The Pixar Touch: The Making Of A Company by David A. Price

Available on Amazon.

Many thanks to my good friend Jeff Allen for recommending this book. It is an absolutely riveting read. For me it kind of capped off/continued the Disney company history that I so enjoyed discovering in Walt Disney: Triumph of the American Imagination by Neal Gabler (covering Walt’s lifetime) and Disney Wars by James Stewart (covering the period from Walt’s death to the successful ousting of Eisner) by telling a completely different story: the story of Pixar. How Ed Catmull, a Mormon computer scientist who knew he couldn’t draw good enough to be an animator decided that he would make a movie with a computer instead (in the 60s). How he gathered a brain trust of computer scientists, electrical engineers, artists and writers around him and shepherded them through 40 years of business transactions and negotiations from the New York Institute of Technology to Lucasfilm to Emeryville, all the while preserving the dream of computer-animated films. And how John Lasseter, after ejected himself from the magical kingdom in the 70s, was ushered back in to his current position of power and prestige as the current creative leader of the Walt Disney Company. It was also amazingly fun (and kind of nerdy) to read about all the different technologies developed by Pixar as they worked toward their dream. So yeah, it’s a little bit techy and full of computering terms, but it’s no Google whitepaper on search algorithms. And don’t worry if that was too much tech for you, you’re the perfect audience: author David Price does a fantastic job of breaking down the technobabble so that most people who have interacted with a personal computer or a video game can understand what’s going on.



Here are some excerpts from the book that I highly enjoyed.

Pg 22: [Alvy Ray Smith on meeting Ed Catmull] He was just accepting. He didn’t lay his trip on anybody. And he didn’t discourage you from your trip.

Pg 93: In the end, after the contract was signed, Roy Disney celebrated with Catmull and Smith over dinner in a private dining room hidden in the New Orleans section of Disneyland.

Pg 101: [Alvy Ray Smith on Steve Jobs’ charisma] You actually believe it when you are there with him because he convinces you in a way that some of the things that you know are actually reality are really just that you are being shortsighted, or you are not trying hard enough, or you’re just missing something. You believe him because he is so powerful and so charismatic and so enthusiastic. But then when you get back to the real world, you realize, I knew this wasn’t going to work.

Pg 155: [John Lasseter] arrived at the [1996 Academy] awards ceremony in a chauffeur-driven Oscar Mayer Wienermobile.)

Pg 161: [Regarding A Bug’s Life] It was an engaging story, and one that dovetailed, in a way, with Buzz’s evolution in Toy Story. Where Buzz had to reconcile himself to the disappointment of learning what he was – a toy, not a space-man – Red [the prototype for Flik] was to find that if you put on a mask to look more noble than you are, you might just grow into the mask.

Pg 185: Al’s Toy Barn is owned/operated by Al McWhiggin.

Pg 197: At one point before Boo became a girl, she was to be from Ireland, mystifying Sulley and Mike by repeatedly referring to Mike as a “wee leppy karn”;

Pg 210: Dory’s character was more than comic relief; as Stanton saw it, her memory loss made her innocent like a child – a substitute child for Marlin during his quest. Dealing with her would force him to learn a modicum of patience and tolerance for her venturesome risk taking, preparing him to be a better father when he finds his son. Stanton also spoke of a spiritual aspect to the relationship of Marlin and Dory. Dory was, literally, an angel fish. “The protagonist’s battle was to overcome fear by discovering faith, and certainly Dory represent the angel, or the helper who showed him how to let go and not be consumed by his worries,” he told an interviewer for a Christian-oriented film Web site. He observed that subtlety is critical in giving films such as Pixar’s a spiritual or religious dimension. “My personal view is that if you go into things on a pulpit or with an agenda in the creative world, it can easily get int he way of your creativity and quality . . . Be Christ-like in everything you do, not worrying about whether you’re furthering the cause.”

Pg 223: The skin of the characters gained a new level of realism from a technology to produce what is known as “subsurface scattering.” Human skin is not fully opaque; part of what makes it look like skin is that it allows some light to reach its inner layers and scatter among them before reflecting back. Consequently, skin looks unnatural if it is rendered as an ordinary solid surface. Algorithms to recreate subsurface scattering, pioneered by a Stanford researcher named Henrik Wann Jensen, allowed the technical crew to mimic human skin more effectively. Yet the humans’ skin could not be too realistic. It was well known that as depictions of humans became more lifelike, audiences would perceive them as more appealing – until the realism reached a certain point, close to human but not quite, when suddenly the depictions would be perceived as repulsive. The phenomenon, known as the “uncanny valley,” had been hypothesized by a Japanese robotics researcher, Masahiro Mori, as early as 1970. No one knew precisely why it happened, but the sight of nearly human forms seemed to trigger some primeval aversion in onlookers. Thus, the minute details of human skin, such as pores and hair follicles, were left out of The Incredibles’ characters in favor of a deliberately cartoonlike appearance.

Pg 228: While Disney and Pixar continued to prosper from their relationship, tensions inevitably arose between their chief executives. The men’s backgrounds could hardly have been more of a contrast – Eisner, brought up with every advantage as the son of an old-money Park Avenue family; Jobs, the adopted son of lower-middle-class parents; Eisner, the career executive; Jobs, the ex-hippie. Yet the true root of their conflicts was neither their differing backgrounds nor the bread-and-butter disagreements involved in doing business together. It was in their similarities: Besides being notably aggressive in representing their companies’ interests, each man was stubborn to the point of petulance and prone to taking disagreements personally.

Pg 232: Eisner still had a card to play, however [in the ongoing contract disputes]. Under the 1991 and 1997 agreements, Disney owned Toy Story and its characters entirely, and also had the right to make sequels to any of Pixar’s other films – with or without Pixar’s involvement. The idea of Disney cranking out Toy Story 3, Finding Nemo 2, and the like drove Lasseter to distraction. He regarded the films almost as his children, and there was little reason to expect that Eisner would tend them with any sort of care. Disney-made sequels under Eisner, it seemed, would be objects of commerce above all. “These were the people that put out Cinderella II,” Lasseter later said mordantly, referring to the 2002 direct-to-video sequel.

Pg 262: [John Lasseter] awaits the installation of his 1901 steam locomotive and tracks on the grounds of his Glen Ellen, California property. He has long shared a love for trains with the legendary Disney animators Ollie Johnston, from who he purchased the locomotive, and Ward Kimball, from whose estate he obtained a seventy-year-old train depot. If his past record means anything, it can be assumed a future Pixar production will portray a locomotive discovering life lessons – once Lasseter hits on the right story. Despite the obligations of his leadership role at Disney, it is difficult to imagine that the boy who emerged into the sunlight after watching The Sword in the Stone has directed his last film.

Pg 281: During the production break on Toy Story, the first commercially marketed, fully computer-animated work emerged from a small Chicago-based firm called Big Idea Productions. Initially sold through Christian bookstores, the thirty-minute video Where’s God When I’m S-Scared? presented Bible-themed stories with characters in the form of talking, singing vegetables.

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