On November 22, 1995 Toy Story was released into theaters making it 25 years ago this week that the era of computer animation started. Pixar was the studio that started it all and it is a big question that if Pixar hadn’t of been the impeccable story tellers that they were, would this style of animation been as big as its become?
Let’s take a look back at the timeline of big milestones during this era.
1974-1995 The Start Of Pixar
It all started in the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT) with Alexander Shure. He established the Computer Graphics Lab and recruited many computer scientists. He poured a ton of money into this endeavour, nearly $15 million in the seventies and driving the NYIT into serious financial trouble. Eventually, the group realized they needed to be in a film studio and worked with Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas to make it happen.
Lucas, in particular, was pretty interested and offered the group at a job at Lucasfilm. Six people went across and from there created the Graphics Group at Lucasfilm. Shure was not aware of all this until it was too late.
The Graphics Group was a third of the Computer Division of Lucasfilm and they made significant advancements in the field of computer graphics including the invention of the Alpha Channel. Without getting too technical (because I’ll probably be wrong) Alpha channels are what made compositing possible in computers.
Lucasfilm also came up with other tools like a precursor to RenderMan (which is what Pixar would use later to create their movies). John Lasseter was hired in 1983 and with that, he created their first short film The Adventures of Andre & Wally B.
At that point, the new digital compositing computer was created called Picture Maker. It was renamed by one of the founders from NYIT, Alvy Ray Smith, who suggested that they should use a more catchier name with something that a laser-based device would have. Like Pixer! They discussed and changed it to Pixar.
In 1982, they began working with Industrial Light and Magic to create various special effects in movies. A couple of notable examples is the genesis effect in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and the stained-glass knight in Young Sherlock Holmes.
In 1983 two things happened at Lucasfilm. Return Of The Jedi heralded the end of Star Wars gravy train as revenue from licensed products dried up. Secondly, George went through his divorce in 1983. So the Graphics group would need to be sold.
In a weird twist at the time, Nolan Bushnell, the inventor of the video game (well I like to think so anyway) and owner of Atari had founded a computer animation studio called Kadabrascope as part of his Chuck E. Cheese company.
They only made one thing, an animated special for NBC called Chuck E. Cheese: The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t. The idea was to use tweening instead of traditional cell animation to make the animation far smoother than normal. Unfortunately it never really got anywhere and was cancelled by NBC.
With the Video Game crash in 1983, Chuck E Cheese and Atari were both in trouble. So Lucasfilm computer group purchased Kadabrascope. One of Bushnell’s first employees back in 1973 at Atari was now a very interested investor, Steve Jobs.
Jobs had at this time been let go from Apple and had started NeXT computers. In 1986, he paid George Lucas $5 million for tech rights and was made Chairman of the Board of directors of the Pixar, as the company was now known. By using NeXT and Pixar resources, they came up with the Pixar Image Computer and custom software they were able to sell Walt Disney Studios. However the computer never really sold well anywhere else, despite Jobs trying to make it available to the mainstream market. Lasseter made a lot of shorts for demonstrations to show off the device’s capabilities, such as Luxo Jr.
I think you’ll recognize how important this became as their symbol.
In April of 1990, Pixar, thanks to mounting financial losses, sold its hardware division. From 1986-90, Jobs had invested more and more until he had control of the entire company. From there Lasseter’s animation department was getting more and more work in commercials and the software was released on the open market for Windows and Mac. RenderMan was one of the leading 3D packages of the early 1990s and Typestry was a special-purpose 3D text renderer. This kept them afloat.
Disney Animation studios became more and more of a partner as their animation department wasn’t really able to make the most out of the computer animation which was a very different tool than traditional cell animation. But the parent company believed in computer animation and made a $26 million dollar deal with Pixar to create three full-length motion pictures in 1991.
Their first one took 3 years and even with the investment, Pixar continued to bleed money. Jobs considered selling even as late as 1994. But once he learned from New York critics that their first movie would be a hit, he decided to continue funding the company.
Finally, just in time for the Christmas movie season, Toy Story was released.
In Part 2, we’ll talk about the success of Toy Story and the growth of Pixar as a force in cinema from 1995-2006, as well as some competition that came quickly.