From the Garage to Infinity and Beyond: The Complete History of Pixar
Today, Pixar is the industry leader in making grown adults cry in theaters full of loose toddlers, but it took more than a few lucky breaks worthy of their own heartwarming films to make that happen. From its beginnings in a university garage to its enfolding in the suffocating bosom of Walt Disney, the story of Pixar has more twists and turns than a memory tube.
A Garage in New York
Before Pixar was Pixar, it was the humble-sounding Computer Graphics Lab, a collection of computer scientists assembled by New York Institute of Technology founder Alexander Schure working out of a converted garage in his quest to make the first computer-animated movie. Their budget, however, was anything but humble: Schure poured an estimated $15 million into the project, which revolutionized the field of digital art but didn’t actually make the school any money. It was soon on the brink of bankruptcy, and Schure’s children had to pry control of it out of his eccentric hands.
Friends in Rich Places
After the team watched a film Schure had made with traditional animators that was so bad they realized “we had hitched our wagons to the wrong star,” one of them, Alvy Ray Smith, lucked into a meeting with George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola that turned into “three days of drinking Napa Valley wine, smoking Humboldt County pot, and talking intense tech talk.” As a result, Smith and the rest of the team slowly and quietly trickled over to the dark side.
Boldly Going Where No Animators Had Gone Before
You probably think Toy Story was Pixar’s first film, but it was technically Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The movie’s “Genesis effect” sequence, created by the new Computer Graphics Group at Lucasfilm, was the first fully computer-animated sequence in a feature film and the group’s first real chance to show their stuff.
Just when their star was beginning to rise, Lucas was plummeting into some divorcey financial problems, and the Graphics Group worried they’d be disbanded. They decided to form their own company, but there was that little problem that they didn’t actually have a product to sell yet, since the technology to make entire computer-animated movies was still years away, so they decided to sell the computer they’d developed, the Pixar (short for “picture maker”) Imaging Computer. Yep, Pixar was initially in the hardware business.
Bet You Didn’t Expect a Cameo From Chuck E. Cheese
At the same time, another company, Kadabrascope, was also vying for a foothold in the computer animation industry, though its owner -- Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari and Chuck E. Cheese, which, yes, were somehow founded by the same dude -- was possibly the only guy with more grandiose ambitions than Lucas. Kadabrascope only produced one project, a canceled Christmas vehicle for Mr. Cheese, and eventually lost so much money that its assets had to be sold … to Pixar. So there’s at least two iconic mice involved in this story.
Pixar’s First Short Film
The Pixar tradition of whimsical short films dates all the way back to 1984 with the premier of The Adventures of Andre and Wally B. at SIGGRAPH. What’s SIGGRAPH? Some pretentious indie film festival that prides itself on you never having heard of it? Nope. It’s a computer graphics conference. The film was mostly a demonstration of the groundbreaking techniques Pixar was pioneering.
Enter Steve Jobs
It was only at this point, in 1986, that Steve Jobs bought the company from Lucasfilms. Many believed, as he wanted them to, that he founded the company, but unless you’ve only been skimming up to this point, you know that’s not true. He did keep the company afloat for the next decade, but he also slowly pried 100% of the ownership out of its real founders and tried to get somebody to buy him off until it became clear that Toy Story was going to make him a lot of money, so like most things involving Steve Jobs, it was a real mixed bag of money and nightmares.
The studio’s next short film was Luxo, Jr., which marked the debut of that now internationally recognized li’l lamp. Back when “Pixar” was only a duo of nonsense syllables to most people, Luxo, Jr. was nominated for Best Animated Short Film at the 1987 Oscars, making it the first CGI film to receive the honor.
The Commercial Years
In 1989, while the company continued waiting for technology to catch up to their vision, Jobs ordered Pixar to make commercials for brands like Coke, Hershey’s, and Tropicana. It turns out that the company responsible for some of the most beautiful dreams ever committed to film also created many of your childhood nightmares.
Rescue(rs)d by Disney
Pixar’s relationship with Disney began way earlier than you probably think, when 1990’s The Rescuers Down Under was made with technology developed by Pixar. It became the first fully digital feature film and ushered in the Disney Renaissance, which Disney didn’t fail to appreciate, offering the company a historic three-movie deal.
Pixar Black Friday
The first of those movies, of course, was Toy Story, but it almost wasn’t. The studio’s first iteration of the film was too cynical and its characters unnecessarily aggressive, and Disney hated it so much that they pulled the plug on the project on a day in November 1993 that became known as Pixar’s Black Friday. The studio begged for just two weeks to fix it, and after bringing in a bunch of new writers, including Joss Whedon, they put together a script Disney could sign off on, marking one of the few times Joss Whedon actually made something better.
The First Computer-Animated Film
Of course, Toy Story was a huge hit, making $361 million just during its theatrical run. Alexander Schure, wherever he was, finally got his first fully computer-animated movie. (That makes it sound like he was dead -- to be clear, he wasn’t, but he was in his seventies, and who knows what he was up to?)
The Biggest IPO of the Year
Pixar went public the same year it made all that Toy Story money, becoming the biggest IPO of the year, even beyond Netscape Navigator. This was 1995, so beating Netscape Navigator at anything was like winning the tech Olympics.
The Disney Family
After Disney CEO Bob Iger watched a parade at Hong Kong Disneyland in 2005 and realized every character created in the previous decade was a Pixar character, he figured he should probably buy the company. Disney acquired Pixar for $7.4 billion, suddenly making Steve Jobs its largest individual shareholder and putting everyone at risk of experiencing the first fruit-based Disney princess.
Pixar’s output exploded following the Disney acquisition, producing at least one blockbuster hit almost every year since. Despite a few corporate and creative shakeups, it seems clear that the studio will be emotionally manipulating us for years to come.
Top image: Nicolas Genin/Wikimedia Commons