Ed Catmull’s office could be a window into the brain of Pixar.
Catmull, president of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios, sits at a round wooden table at Pixar’s whimsical headquarters in Emeryville, California. To his right, the walls are filled with items that inspire creativity. There’s a plaster mold of his left hand: the star of the first computer-animated short he made in 1972 as a graduate student at the University of Utah. There are also toys galore, a collection of old watches, and trinkets that look like they were picked up at souvenir stands around the world.
Twenty years ago, a new era in cinema with “Toy Story,” the first full-length feature film created entirely with computers. Critics praised the animated film, “a visionary roller-coaster ride of a movie.”
In the past two decades, Pixar has become a celebrated art house, including “Monsters, Inc.,” “Up,” “Wall-E” and, most recently, “Inside Out.” (Pixar with its newest film, “The Good Dinosaur”.)
“Toy Story” wouldn’t have been possible without ground-breaking rendering software called RenderMan, the program let animators create 3D scenes that were photo realistic. The idea: Generate, or “render,” images that look so real you could put them in a movie along live-action footage – and no one could tell the difference.
Pixar, which created RenderMan used visual effects for 19 Academy winning films including “Titanic,” the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “Avatar”. But that signalled the sea change for digital movie making in: “Toy Story,” “Jurassic Park” and “Terminator 2.”
Toy Story Creation: Long Back
Things might have turned out very differently.
In 1975, Catmull hired Alvy Ray Smith, a charismatic computer graphics pioneer from New Mexico, to join his new Computer Graphics Lab at the New York Institute of Technology. The lab was based on Long Island, not far from the environs of Jay Gatsby, the fictional millionaire from “The Great Gatsby.” Catmull and Smith’s research was bankrolled by their own eccentric multimillionaire, the institute’s president, Alex Shure. From the beginning, Catmull and Smith had a specific goal: Make the first computer-animated feature.
Pixar developed RenderMan to create computer-generated images good enough to be used in movies.
If there’s one striking thing about how Pixar came to be, it’s that there was always a rich guy keeping the dream alive. After Shure, it was George Lucas, fresh from the success of “Star Wars” in 1977. Lucas poached the team to start a computer division at his production studio, Lucasfilm. Then Steve Jobs — down and out after being ousted as CEO of Apple — stepped into the picture as he was looking for a comeback. Jobs bought the team from Lucasfilm for $5 million. Catmull, Smith and Jobs co-founded Pixar in February 1986.
Back then, Pixar wasn’t in the movie business. Instead, the company was hawking computers specifically for visual effects. Pixar created short films — and honed its animation skills in the process — to show potential customers what its computers could do.
But the company was sinking. The technology just wasn’t advanced enough to produce full-length films. During the early years, Jobs put in $50 million, a significant chunk of his fortune at the time, to keep it afloat. “The only reason we didn’t officially fail was because Steve didn’t want to be embarrassed,” recalls Smith.
When it came to making short films, though, the team was world-class. There were two reasons for that success. First, Catmull and Smith put John Lasseter — a young, visionary animator the company picked up while still with Lucasfilm — in charge of Pixar’s creative process. (Where the office of Pixar’s technical maestro Catmull has only one wall of toys, Lasseter’s bursts at the seams with them.)
The other reason was RenderMan.
Pixar developed the software with one simple goal: Create images good enough for Lucasfilm to use, says Catmull. At the time, animators could only cram about 500,000 polygons onto the screen when creating a scene.
In computer graphics, a polygon is a flat, two-dimensional object drawn with at least three sides. Adding more polygons lets artists create more realistic-seeming 3D objects.
Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull takes pride in the fact that reviews of “Toy Story,” the first entirely computer-animated feature film, focused on the movie itself, not the technology.
Catmull’s goal was 80 million polygons.
“Nothing could really handle the complexity of what we were trying to do,” says Rob Cook, one of the original authors of RenderMan. “We were setting the bar.”
They were so successful that in 2001, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ board of governors honored Cook, Catmull and Pixar engineer Loren Carpenter with an Academy Award of Merit “for significant advancements to the field of motion picture rendering.” It was the first Oscar awarded to a software package.
“The thinking was, ‘If we could control this, we could make animated movies the way we think they should be made,'” says Jerry Beck, a historian of animated films.
The big break
For sure, “Tin Toy”, a 1988 Pixar short about a marching-band toy trying to escape a slobbering baby, was a milestone: It won the first Academy Award for a computer-animated short. But its role in movie history is bigger than that. “Tin Toy” inspired that other Pixar movie about toys.
Pixar’s brass, Steve Jobs, Ed Catmull and John Lasseter, wanted to combine technology with storytelling.
When Pixar started pitching projects, Catmull didn’t think the team was capable of creating a whole movie. Instead, he pitched a 30-minute TV show. And because it had to do with toys, the show would be a Christmas special. Peter Schneider, the Walt Disney producer responsible for hits like “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast,” thought better.
“If you can do a half-hour, you can do 70 minutes,” Catmull recalls Schneider saying. “So I thought about it for about one nanosecond — like, ‘Yeah, you’re right.'”
“Toy Story” was released November 22, 1995.
It was the first of many milestones. Pixar’s CTO Steve May says RenderMan delivered another breakthrough for the 2001 film “Monsters, Inc.” when it allowed animators to render individual strands of Sulley’s blue hair. Chris Ford, Pixar’s RenderMan business director, thinks the studio will raise the bar again with the water scenes in “Finding Dory,” the “Finding Nemo” sequel due out in 2016.
“They can’t make the first computer-animated film over again. How do they do the first of something? And how do they own that?”
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