Monday, May 21, 2012

Between Books - The Pixar Touch

The Pixar Touch
David Price in The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company details the origins, struggles, and successes of Pixar Animation Studios until its 2006 purchase by the Walt Disney Company.  Price begins his story with college student Ed Catmull who wanted to be an animator but determined that he had limited drawing talent.  The highly intelligent Catmull instead threw himself into computers and became determined to use computers to create animation.  In 1972, he created a graduate film in which he animated his hand.  The video was both simple and revolutionary in showing the potential available in computer animation.  Catmull became recognized as a leader in computer graphics and professionally tied himself to like minded Alvy Ray Smith in the quest to improve computer animation with a shared goal of an animated feature.  Eventually Catmull and Smith found themselves drawn to Lucasfilm, working on computer systems and graphics for the George Lucas’ production company.  While at Lucasfilm, Catmull and Smith recruited a third revolutionary figure, former Disney animator John Lasseter who provided the animation skill needed to create convincing character animation.  Catmull, Smith and Lasseter hid their efforts to achieve their common goal of an animated feature with Lucasfilm, who chose to sell Catmull’s computer unit off or shut down their operation.  They reached out to former Apple executive Steve Jobs who was attracted to the hardware potential in his new acquisition.  Still Catmull lead his team with the goal of animation, despite Jobs’ apprehension.  After years of being a financial lose, Jobs’ incorporated Pixar Animated Studios found enough success with commercials and short films to partner with Disney to complete and distribute an animated feature, Toy Story, which filled with character and innovative animation began an instant hit and classic film.  Price then outlines the problems in the Pixar-Disney relationship including friction between Jobs and Disney CEO Michael Eisner which was leading to an eventual end to their partnership.  Instead of a lasting schism, new Disney leadership under Bob Iger led to the Disney acquisition of Pixar Animation Studios.  This purchase lead to Lasseter becoming Disney’s and Pixar’s Chief Creative Officer, including Walt Disney Imagineering, and Catmull being named President of Walt Disney Animation Studios, along with Pixar.  The disgraced Disney animator and the boy who could not draw had become the guiding forces behind the world’s most prestigious animation organization.   
Price does an excellent job of presenting the details of a complex story.  He makes it clear that the leadership of Pixar were always united around a common vision, making an animated movie.  While others may have seen them as computer hardware or software group, the Pixar leaders regardless of their company name, were always dedicated to a common cause.  With their vision not aligned to their owners at times, leaders like Catmull had to make hard decisions or be partially dishonest to do things like add John Lasseter to the payroll.  And Price makes to clear how that vision was shared with others, with Lasseter at one point rejecting a return to Disney in order to make history in the Pixar ranks. 
I was also shocked how my opinions of some within the Pixar story changed.  I had pictured Jobs as a benevolent leader who guarded the Pixar staff from economic forces with his own personal fortune so they could evolve towards making an animated feature.  Price instead gives us a picture of Jobs who is at times more adversary than benefactor, with figures like Catmull protecting the Pixar staff and at times unsuccessfully.  Additionally, Price shows that Jobs was a late comer to the dream of an animated film.  And I found my already high opinion of Catmull being further extended as one realizes the opportunities he turned down for short gain that resulted in his and Pixar’s success in achieving their dream.
The Pixar Touch is well written and engaging.  It is not a fictional thriller, but a straight forward and highly accessible read.  It may be considered a business book, but it is one that any Pixar or animation fan can read and enjoy.  Price takes the time to explain highly technical points, especially around software and hardware, that those not in the information technology realm would not readily know.  And he does a good job explaining these to the common man.  The book clearly demonstrates the power of vision to technical and business leaders.  Additionally, it is well researched based on interviews and primary and secondary sources. 
The Pixar Touch is an engaging and educational book.  It shows how the power of vision and the determination to follow it through can make something clearly amazing.  It is a must read for animation fans, those interested in the history of computing, and Disney enthusiasts.  Those wishing to explore the history of Pixar should begin with The Pixar Touch.  

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