To infinity: How Pixar brought computers to the movies
“Toy Story,” the first full-length computer-animated movie, turns 20 this month. Behind Woody and Buzz are a bunch of computer graphics geeks who, with help from Steve Jobs, changed movies forever.
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.
To his left, though, it’s all business: a dual-monitor Mac, two elegant gray armchairs and a row of framed, understated drawings from Pixar movies, featuring friends like Woody and Buzz Lightyear.
The room is a metaphorical manifestation of the cerebral hemispheres — fitting for the co-founder of a studio that melded computer algorithms with art in a way no one had ever done before.
Twenty years ago this month, Pixar ushered in a new era in cinema with “Toy Story,” the first full-length feature film created entirely with computers. Critics praised the animated film, with Roger Ebert calling it “a visionary roller-coaster ride of a movie.”
What stands out for Catmull is that nearly all of the critics devoted only a sentence or two to its breakthrough computer animation. “The rest of the review was about the movie itself,” Catmull recalls. “I took immense pride in that.”
In the past two decades, Pixar has become a celebrated art house, with other groundbreaking films to its credit, including “Monsters, Inc.,” “Up,” “Wall-E” and, most recently, “Inside Out.” (Pixar will release its newest film, “The Good Dinosaur,” later this month.) But Pixar’s achievement hasn’t just been a game changer for animation; it’s been course-altering for all of film.
“Toy Story” wouldn’t have been possible without groundbreaking software from Pixar. Called RenderMan, the program let animators create 3D scenes that were photorealistic. The idea: Generate, or “render,” images that look so real you could put them in a movie alongside live-action footage — and no one could tell the difference.
Pixar, which licenses RenderMan to other film studios, boasts that 19 of the last 21 Academy Award winners for visual effects used the software. They include “Titanic,” the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “Avatar.”
But film experts point to three movies from the mid-’90s that signaled the sea change for digital moviemaking: “Toy Story,” “Jurassic Park” and “Terminator 2.” RenderMan had a part in all of them.
“Before those three movies, the idea of making a movie with a computer was ridiculous,” says Tom Sito, chair of animation at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. “After those movies, the idea of making a movie without a computer was ridiculous.”
Still light-years away
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.
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.