The Genesis of Pixar

Pixar may have been founded in 1986, but its origin actually took place 7 years prior. Join us as we honor Pixar on its unofficial 40th anniversary by examining how the company came to be in the first place..

Today we recognize Pixar as a Disney company responsible for producing some of the finest examples of computer animated feature-length cinema. From the original Toy Story to this month’s Toy Story 4, Pixar has specialized in creating films that appeal to viewers both young and old. The stories they bring to life through vivid computerized animation have captured our hearts and our imagination. However, Pixar‘s success didn’t come overnight. 

In fact, when Pixar was founded in 1986, it had little to do with computer animation at all. The animation aspect was essentially a side business, which gradually took over the company’s other endeavors. In many ways, the founding of Pixar was not the beginning of the story of the company we recognize today. To understand the full story of how Pixar innovated the use of computerized animation in film, we have to go back even further.

In the 1960’s the New York Institute of Technology was one of the first institutes in the world to utilize computers for educational purposes. Teaching students about computers allowed them to understand their benefit as a research tool. As understanding of computers grew, so did the need to improve computers to become more sophisticated. As computers became more sophisticated, people began to look for opportunities for them to be used in new ways. One of these people was NYIT founder Dr. Alexander Schure, who also happened to own an animation studio. Schure was interested to see if computers could be used to modernize the arduous animation process.

Dr. Alexander Schure
Dr. Alexander Schure

So in 1974, Schure secured and provided 5 years’ worth of funding to create the Computerized Graphics Lab (CGL), the first of its kind in the world. Schure purchased some of the most advanced computer technology in the world to help lure some of the industry’s brightest minds. His ambitious goal was to be able to completely animate a film using computers. Based on the archaic state of computer technology at the time (especially processing power), this was a tall task. However, Schure’s enthusiasm attracted some of the best and brightest.  

He hired Edwin Catmull, who would later become Chief Technical Officer at Pixar, to head the laboratory. Alvy Ray Smith and David DiFrancesco were hired from Xerox to assist in the enhancement of computer graphics and the programs needed to manipulate them. Other prominent computer scientists and artists were hired as the CBL grew in capacity and notoriety. Part of the reason for this is that the CGL was the only facility in the world capable of producing 24-bit RGB graphics. The team built the first RGB framebuffer, and Smith was responsible for creating the first RGB graphics paint program.

Image result for 24 bit color

Later innovations included the first system capable of texture mapping, and a scan-and-paint system. The lab had a sophisticated computer set up which was one of the first computer networks in the world. Eventually, they began working towards commercial applications. The first computerized film editing system was developed, along with editing techniques for raster graphics including pixel dissolves, fractals, morphing, and image composting. The company even produced the first television commercial with computer-generated rasterized graphics.

By 1975 it became apparent that in order to further develop the technology for computerized animation in film, the CGL would need input from actual film production studios. Ed Catmull began a series of visits to Disney in order to get feedback on the usefulness of the technologies they were developing, as well as learn more about the state of computer technology currently being used at the time. These visits “planted the seeds” of the future Disney collaboration and eventual take-over of Pixar. But initially the relationship did not get off to a good start.  

Image result for ed catmull young

Catmull found the animators at Disney not to be very receptive of adapting new technology. All of the important creative minds at Disney at the time (“The Nine Old Men”) were older and very much entrenched in animation traditions. They had been using the same processes for decades, and a computerized approach was seen as a threat to their artistic process. However, the executives were a little bit more receptive. They realized the importance of using computers to animate overlays which could save some production time and cost. In 1977 Disney asked Catmull if he could animate bubbles for them, but Catmull didn’t believe they had the technology yet available to do it well.

One positive from the CGL’s visit to Disney was the opportunity to meet John Lasseter. Unlike the other animators, Lasseter was intrigued by the idea of computer generated animation. After a colleague showed him some of the initial work being done on the computer-animated light rider scene in the upcoming movie Tron, Lasseter was inspired to develop his own film using computer generated animation. However, his enthusiasm for computer generated animation was not shared by his superiors, and when they realized he was working on such a project without their approval, he was fired. Lasseter would later be hired by Catmull in 1983 and eventually would become the future CEO of Pixar.

In 1979, George Lucas hired Catmull to head the new Graphics Group which would make up one third of his new Lucasfilm Computer Division. The Graphics Group would later evolve into Pixar. The Computer Division as a whole was tasked with advancing computer technology for use in film production. For example, George Lucas wanted to develop a computerized editing system which allowed film to be edited non-linearly. Several other employees at CGL followed Catmull to Lucasfilm where they had the opportunity to work directly with film production – something that they hadn’t really achieved yet at NYIT.

The Genesis effect
The Genesis effect

The Graphics Group found its first success in this regard with 1982’s Start Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. For this film, they developed the “Genesis Effect” sequence. It was the first use of 3D raster graphics in feature film history. Return of the Jedi also used some preliminary effects work completed by the team. Shortly after, the team developed the glass knight in Young Sherlock Holmes, which essentially became the first CG 3D animated character in film. In 1984, the Graphics Group released the first 3D computer-animated short, called The Adventures of Andre & Wally B which was animated by John Lasseter. This was a groundbreaking achievement at the time and showcased the possibility for computer animated film in the future.

Other companies began to take notice of what The Graphics Group was doing. Around this time, Lucasfilm negotiated a contract with Disney to have the Graphics Group consult on the digitalization of Disney’s classic cel animation procedure. They helped to build Disney’s Computer Animation Production System (CAPS) which would help the studio with their next generation of animated productions. The project was still underway in 1986 when Pixar became its own company, and this work would go a long way to link these two companies together moving forward.

However, clouds began to form on The Graphics Group’s horizon. George Lucas’ divorce agreement in 1983 meant there would be reduced revenue available for research and development. Lucas wanted the team to focus on graphics for upcoming films. But those who had come over from the CGL still held on to their passion for creating a computer-animated film. They made a last ditch effort by signing a contract with a Japanese company to develop a computer-animated feature film. However, the contract would later be dissolved when such a project was deemed economically infeasible. They interpolated from what had been required to make the 2-minute long Adventures of Andre & Wally B – processing power continued to be a huge hurdle the group still needed to overcome, even when taking into account Moore’s Law for the near future.

Image result for Adventures of Andre & Wally B

As such, The Graphics Group began to shift focus to software and hardware development in order to remain relevant while they waited for processors to advance. They realized Lucas would have no choice but to sell them off in an effort to raise capital, and so they had to survive in the meantime. The Graphics Group began to develop their own computer system which would be able to render graphics in higher resolution than commercially-available equipment at the time. This system became the Pixar Image Computer, which was to be sold for commercial and scientific purposes. To promote the new product, John Lasseter would develop new short films on the platform in order to show what it was capable of.

The Pixar Image Computer was indeed ahead of its time. Unfortunately, it also cost close to $400,000 in today’s dollars. That limited the potential appeal of the system. The company began to search desperately for investors, but found little success. Steve Jobs made an offer for technology rights which was rejected by George Lucas at first because he thought it was too low. However, he couldn’t find another offer and had to accept. In 1986, Graphics Group was spun off and became funded by a $5 million investment by Steve Jobs in exchange for ownership share. The company was renamed to Pixar, and Catmull was named president.

Pixar Image Computer
Pixar Image Computer

However, Steve Jobs was not really interested in creating computer animations. His goal was to use the Pixar Image Computer technology for his new computer brand. However, the lack of sales made continued development on the system more and more difficult. Despite some attempts to make a lower cost system, the hardware side of Pixar floundered and eventually had to be sold off.

By 1991 there were fewer than 42 people working for Pixar (about the same number when the company began in 1986). Luckily, work in computerized animation had continued and would end up saving Pixar despite that not being its primary focus when founded as its own company. During this time, John Lasseter had continued to make computer-animated films, but they were meant as demonstration and not sold for profit. During this time, Pixar struggled to stay afloat by selling work for commercials and releasing some of their rendering software on the open market. In the end, they remained solvent just long enough for computer technology to catch up.

Tin Toy
Tin Toy

Lasseter’s 1988 short film, Tin Toy would become Pixar’s saving grace. The film earned an Oscar win for Best Animated Short, but more importantly it caught the eye of Disney’s new CEO Michael Eisner. Eisner began a bid to get Lasseter to return to Disney, but Lasseter didn’t feel like he would have sufficient creative freedom at Disney. Eisner knew the potential of computerized animation. With films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit becoming popular, Disney recognized the need to expand their offering beyond traditional animation. However, they needed outside help to do it, and Disney had a long-standing policy where they only would make their films in-house. This changed in 1990 when Disney agreed to sell the rights of A Nightmare Before Christmas to Tim Burton. The following year, Disney was able to strike a contract with Pixar to develop three computer-animated feature films. The deal provided Pixar with the funds they needed to continue technological development, and the rest, as they say, is history.