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The Pixar Story

The Pixar Story

By Andrew Latimer • October 14th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 4/5
Leslie Iwerks Productions

Original release: August 28th, 2007
Running time: 87 minutes

Director: Leslie Iwerks
Writers: Leslie Iwerks, Jeff Vincent

Cast: Stacy Keach, John Lasseter, Brad Bird

The Pixar Story

We already know lots about Pixar; I remember reading about the studio’s first feature film, Toy Story, to study how it revolutionised animation with computer design. Over the last few years in particular, the company’s turbulent relationship with Disney has been a major interference but also a liberating experience for employees at Pixar. And yet, the most interesting thing about Pixar is the additional detail about the history of the studio and its animators, how science has assisted the art, the politics of enterprising and the pressure that builds after each feature success, all of which are explored in Leslie Iwerks’ documentary here.

The Pixar Story is largely a biopic about the studio’s animators, including John Lasseter, a talented artist who came through CalArts with people such as John Musker and Ron Clements to eventually direct Toy Story. It begins with his first glimpse of the industry after reading a book on how Disney made their films; from there he worked at the Tomorrowland theme park, won back-to-back student awards for his short animations, and was eventually employed as a collaborative artist at Disney studios. Lasseter learned though that working at Disney wouldn’t necessarily be endless fun; productions such as The Fox And The Hound (1981) were marred by budget cutbacks and the desire to stick with hand-drawn techniques instead of migrating to the computer prevented meaningful advances in animation.

Most artists felt threatened by the computer in the 1960s and 1970s; they reacted by saying that computer animation would sound the death knell for redundant human beings. It was, in effect, a direct confrontation with the future. ‘Are Machines Smarter Than Men?’ asked some publications; this time of change meant that the realities of technology had to be accepted as progressive and beneficial forces that would take animation to new frontiers rather than repress it. Ed Catmull would be the one to twin these two areas of science and art. He developed a programme called Tween at New York Tech, which allowed artists to draw directly into the computer and then digitally animate the product. Catmull was picked up by George Lucas to work on new inventions at Lucasfilm, where he developed a new digital-editing system called EditDroid. He then recruited a whole team of new developers including architects, scientists and artists (and Lasseter) to work on virtual projects.

The Pixar Story

The two goals now facing artists and scientists were: to make a full-length, feature film using the computer and to put characters, not just landscapes, up on screen. To help in this quest, Catmull’s team developed the most powerful graphics computer at the time: the Pixar Image Computer. But facing potential closure, they convinced Lucas to spin the project into a separate division of its own: Pixar.

Now the troubles turned to money, as the animators needed serious investment to develop the technologies necessary to move forwards with animation. The team was fortunate to secure funding from Steve Jobs who would take it to infinity and beyond after buying into Pixar (‘both spiritually and financially’) and launch it as a company. Throughout the late 1980s and into the early 1990s, the software developed, the animators acquired more experience (including awards) and the desire to think bigger pushed the company towards the first full-length feature. They collaborated with Disney on projects including Beauty And The Beast (1991), who in return tried to lure Lasseter away from Pixar to direct a feature at Disney. Instead, both Disney and Pixar worked on a project together to finally produce the coveted full-length feature: Toy Story.

From there, the company experienced all kinds of instability with Disney including leadership crises, brand identity confusion, management struggle, editorialisation, funding and an overall pursuit of individuality. Pixar’s decision to finally break away from Disney to re-launch as an official independent studio signalled its place as a major, leading, international film production company. After winning critical and commercial acclaim with Toy Story, Pixar went on to produce A Bug’s Life (1998), Toy Story 2 (1999), Monsters, Inc. (2001), Finding Nemo (2003) and The Incredibles (2004) in the space of nine years. Naturally, each success put more pressure on new directors to achieve the same triumphs; animation turned towards more complex areas of digitextuality, such as designing hair and fur, moving backgrounds and the Holy Grail of all computer animation: human beings.

The studio’s knack for warm-hearted storytelling is perhaps what makes it stand out from the crowd; the gentleness of its films juxtaposes the rocky environment of animation as a business, and recalls the cartoons from its formative years, pitched towards children but rich with mature themes about love, conquest and catharsis. This desire to use technology to engage audiences with grand tales has benefited Pixar to no end; the animators have treated the storylines and characters as meaningful pursuits in themselves. The same is true of this documentary, which aims to share the history with a great deal of affection for the people who have been on the journey from the very beginning.

Andrew Latimer

Andrew Latimer

Andrew started out writing theatre reviews in Edinburgh while studying for a degree in Arts Journalism. His interest in film came after attending several festivals across the UK. In particular, he discovered a love of documentary cinema, specifically the work of Werner Herzog and Errol Morris.

Andrew loves films which investigate stories of undocumented struggle and solitude. Some favourite docs include Grizzly Man, King of Kong, 5 Broken Cameras, L'encerclement, Inside Job and Shoah.

Andrew runs a Scottish arts review website, TVBomb, and you can follow him on Twitter at @ajlatimer.

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