Primer: Pixar

Primer is The A.V. Club's ongoing series of beginners' guides to pop culture's most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This week: Pixar Animation Studio, the company that invented the computer-animated feature film and has become the Walt Disney corporation's most acclaimed imprint. Their ninth full-length film, WALL—E, opens today.

Pixar 101

Making movies was never what Pixar's corporate overlords had in mind. They intended to sell specialty imaging computers and software for advanced rendering to businesses like advertising agencies and medical equipment manufacturers. But Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith—the tinkerers who started Pixar to explore the use of computers to produce moving graphics—also wanted to produce work with characters and stories. When they hired John Lasseter at a computer graphics conference on the Queen Mary, the laid-off Disney animator hid from his bosses behind the title "Interface Designer" and worked on the short films that would draw gasps and standing ovations at the annual computer technology convention SIGGRAPH.

The first of those shorts to receive acclaim outside of the computer industry was "Tin Toy," a five-minute adventure story about a wind-up one-man band racing to elude a huge, bumbling baby. As Tinny The Toy realizes the child's destructive potential, his initial delight turns to horror, and Lasseter's direction and design captures not only the drama of the situation, but the humor inherent in the character's gradual discovery of his situation. He can't move without his instruments playing—but if his instruments play, he attracts the attention of the baby. The short portrays one of the first computer-generated human characters (though Billy The Baby looks more like a doll than an actual infant), and when Tinny escapes under the couch and the camera cuts to the frightened toys of the household staring at him with their quivering, artificial eyes, it's a early example of Lasseter's crack comic timing. Other computer animators at the time were trying to dazzle with technique, but Lasseter was exploiting the industry-wide interest in new technology to try his hand at being the new Chuck Jones.

"Tin Toy" won the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film in 1988, and it looked for a while like the foundation of a one-note Pixar empire. When Lasseter gave Jeffrey Katzenberg the first treatment of a movie called Toy Story, it starred Tinny. The original plan was to follow the wind-up toy from the factory to the store to a little boy's birthday party. Then Tinny would be accidentally left at a gas station and have to find his way (with his buddy, a ventriloquist's dummy) to a kindergarten classroom, where he'd finally find fulfillment in the love of the children. But Lasseter quickly realized that Tinny was too old-fashioned to carry the weight of a feature-length story, so he made the lost toy a "space ranger," and turned his buddy into a cowboy doll named for famed athlete and character actor Woody Strode. With a relatively small budget from Pixar's partners at Disney, hot-and-cold support from Pixar head honcho Steve Jobs, and a merchandising division dubious about the prospects of tie-in toys from the movie, the stage was loosely set for the world's first fully computer-animated feature film. But thanks to Lasseter's insistence that Pixar's technicians serve the creative talent, the film opened on Thanksgiving weekend to rave reviews, and became the number one box office hit of 1995. Audiences discovered a movie with wit, style, and real pathos—all qualities that transcended animation's kiddie ghetto. In a theatrical environment where people were expected to fork over cash to be dazzled by high-tech wizardry, it was Toy Story's attention to characters, story, editing, and dialogue that made it compelling.

For all its wonders, Toy Story was still plagued by Pixar's persistent difficulty with modeling human characters. Unlike the hard plastic surfaces of toys, the pliable skin, hair, and clothing of human beings demanded processing power and software breakthroughs that hadn't arrived in 1995. Making more supple ant-surfaces for Pixar's follow-up film A Bug's Life required the same breakthrough: subdivision meshes, a technique that makes wrinkles and folds look natural. To test the technology, Ed Catmull commissioned a short called "Geri's Game," in which an old man plays chess with himself. "Geri's Game," directed by eventual Ratatouille co-director Jan Pinkava, played theatrically along with A Bug's Life and won the 1998 Oscar for Best Animated Short. Although it may be best remembered for its display of advanced technical tools for skin, hair, and cloth modeling, it's just as important for pioneering a better approach to human characters in computer animation. Geri isn't a realistic human; he's a cartoon. His exaggerated features give him a distinctive but welcoming appearance, in contrast with the rather creepily unstylized Andy in Toy Story. In Geri, Pixar discovered that careful character design, for humans as well as for imaginary creatures, meant a balance between a caricatured artistic style (that allows audiences to project a consciousness into the image onscreen) and a high level of detail (that gives that consciousness a rich, textured world to inhabit).

That particular evolutionary branch matured with 2004's The Incredibles, in which a cartoony superhero family comes out of retirement to save the world. More important than the appealing character design, though was the opportunity for Pixar to branch out into a new genre: comic book adventure. There had always been action setpieces in Pixar features, from the rescue mission into Sid's yard in Toy Story to the mind-boggling door-gag-to-infinity-and-beyond in Monsters, Inc. But The Incredibles was the first Pixar film to make action integral to the premise. Director and writer Brad Bird proved up to the challenge, staging fleet chases and slam-bang fights without losing sight of the internal struggles of its characters. (And though the movie's philosophical underpinning is a bit undercooked, that's a flaw Bird would soon remedy, with Ratatouille.) The Incredibles is also an important piece of the foundational Pixar puzzle because it marked the first time one of the studio's films was helmed by a filmmaker-for-hire. An outsider who had never worked at Pixar before, Bird sought out Lasseter, an old classmate at CalArts, after becoming frustrated by the roller-coaster world of Hollywood development deals (and following the disappointment of Warner Brothers' failure to promote his visionary The Iron Giant). By 2000, when Bird started work on the story of The Incredibles with Lasseter, Pixar was known as a place where story, imagination, and creativity mattered—a place where artists could shoot for greatness.

Intermediate Work

For all Pixar's innovations in rendering and its adherence to classical storytelling construction, it's the studio's heart and sense of play that have distinguished its films in audience's minds. The latter is very much in evidence in Lasseter's second short under the Pixar aegis, "Luxo Jr." A simple two-minute gag about a little lamp destroying the toy ball it's playing with, "Luxo Jr." was impressive on a technical level—on the Pixar Short Films Collection: Volume One DVD, Lasseter describes the amazing feats of mathematics it took just to get the lamps cord to flop the right way—but even more impressive for the puckish ways it makes the inanimate come alive. It's cute, first and foremost; and also funny, with the comedy built on reaction shots. (Reaction shots of a lamp, don't forget.) It's no wonder that little Luxo has remained part of Pixar's corporate logo at the beginning of every film. The childlike spirit and simple humor of "Luxo Jr." is at the heart of what the studio tries to achieve—right up to its current feature WALL—E, with its Luxo-like put-upon robot protagonist.

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The same drive to entertain, innovate, and draw on classic movie tradition informed Pixar's much-anticipated follow-up to Toy Story, 1998's A Bug's Life. At the time of its release, some considered A Bug's Life a step down from Toy Story, pointing to the cutesier, more kidflick-standard characters, and noting the edgier plot of Dreamworks' similar effort Antz, released the same year. But A Bug's Life has worn well, aided by its clockwork plotting—for a simple story about meek ants, the grasshoppers who pick on them, and the circus insects who ride in to save the save the day, A Bug's Life has a lot of unexpected twists and turns—and a commitment to the cinematic that had the Pixar artists composing images in the widescreen format. Family-friendly bugs aside, the movie is constructed like a old-fashioned Hollywood adventure film—a Gunga Din, say, or a Magnificent Seven—and "lit" like a state park. It's a beautiful-looking movie, a nail-biter, and can be seen (along with Monsters, Inc. and Wall—E) as an expression of an underlying Pixar message about sustainable economies and the perils of greed.

Just as the Pixar technicians used "Geri's Game" as a warm-up for A Bug's Life, so they used the 2000 short "For The Birds" to experiment with some of the texture and pacing that would distinguish the studio's fourth feature, Monsters, Inc. (which "For The Birds" preceded in the feature's theatrical run). Another simple gag-short, "For The Birds" shows what happens when a flock of diminutive and proprietary bluebirds attempt to rid themselves of a gawky avian stranger, and find themselves worse for their efforts. The unusually rapid editing in "For The Birds" comes a little too close to the more frenetic computer-animated style that Pixar's rivals have adopted in movies like Ice Age and Madagascar, but that ramped-up pace would pay dividends in the climax of Monsters, Inc., and the short film's attention to details like the movement of feathers would be essential to the realistic movement of animal fur in the feature to come.

As for Monsters, Inc., it like A Bug's Life has become kind of a forgotten film in Pixar's roll call of hits, because it wasn't as big of a smash as Toy Story or Cars, and isn't as emotionally or thematically complex as Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo or Ratatouille. It didn't help that the movie came out the same year as Dreamworks' Shrek, which was perceived by some critics as hipper, because of its fairly juvenile deconstruction of classic fairy tales and its "ugly is the new beautiful" agenda. Yet while Shrek's pop culture references make the movie seem less fresh by the day, Monsters, Inc.'s retro-minded design sense appears more timeless, and its plot—involving a mischievous toddler who inadvertently comes home with the monster assigned to scare her at night—plays off something more primal than the vicissitudes of fashion. After building to a whiz-bang action sequence that has multiple monsters passing through extra-dimensional doorways as they zoom down an assembly line, Monsters, Inc. reveals itself in its final moments to be about a distinctly parental fear: that the next generation is growing up too fast, and soon won't have any use for its elders (or its elders' traditions). The final shot of Monsters, Inc. has the movie's hulking hero James P. Sullivan tentatively opening the door of the toddler he saved, not sure if she'll want to see him. When the girl calls his name and the screen goes black, it's one of the most poignant moments in any Pixar film.

Advanced Studies

Lasseter followed up "Luxo Jr." with a more ambitious demonstration of sheer rendering power. "Red's Dream", the story of a forgotten unicycle who dreams of starring in the circus, was created to showcase a rainy cityscape model and a more advanced humanoid character (a clown who rides Red the Unicycle during his juggling act) but its real significance is the uncompromisingly poignant tone. In his dreams, Red upstages the clown and receives the accolades of the crowd, but back in the bike shop, he wheels back to his corner, "50% off" tag dangling forlornly, and hangs his head in despair. Lasseter says that everyone begged him to give the short a happy ending, but he felt strongly that this story was about a slice of fantasy that doesn't bend to the viewer's will. He left Red in the corner, unsold, and set the stage for the real sense of danger that haunts the best Pixar plotlines. If an audience is going to feel the weight of a conflict, it has to sense the risk.

As soon as Toy Story's boffo box office and critical raves started rolling in, the Pixar team started talking about a sequel. Disney had recently introduced the direct-to-video sequel (with Aladdin: The Return Of Jafar), and Pixar started in that direction, planning something cheaper and faster, and maybe even animated with traditional cels. Lasseter, though, recalled a story idea that had been eliminated from Toy Story: a subplot about an obsessive collector who dooms toys to their ultimate hell, stuck in sealed packages, never to be played with by children. Making Woody The Cowboy into a collectable part of a whole Western toy line felicitously gave Pixar the chance to introduce a strong female character and answer the critical grumbling over Toy Story's lack of a "girl toy" (other than the coquettish Bo Peep). When production started in 1997, the sequel's lower profile and smaller scale meant that ambitious creative people gravitated to it as a place where they could work with fewer constraints and more responsibility. When the decision was made to stick with animation and release Toy Story 2 to theaters, Lasseter took over the reins and added essential story elements like Jessie The Cowgirl's wistful song about her salad days—a sequence that drew widespread acclaim. When Toy Story 2 opened, it was clear that Pixar wasn't aiming for a quickie cash-in. The film tapped deeper, richer veins of emotion and meaning in its characters and in the basic toys-come-to-life premise. This wasn't a movie about how fun it would be to be a kid again; it was a movie about growing up.

As the Pixar creative team got older and had children, the emotions of parenthood became central themes of their films. While Monsters, Inc. revealed some of that paternal poignancy, Finding Nemo was completely awash in the anxiety, over-protectiveness, and bittersweet letting-go that marks the maturity of a father. Director Andrew Stanton said that the story he drafted in the mid-'90s was inspired by observing his own "don't do this, don't touch that" monologue to his son at the park. For Lasseter, the idea of a movie set underwater was irresistible both technically and artistically. Employing the time-honored Disney approach, Pixar employees were treated to screenings of undersea documentaries and lectures from ichthyologists, and jumped at the chance to dissect fish and climb inside beached whales to learn their anatomy. The team also found their way to a style they called "hyperreality," after realizing that the naturalistic approach they first pursued would making their anthropomorphic fish seem out of place. Finding Nemo employs a harrowing flashback at its opening to explain why Marlin, the father clownfish, is so afraid to let his son Nemo swim off on his own. Thanks to that context, Nemo's defiance, Marlin's quest, and the eventual realization that growing up means stepping out of one's comfort zone, Nemo carried unexpected dramatic weight. For adults, especially parents, it's difficult to imagine what a child watching Finding Nemo will glean from it, steeped as it is in Marlin's emotional world. But the movie was a success with audiences of all ages, becoming the highest-grossing animated film of all time and winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. Its integration of kid-friendly adventure elements, sophisticated humor, and a harrowing—and thoroughly adult—personal journey for its protagonist, makes it simultaneously a welcoming and challenging film.

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Most Pixar films have a long gestation period; in fact, WALL—E was originally conceived in one of the first Pixar brainstorming sessions. But Ratatouille scurried to the screen along a highly unusual pathway. The original story was conceived in 2000 by Jan Pinkava: "Rat becomes chef." But when Bob Peterson was brought on as co-director and given control over story, Lasseter was unhappy with the direction the film was taking. He called Brad Bird in the summer of 2005 and asked him to take over. In a first for Pixar, the new chief completely rewrote the script, while retaining the characters and setting (for which the digital models were already complete). Bird backgrounded the issue of Remy The Rat's conflicted feelings about his family and rodent identity—which had been the central conflict in Pinkava's original story—and brought to the fore the problems of the human characters, uncertain about their destinies, and forced to hide or disguise their passions. The result, combined with the usual Pixar leaps in technology and cinematic vision, was a movie almost unrecognizable as a children's film. Bird infused Ratatouille with his convictions about talent and collaboration—ideas that had caused some critics to complain about fascist overtones in The Incredibles. Here, though, these difficult concepts were drawn with less of a heavy hand, and with a different emphasis. Talent can be found anywhere, Bird asserts; don't dismiss people because they don't fit into your preconceptions. But on the other hand, not everyone is suited for every task. There is real genius in the world, and while we can't all have it, we can all recognize, foster, and celebrate it. It's a highly unusual message for any mass-marketed film, let alone one in a genre traditionally aimed at the young. And it turns out to be a message pointed squarely at the Walt Disney Corporation that Pixar has reinvigorated: Even the best artistic endeavors fall into ruins when they are reduced to slavish imitation of the original vision. It takes fresh talent can reverse the decline—but only if that talent is welcomed and nurtured.

Flawed But Fascinating

The first few short films that Pixar tacked onto their features seemed like a natural extension of the studio's love of experimentation and sight gags, but Pixar's track success with their shorts has tailed off some in recent years. "Boundin,'" which played with The Incredibles, aims for some of the fable-like charm of vintage Disney in its story of a sheared sheep learning to go with the flow, but it's too abbreviated and simplistic to gain any traction. Pixar followed that short up with "One Man Band," attached to Cars, but while "One Man Band" returns to the gentle gags and pantomime style of the earlier shorts, its story of two rival musicians trying to separate a little girl from her money is a little too shrill, obvious, and even mean-spirited.

Of course it didn't help that "One Man Band" played before Pixar's longest and most exhausting feature. From Toy Story on, there have been critics and even fans who've insisted that Pixar ain't what it used to be, but Cars marked the first time that the grumbling resembled a groundswell. And yet Cars was one of Pixar's biggest box-office hits, and has been the studio's runaway champion in merchandise sales. Some might say that Cars' success at Wal-Marts across the country speaks to what's wrong with the movie—namely that its anti-consumerist message is in conflict the Pixar/Disney marketing machine. Others note that the movie is way too long, given that its story about a flashy racecar rehabbing in a nowhere town—a story overly similar to the forgotten '90s comedy Doc Hollywood—has little to offer in the way of rollicking adventure or belly laughs. But maybe Cars is better understood as an offbeat auteur project for Lasseter, who took his first director credit in seven years. While Cars' story is surprisingly flabby given Pixar's usual pride in its plotting, the movie is packed with images and ideas—from insect-sized cars to car-shaped rock formations—that could only have sprung from someone who spent a lot of time doodling in school. And the movie's message is more consistent than it might initially appear. On a basic level, Cars is about slowing down to discover "the real America"—and "the real America" in Cars, is made up of tourist traps and drive-ins. The connecting line that weaves through almost all the Pixar films, from Toy Story to Cars, is that we should respect the vintage merchandise as much as the new stuff. But by no means should we stop buying.

Miscellaneous

Pixar's very first short film—back when the group was known as the Lucasfilm Computer Division—was originally conceived as an antidote to the mid-'80s glut of abstract, new-agey computer animation demonstrations on display at computer conferences and on VHS anthologies. Alvy Smith wanted a character at the center of Lucasfilm's effort, so he drew a stick figure named André to inhabit the forest background that was the film's real raison d'etre. When Lasseter came on board he added conflict, in the form of a bee chasing André. In an homage to the Louis Malle film My Dinner With André, he named the bee Wally (for Wallace Shawn). The result was a primitive effort featuring simple geometric shapes and preternaturally-smooth camera movements, but with a debt to Looney Tunes' timing as the characters dash around the frame, sometimes pulling bits of their bodies along in their wake. When "The Adventures of André and Wally B" was shown at SIGGRAPH, one graphics executive in the audience wondered what software the team had used to make it so funny. But what was a great leap forward to computer scientists was a disappointment to George Lucas, who also attended the screening. The unpolished look and minimal story confirmed his opinion that his Computer Division should not be in the business of making movies.

Lasseter indulged his funny bone and further displayed his genius for comic timing in one of Pixar's best short films, "Knick Knack." The touching story of a snowman who tries various machinations to escape his snowglobe and join a beckoning, bikini-clad souvenir from Miami, the movie presents a series of Wile E. Coyote-esque schemes, increasing in inventiveness and improbability throughout the four-minute running time. It's the last film that Lasseter personally animated for Pixar. Even with 1989-level computer technology, "Knick Knack" achieves timeless hilarity, because the pretty pictures exist to serve the jokes, and not the other way around.

After the disappointments of "Boundin'" and "One Man Band", Pixar's shorts division rebounded strongly with last year's "Lifted", directed by the studio's longtime sound designer Gary Rydstrom. Arguably the funniest of Pixar's theatrical shorts, "Lifted" follows one human-abducting-alien-in-training as he tries (and repeatedly fails) to pull a sleeping human out of a farmhouse with a tractor beam. A case study in comic timing—and more importantly, comic framing—"Lifted"'s deadpan pantomime and futuristic trappings boded well for Wall—E.

Outside the theatrical realm, Pixar has created new shorts to accompany many of their DVD releases, usually spinning off the characters from the features into new—and typically slight—adventures. The two DVD-only shorts most worth seeking out are the two accompanying Brad Bird's The Incredibles and Ratatouille: "Jack-Jack Attack" and "Your Friend The Rat." The former is a pure slapstick piece about one baby-sitter's attempt to keep the youngest Incredible from destroying the house, and the latter is a traditionally animated (and fairly lengthy) faux-educational film that in some ways deflates its own premise that rats are harmless. Neither is especially suitable for young children—the baby-on-fire in "Jack-Jack Attack" would horrify most wee ones—but both are funny and thrillingly offbeat.

The Top 5 (pre-Wall—E)

1. Ratatouille

In the early days, Pixar's films were noteworthy for the collective care behind them, but in recent years the studio has begun to promote the idea that it's made up of individuals with unique visions. Brad Bird's unusually constructed, deeply personal tale of talent and fate bears almost no resemblance to the kind of films Pixar was making a decade ago. It represents a growth that's rare among wildly successful mainstream media outlets.

2. Toy Story 2

The first Toy Story dazzled with its technique and wit; the second is fuller, funnier and more heartbreaking. It signaled an emotional maturity that's carried on through nearly every Pixar feature since.

3. A Bug's Life

Oft-neglected, Pixar's second feature is maybe its most solidly built from a story perspective, and is easily the studio's most purely sweet effort.

4/5. Finding Nemo/Monsters, Inc.

Here are two movies about parental anxiety that take very different approaches to the subject. The former is sprawling, haunting and visually spare; the latter is crowded, riotous and subtly poignant. Both are as moving as they are funny and exciting.

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