3 Dark, Overlooked Moments In Pixar's History
Be it through unexpected reminders of our own mortality or toy-based Holocaust allegories, the geniuses at Pixar are experts at making people cry. As it turns out, the same applies behind the scenes. The history of Pixar is full of characters who got cheated, left behind, or (allegedly) harassed by their multiple Academy Award-winning co-workers. For instance ...
Pixar's Founders Sneakily Ditched The Guy Who Initially Bankrolled Them
Pixar's success is the realization of the dream of a man named Dr. Alexander Schure ... and all he got out of it was bragging rights and massive debt.
Dr. Schure was the founder of the New York Institute of Technology, an open admission university that raked in quite a bit of money in the '50s and '60s. But what Schure really wanted to be was the next Walt Disney. So, in the mid-'70s, he opened an animation department at NYTI and started working on his first movie, Tubby the Tuba. Schure, however, quickly became frustrated with the long-ass process of hand-drawn animation -- or as it was known at the time, "the only type of animation that exists." So, this 54-year-old man came up with a nutty idea: what if you could animate a movie with computers?
Schure was so enthusiastic about his idea that he hired the best computer scientists he could find, mainly future Pixar founders Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith, and basically just threw money at them so they'd make his dream come true. Schure was fully aware that the technology to make this idea possible was still years or even decades away, so he was pretty chill about just letting the nerds do their thing without demanding tangible results. Catmull and Smith called him their crazy "Uncle Alex" -- need a bunch of million-dollar frame buffer machines that can only spit out a single frame at a time? "Sure, my darlings, here you go," Uncle Alex would say while writing a fat check, "and get yourselves some milkshakes at the malt shop while at it." We might be paraphrasing.
With Schure's patronage, Catmull, Smith, and their team at the NYTI Computer Graphics Lab were able to develop technology that would become essential to computer animation in the future, such as the alpha channel -- aka, the reason you can now easily paste transparent PNGs on top of other images and make it look like Peter Griffith is taking a dump on the Game of Thrones throne or something. All of this, of course, with the goal of one day being able to create Schure's CGI movie. In the meantime, Schure had continued chugging along with the traditionally animated Tubby the Tuba and was kind enough to invite the Computer Graphics Lab gang to one of its early showings in 1975 ...
... and they #@$%ing hated it.
Schure may have had complete faith in his "nephews," but that confidence didn't go both ways. Upon seeing the movie, Smith declared, "This guy doesn't have it," and his crew immediately started thinking of a way to ditch him, reasoning that no one would care about the first CG movie ever if the script sucked as much as Tubby's. They began having secret meetings with Disney but didn't get very far because most people there didn't really understand what "computer animation" meant, and those who did were afraid of it.
Eventually, they met a guy who not only got it but wanted in on it: George Lucas. After a series of secret meetings, Lucas invited all the most important members of the Computer Graphics Lab to join LucasFilm's new Computer Division. In order to avoid hurting Uncle Alex's feelings (and, perhaps more importantly, a lawsuit), the CGL nerds left one by one over the course of a year and even got temporary jobs in other places to throw off suspicions. As Smith and another colleague put it, "We were laundering ourselves."
As for Schure, his dream CGI movie, tentatively titled The Works, was never finished. The furthest he got was a few clips that achieved the legitimately impressive feat of replicating the exact look and feel of '90s PC game cutscenes a decade ahead of time.
Schure ended up spending about $15 million in '70s money on the research that directly led to Pixar, as a result putting NYTI in serious financial trouble and causing his children to take the university away from him. Note that we know all of this because Smith himself has been pretty candid about the fact that Schure "lost everything" because of them. Then again, perhaps he feels free to say that because his karmic debt was fully paid by the incidents that followed ...
Steve Jobs Bullied A Founder Out Of The Company
Pixar, per se, didn't really start until Lucas ran into a bigger threat than a thousand moon-sized laser cannons: divorce. After having to give half of his stuff to his (genius editor and) ex-wife, Lucas made it known that he was interested in selling his Computer Division. Catmull and Smith began looking for potential investors who could help them spin off into their own company but were turned down by exactly 45 venture capitalists and corporations, per Smith's count. They almost ended up designing auto parts for General Motors, but in the end, they were saved by Steve Jobs, who had recently gone through a painful divorce of his own (with Apple).
The only problem now: they had to work with Steve Jobs, whose board meetings with Smith could allegedly devolve into close contact shouting matches over the silliest crap.
Jobs wasn't as patient as Schure and Lucas about Pixar losing money for years as they waited for computers to become cheap and powerful enough to animate a whole movie (at one point in the '80s, it was calculated that The Works would take seven years to render). According to Smith, whenever Pixar ran out of money, Jobs would write them a check to avoid the embarrassment of having his first post-Apple investment flop, but then he'd "take equity apart from the employees" while promising them stock options that "never materialized." He ended up slowly chipping away at the workers' share of the company until he owned 100% of it, which wasn't great for morale. It's a testament to Jobs' supernatural charisma that he could show his face at Pixar without everyone immediately farting on it (they simply said stuff like, "Keep that man away from us").
In the meantime, Pixar kept working on their movie plans, but Jobs wasn't really enthusiastic about that nonsense -- it was "a struggle" to get him to cough up cash for animating anything more narratively complex than a Tropicana commercial. According to Pixar CFO Lawrence Levy, Jobs only agreed to go along with Toy Story when he heard Disney was already on board. Even then, he "shopped the company around," but no one was willing to pay his $50 million price. That suddenly changed when critics got to see Toy Story and went nuts for it, at which point "Jobs rushed in, pushed Ed (Catmull) aside as CEO and took over leadership of Pixar." It was only then that Jobs started calling himself Pixar's founder; up till that point, he was simply its funder.
By then, Smith had already had enough of this turtleneck-wearing "street bully" and quit Pixar once he was certain that Toy Story was on the right path, specifically because he "wanted Steve Jobs out of (his) life." His annoyance with the man grew over the years as Jobs built the myth that he pretty much came up with Pixar himself, with some help from Catmull. In 2004, Smith wrote a disappointed letter to Catmull because the Pixar website's history section didn't mention him even once (we can confirm that it now mentions him exactly once ... and Jobs three times).
They Allegedly Let John Lasseter Get Handsy With Employees For WAY Too Long
Pixar has worked with some dodgy people over the years, from certified snitch Tim Allen to good ol' John Ratzenberger, who, we regret to inform you, was surprisingly chill with endorsing openly racist and sexist fascists until his candidate of choice attacked the profession of his Cheers character (weird place to draw the line, but okay). But the most damaging Pixar employee yet is also one of its oldest: Toy Story and Cars director John Lasseter, who hit it off with Catmull and Smith way back in the '70s by being the only Disney animator who wasn't afraid of them.
Lasseter had been an acclaimed and prolific Pixar collaborator since the beginning, so everyone was shocked when he got # MeToo'd in 2017 and stepped down from the company. Well, everyone except Pixar, apparently.
According to a longtime employee talking to The Hollywood Reporter, Lasseter was well-known in the company's whimsy-filled halls for "grabbing, kissing, making comments about physical attributes." Female employees allegedly got used to turning their heads ASAP upon seeing him to avoid unwanted incursions from his lips, and some had to master a move called "the Lasseter" to prevent him from touching their legs. His hugs were infamously long and awkward for the other party, although, as one former employee pointed out, "If it was just unwanted hugs, he wouldn't be stepping down." And this wasn't a recent thing: one insider reported seeing Lasseter get way too fresh with a woman in a meeting more than 15 years before he stepped down.
But how can we know that the other higher-ups were aware of Lasseter's creepy behavior? Because according to Variety, not only was he reprimanded for an incident at an Oscar party in 2010, but they had "minders" tasked with keeping an eye on him like he was some sort of horny gremlin that, for some reason, was allowed to run loose in the office. For a while, it was reported that Rashida Jones had quit Toy Story 4 because Lasseter made an unwanted pass at her, but she later clarified that it was simply because they don't treat women and people of color with respect. Phew!
Hopefully, Lasseter didn't suffer too much while he was unemployed for ... a whole nine days, between his official Disney departure and his being hired to head Skydance Animation. Sigh, cancel culture runs amok once more.
Top image: Pixar, Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons