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Book Review: To Infinity and Beyond

To Infinity and Beyond

To Infinity and Beyond!: The Story of Pixar Animation Studios (Chronicle Books, 2007) by Karen Paik is exactly the type of book you’d expect it to be, nothing more and nothing less, and so cautious as to be boring. Such might also serve as an adequate assessment of the studio’s last couple of films.

The first three chapters of the book are dedicated to Pixar’s big three—Ed Catmull (the tech guy), John Lasseter (the art guy) and Steve Jobs (the business guy)—and the story of their individual paths that led them to Pixar. It is followed by a look at Pixar’s early day as a hardware and software manufacturer, TV commercial producer and maker of short films. The bulk of the book is devoted to the studio’s features, with one chapter offered to each film from Toy Story through Cars. The book concludes with a chapter titled “Pixar Joins with Disney” which is a frank account (as far as corporate vanity books go) of the drama of the past few years which led to Disney’s eventual acquisition of the studio. Throughout, there are also spotlights on Sound, Voices, Music and RenderMan.

As a coffeetable book, it is handsome though hardly spectacular. The front and back cover, with their Buzz Lightyear stickers pasted onto cloth, strike me as not only a surprisingly thrifty approach for such an expensive book ($75 cover price), but also something that doesn’t evoke the proper image for a studio that has pioneered computer graphics. Interior layout is clean but bland; the artwork printed here is largely redundant if you have the earlier ‘art of’ volumes devoted to individual Pixar films. Among the types of visuals that can’t be found in those other book are some photographs and caricatures of the artists. Another type of art unique to this book is the inclusion of final rendered stills from the films, which is good or bad depending on your perspective.

Personally, I had a surprising reaction to the film stills. Looking at them on the printed page, without the benefit of movement or story, I was struck by how overwhelmingly primitive the finished artwork is in Pixar’s films. No doubt the graphics in their films have evolved in terms of complexity, lighting and rendering over the past decade, but the final imagery has not become any more aesthetically appealing from the days of Toy Story. The graphics in Pixar films remain literal and sterile with little sense of humanity or warmth in the finished characters or backgrounds.

While it would be easy to blame such graphic shortcomings on the nature of digital art, the lack of appeal is not so much a technological issue as it is about Pixar’s unwillingness to use the computer as an artistic tool. To date, the aesthetic development of CG has largely been left to smaller commercial studios and independent animators. A studio like Pixar excels in characterization (and occasionally story), but when it comes to graphics, they are more similar than most like to admit to other deep-pocketed and overly cautious CG studios like DreamWorks, Sony and Blue Sky.

There is, however, little reason that Pixar should be incapable of incorporating the type of visual imagination that is evident in their pre-production art into the finished movies. Certainly both the technical and artistic know-how exists at the studio; only the will to combine the two is lacking. While their film credit sequences often make a half-hearted nod to graphic respectability (ex. Monsters Inc., Ratatouille), it would be something else entirely to see such artistry integrated into the CG body of their films.

Pixar completists, and those who want a better sense of some of the production challenges that artists faced on each feature, will want to consider adding this book to their bookshelf, though if you’re an owner of the studio’s earlier ‘art of’ books, it’s doubtful you’ll find much in the way of visual inspiration. What you’ll find is a lot of the same pre-production pieces (or similar enough that they may as well be the same) and a fairy tale account of the studio’s rise to prominence with lots (and lots) of obligatory back-patting amongst crew members. Personally, I’m looking more forward to another book on the horizon: David Price’s The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company, which will hopefully offer the in-depth history of the studio that many of us want. That book will be released next May.