Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Pixar Touch

I have long bemoaned the largely uneducated state of so many of the denizens of the Disney online community. As my very good friend and fellow blogger George Taylor regular documents and promotes, there is a vast library of resources available, especially in print form, on all matters and subjects Disney. But unfortunately, discourse based on solid research and reputable sources is often secondary to the back side ventriloquism practiced by so many Disney bloggers, podcasters and community members.

One particular subject that so often inspires uninformed sound bites and hollow punditry is Pixar. That is why David A. Price's book The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company is so welcome a publication. Though not as pronounced as it used to be, the "Pixar is not Disney" mantra continues to be voiced in many circles. Through meticulous research and astute observations, Price dispels that supposition, demonstrating that Pixar is in many ways the spiritual successor to the creative and artistic philosophies innovated and sustained by Walt Disney throughout his lifetime.

In documenting the history of this "little company that could," Price reaches well beyond the creation of memorable and now iconic characters such as Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Mike, Sully and Nemo. The roots of Pixar stretch back to the beginnings of the computer revolution during the late 1960s and 1970s and the dogged perseverance of Ed Catmull and his determined contemporaries. Price chronicles the efforts of these individuals to develop a viable technology of computer animation with the ultimate goal of creating a wholly computer generated animated film. A serendipitous encounter with a young Cal Arts-trained animator named John Lasseter ultimately becomes a lightening in a bottle dynamic that would forever change the landscape of animated film making.

Price weaves a compelling and page-turning history that in many ways showcases both the then quickly evolving computer industry and the evolution of computer driven special effects for film and television. Lucasfilm, Apple and Disney are the primary backdrops for the tale and it is fascinating to relive notable events such as the development of the PC and the creation of the original Star Wars films from this particular perspective. While it is immensely satisfying to bear witness to the story of Catmull's and Lasseter's marriage of cutting edge technology with Walt Disney-inspired storytelling and creativity, it is the machinations of such secondary players as Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg and most especially Steve Jobs that prove the most interesting and enlightening.

My only disappointment with the book was in its ever increasing slightness as it moved more and more quickly to the climactic Disney-Pixar merger in 2006. Price moves quickly through the company's last decade of incredible successes and provides little information and insight on the post-merger Pixar, despite the two years that separated that event from the book's publication. I was left hungry for more information and insight on such topics as Catmull's and Lasseter's restructuring of Walt Disney Animation, the reworking of Meet the Robinsons, Chris Sander's controversial dismissal from American Dog (now Bolt) and Lasseter's own still somewhat ambiguous role at Walt Disney Imagineering.

That reservation notwithstanding, The Pixar Touch is a comprehensive and well written chronicle of not just Pixar, but of the contemporary Walt Disney Company as well. If you are a Disney enthusiast who wishes to argue the merits of Pixar and its celebrated creative team, then at least do so from a well educated frame of reference. David Price's book is a great place to begin or extend that education.

7 comments:

davesablast said...

Thanks again for another thoughtful and erudite post to the blog that has become my favorite. I stopped reading a number of Disney boards some time ago due to the insipid vapidity found on them. 2719, Imaginerding, If You Can Dream It, and, of course, WDW Radio set a very high mark for fun and intelligent discourse on our favorite past time. Thanks for all of your hard work.

Mark R. said...

I too just finished reading "The Pixar Story" last week and I agree with your assessment. I enjoyed the first half of the book much more then I enjoyed the the last half. Once the author turned the focus of the chapters to the making of each movie, the book stopped delving in depth into the making of the Pixar company and politics behind the screen. It also ended without much discussion on the dynamics of the newly formed partnership between the two companies.

The last books I finished reading just before picking this one up was "Disney Wars" by James B. Stewart. Many of the topics in Disney Wars were also included in The Pixar Story, but from the Pixar side of the story. This helped fill in some of the gaps in both books.

I would recommend both books for anyone trying to understand many of the issues that have lead up to the making of the Disney company we know today. Both are very good reads.

Anthony F said...

Jeff, it's funny you mention Lasseter's "ambiguous" role at Disney Imagineering. I had the very good fortune of having a lengthy conversation with an Imagineer this weekend, and we touched on that very topic. He couldn't praise Lasseter enough, actually. While he is only scheduled to visit Imagineering once a week, he apparently comes by more often because he just can't stay away! He sits and goes over ideas and helps refine them and point the way. In a lot of ways, he is all the things people describe Walt as. A true visionary, a worthy successor, and someone who really cares about what the name "Disney" really means.

Anonymous said...

Thanks especially for your 1st 2 paragraphs! That's the most erudite b**ch-slap I've ever read! :-) Too bad the people it's directed at won't get it. :-(

Cory Gross said...

I can see Pixar being the heir to Disney in ways that aren't positive either, such as defining what the genre of CGI animated films will henceforth be in the West, the same way Disney defined what the genre of traditional animation has been ever since. My dislike of Pixar is mostly vicarious... Pixar produces very good Pixar films: the wacky and witty, pop-culture loaded secret life of things that are funny because they're just like us. Toy Story, Bug Story, Monster Story, Fish Story, Superhero Story, Car Story, etc. But everybody else makes terrible Pixar films, and that's all that anybody wants to make.

I dunno'... Maybe there's just something about North Americans that makes us fixate on animation as a genre rather than a medium, like chicks who imprint on the first thing they see.

Nevertheless, here's hoping that Princess of Mars isn't Martian Story!

Doc Terminus said...

Cory,

your post has some good words but it reads like doublespeak. Complaining about positives to promote a negative. Lots of people argue that way, I understand, but for us simpler folk it doesn't register...

It reads like you're saying

'I hate Pixar because they make good films and other films unrelated try to make similar films but don't succeed.'

A more substantial argument would be to avoid hating Pixar (who makes the good film), but rather the copy-cats that don't succeed in making that good film. Disliking someone for run-off influence seems troublesome.

With all that said and done, you are certainly entitled to your opinion. Have fun with it.. (or be miserable about it- whatever you prefer).

Floyd Norman said...

I enjoyed the book even though the wrap up remains a little thin.

After thinking about it -- I realize that story is still being written. I think we'll need another book in a year or so.