stories that connect for kids and adults.” – John Lasseter

    Pixar Animation Studios has become known for its infallibility. In its short history, the studio has cranked out hit after hit – constantly topping itself not just in revenue, but in creativity and quality. But what makes all of their films so great? How did a little division of LucasFilm, almost destined for failure, become one of the most successful studios of all time?

    At Pixar, a childlike sensibility is the backbone of moviemaking. It is the reason for the thriving history of the studio. It is the basis behind the timeless stories that Pixar has told for nearly three decades and a dozen feature length films. And most importantly, it is what keeps millions of people coming back every year, anxious to partake in the glory of animation, regardless of age.

    The Incredible(s) beginning of computer animation

    Originally, Pixar was not founded on this notion of childhood. Just like any burgeoning company, it had to pick itself up and make a name for itself, maturing to the place as a beacon of the film industry that it now holds. But Pixar’s version of mature was and is anything but mainstream.

    Created out of the Graphics Group computer sect of LucasFilm, Pixar was really the brainchild of three people from three very separate backgrounds: Ed Catmull, Steve Jobs and John Lasseter. Catmull, a computer scientist who specialized in graphic design, would enlist Lasseter to join the LucasFilm team while at a conference on board the Queen Mary ship docked in Long Beach, Calif.

    Animation enthusiast Lasseter studied at the California Institute for the Arts (CalArts for short). CalArts, located in Valencia, Calif., was founded by Walt Disney and at the time of Lasseter’s student tenure there was a gathering ground for classic Disney animators teaching courses in character drawing. This included Disney’s Nine Old Men, a group of core animators who were responsible for some of the most well-known Disney films from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves to The Rescuers. Lasseter, despite his loyalty to the Disney franchise, had recently fallen out with the Walt Disney Animation Studios over his desire to work with computer design for The Brave Little Toaster and was thus free to move onto work with LucasFilm.

    Lasseter seemed a good fit for the Graphics Group, but his vision was more than that of a simple graphics production company. He was a storyteller. When Steve Jobs acquired the then flailing group for $10 million, he instigated a more production-centric model for the company, dropping the hardware division and focusing instead on computer graphic animation. In the early stages of Pixar, Lasseter would produce short films the likes of which would earn him an Oscar nomination (“Luxo Jr.”).

    A childhood story

    Eventually, Pixar – which began primarily as a medium for computer generated ad campaigns – would capture the attention of Disney executives who would offer a three film contract with the company, giving Walt Disney Feature Animation production rights over Pixar’s first three projects. The first of these projects fell under the working title Toy Story.

    Toy Story was Lasseter’s pet project, and it was with his spearheading that Pixar became the institution that now stands today at the Pixar Studios in Emeryville, Calif. Lasseter, admittedly a childhood cartoon buff who loved characters like Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny was in every way still connected to his younger self. It was this that inspired him to write a story about a cowboy doll and the escapades of one little boy, Andy’s, toy collection.

    At the time of Toy Story’s creation, Pixar was housed in a much smaller building in Point Richmond, Calif. Small cubicles were filled with tchotchkes and themed knick-knacks belonging to animators, many of whom were CalArts classmates of Lasseter. The headquarters was described as being like a college dorm, with 200 people sharing the space as if it were a playground. The atmosphere was light and fun, a perfect complement to the work being done there.

    Since Toy Story’s production, Pixar has grown into a massive studio worth billions of dollars. But one thing has stayed consistent throughout its history, even with the massive success of Toy Story and its subsequent films, and that is the devotion to innovation and ingenuity.

    Some great Pixar shorts

    What John Lasseter set out to create was a new form of animation that appealed not only to children, but to the child in all of us – no matter how mature we believe we are. So why do these movies resonate with us? How has this studio been able to trump so many others in its number of successes?

    The answer is in the kids themselves – the men and women behind Pixar. What Lasseter and his colleagues brought to the table at Pixar was a form of production based on the notion of childhood passion for animation. The men who loved waking up on Saturday mornings to sit in front of the tube and catch some cartoons were just as eager, if not more, to bring the same feeling to a new generation of kids as well as their parents.

    When Lasseter pitched the idea of Toy Story to Disney Animation, then manager Jeffrey Katzenberg implored Pixar to make the film more edgy. But after a failed attempt to fulfill Katzenberg’s desires left Woody as a detestable, rude character and the rest of the film less than perfect, Lasseter’s vision would return and make for one of the most beloved animated films of all time.

    It is Pixar’s dedication to the idea of film for children and once-children that makes these films work so well. With stories that are interesting and engaging, characters that are fantastical yet relatable, they have managed to do what other animation studios only dream of doing – really finding a niche within mass screen culture.

    Pixar is widely regarded as one of the most reliable film studios not only by critics, but by viewers regardless of demographic. And that’s because, despite our differences, we all have a desire inside us to relive that love for animation that we had as children. While other studios may not have the bridge between childhood and adulthood quite mastered, Pixar has had it figured out for decades.

    While cartoons may be considered a kids’ medium, animation in general is something that can – if done well – keep anyone entertained. And for Pixar, this is the seed through which all films are made.


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