The story of how computer programmers transformed the art of movie animation.
THE PIXAR TOUCH
The Making of a Company
Knopf. 308 pp. $27.95
A generation of American kids has grown up watching Pixar's movies in theaters, on TVs and now on portable gadgets like DVD players and iPods. But in The Pixar Touch, David A. Price starts this pop-culture giant's story in neither Hollywood nor Silicon Valley, but the University of Utah's computer-science department.
There in the early 1970s a programmer named Ed Catmull decided to branch out into computerized animation, despite the almost total uselessness of the day's slow, expensive computers for that task and the almost total lack of job options for somebody with that skill. Price, a former reporter for Investor's Business Daily, describes how Catmull and a crew of other would-be electronic movie-makers wound up migrating to the New York Institute of Technology's Computer Graphics Lab, a locale that offered the advantages of generous funding for new computers and lax oversight. And then they waited for somebody in the movie business to underwrite their vision of using computers, not pens and ink, to draw each frame of a motion picture. Eventually, "Star Wars" director George Lucas offered Catmull a job, after which he gradually hired away his NYIT colleagues.
At this point, this band of frustrated innovators comes off a bit like a Pixar hero: tugged along by big dreams but held back by an endearing level of cluelessness. Price notes that "the Lucasfilm Computer Division did not yet have a computer, or even a word processing machine. The only typewriter was on the desk of Catmull's secretary," which its staffers used to hammer out "white papers and design documents."
Paper turned into pixels in 1981, when Paramount hired Lucasfilm to whip up a brief animation of a dead planet being brought to life for "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan." (On a micro level, computers just make animation more efficient; on a macro level, they have made animation much more of a 3-D medium, in much the same way that ever-more processing power has turned the video game into an increasingly movie-like experience.) Price captures the extraordinary attention the programmers paid to detail in hopes that this clip would serve as a "sixty-second commercial" http:/
Additional gigs in movies and commercials, along with animated shorts made to impress others in the business, led to Pixar's birth as an independent company in 1986 -- purchased and bankrolled by Steve Jobs, who had just been forced out of Apple. From this point on, The Pixar Touch can be read in two ways. For fans of Pixar's work, it can resemble the "making of" and director's-commentary bonus features on most DVDs. You could throw a copy of each Pixar release into your DVD player as you read the chapter about its production, and you could recite enough trivia to wow any Pixar completist. (Did you know that Sulley, the blue behemoth in "Monsters, Inc." had 2,320,413 hairs? Me neither.) But the book also must serve as a history of Pixar the company, and there it loses its focus on some critical developments.
Jobs, who apparently did not cooperate with the book, first appears as a sort of distant, cranky godfather to the company and then largely vanishes offstage. This treatment leaves some plot lines hanging: Did his well-documented perfectionism lead to better movies, or did he just annoy the artists?
Some anecdotes fade in and out randomly. A chapter about the making of "Monsters, Inc." opens with seven pages of reporting about an unsuccessful lawsuit alleging that Pixar stole the basic story from an outside author, then switches gears for the next seven pages to chronicle the making of the movie, then launches into a recounting of a different intellectual-property lawsuit. Insights into how much creators can, do or should learn, borrow or steal from the work of others get lost amid the courtroom stenography.
Price also occasionally shows questionable judgment in his sourcing, for example wrapping up a discussion of the success of "The Incredibles" with a page of quotes from the breathlessly enthusiastic reviews at AintItCool.com. And too many of the book's illustrations consist of verbatim reproductions of press releases, hardly the most riveting historical documents.
The book concludes with a chastened Disney -- which had long ago fired future Pixar director John Lasseter from an animator's job -- buying Pixar for $6.3 billion. In one way, it ends too soon, barely addressing Pixar's relatively aggressive moves to distribute its releases online as digital downloads. Will those efforts pan out, or will Pixar's management blow this chance after getting so many earlier technological advances right? We may have to wait for a sequel to find out. ·
Rob Pegoraro writes about technology for The Post's Financial section and washingtonpost.com.