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Pixar Can Boast Striking Effects on an Industry

Movies* The outfit has generated its own hit films and techniques that have shaped others, earning a LACMA salute.

January 09, 2002|BILL DESOWITZ | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

While 2001 proved a landmark year for computer-animated features--dominated, of course, by the blockbuster success of DreamWorks' "Shrek" and Pixar's "Monsters, Inc."--it also marked the 15th anniversary of Pixar, the company that started it all when it graduated from short-film obscurity to a commanding feature debut with "Toy Story." With its wonderful blend of wit, sophistication, sincerity and technical savvy, Pixar pioneered the computer-animated feature and made it appealing to child and adult alike, reinventing the Disney storytelling formula for a new generation.

Pixar also paved the way for "Shrek," "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within," "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius" and this year's "Ice Age." And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Now, as "Shrek" and "Monsters, Inc." vie this year for the first best animated feature Oscar, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art pays tribute Thursday night to Pixar Animation Studios. John Lasseter, the Academy Award-winning filmmaker and the company's executive vice president of creative, will participate in a survey of Pixar's celebrated features and shorts, as well as a question-and-answer period hosted by "Good Morning America" film critic Joel Siegel.

Considering that 26 of the last 30 films nominated for a visual effects Oscar used Pixar's Academy Award-winning RenderMan software, including "Gladiator," "The Matrix," "Titanic" and "Jurassic Park," you realize that the animation studio has been at the forefront of the computer-generated imagery, or CGI revolution. "RenderMan has become the industry standard [for taking computer-created shots and seamlessly blending them with other footage] and is so flexible," said Lasseter, the director of Pixar's first three features: "Toy Story," "A Bug's Life" and "Toy Story 2." He thinks that 2001 was not only an exciting year for computer animation, varied in both style and subject matter, but that it was also a banner one for blending computer animation with live action.

Of course, Lasseter takes pride in the fact that "Monsters, Inc." has surpassed "Toy Story 2" as Pixar's top-grossing film, and that three of last year's top CGI films used RenderMan: "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring," "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" and "Pearl Harbor." "So many people are using our tool in ways that we never would've thought of. As I've always said, art challenges technology and technology inspires the art."

But it's always been that way at Pixar, which originated as the computer division of Lucasfilm, before Apple co-founder Steve Jobs purchased it for $10 million in 1986 and renamed the company.

Pixar initially consisted of co-founders Jobs, Lasseter (a onetime Disney animator) and computer graphics and software guru Ed Catmull. Later, when the company expanded beyond computer hardware and software into shorts and commercials, two very talented filmmakers were brought in: Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter. Stanton went on to co-direct "A Bug's Life" and is currently directing the upcoming "Finding Nemo," and Docter directed "Monsters, Inc."

The shorts, however, have been a testing ground from the start. They include "Luxo Jr.," about father-and-son lamps, which earned an Oscar nomination for best animated short; "Tin Toy," about a baby that terrorizes its toys, which won Pixar's first Oscar; "Geri's Game," about an unusual chess match, which earned its second Oscar; and "For the Birds," the latest about some cruel feathered foes that get a hilarious comeuppance.

While Jobs and Lasseter have the highest public profile, they have a lot of help running the company.

"Steve and John are two charismatic people who inspire others, while I'm the quiet one," said Catmull, who was recently named president of Pixar and now oversees its internal organization as well as its technology. "Steve is hands-off at Pixar but handles Wall Street and Disney and tells you to never be safe. John is effusive and a very good listener."

Lasseter, who says he's thankful he didn't have to learn computer programming, thinks of Catmull as his mentor. At Lucasfilm, Catmull managed digital film and sound editing, as well as computer graphics and games, but his goal always was to make computer-animated features. From Lasseter's perspective, "Lucasfilm had the cream of the crop in computer graphics research, and I asked Ed how they did it. He said, 'I always hire people smarter than myself.' I was inspired by that philosophy.

After Jobs bought the company, Catmull insisted that the technical and creative people share equal power and fraternize with one another. He contends that the pioneering spirit keeps Pixar prospering. "If we ever figure it out, people will get bored and screw things up on purpose."

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