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The Beginnings of Pixar: A Brief History

By: Berenice Andrade

It has been a long way of more than four decades traveled by Pixar to reach Coco, their 19th feature film and the movie that will inaugurate the fifteenth edition of the Morelia International Film Festival (FICM) on October 20th.

Although Pixar now seems synonymous with the most successful animated films of recent years, its beginnings have more to do with scientific developments, supercomputers and understanding the meeting point between technology and the entertainment industry and content. As well as with great characters who have contributed to the definition of current popular culture, such as Steve Jobs, John Lasseter and even George Lucas.

In the late 1970s, George Lucas recruited a group of computer scientists, including Alvy Ray Smith and Ed Catmull, current president of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, to form the Lucasfilms Graphics Group area and create visual effects for his movies and animation software for other productions. That team, a few years later, joined John Lasseter, a young animator who intended to make the first computer animated film in history.

The team created hardware with high computing power capable of creating high-resolution images, which it called Pixar Image Computer.

Although this division of Lucasfilms innovated with some of the most revolutionary digital uses to create images at that time, George Lucas was not interested in animation. So, when amid a financial crisis, Steve Jobs decided to buy that division of Lucasfilm, George Lucas did not hesitate.

Ed Catmull, Steve Jobs and John Lasseter. Photo: The Pixar Times.

Attracted by the recognition of the computer-animated short film The Adventures of André and Wally B. (1984) by Alvy Ray Smith and John Lasseter, Steve Jobs found it profitable to get involved in that area of entertainment. Thus, in 1986, Pixar was formally established.

To consolidate the new company and show the potential of its technology, John Lasseter came up with the idea of producing another animated short film. Luxo Jr. (John Lasseter, 1986), a short one-and-a-half minute starring the iconic Pixar symbol, was so groundbreaking that he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film in 1987.

Sketch Luxo Jr., by  John Lasseter.

Pixar continued to be a provider of high-end software and hardware services. But neither having Disney as a client, buying software to speed up the coloring of their animations, or working for blockbusters like Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993), earned Pixar the enough to survive. They were so far from commercial success that the Pixar Image Computer sold less than 300 units.

But that did not stop the team from continuing to produce animated shorts. Tin Toy (1998), the story of a toy trying to escape a frightening baby, won the Oscar for Best Short Film in 1988. The idea of making a feature film of a toy story began to grow strongly, but they knew they needed a big, powerful studio, like Disney.

By 1991 the partnership was a fact: Pixar would produce three animated feature films, the first of which would be Toy Story (dir. John Lasseter, 1995), and Disney would deal with distribution and marketing. Meanwhile, Pixar, in its struggle to not disappear, continued offering software services and working on animations for commercials.

Toy Story’s premiere in 1995 represented Pixar’s long-awaited consolidation as an animation studio, as well as a milestone in film history. The first digitally animated film in its entirety was also a commercial success that was followed by many more.

In 2006, Disney acquired Pixar, and the rest is history. Eleven years after that merger, Disney • Pixar presents a new original story that pays homage to the Day of the Dead. Directed by Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3, 2010), co-directed by Adrian Molina (storyboard designer of Monsters University, 2013) and produced by Darla K. Anderson (Toy Story 3), Coco will premiere in Mexican cinemas on October 27, 2017, one month earlier than the rest of the world.