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The Art of Pixar’s Short Films

Knick Knack

A while back I mentioned briefly on this site that I had been offered an opportunity to write a book for Pixar, and today I thought I’d offer a few more details about it. The coffeetable book I’m working on, which will be out later this year, is directly tied in to the Pixar Short Films Collection dvd, and is an in-depth history of the studio’s early shorts. I was naturally thrilled when they asked me to come on board because, well, come on it’s Pixar, but also because I know the importance of shorts to the company’s history and the value that they place on creating animated shorts even now that they’re a successful feature studio. Admittedly, in the beginning, I was slightly concerned about whether there was enough to say about the shorts to fill an entire book, but it took only a couple weeks of working on the book before I was begging my editor to double the initial page count. We’re still in production on the book right now, and one thing I can say about it is that there’s a lot more text and meat in this than your average art of book. It’s exciting to see it come together and I can’t wait to see how it turns out.

Because the book’s content stretches back to André & Wally B. which was done before Pixar even officially existed, I had to familiarize myself with the ins and outs of the studio’s entire history. It’s truly a fascinating story. Today we look at Pixar as the untouchable 800-pound gorilla of computer animation so it’s easy to forget that not so long ago, they were a struggling hardware company and their animation division was comprised of just a handful of folks working in a company of over one hundred people. There was hardly a guarantee that their animation division would become what it is today, and it only happened because of the genius and vision of individuals like Ed Catmull, John Lasseter, Alvy Ray Smith, and a slew of computer whizzes like Bill Reeves, Loren Carpenter, Eben Ostby and Rob Cook.

When I began researching the book, I wanted to find a reliable source that would help me understand the early roots of Pixar and its earlier incarnation as the Computer Graphics Division of Lucasfilm. During an interview with Pixar co-founder Alvy Ray Smith, he recommended I take a look at the recent book Droidmaker: George Lucas and the Digital Revolution. I took him up on that advice and am glad I did. This book is absolutely essential reading for anybody who wants to understand the roots of Pixar and its founders Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith. The book is not entirely about computer animation, because Lucas’ Computer Division also dealt with editing, game and sound programs, but the parts about Pixar’s pre-history make it well worth the money and the solid technical details and hardcore research are enough to satisfy the geekiest of the computer geeks. George Lucas has played a crucial role in contemporary filmmaking by introducing digital technology into all aspects of his productions, and this book is a wonderful document of how it happened…and as a result, how Pixar came out of it.

Speaking of essential, below is YouTube video with the author of the above book, Michael Rubin, interviewing Ed Catmull, Alvy Ray Smith, Andrew Stanton and Brad Bird on stage. It’s 1 hour and 40 minutes, and it’s a fun and inspiring chat.

Just for the heck of it, let me share a few other random Pixar bits that I discovered online while researching the book:

Here’s a link to the personal website of Pixar co-founder Alvy Ray Smith. He has an interesting page with rare Pixar documents and a page about the first “Pixar” short André & Wally B. with an amazingly in-depth PDF file about the making of that short.

Pixar has a sub-site where they make available all the technical papers that their technologists have presented at SIGGRAPH. It’s pretty heavy on the tech, so beware, but there’s also some QuickTime tests that accompany a few of the papers, like this one about “Volumetric Methods for Simulation and Rendering of Hair.”

Here’s a new link posted yesterday: Didier Ghez did a short interview with David Price, author of the just-about-to-be-released The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company. I don’t know how the book will turn out, but it sounds like Price has done his homework and I can’t wait to read it.

Finally, one of the fascinating aspects of Pixar that nobody talks about is their TV commercial work. Did you know Pixar produced 71 TV commercials in the early- and mid-’90s? A complete list can be found by following this timeline on their site. They’re surprisingly difficult to locate online, but there’s a handful on Youtube, including the very first one the studio produced, for Tropicana, directed and animated by John Lasseter: