The rise of Pixar is one of the most remarkable media stories of the last 20 years. On one side, there's the company that began as an attempt to sell hardware to image professionals, and made a few demos to show off its product's capabilities. On the other, there are the fanatic animation geeks who wanted to outdo Disney, but couldn't convince George Lucas, Jeffrey Katzenberg, or Steve Jobs that there was any future for computer-generated cartoons. Journalist David A. Price records Pixar's improbable fortunes with a deft touch and an eye for drama. Although his book The Pixar Touch: The Making Of A Company occasionally succumbs to the business miasma of numbers, mergers, and dollar signs, the tale of Pixar's near-miraculous artistic feats and outsized personalities will be fascinating to audiences far beyond the boardroom.
Pixar began as a computer-graphics laboratory at the New York Institute of Technology, completely underwritten by the NYIT's eccentric tycoon founder, Alexander Schure. His deep pockets allowed Ed Catmull and Alvy Smith to buy the pricey hardware needed to make even a few seconds of animation. When Catmull found out that a Disney animator who had been working on a proposal for a computer-driven version of The Brave Little Toaster was out of work, he snapped up John Lasseter and protected his creative talent through many troubled years. Lucasfilm, which bought up the talent and moved the group to Skywalker Ranch in 1979, wanted them to create machines for digital editing, not graphics. (Price illustrates Lucas' lack of interest in computer-generated effects by pointing out that while Star Wars in 1977 had one computer graphic, the Death Star attack plan, The Empire Strikes Back in 1980 had zero.) Steve Jobs, who bought the company in 1986, thought it was going to sell Pixar Image Computers to medical labs and universities. But all along, the founders kept pursuing the dream of Disney-quality animation and storytelling free from the constraints of paper, paint, and plastic cels.
Once Lasseter's skill with personality, character, and plot became apparent in short films like "Luxo, Jr.," the rest is history. (Well, almost; Toy Story was still a Disney afterthought without even a toy-licensing deal to its name before it became the top-grossing film of 1995.) Price dwells on the lesser-known aspects of Pixar's early history, and is less interested in the very public life that the company has led since its mouse-eared coming-out party. But that's the thrill of his story, reinforcing the utter unlikelihood of Pixar becoming a brand name for quality and innovation that exceeds that of its parent company. In an increasingly bleak media landscape of soul-crushing, joy-destroying behemoths, Pixar is still young and idealistic enough to be one of the good guys. The Pixar Touch celebrates that vision, and the remarkable talent that made it a reality, while the future still looks bright.