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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:

  • Didier Ghez

    Way to go Amid! Three cheers to you.

    Try and include the list of commercial at the end of the book somewhere as it does not appear in any current or upcoming book.

    I can confirm that David Price really did his homework on the Pixar Touch. The good news is that the book even provides some new stories about recent Disney history, including the exact account of Frank Wells’ death (so precise that it is almost unbearable to read).

  • thanks for a meaty post… now I can spend all weekend following Pixar links! who needs friends?

  • Those guys simply r0x.

    They must have started to make 3D by line of code

    Great article

  • Fascinating story all right. I was one of the early Pixar geeks that made a point of stopping by their tiny booth at trade shows and purchasing their software. Back in those days, they were pretty much a software company, however, John Lasseter’s short films kept people talking about the company.

    I had no idea I’d ever be working at Pixar. I was lucky to be there during the early days before all the hype. It’s still a remarkable company, however.

  • Tyson

    Great post….it’s amazing to see those old ads!

  • matt

    Well here’s one pre-sale so far!

    One thing you absolutely MUST address fully and honestly is why Knicknack was ‘censored’. And why as recently as the Pixar exhibition they were happy to show the initial version to an all-ages audience yet the DVD and BD have the censored version.

    Pixar doesn’t seem to be the sort of company that sees monsters in the shadows (oh wait…) everywhere they look and if Britney Spears coming on to paedophiles & asking to be beaten (schoolgirl outfit and admonitions to hit her one more time) as well as the slutty proposition of the Spice Girls’ initial hit (if you wanna be my lover you gotta get with my friends) can fly past almost everyone without even an over-vigilant Disney concerned mothers’ group batting an eye, then it seems something like this is putting out a fire that was never there. I really hope we get a truthful answer on why boobs were all right the first time but the double mastectomy was the “right thing” the second time around.

    I’ve heard there was actually a stereoscopic version. Maybe it was only then that this “issue” became apparent?!

  • I’m looking forward to your coffeetable book Amid! I really liked the shorts DVD, but extra info on the projects is always fun and interesting to read. Have fun finishing the book!

  • J

    Aren’t there a handful of commercials and shorts on the TV in Toy Story 2 when Hamm is flipping through the channels?

  • Thanks Amid. Looking forward to seeing what the book is like. Pixar’s shorts (namely a VHS of Tin Toy, Luxo Jr., Red’s Dream, and Knick Knack) were a major influence on me as middle/high schooler getting interested in animation.

  • Paul N

    I was fortunate enough to attend the panel discussion/interview that’s linked to here, and I can tell you it’s well worth your time.

    Regarding Knick Knack, there are two published videos that contain the original version. The first was a Pixar video that was out in the early 90’s, and the second was a Disney release called “Tiny Toy Stories” that was released a few years back. They’re probably not easy to find, but they are out there.

  • red pill junkie

    I’m really looking forward for your book Amid. It’s going to be amazing! :-)

  • Hooray For Kari

    HOLY COW! Pixar was behind the Listerine commercial? Every time I hear Baltimora I can’t help but think about mouthwash swinging through the trees al la Tarzan. Really great to see it after all these years. Thanks, Amid!

  • It’s nice to hear you excited about a mainstream company like Pixar Amid!

    I’m sure your book will be a great read.

    Also check out this comment made by Alvy Ray Smith’s on for “Droidmaker” giving it his full endorsement.

    “By Alvy Ray Smith (Seattle, WA USA) –

    I am the Co-founder of Pixar, with Ed Catmull. After years of reading mangled “histories” of Lucasfilm/Pixar, I am extremely pleased to read one by a guy who gets it right, including the arts, the technologies, the businesses, and the personalities. Michael Rubin not only gets the gist correctly imparted, but also those pesky details. I watched Michael as he carefully reconstructed our history, never quite believing all the stories we fed him, checking and double-checking the stories of the participants against one another and against the written record. Often he caught us (me anyway) having unconsciously edited out boring bits of the truth, and he put those bits back in. His book has allowed me to celebrate again a wonderful time of my life and, surprisingly, to teach me new things. For example, I came away from my first read of his book better appreciating exactly what George Lucas and Steve Jobs (and Francis Coppola) contributed to our part of the digital revolution, it not being in either case what is often claimed for them.”

  • I loved the “Droidmaker” book. It’s so nerdy, just fantastic. The amount of details you get to know is incredible, right down to the (seemingly casual) conversation of how Pixar got their name. Highly highly recommended.

  • Dora Standpipe

    It just seems odd to me that every one of those commercials had something bounce in it a la Luxo Jr.

  • Mel Johnson

    Fwiw, Alvy Ray Smith says on his bio page that The Pixar Touch is the best history yet of Pixar.

  • Bill Cross

    I have the original version of “Knick-Knack” on that “Toy Stories” VHS tape. But I, too, was curious as to why such an innocuous joke needed to be self-censored.

    The original version, with the girl & mermaid knick-knacks so impossibly over-endowed is what made the snowman’s efforts to free himself even more hilarious. I thought it was definitely in the tradition of Tex Avery. The toned down version just doesn’t carry the same punch.

  • It’s going to be a great book. I worked on several commercials at Pixar, and even directed one, and I animated on Geri’s Game. Anything I can do to help, just ask.

  • Big Jim McBob

    Knickknack was produced when Pixar was more of a boy’s club. (some would argue it still is) Most of the top guys were single and in their 20s-early 30s. Hence the mermaid’s huge… um… Oh, hi honey! What? Nothing!

  • Steve Gattuso

    It seems like a release of all 71 commercials on DVD would be called for. Demonstrating the early development of Pixar is always fun.

  • Billy Saul Hurock

    There were women at Pixar from the beginning–running the marketing of Renderman and the like. Behind the scenes, maybe, but working hard. The “Droidmaker” book is terrific,btw. Read it 3 or 4 years ago when it came out.

  • Ken Coleman

    Does this book have anything to do with the research you were working on when you came upon those Ward Kimball character designs a few months back?

  • matt

    I know what you’re saying Jim but what I was getting at was what was so offensive to men OR women about it – I used the Britney and Spice Girls examples of things that are broadly offensive that just sailed right by everyone. Knick Knack just had some well caricatured beach bimbo types. I think drawing the conclusion that this was what Pixar think of ALL women (if that’s a possible reason) or that little girls will be scarred for life and grow up wanting to look like that is drawing a ridiculously long bow. Were the women at Pixar at the time actually upset? One for you I guess Amid.

    Even though obviously I don’t know enough women to make anything but the most subjective point, every single woman or girl I know who saw it thought both Knick Knack AND the bimbos were hilarious. And certainly the same sort of ridiculous as the bopping Pyramid! Not a rolled-eye among them. I hope Pixar didn’t censor themselves just in case they might bring down the wrath of those black-bars-hating concerned Mothers’ groups who had somehow missed it so far… Y’know, the same sort of mothers (!) that are outraged and disgusted by public breastfeeding, somehow seeing the most natural act in the world as totally abhorrent and begging the question of what they think of their own bodies.

    I know that’s a bit over the top but I’m just trying to make the point about over-reaction for no good reason.

    I’ll have to get a hold of that ‘Droidmaker’ book too.