Wednesday, June 4, 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.

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