Currently wrapping up a limited run in select theaters is a new independent documentary by Leslie Iwerks, The Pixar Story. Leslie Iwerks is the grand-daughter of animator Ub Iwerks, who was Disney’s key animator in the early days of his fledgling studio of the 1920s, so it seems only appropriate for her to document the history behind Pixar.
If you’ve followed the Pixar Studio closely in the newspapers and magazines, or studied the special features of their DVDs, most of the information presented will be rather familiar; but the newer, never-before-seen footage that leads up to the release of Toy Story has been hidden from most, other than those who were there to make history happen. The early genesis of the Pixar studio lies mainly in looking closely at the early careers of three men: John Lasseter, Ed Catmull, and Steve Jobs. Each of them ended up playing a vital role: Lasseter was trained in animation at CalArts and worked at the Disney studio in the 1970s into the 80s. Meanwhile, Catmull studied computer science at the University of Ohio and Steve Jobs launched the mega-million dollar empire of Apple Computers. The film traces the paths of these three visionaries until they finally intersect to form Pixar, which originated as a branch of Lucasfilm (so George Lucas also had an indirect role in getting them started).
It’s really interesting to look closely at the twists and turns of this early part of the story, and how through a series of successes and failures, these pioneers ended up at their ultimate dream of animating an entire feature-length film using computers. It’s made very clear early in the film, through Iwerks’ careful selection of interview material, that this was their dream for several years before it finally came time to make it a reality. Lasseter, for instance, no doubt had lofty dreams in his head about what his life would be like working at Disney. Having been inspired by the early films, he most likely had high expectations of the dream-world he would become a part of, only to end up finding himself in a very different studio than it had been in the past. With Walt and many of his contemporaries out of the picture, the late 70s/early 80s was a tumultuous time for the Disney Studio. Management decisions of the time eventually caused Lasseter to be let go from the “dream factory” he thought he had been blessed to be with. But in the bigger picture, this turn of events was the trigger that got him involved with the computer scientists in the Bay Area, who were also seeking, at that same moment, the missing piece of the puzzle they needed. Catmull and the other technical wizards needed someone who understood traditional animation, because that was the best way to breathe life into the clunky computer models they were struggling with. Lasseter was the perfect man for the job, and his hard work paid off full circle when Disney climbed back on top and became the distributor for the magic now happening at Pixar; and the rest, as they say, is history.
Inspired by the breakthrough computer graphics of Tron being done at Disney in the early 80s, Lasseter no doubt thought his plan would be to lead the CG-revolution there into new frontiers. He did indeed achieve that, but not necessarily according to his plans or his timing. Stories like that of Pixar, when looked at from an even broader perspective, echo both the Biblical stories and countless stories worldwide of how God is always working behind the scenes. We all have visions and are gifted with enthusiasms about certain things we feel called to do. Once we discover that and begin moving toward our dreams, God moves with us to remind us that He always knows the best way for us to get there. Obstacles will always come up and hopes will always be shattered. Plans we are insistent on sticking to will fall apart. It may seem like there is no hope and we will feel like we have failed, or have given up on our dreams. Then God moves another chess piece, and some other incident we weren’t counting on, or a series of them, eventually gets us to the dream we wanted, but in a different way… often the long way around, and never in a way we would ever think of on our own.
The other important lesson in the Pixar Story is that these men with diverse backgrounds in computer technology and traditional art could not have achieved what they have without each other. Toy Story, their long-awaited dream project of the first computer-animated feature, symbolizes this working together through the relationship between Woody and Buzz. Woody represents the traditional art of animation, invented long ago but still thinking he’s on top of his game. Buzz Lightyear represents the new technology, the impressive gadgetry of computer animation. When Buzz moves in, Woody is threatened, especially when his friends really take a liking to Buzz and wonder why Woody doesn’t have things like lasers and a better voice box. Traditional animators felt the same way when computer animation came onto the scene, and many of them still feel this way today. Buzz and Woody’s relationship begins as a popularity contest, and Buzz is delusional in thinking that he’s really a space ranger, not a toy. When he realizes he’s only a toy, just as the computer is only a tool, he is devastated, until Woody brings him to his senses and helps him discover his true potential. Only by working together are they able to reach their ultimate goal in the story, which is getting back home to Andy. The legacy of the Pixar Studio is the same dedication to the blending of traditional art and new technology that made the Disney Studio also stand out among the crowd in its hey-day of the 1930s/40s. The philosophy of their craft is so beautifully symbolized by the classic scene, one of the best defining moments from any film period IMO, of Buzz flying through the air holding Woody, who yells, “To Infinity and Beyond!”