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Pixar Fights to Regain Software Dominance

After turning out a string of movie hits, the firm is renewing its focus on the underlying animation technology it helped pioneer

August 24, 2003|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

SEATTLE — Long before toys had a story and bugs got a life, Pixar Animation Studios Inc. was a software company.

It started in the 1970s with a team of programmers who wanted to transform mountains of computer instructions into images that would move across a screen. The result was a product called RenderMan, which became an essential tool for creating the dinosaurs of "Jurassic Park" and the murderous robots of "Terminator."

Today, the heirs of those Pixar pioneers work in a tiny loft here overlooking the blue expanse of Elliott Bay -- nearly 800 miles north of headquarters in Emeryville, Calif., where hundreds of employees are busily creating several films, including an action-adventure comedy about a superhero family called "The Incredibles."

To outsiders, it seems a strange form of exile. To the RenderMan team, it's simply a way to focus on their jobs.

"It was difficult to run a software company while being situated in the middle of a movie studio," said Dana Batali, director of the RenderMan product line.

In Emeryville, the RenderMan team spent 15 years dominating the market for software that converts computer code into digital images, a process known as rendering. Meanwhile, the studio side began cranking out hits such as "Toy Story," "A Bug's Life" and "Finding Nemo."

As Pixar's films went on to earn a collective $2.1 billion at box offices worldwide, company executives let the software business atrophy. But that box-office success prompted plenty of rivals to fill the void with their own versions of rendering software.

Now Pixar finds itself in the unlikely position of fighting to regain leadership of a field it practically invented.

Rendering accounts for a minute share of the $27.2 billion spent each year on hardware and software for computer animation, "but it's a key piece," said Robi Roncarelli, president of research firm Pixel Inc., which studies the digital animation industry.

"Everyone needs it," Roncarelli said. "Everyone -- from movies to TV to games -- uses it."

As the rendering market grows -- from $39 million in 2001 to $69 million by 2007 -- competition will increase as the tools appeal to an ever wider group of users, said Wanda Maloni, an analyst who follows the computer animation industry for M2 Research, a market research firm.

"People are starting to use more than just RenderMan," Maloni said.

Pixar executives have acknowledged the problem. They hope the solution lies inside the company's snug industrial loft in Seattle, where a dozen employees under Batali's direction furiously type away at their computers. Buzz Lightyear and Flik the Ant peer down at the staff from the movie posters that cover the walls.

Batali, a lanky man with a quiet disposition, moved to the Puget Sound area eight years ago for personal reasons and continued to work on software for Pixar. From that distance, he observed a troubling pattern: The software group was constantly being pulled away by colleagues on the studio side who needed help overcoming their high-tech production hurdles. That was distracting, but at least it benefited their research and development efforts. To make matters worse, the RenderMan team had become the de facto tech support office for Pixar's software customers, spending crucial time that could have been spent on new products.

Pixar decided the software group had to move, for its own good. With Batali as a beachhead, Seattle was the logical choice.

In the loft one recent afternoon, the low rumble of a commuter ferry muffled the sound of active keyboards and ringing phones. For now, the tiny staff must wear multiple hats.

As software engineer Julian Fong picked up his phone, he knew it could be an animator at Pixar asking for software design help, or a young computer scientist, eager to sell Fong on a new product. This caller, however, was a post-production executive looking for someone to tell him why his software wasn't behaving. The 25-year-old stopped being an engineer and stepped into customer support, with no complaints.

'Because It's Pixar'

"Regardless of what we do, we're here because it's Pixar," Fong said. "How can you not want to be part of a company with such a deep history in this field?"

Pixar's roots go back to the 1970s, when George Lucas recruited a handful of engineering and software experts from universities around the country and challenged them to build a machine that could print digital effects onto film. That would allow artists to create more precise special effects than they could achieve with traditional methods of manipulating chemicals on frames of celluloid.

The scientists developed a computer language that translated lines of code into an image on a monitor. Those images could be strung together into clips of animation.

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