Pixar's Magic Touch
Wednesday, January 25, 2006
When Apple Computer Inc. founder Steve Jobs bought what became Pixar Animation Studios for $10 million in 1986, it was a small animation-systems firm with a few alumni from Walt Disney Co., not the least of whom included creative director John A. Lasseter.
Yesterday, Disney secured the return of Lasseter and his talented team as part of a $7.4 billion deal for Pixar aimed at jump-starting the media giant's animation empire.
Over the past two decades, the 730-person Pixar has garnered a reputation as a place where creative genius thrives, and in recent years the studio has far outpaced the bigger and more institutionalized Disney with hits such as "The Incredibles" and "Finding Nemo." Beyond its money-making ability, Pixar won critical acclaim for bringing adult emotional appeal to a traditional kids' medium.
Pixar started as a computer graphics company, and it is still known for its technical prowess and its ability to digitally replicate the look and texture of rusting cars, peeling paint and fur blowing in the wind. But Pixar's hands-off management style and its artisan cultivation of the creative process have helped it become the benchmark against which the rest of the industry measures itself.
"For us now, the high-water mark is Pixar," said Dug Ward, manager of the Animation Workshop at the University of California in Los Angeles film school. "I remember just a few years ago when students wanted to go to work for Disney. Now they want to go to Pixar."
Under the deal, Pixar President Edwin E. Catmull, 60, would head Disney and Pixar's animation studios, and Lasseter, 49, would head the creative operations of both companies' animation divisions.
News of the merger prompted some animators to worry whether Pixar would be able to maintain its free-wheeling culture. Disney executives pledged to protect Pixar's independence but did not say whether the two companies' animation units might merge.
"A fear a lot of us have is . . . if Disney takes over Pixar and micromanages every detail, they will strangle the golden goose," Ward said.
Even if Disney leaves Pixar alone, there is no guarantee that the relationship will lift the parent's fortunes on Wall Street. Ford Motor Co., for example, never really capitalized on its purchase of Jaguar, nor did America Online Inc. make much of its acquisition of Netscape Inc.
Lasseter, though, is among a handful of Pixar's longtime executives credited with shepherding the company from its early days as a spinoff of "Star Wars" director George Lucas's Lucasfilm operation to a powerhouse in animation. Lasseter graduated from a school founded by Walt Disney and his brother, the California Institute of the Arts, and started his career as an old-fashioned pen-and-paper animator at Disney, where making early film classic films like "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves" required millions of drawings. After moving to Pixar in 1984, Lasseter gravitated to computer animation, producing early short films like "Nick Nack" and "Luxo Jr."
Lasseter's hallmark is his ability to foster originality and create strong story lines, taking advantage of innovative technology to deliver the results, Ward said.
At an animated film screening in the late 1980s, Lasseter talked about his goals for computer animation, Ward recalled. "He was saying that his goal was to do an animated feature film, all in 3-D computer animation," and that high ambition set the crowd abuzz, he said.