To infinity and beyond
3D World opens the doors to Pixar and discovers the secrets of the studio that changed animation forever
The team at Pixar share the studio’s secrets to achieving groundbreaking storytelling and animation
THE TECHNOLOGY IS SYMBIOTIC WITH THE CREATIVE CHALLENGES OF MAKING GREAT STORIES. WE VALUE BOTH VERY HEAVILY Steve May, chief technology officer, Pixar
“THEY SHOWED US TOY STORY, AND WE KNEW EVERYTHING WAS GOING TO CHANGE AT THAT POINT” Jim Morris, president, Pixar
Now a household name the world over, Pixar Animation Studios began life in 1979 when it was simply known as the Graphics Group, part of the Computer Division of Lucasfilm. It wasn’t until it was acquired by Apple co-founder Steve Jobs in 1986 that two early Pixarians, Alvy Ray Smith and Loren Carpenter, devised the name Pixar from a made-up Spanish verb that they thought could mean ‘to make pictures’.
Initially conceived as a high-end computer hardware company, Pixar primarily sold its Pixar Image Computer to government agencies and the medical community, while John Lasseter’s animation department produced commercials for companies such as Tropicana, Listerine and Lifesavers. The studio’s first foray into animated shorts, 1986’s Luxo Jr., proved a game changer for animated filmmaking by using threedimensional computer animation to tell the simple yet effective story of two charming desk lamps.
Almost a decade later, on 22 November 1995, Pixar forever altered the future of filmmaking with the release of its first feature film, Toy Story. Since then Pixar’s history has been one of powerful storytelling and technical innovation. 3D World spoke to current Pixar president Jim Morris, chief creative officer Pete Docter, chief technology officer Steve May, production designer Bob Pauley, and producer Kori Rae, to find out how they changed an industry and remained at its cutting edge for another 34 years and counting.
TOY STORY AND BEYOND
Jim Morris, who worked for ILM as a producer of VFX at the time, remembers the ripples Pixar made in the lead up to Toy Story. “At the time animation had kind of hit the trough,” he tells 3D World. “It was after the big success of things like The Little Mermaid at Disney.” With the glory days of 2D animation seemingly in the rear view, Morris recalls the buzz within the tech world as Pixar’s three-dimensional shorts began appearing at industry events. “When The Adventures of André & Wally B. showed up, even unfinished, at SIGGRAPH it just blew everyone away,” he adds.
It wasn’t until Morris and George Lucas took a trip to Pixar’s original headquarters in Point Richmond that he realised 3D animation was only half of the studio’s achievement. “They showed us Toy Story,” he recalls, “and we knew everything was going to change at that point. Not only had they done something so technologically innovative, but the story was so good. I remember thinking, ‘this is like Casablanca’. It was a magnificent work of cinema, even with the limitations of the time.”
Pete Docter joined Pixar in May 1990, straight after graduating from the California Institute of the Arts, and played a pivotal role in bringing Toy Story to the screen. Although the film would go on to earn its director, John Lasseter, the Special Achievement Academy Award in 1996, Docter remembers the uncertainty surrounding the project throughout production. “In those days it took so long to show what you were doing,” he recalls. “It was either scribbles and sketches or very early computer form, where it looks flat and weird.”
It wasn’t until the finished film was rendered that the world realised what Pixar was on to. “Even our partners at Disney had gotten used to seeing story reels and layout that all just looked like a bad video game,” Docter admits. “Suddenly it had shading, reflection, lighting, and all this detail. The story came together at the very last minute too. By the time it crystallised at the end they were stunned. They were not expecting what they got.”
As part of the art department on Toy Story, Bob Pauley maintains that changing the landscape of animated film was not on his mind. “It was just trying to get it done,” he explains. “It was the process of making the movie which was the energy and not, ‘wow we are going to change the world’.” However, the first sequence screened internally proved to be a landmark moment “The first thing rendered was the army man sequence,” he recalls, “mostly because it’s one model
copied over with slight variations, and they’re plastic so it’s easy to render. Everybody brought in their old couches, some more comfortable than others, and they screened it. I remember walking back down the hall saying: ‘Okay, this is gonna work out because that looked fantastic’.”
And after Toy Story’s groundbreaking success, Pixar embarked on its next creative pursuit, A Bug’s Life. “We still didn’t know what the heck we were doing,” reflects Kori Rae. “We staffed up a bit for A Bug’s Life, but I think we were still only a couple of hundred people at its peak. You came into work every single day excited and terrified. Going from Toy Story to A Bug’s Life we bit off so much more than we could chew. We didn’t know how to do crowds. We didn’t know how to create organic material and light it. It was one of the first CG films that had decent-looking organic material.”
Since 2000, two years after A
Bug’s Life’s release, each of Pixar’s groundbreaking feature films and shorts have been produced from its campus at 1200 Park Avenue, Emeryville, California. Sitting on the former site of an abandoned Del Monte factory, the campus contains The Steve Jobs Building, which houses half of Pixar’s approximately 1,200 employees. “When we get to work in the morning we’re in this big atrium space and you bump into everybody,” says Morris. “The whole building is set up to force collaboration. You can’t do anything without bumping into people.” The layout of the building helps to foster an environment where creativity can flow freely. “We believe everybody that works here is part of making the films,” adds Morris, “whether it’s a barista in the cafe, or one of the security guards, they feel a connection to the projects. We give them a credit in the films as well. There’s a feeling that we’re all in it together.”
Many of Pixar’s visual innovations have come courtesy of its industry-standard rendering software, Renderman, which has not only been utilised on each of the studio’s 22 feature films and all its shorts, but more than 300 films besides, earning the software and its contributors six Academy Awards for technical achievements in filmmaking.
Pixar has a vast render farm that uses approximately 55,000 cores (essentially computer CPUS) that run on full capacity almost 24 hours a day. “The compute required to do final-quality rendering is still immense,” explains Steve May,
“THE TECHNOLOGY IS SYMBIOTIC WITH THE CREATIVE CHALLENGES OF MAKING GREAT STORIES” Steve May, chief technology officer, Pixar
“it’s actually significantly bigger than it used to be.”
“Renderman is our oldest piece of technology in one way,” explains May, “and on the other hand it’s new technology because the renderer is completely different to the one we had 30 years ago.” In the early days of Pixar, rendering would be the final step in the production pipeline, with artists hitting the render button and waiting inordinate lengths of time to see the end result.
“If you look at a traditional animation pipeline, it’s this very linear thing where you had cells that only one artist could work on at a time,” May continues. “You would hand that thing from one department to the next, from key framing, to inbetweening, to clean-up, to paint, and then camera. They would literally just pass it physically down the line. The animation pipeline is still modelled after that today. We have all these separate departments.”
Over the years Renderman has made steps toward interactivity in the production of computeranimated films. “Now rendering isn’t a separate process,” adds May, “it’s integrated deeply into the authoring applications. That’s where we’re making our biggest pushes right now, to make high-quality complex images be interactive in real time.” This continued evolution has the potential to change the way that artists work and collaborate at Pixar, and beyond.
Pixar wouldn’t have stayed at the precipice of animated film were it not for the ongoing research and development overseen by May. Although production on a Pixar film can often last for five years or more, that is not long enough to solve some of the technical challenges thrown up by their ambitious stories, meaning the studio’s tech experts are constantly innovating behind the scenes.
“When I started at Pixar, just being able to do computer animation was a differentiating factor,” May reflects. “Very few people had the compute or technology to create animated frames. Now you can buy software and use cloud services to render, it’s not a hard thing to do computer animation. The way that you continue to differentiate yourself is by not doing what everyone else is doing. You have to be out in front, trying to develop new technology. I think the technology part of it is symbiotic with the creative challenges of
making great stories. We value both very heavily.”
‘Story is king’ is a mantra that’s been associated with Pixar for much of its 34-year history. Upon Toy Story’s release in 1995 many praised its affecting story and universal themes before admiring its monumental technological achievements. Much of Pixar’s innovation is a result of its ambitious storytellers, something Docter experienced when he stepped up to the director’s chair for 2001’s Monsters, Inc. “There’s one shot where Sully is snowboarding down a hillside and when he wipes out there’s snow particles moving in his fur,” he recalls. “I remember at our cast party that got applause.”
Realistic fur and hair represented a serious breakthrough for computer animation. “If you go back and look at Toy Story, we worked hard to avoid showing long, flowing hair,” admits Docter. “Andy’s mum’s hair is in a ponytail so that you could treat it as a solid unit instead of thousands of individual pieces.” Solving these issues requires Pixar’s technologists to decide where they will pool their time and resources on each film. “We had originally designed Boo, the little kid in Monsters, Inc., to have longer hair and the technical guys were like: ‘Come on please, you’re gonna kill us with the Sully hair’,” Docter recalls, “so we decided to put it up in ponytails.”
Docter and his team would come to break realistic hair further in 2009’s Up, his second feature film as director. Up’s main character, Carl, was representative of just how far Pixar’s capabilities had come, with complex simulation and rigging needed to bring him to life. “Carl is this square,” Docter explains, “his body is very stocky and short. With the rigging that we had on Toy Story, I don’t know that we would have been able to get Carl to move around.”
“WE WANTED THE CLOTH ON CARL TO BE VERY SIMPLE AND STYLISED, THAT TOOK A LOT OF WORK” Pete Docter, chief creative officer, Pixar
Shortly after the release of Toy Story, Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull began work on the short film Geri’s Game with a mind to improve the studio’s simulation technology, something Docter and the team on Up were direct beneficiaries of. “We wanted the cloth to be stylised,” Docter continues. “We kept referencing Dennis The Menace. Hank Ketcham had this way of simplifying the folds in cloth. We wanted the cloth on Carl to be very simple and stylised, that took a lot of work.”
In computer animation nothing can be taken for granted, and behind Pixar’s world-renowned innovations are a raft of subtler breakthroughs. “While we’re working on the story there will be things that we don’t realise, even after making all of these films, just how hard they are,” says Rae. “You think you get that for free now in computer animation and that’s just not true. There’s certain things that are still really challenging.”
Docter explains that every film is full of subtle breakthroughs. “If you go back and look at the first Toy Story – and I don’t blame anybody for this, it was just the limitations of the technology – it’s pretty flat. You don’t have a lot of direction of where to look, things are evenly lit across the screen. I was really proud that by Monsters, Inc. we were able to do some really dramatic lighting scenes.”
Morris asserts that it will continue to find new voices to push its storytelling into the future. “We’ve had the first generation of directors and storytellers at Pixar,” he explains, “including Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton, John Lasseter, and Lee Unkrich. Some of them are still here working, Pete’s finishing up Soul, our 23rd film. But the thing that’s happened over recent years is looking to new storytellers and trying to figure out how we stay as relevant to audiences five or ten years from now as we were to audiences in the past.”
“I feel like that’s our direction going forward,” Morris continues, “we want to preserve the quality of technological animation and storytelling innovation, but be open to doing it with new voices and new types of stories.” •