3D World

To in­fin­ity and be­yond

3D World opens the doors to Pixar and dis­cov­ers the se­crets of the stu­dio that changed an­i­ma­tion for­ever

- Entertainment · Filmmaking · Animation · Movies · Lucasfilm, Limited · Apple Inc · Steve Jobs · Ray Smith · John Lasseter · Toy Story · The Walt Disney Company · George Lucas · California · Emeryville · Pixar Animation Studios · Alvy Moore · Peter Docter · Kori Rae · Industrial Light & Magic · The Little Mermaid · The Adventures · Point Richmond, Richmond, California · California Institute of the Arts · Emeryville, CA · Del Monte · Sully

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.”

IN­NO­VA­TION, INC.

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.”

FIND­ING STORY

‘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.” •

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 ??  ?? Above: The en­trance to Pixar’s cam­pus in Emeryville, Cal­i­for­nia, where they have been based since 2000
Above: The en­trance to Pixar’s cam­pus in Emeryville, Cal­i­for­nia, where they have been based since 2000
 ??  ?? Right: Cine­matog­ra­pher and lay­out artist Pa­trick Lin hard at work on one of Pixar’s fea­ture films
Right: Cine­matog­ra­pher and lay­out artist Pa­trick Lin hard at work on one of Pixar’s fea­ture films
 ??  ?? While at Lu­cas­film, the team achieved CGI mile­stones, such as the Stained Glass Knight in Young Sher­lock Holmes
While at Lu­cas­film, the team achieved CGI mile­stones, such as the Stained Glass Knight in Young Sher­lock Holmes
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 ??  ?? Left: Com­pleted in Novem­ber 2000, The Steve Jobs Build­ing was built by Peter Bohlin of Bohlin Cy­win­ski Jack­son
Left: Com­pleted in Novem­ber 2000, The Steve Jobs Build­ing was built by Peter Bohlin of Bohlin Cy­win­ski Jack­son
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 ??  ?? Top, left: 2006’s Cars saw Pixar achieve im­pres­sive sur­faces and tex­tures with the film’s ve­hic­u­lar char­ac­ters
Top, left: 2006’s Cars saw Pixar achieve im­pres­sive sur­faces and tex­tures with the film’s ve­hic­u­lar char­ac­ters
 ??  ?? Top, right: A char­ac­ter sketch­ing ses­sion dur­ing pro­duc­tion on Pixar’s 2011 film Cars 2
Top, right: A char­ac­ter sketch­ing ses­sion dur­ing pro­duc­tion on Pixar’s 2011 film Cars 2
 ??  ?? Above, right: A still from Mon­sters, Inc. demon­strat­ing the ad­vanced CG fur and light­ing con­di­tions for com­puter an­i­ma­tion in 2001
Above, right: A still from Mon­sters, Inc. demon­strat­ing the ad­vanced CG fur and light­ing con­di­tions for com­puter an­i­ma­tion in 2001
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 ??  ?? Be­low, left: In 2015 Pixar re­leased two films in one year for the first time, In­side Out and The Good Di­nosaur
Be­low, left: In 2015 Pixar re­leased two films in one year for the first time, In­side Out and The Good Di­nosaur
 ??  ?? Be­low, right: Pixar’s artists used ba­sic vis­ual cues to con­vey the per­son­al­ity of each char­ac­ter in their 2009 film Up
Be­low, right: Pixar’s artists used ba­sic vis­ual cues to con­vey the per­son­al­ity of each char­ac­ter in their 2009 film Up
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Coco
 ??  ?? Right, mid­dle: Ed­i­tor Stephen Schaf­fer work­ing on a key ac­tion scene for In­cred­i­bles 2
Right, mid­dle: Ed­i­tor Stephen Schaf­fer work­ing on a key ac­tion scene for In­cred­i­bles 2
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 ??  ?? Right, top: Pixar artist Greg Dyk­stra work­ing on a clay sculp­ture dur­ing pro­duc­tion on
Right, top: Pixar artist Greg Dyk­stra work­ing on a clay sculp­ture dur­ing pro­duc­tion on
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