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The History of Pixar - One Story, Two Mediums

New book and documentary on computer animation studio reviewed,
plus a report from the Ratatouille-flavored Blu-ray party in Los Angeles


November 7, 2007 - If you've taken a look at your favorite store's home video section between yesterday and today,
you've surely noticed Pixar Animation Studios claiming a substantial amount of shelf real estate with this week's DVD/Blu-ray debuts of Ratatouille, Cars, and Pixar Short Films Collection, Volume 1. Those titles provide the earliest and most recent chapters of Pixar's unprecedented run in animated cinema, but for the complete story of the pioneering California CGI studio, you'll have to look elsewhere. The more than 20 years in the company's history are thoroughly covered in two new and separate venues.


The more accessible is To Infinity and Beyond!: The Story of Pixar Animation Studios, a large, lavish 300-page hardcover from San Francisco's Chronicle Books that's to be released on December 1st. Chronicle is no stranger to the domain of animation-tied nonfiction; the publisher is behind The Art Of... series, which regularly elevates a new CGI film from commercial children's fare to serious art form.

The attention-grabbing cover features a relief of action figure Buzz Lightyear, one of Pixar's most famous heroes, in flight, his vibrant plastic look distinguishing him from the pale green canvas. The back cover depicts the same scene from the opposite angle, underscoring the three-dimensionality that has put animation from Pixar (and the many imitators that have sprung up) on an entirely new plane.
Buzz Lightyear takes flight in the cover art for "To Infinity and Beyond!: The Story of Pixar Animation Studios."

Buy To Infinity and Beyond! from Amazon.com
Upon opening the book, one can easily spend a bunch of time admiring the first pages inside which neatly line up lead and supporting characters from Pixar's first seven films. After a succinct 4-paragraph foreword from Pixar's three chiefs (John Lasseter, Steve Jobs, and Ed Catmull), we move onto the text itself, which is credited to Karen Paik, a 7-year veteran of Pixar's Creative Development team.

It's an understatement to call this book comprehensive. Nearly all of the 12" x 9" pages are filled with informative but reader-friendly text on the people and films that have made Pixar what they are, an institution unlike any encountered previously in cinema history. As the Introduction's opening quote from longtime Pixar CEO Steve Jobs puts it, "If you really look closely, most overnight successes took a long time." That's true of Pixar and accordingly, it takes 80 pages to get to Toy Story, the breakthrough 1995 feature that put Pixar and their preferred medium on the map.

The first three chapters are devoted to the three distinct personalities -- the scientist (Catmull), the artist (Lasseter), and the businessman (Jobs) -- whose union gave birth to Pixar in February of 1986 when Jobs acquired the Computer Division of George Lucas's Lucasfilm empire for $10 million. The company's move from seller of esoteric software to computer animation filmmakers is explored in coverage of pre-Toy Story Pixar that looks at commercials and increasingly sophisticated shorts.

Appropriately, the book proceeds to document the production histories of each Pixar feature. If you're reading this article, you likely own most or all of Pixar's films on DVD, which until recently have treated us to all-access behind-the-scenes looks. As such, you may expect to already know all there is. You don't. The detailed and revealing film-centered chapters are loaded with earnest recollections of imposing obstacles, laid out, like everything else, in laymen's terms and complemented by a wonderful abundance of concept art, production photos, and film stills. One gathers, as never before, just how rapid and remarkable a recovery Toy Story 2 underwent, moving from direct-to-video doldrums to critically-adored award fodder; the draining process is deemed an defining moment in Pixar's rise to stable success.

Found in between the chapters on A Bug's Life, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and Cars are a variety of interesting "Spotlight" sections that typically run 2 pages each.
Some of these profile the studio's oft-Oscar-nominated, theatrically-released short films like Geri's Game, For the Birds, and Boundin'. Others focus on specific aspects of the Pixar films and company: voice talent, music, sound design, the widely-employed RenderMan software, continuing education classes of Pixar University, and so on.

The book wraps up with a look at the embroiled course of events that led Pixar to break off talks with the Walt Disney Company, its usual distributor, before reuniting and becoming part of the same family in 2006.

To Infinity and Beyond! is a wonderful and exhaustive look at Pixar's activities to date. While not remotely critical of the featured company, i.e. Paik's employer, this is no white-washed account. The interviews and research conducted by documentarian Leslie Iwerks, the granddaughter of Mickey Mouse animator Ub Iwerks, provide a level of insight which complements and surpasses the more mainstream-oriented overviews found on Pixar DVDs. The amount of artwork provided is just right: storyboards and pencil sketches emphasize that humans figure more largely than computers, while high-resolution spreads of fully-rendered scenes leave one to marvel at the amazing detail with tremendous ease. One obvious complaint that's sure to arise is that the book is already slightly out of date; Ratatouille garners just a single mention and nothing else, while the three or four subsequent films now in various stages of production aren't even mentioned due to the company's typical tight-lipped policies. Though the exclusion of unfinished works seems pretty understandable, it's too bad that Ratatouille couldn't make the cut.

With a list price of $75, this doesn't come cheap, but the mix of stunning imagery with a genuinely readable text (complete with place-holding ribbon) make this well worth the $47.25 shipped that Amazon.com is charging for preorders. While the term "perfect holiday gift" gets thrown around far too much this time of year, Chronicle's fantastic book actually earns it. The coffee table of any Pixar fan will be enhanced greatly by this book's presence.


Extremely similar ground is tread in The Pixar Story, an 87-minute independent documentary film written, produced, and directed by Leslie Iwerks, the above-discussed book's tireless researcher. Opening with a spinning zoetrope, the feature attempts to contextualize Pixar's work within animation history,
The one-sheet poster artwork for "The Pixar Story" also employs Buzz Lightyear, this time in pencil animation.
at least establishing the studio's 1's and 0's as descendants of creations like Gertie the Dinosaur and Fantasia; present-day competition is disregarded.

Pixar Story follows Infinity's design, starting with the meeting of the minds of Ed Catmull, John Lasseter, and Steve Jobs. All appear in interview comments as part of an amazingly expansive roster of subjects. We hear at length from fellow visual innovator George Lucas, who acknowledges unloading what would become Pixar with no regrets. We see the long, bumpy relationship Lasseter has had with Disney, from wide-eyed Jungle Cruise operator to being summarily dismissed after pitching an all-CGI version of The Brave Little Toaster (before Hyperion Pictures' 2-D version, which isn't really acknowledged) to being wooed back.

In fact, Disney is ever so slightly painted as the villain, from their plug-pulling edicts to their threats of making cheap direct-to-video sequels to Pixar films. One can only imagine how much less flattering the portrayal would be if the two companies hadn't made nice and joined forces last year (current CEO Robert Iger is depicted as a keen hero). At least we get to hear Disney's side of the story through comments made by Roy Disney, ex-CEO Michael Eisner, former execs Peter Schneider and Thomas Schumacher, and accomplished traditional animation directors Ron Clements and John Musker.

Various Pixar employees get a chance to talk and speaking louder than their words are glimpses of the dorm-like atmosphere at Pixar, where magic seems to happen when paper airplanes aren't flying around. New interviews with Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, and Billy Crystal provide an actor-as-voice-talent's point-of-view of the creation process.

There's a satisfactory sampling of practically every property mentioned, which are mainly limited to the Disney studio, for whom Iwerks documented her grandfather Ub's achievements in 1999's feature-length documentary The Hand Behind the Mouse. Not much attention is paid to Pixar's shorts from the 1997 resurgence; instead the feature films are given substantial looks, especially those from challenging debut Toy Story to the Pete Docter-directed Monsters, Inc. which each seemed to have something on the line. Narration by Stacy Keach brings an authoritative sound to the documented drama.

As in the book, Toy Story 2 strikes the viewer as being integral to Pixar being established as having extreme, lasting power.
The three men behind Pixar's modest origins: president/CEO Ed Catmull, CEO Steve Jobs, and lead animator/creative executive John Lasseter.
Likewise, Pixar Story doesn't bring us entirely up to date; we only see a few shots from Ratatouille and Cars seems to get slightly thrifty coverage. However, the lengthy production period allows key Pixar storyman Joe Ranft and Disney ancestors Frank Thomas and Joe Grant to speak from beyond the grave. (One struggles to believe that Pixar's living good luck charm John Ratzenberger wasn't worth mentioning or talking to, especially since he hosted the Iwerks-directed Pixar's 20th Anniversary Special, which aired on The Wonderful World of Disney in 2006.)

While the visuals of the documentary supply some welcome variety, those who have gone through Pixar's DVDs (including this week's) will recognize some common footage and common themes. There are, however, some nifty exclusives like looks at Lasseter's award-winning shorts made as a student at CalArts and Glen Keane and Lasseter's CGI-animated Where the Wild Things Are test demo. There are also some clever passages, like when old sci-fi films' technophobia is applied to an industry fearing computers would replace human animators.

Catering to Pixar and animation devotees but serving anyone interested enough to watch, the film offers enough unique content and distanced retrospect to merit a viewing.

Alas, that's where things get tricky. Still without a distributor, the film is receiving very limited exposure this fall in 14 U.S. cities. It's already run in Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, New Orleans, Washington D.C., and Seattle. Tuesday through Thursday of this week net the documentary six showings in a single Landmark Theatre in each of the following cities: Atlanta, Boston, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and San Diego. Next week brings six Tuesday-Thursday showings in San Francisco. The short, scattered exhibitions are intended to qualify The Pixar Story for consideration in the upcoming winter's Academy Awards. Iwerks earned a nomination in this year's celebration in the Best Documentary Short Subjects category for Recycled Life, a film that looked at those who live and work among the Guatemala City Garbage Dump. According to The Hollywood Reporter, she hopes that Oscar recognition for Pixar Story will pave the way for a standard limited theatrical release before bringing the film to DVD with lots of goodies she couldn't fit into the film.


Finally, Christian Ziebarth recently represented DVDizzy.com at Disney/Pixar's party for the Blu-ray Disc releases of Cars and Ratatouille. Here's what he had to say:

Just got back from the BVHE Publicity event promoting the releases of the Disney/Pixar films Cars and Ratatouille on Disney Blu-Ray. This event took place at Social Hollywood on Sunset Boulevard and Brad Bird, John Lasseter, Brian Dennehy, John Ratzenberger, Patton Oswalt, Michael Giacchino and others were present to hang out with the crowd. We were also treated to some fine dining from five-star chefs. The dining area had a sign over its entrance that said, "Gusteau's." Now I can say I have actually eaten at Gusteau's. My own meal consisted of Goat Cheese Caesar Salad Roulade with Potato Crisps, Salmon with Jalapeno Sauce, Potato with Tomato Basil, and Sauteed Wild Mushrooms with Pistachios. Outside a miniature Paris scene was set up, complete with Eiffel Tower, a cheese sampling table, and a dessert area where you could select one of three different types of crepes. This was a very adult crowd; it looked like any gathering of Hollywood elite, but a crowd that can appreciate that animation is not just for children. Perhaps this is why the event focused more on Ratatouille, with its earth-toned colors and foreign movie-feel, than Cars, with its bright colors and distinctly American feel.

A rotating "Ratatouille" display garners attention at the party for Disney/Pixar's Blu-ray Disc debuts. Little chef Remy watches over all in this large statue made of cheese.

An unidentified woman, voice actors, and Pixar's big cheese: Cheech Marin, John Lasseter, and John Ratzenberger strike a pose. This table offers a variety of cheese samples... bet Remy would like it here.

This man seems to be having fun with the Blu-ray exclusive Cars Finder game. An accordion player politely poses.

For more pictures from this event, check out Christian's Flickr collection.

Related Articles:
Pixar Short Films Collection, Volume 1 DVD Review • Report from the World Premiere of Cars
Guide to Ratatouille Tie-Ins • Guide to Cars Tie-Ins

DVDizzy.com | DVD Review Index | Pixar and Other Animation | DVD and Blu-ray Schedule | Search This Site

Pixar Films:
Toy Story • A Bug's Life • Toy Story 2 • Monsters, Inc. • Finding Nemo • The Incredibles • Cars
Ratatouille • WALL•E • Up • Toy Story 3 • Cars 2 • Brave • Monsters University • Inside Out

Published November 7, 2007.