Pixar:Bringing the Pixel to Life By Derick Esch, Jake Dore, Ryan Fargo, and Sam Dougherty
Pixar Animation Studios has a short history compared to most other Hollywood motion picture studios. Despite its short existence, Pixar has established itself as an industry leader in CGI and completely digital animated feature films. We’ve decided to take a deeper look at the impact that Pixar has had on the industrial and economic history of animated film.
The roots of Pixar Animation Studios can be traced back to Industrial Light and Magic, founded by George Lucas in 1975, which was responsible for creating the special effects needed for the Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) films. Pioneering the design and use of motion control cameras and optical compositing, the company worked closely with the Graphics Group, which was part of the computer division of Lucasfilm. Dr. Edwin Catmull worked for the Graphics Group as the Chief Technology Officer, and he is credited as the inventor of the alpha channel and particle effects, both of which revolutionized the computer animation technology at the time. Initially, the Graphics Group was mainly interested in producing animated backgrounds to be used in other films, but in 1984 the short film The Adventures of André and Wally B. (Alvy Ray Smith) was released as the company's first fully animated film. After being purchased by Steve Jobs for 5 million dollars in 1986, the Graphics Group was renamed Pixar Animation Studios and began to focus its efforts on perfecting the computer animation process.
The Adventures of André and Wally B.
While Pixar initially struggled to stay financially successful, its best source of income was from a grouping of 79 television commercials produced for companies such as Tropicana, Listerine, and Lifesavers. These commercials were completely digital creations, and they served as practice for the animators while the company prepared to tackle their first full-length computer animated film. Also serving as practice were multiple shorts which Pixar created. In their future films, homages to these initial projects can be seen hidden within the picture or directly incorporated into the story (PixarTalk).
Pixar Lifesavers Commercial
Pixar Listerine Commercial
In 1991, Disney approached Pixar with a contract worth 26 million dollars to produce 3 animated feature films. Despite the possibility of great financial success from this partnership, as late as 1994 Jobs considered selling the animation company to competitors such as Microsoft. Had this happened, Pixar and the films it produced most likely would have looked drastically different than they do today. However, Jobs decided to stick with the company, and when Toy Story (John Lasseter, 1995) was released, the company suddenly flourished financially, and it officially went public on November 29, 1995. With Jobs' leadership and financial guidance, and John Lasseter's technically savvy and creative vision, Pixar developed their own in-house animation software, RenderMan and Marionette, and became the industry leader in CGI and animated feature films.
In November of 1995, Pixar released Toy Story on a budget of 30 million dollars. Surprisingly, it nearly broke even in the first weekend by grossing over 29 million dollars. This movie was the first fully synthetic feature film to break down the barrier separating what is film with what is animation. It launched Pixar Animation Studios to an entirely new standard, grossing over 191 million in the United States alone. Its total worldwide gross was almost double that, at over 361 million dollars (The Numbers).
At first, Pixar’s next film, A Bug’s Life (John Lasseter, 1998), was nowhere near as successful for the opening weekend, only grossing 291 thousand dollars. However, the worldwide gross exceeded Toy Story’s by about one million. Pixar then created Toy Story 2 (John Lasseter, 1999), which somehow only earned 300 thousand dollars at the box office during its first weekend. Its budget was set at 90 million dollars, which was three times as much money spent on Toy Story and twice as much as A Bug’s Life. The U.S. gross was more than 245 million dollars while the worldwide gross landed at over 484 million dollars. From then on, Pixar would not spend less than 70 million on their budget for a feature length film. Why were these films so successful? At the time, Pixar was the only major studio besides Disney that had been successfully producing animated feature films, and therefore, dominated the market. Pixar had developed a formula for animation and storytelling that drew in their audiences. Their marketing strategies, combined with large budgets, produced success for each one of these films.
Currently, Pixar’s average budget on a film is around 120 million dollars. However, their recent films, including Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, 2010) and Cars 2 (John Lasseter, 2011) had budgets of 200 million dollars. Their average U.S. gross is over 235 million dollars, roughly half of the average worldwide gross of over 556 million. The largest grossing film from Pixar is Toy Story 3, with close to 415 million dollars in U.S. gross and over 1 billion dollars in worldwide gross. Worldwide, Pixar’s total gross since 1995 is over 7 billon dollars, though their total budget reaches less than 1.5 billion dollars. In an unprecedented accomplishment, every feature film that Pixar has produced has made money rather than lost money.
“Since Snow White (William Cottrell, 1937) was released, every major studio has tried to break into the animation business, and until now Disney was the only studio that had ever made a feature animated film that was a blockbuster. Pixar has now become the second studio to do that” (Rethink Reviews). Toy Story was the first computer generated, full-length, feature film. The creative force of John Lasseter working with the financial genius, Steve Jobs, made a type of film that stood out over the Disney films of that time. Disney had been producing movies such as Pocahontas (Mike Gabriel, 1995) and A Goofy Movie (Kevin Lima, 1995), as well as The Lion King (Roger Allers, 1994) (Disney Movies Guide). John Lasseter stated that Pixar is focused on the story and the characters like any other film, yet isn’t the same as any other animation studio. The difference between Toy Story and other animations from Disney at the time is the introduction of technology. The animators have artistic backgrounds, but are replacing art supplies with technology. The futuristic transition allows the animators to work quickly and efficiently, creating these imitation, “plastic-like” animations while we lose more human elements of hand drawn art. The addition of the Pixar computer allows the artist to enter a digital realm, allowing them to create three-dimensional drawings. It saves time, requires fewer artists, and is edited while it is still in the middle of production. The financial success of Toy Story by following Pixar’s own method of production has become a formula that has produced 11 successful films and hopefully many more in the future.
Pixar did a remarkable job in terms of advancing the technology used in the production of animated films and shorts. The release of Toy Story in 1995 marked a critical moment in the history of film. It was the first film to be made without the use of any traditional opto-chemical photographic process. Instead, the entire film was produced digitally. The film also switches over from the conventional practice of the acting body and drawing hand to the use of generated pixel and computing processor.
Pixar is without a doubt a very successful company, and it has a history of accomplishments to prove it. The company has received numerous awards for both feature length films as well as shorts since their beginning in 1979. This success carried on throughout the decades, especially after their merger with Disney. Since the merger, several of their feature length films received more than fifty nominations for a variety of awards, including Ratatouille (Brad Bird, 2007),WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008), and Up (Pete Docter, 2009). Since 2006, all of their movies have won at least one Academy Award, Grammy, and Golden Globe. The box office totals of Pixar's five most recent feature length films top totals of 500 million dollars each, with Toy Story 3 amassing a huge 1 billion dollars in worldwide gross.
The quality of Pixar's work brought success to more than the company itself, as it impacted current presentation and format in modern cinema. There are now other animation studios competing with Pixar, and a wide acceptance of animation in modern films. Pixar has brought change to what audiences enjoy, and the film industry has adapted to the times.
Most apparent in its influences from Pixar is DreamWorks Animation. Their string of animated movies like the Shrek (Andrew Adamson, 2001) series, Kung Fu Panda (Mark Osborne, 2008), and others has proved majorly successful for Paramount and DreamWorks. This has created a bit of a rivalry with Pixar, and continued to push animation into the mainstream. Where there used to be cartoons and many classic animated films from Disney, we now see CGI as the dominant form of animation.
What's striking is that these developments go far past animated movies, and affect the majority of movies today. We now see movies like Star Wars featuring fully animated creatures interacting with people, and countless movies with CGI for the subtlest of purposes. Pixar seems to have pushed the industry in this direction of technology exploration and even beyond that. Its influence is massive.
While it is interesting how the precedents set by Pixar helped to establish technology driven films like Avatar (James Cameron, 2009), the highest grossing film of all time, there is something bad about the overuse of this technology in film. Incredible CGI works great for CGI movies, but when it is utilized in blockbuster after blockbuster, the viewer loses the immersion of everything being seen through the camera. Whether Hollywood is really abusing this latest trend is hard to say, but there’s no doubt that Pixar helped set up this CGI infatuation in film.
As Wired Magazine notes, “Each Pixar film has pushed the threshold of photorealism...” (Austin P. 3), and while the technology clearly works in favor of Pixar and many other films, it may not be the best direction for the rest of the industry. As films and technology continue to change, older films that used CGI become less and less convincing (The Mummy, Star Wars Episode 1, etc.). Older movies with well-made props and effects can be more convincing than many animated works, which suggests that the industry may want to consider taking animation with a grain of salt and using it for the projects that truly benefit from it.
Pixar's 26 Academy Awards and continually profitable films speak for the success that they have discovered through innovation. This has changed presentation throughout the film industry, which continues to benefit from the new heights reached by the studio. It will be interesting to see where Hollywood uses technology in the future and what will become profitable and convincing in the use of computer-generated effects.
Bunn, Austin. "Welcome to Planet Pixar." http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.06/pixar.html. June 2004.Web. 12 April 2012 .
Pixar Talk. Web. 15 Mar. 2012. <http://www.pixartalk.com>.
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