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A little lamp lights the way for Pixar's success

It started 25 years ago with the 'Luxo' short, and continues with 'Toy Story,' 'Cars,' 'The Incredibles' and 10 Oscars.

August 16, 2011|By Charles Solomon, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • A wee, mischievous desk lamp and its larger companion are stars of "Luxo, Jr.," which tested fledgling Pixar techniques.
A wee, mischievous desk lamp and its larger companion are stars of "Luxo,… (Pixar Animation Studios )

Walt Disney famously said, "I only hope that we never lose sight of one thing — that it was all started by a mouse." For the Pixar artists, it was all started by a lamp.

Twenty-five years ago (Aug. 17, 1986), "Luxo, Jr.," a short depicting the misadventures of a rambunctious little desk lamp and his weary father, premiered in Dallas and did something no computer-animated film had done before: It made audiences laugh. The first film from Steve Jobs' newly formed company Pixar and the second from director John Lasseter, "Luxo" launched the most successful and innovative animation studio since Walt Disney's heyday in the 1930s.

Without "Luxo," there would be no Woody and Buzz, no Sully and Mike, no Remy, no Wall-E, no Lightning McQueen and no Incredible family. The lamp is still the corporate symbol.

"Up until that point, people looked at computer animation as a technical demonstration," said Ed Catmull, president of Walt Disney Animation Studios/Pixar Animation Studios. "There were a few things done for television commercials, but 'Luxo' moved out of the realm of a tour-de-force of technology — even though it was — to people recognizing it was a short film in its own right and enjoying it as such."

"Luxo, Jr." began as an exercise in modeling while Lasseter was working at the computer graphics division of Lucasfilm (where he directed his first short, "The Adventures of Andre and Wally B" in 1984).

Now chief creative officer for Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios (and the director of "Toy Story," "Toy Story 2," "Cars" and "Cars 2"), Lasseter recalled in a recent telephone interview: "I had a big drawing table in my office with a Luxo lamp on it, so I just took that lamp in front of me as a subject. I love bringing inanimate objects to life, and thought it would be a fun object to move around."

Lasseter showed some test footage in Brussels of the lamp hitting a ball with its shade. Raoul Servais, the noted Belgian animator, was impressed and asked about the story. When Lasseter said the work was "just a character study," Servais told him that no matter how short a film was, it should have a story, with a beginning, a middle and an end.

When Lasseter returned home, he began thinking about a story for his lamp character. Inspiration struck when co-worker Tom Porter brought in his infant son.

"Spencer was just a few months old and incredibly cute," Lasseter says. "I looked at how he was scaled in comparison to adults, then I looked at the lamp I was modeling, and I thought, 'What would a baby lamp look like?'"

In February of 1986, Jobs bought the computer graphics division of Lucasfilm, and formed Pixar. Catmull, who was president of the new company, wanted to present a film from the company at the annual SIGGRAPH (Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics) convention, the showcase at the time. Lasseter envisioned a film with elaborate camera movements and realistic backgrounds.

But Pixar was primarily a hardware company, selling the Pixar Image Computer; Lasseter and his crew would have to use the company machines at night. They didn't have the computer power or the budget to create camera moves or backgrounds, beyond a floor for the characters to sit on. In hindsight, Lasseter attributes much of the success of "Luxo, Jr." to that enforced simplicity: "The lack of camera moves and the lack of a complicated background made everybody focus on the characters."

Lasseter animated the film on the equivalent of a night shift. Pixar technical department manager Deirdre Warren recalls, "John would leave a sticky note on my desk: 'DW, come and wake me up when you get in.' He'd be under his desk asleep on a sleeping bag or something. He was there for weeks."

A graduate of the CalArts character animation program and a former Disney animator, Lasseter applied the techniques of hand-drawn animation to the new medium, techniques he'd learned from three of the studio's Nine Old Men — Walt Disney's nickname for his key cadre of animators.

"With computer animation, we could make things look like they were certain objects, but it's the movement that truly makes you believe what it is," he explains. "And the movement comes not from the computer, but from the principles of animation I learned from Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston and Eric Larson."

At the premiere of "Luxo," computer graphics pioneer Jim Blinn came up to Lasseter with a question. Expecting something highly technical, Lasseter was surprised to hear him ask, "Was the parent lamp the mother or the father?"

"I knew by Jim's question that we had entertained audiences because of the story and the characters, not because it was made by a computer," Lasseter says.

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