Pixar at Twenty

With its unprecedented string of hit films, a $7.4 billion sale to Disney, and another blockbuster out this month, Emeryville's gentle juggernaut comes of age.



Anyone with eyeballs knows that Pixar changed the face of entertainment, but let’s also recognize that it happened right here in our backyard. As aficionados of the East Bay would have it, no other place on Earth could have been so hospitable to Pixar, which started as a software-company offshoot of the George Lucas entertainment empire and briskly morphed into the world’s most famous producer of computer-animated films, every single one of which has been a hit.

As Pixar celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2006 and releases its newest feature, Cars, on June 9, the Emeryville animation giant seems on the verge of something like adulthood. And adulthood means responsibility—in this case, finding a way to stay safely on top with a responsible balance between mainstream success and cutting-edge entertainment.

This January, in what the San Francisco Chronicle called “a significant milestone in the Bay Area’s emergence as a key player in the new media world,” the Walt Disney Company bought Pixar Animation Studios for $7.4 billion. Pixar CEO Steve Jobs—who is also, in case anyone has forgotten, the head of Apple Computer—became the largest shareholder on Disney’s board of directors. Pixar Executive Vice President John Lasseter, director of Toy Story and Cars, became the overseer of Disney’s Imagineering division, which designs, builds, and runs the company’s theme parks. Pixar’s adulthood apparently also means bigger paychecks, bigger workloads, and bigger visions of what family entertainment can be.

Every blockbuster has a backstory, and Pixar’s involves Star Wars creator George Lucas. The studio first came to life as Lucasfilm’s Computer Division, a maker of software and hardware for graphics applications. In 1986, Lucas sold the division to Steve Jobs, and by the next year, the computer-animated Pixar short Luxo Jr. was nominated for an Oscar. By 1995, Pixar was a full-fledged animation studio, with a $140-million IPO and Toy Story, the first fully computer-animated feature and the highest-grossing film of the year, to its credit. What followed was an unprecedented string of successes: A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles.

After a brief stint in a ragtag huddle of buildings in Point Richmond, Pixar grounded itself in December 2000 in its airy, artsy yet famously private Emeryville headquarters. Says Michael Rubin, author of Droidmaker: George Lucas and the Digital Revolution, “Could they have done it anywhere else? I would say no. It’s a good thing they’re where they are. You get the creative energy of San Francisco, the bohemian nature of the northern Bay Area. You get the proximity to Silicon Valley’s brain trust, with Hollywood just an hour away by plane.” Emeryville, Rubin says, is “kind of a sweet spot that benefits from those forces but is also autonomous. In Los Angeles, it’s hard to resist being mainstreamed. And if they’d been closer to Steve Jobs in the early years, he might have screwed them up.” Rubin lauds the CEO’s restraint in not meddling with Pixar’s creative operations, but also attributes Jobs’s self-control to his concentration on ventures closer to home.

Meanwhile, Pixar has been not only a happy camper but a contributor to its community. Patrick O’Keeffe, Emeryville’s director of economic development and housing, calls Pixar “an exemplary corporate citizen” and says the company has consistently been a positive influence on the city—for starters, by beautifying and putting to creative use the “blighted parcel” that had once been home to a Pepsi bottling plant and a Del Monte Foods canning factory, both of which had shut down.

“Our land costs were pretty favorable at that time,” O’Keeffe recalls. “Pixar initially acquired 13 acres and added another seven on top of that. It’s very difficult to find a site of that size anywhere in the East Bay.” The company wanted to stay close to its former location in Point Richmond, O’Keeffe says, to minimize disrupting its employees’ commutes. But it needed space to develop into the icon it has become.

Once settled in, Pixar developed a generous relationship with Children’s Hospital Oakland. “We figure in their plans for opening every new film,” says Cathy Meyer, director of philanthropy at Children’s Hospital. Pixar’s hospital-benefit screenings—catered premieres at the company headquarters that accompany each new film—have become hot tickets. “It’s a nice perk for our donors, who get first crack at the seats,” Meyer says. She is also pleased that “our patients are actually the very first kids to see each film. And a lot of these kids—they couldn’t afford the price of a ticket in the first place.” Sometimes, filmmakers come to the hospital before a movie opens to show it on closed-circuit TV to the kids who can’t leave. “I wish we had others that were so easy,” Meyer says. “With Pixar, we sort of know we can count on them.”

In the artistic community, Pixar is “very much the holy grail,” according to Andrew Britt, director of visual arts at Emeryville’s Expression College for Digital Arts. “It’s what inspired me to get into this, and inspired many of the students.” Britt, who periodically teaches graphics courses to Pixar employees, says the company’s stature is elemental to the creative culture of the East Bay.

Expression graduates have gone on to work for the Berkeley-based Animationmentor.com, an online animation school cofounded by Pixar animators Bobby Beck and Carlos Baena. Other like-minded neighbors include video game companies Foundation 9 Entertainment’s Backbone Emeryville and Oddworld Inhabitants, the latter of which relocated to Emeryville from San Luis Obispo last year in part because, as its president and creative director Lorne Lanning observed at the time, the area is “the hot spot for digital animation.”

Plans have been approved for a Pixar campus expansion, from the current 215,000 square feet to a four-building compound totaling 750,000 square feet. “The idea was to build three additional buildings,” explains Emeryville’s O’Keeffe. “That was approved over a year ago. We were starting to work with [the company] on the actual construction drawings for their second building. That was put on hold once they started their discussion with Disney, and we have not heard whether they intend to go forward.”

In the meantime, Pixar’s staff has been expanding, and the company has leased several other buildings within a few blocks of its headquarters. At this point in the studio’s development, it’s natural to wonder how the Disney deal will change things.

“You always want to be cautious when there’s a change to something that’s working,” says author Rubin. “At the same time, Disney and Pixar go way back.”

In fact, it was Disney that helped make Pixar a viable entertainment company to begin with—and not merely because John Lasseter began his creative career as a Disney animator. More important is the savvy symbiosis of Pixar’s creative power and Disney’s marketing power, which began with a three-picture deal in 1991, when Disney agreed to help develop and distribute Pixar features, the first of which was Toy Story. That seemed to turn out OK: Only Disney’s massive marketing and distribution resources could have enabled Pixar to find its audience.

Another reason many observers aren’t too worried about the deal is that Disney already owned the sequel rights to all of Pixar’s hits—the techniques but not the name talent—so a continued partnership suggests that we can rest assured that any sequels won’t be embarrassingly pale imitations of their predecessors. “A constant criticism of Disney has been having businesspeople, not animators, calling the shots, and its mistakes have resulted in costly failures,” says Bay Area Animation Association President Karl Cohen. “Lasseter, on the other hand, has the education and experience to understand what works and has surrounded himself with the talent to make it work.”

As Rubin puts it, “I think [Pixar is] a strong enough culture that Disney isn’t going to squash it.”

Another looming question might be, How long can Pixar keep its hot streak of critical and box-offices success going? “Could John produce a flop?” Cohen asks. “Possibly, if [Disney] pressures him to release films before they have fully developed scripts or are not ready and the deadline must be met at all costs. Disney made films for specific release dates instead of creating the best possible product. Hopefully, John will not be forced into that kind of pressure.”

Rubin, for his part, agrees, allowing that a flop by Pixar standards could still seem like a success to a whole lot of other people. “Maybe it’ll be something that doesn’t meet some audience expectations,” he says, “and maybe people will say, ‘Thank God they finally missed their mark a little bit,’ but it’s not like they’re going to put out something that’s unwatchable. They’re just not.”

Pixar’s people would rather make a movie that isn’t a hit than one that isn’t somehow innovative and cool. The studio has already produced a few films whose creators expected them to disappoint at the box office—but they didn’t. The lesson seemed to be that predictions are futile and that Pixar’s creative team should just go about its highly committed, handcrafted work and take true satisfaction from that. “There is no Pixar formula,” Rubin says. “Those films are not as similar to each other as you might think.”

To wit: Cars, which seems willing to court the Joe Six-Pack NASCAR crowd. Already there have been accusations of closet conservatism, which seems an impressive achievement for an arty-techie Bay Area entertainment company. “Cars may not be the most popular film of 2006 in San Francisco,” says Cohen. “It might be too conservative or even reactionary for some people here. But I suspect it will be a smash hit throughout much of this country.”

“My six-year-old seems intrigued by it,” Rubin adds. “He’s not Middle America. He’s just six.”

As was true of The Incredibles, which explored workplace ethics and being true to yourself, the fact that a cartoon movie can raise such nuanced moral issues suggests how rich and compelling Cars likely will be. Driving down the middle of the road, in other words, needn’t mean driving headlong into mediocrity. Consider that Cars brings together the voice talents of Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt, Owen Wilson, Cheech Marin, Michael Keaton, and Tom and Ray Magliozzi from NPR’s Car Talk.

Regardless of how Bay Area audiences respond to Cars, chances are good that we’ll still love Pixar tomorrow. It still flatters the East Bay ideal of a corporation with a soul that’s building a professional and creative legacy both worthy and profitable—not to mention fun. Looking at the recent Pixar exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, culture critic Lee Siegel suggested that the company is among the vanguard of “visual candidates for the occupation of a literary void.” In other words, Pixar animation is to the 21st century what great novels were to the 19th and 20th. And it happened right here in Emeryville. Perhaps the most telling indicator of Pixar’s success, and its future, is a track record of harnessing the innovations of left-coast creative culture to produce terrific movies of mainstream, heartland appeal.

Educator Elizabeth Greenberg
Elizabeth Greenberg makes sure none of Pixar’s hard-working employees misses out on an education. Greenberg is one of seven facilitators of Pixar University, an in-house school for employees. Inspired by a 1935 memo from Walt Disney instructing his team of animators to enhance their skills by studying various creative concepts, PU offers a curriculum to help employees broaden their creative horizons. Classes include acting, live-action filmmaking, sculpture, yoga, and belly dancing.

“The idea is to have our employees think as filmmakers, not computer programmers,” says the Berkeley resident. “For our movies, we need to make sure that story drives technology, not the other way around.”

Employees are encouraged, but not required, to take classes, which are usually scheduled between noon and 2 p.m. every day. The positive effects of PU aren’t limited to the roughly 775 employees working in the Emeryville studio. “As part of our community-outreach program, I teach animation to fifth graders at a public school in Emeryville,” Greenberg says. “The students get to make their own film as a team, then we invite the parents to watch it in the Pixar theater. It’s a real thrill for everyone.”

Production manager Jonas Rivera
Jonas Rivera’s first job out of college was a dream come true.

The Castro Valley native came to Pixar straight from San Francisco State University. “I saw Luxo Jr. in a class and liked it so much I cold-called Pixar. They hired me for an internship to work on Toy Story,” says Rivera. “Just after I started, they showed me the army man sequence, and it blew me away. It was like seeing Star Wars for the first time as a kid. But I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone what I was working on.”

Rivera has been good at keeping Pixar’s secrets ever since and has worked for the studio for 11 years. As production manager on Cars, he had to keep teams of animators, screenwriters, and computer geeks on schedule throughout the film’s creation. “Pixar is this really cool collision of art and technology, which is not necessarily a natural fit. It’s my job to nurture those worlds together.”

Cars took hundreds of filmmakers more than four years to craft. Reflecting on the experience, Rivera beams with pride.

“It’s the best feeling to see it all come together. [During the production period] I got married, and we had a baby girl,” says Rivera. “When we showed it for the first time, I sat there watching the finished film and couldn’t believe it was real. It was almost dreamlike to see it.”

Producer Osnat Shurer
Osnat Shurer loves to reach out to Bay Area filmmakers beyond Pixar’s notoriously private community. The Pixar producer spoke at the San Francisco Independent Women’s Film Festival in April and assured the audience that the creative process inside Pixar’s gated walls isn’t much different from that of an independent filmmaker.

“It’s a lot more like independent films than you would think,” says Shurer, whose background is in documentary films. “While Pixar has a very elaborate, very expensive system of making films, it’s all built around a director with a passion, a burning desire to tell a story.”

Shurer produces Pixar’s original short films, such as Boundin’, which ran in theaters before The Incredibles. She also produces the clever extra features for Pixar DVDs. Check out Vowellet: An Essay by Sarah Vowell and Jack-Jack Attack on disc two of The Incredibles.

Shurer grew up in Israel, studied film at New York University, and now lives in Berkeley.
“The great thing about the East Bay, as opposed to Hollywood,” Shurer says, “is that when you tell someone you work in ‘the industry,’ you have to explain to them which industry!”

Director Andrew Jimenez
Despite working on such hits as Spiderman, The Iron Giant, and The Incredibles, Andrew Jimenez says he was humbled recently when he was invited to speak at his alma mater. “I remember graduating like it was yesterday, and that fear about getting a job,” Jimenez says.

The Southern California native has done very well since those days. He came to Pixar in 2000 to work on The Incredibles—Jimenez served as director of photography on the Oscar-winning smash. Then Pixar’s executives tapped Jimenez to codirect a short film, One Man Band, a hilarious four-minute duel between rival street musicians. “I’m a huge fan of film scores, and I was interested in telling a story through the music,” Jimenez explains.

One Man Band was nominated for an Academy Award and will be shown before Cars in theaters. Now busy developing new Pixar projects (top secret, of course), Jimenez maintains the same humility he displayed for San Diego State University’s class of future filmmakers. “Pixar is an incredible opportunity because they are never going to make something they don’t completely believe in,” says the Piedmont resident. “You can’t take a job like this for granted.”

Two Decades of Pixa
1984
John Lasseter leaves Disney to work with George Lucas on a special effects computer group, which later becomes Pixar. The group releases its first animated film, a two-minute short called The Adventures of André and Wally B

1986
Steve Jobs buys the computer graphics division of Lucasfilm Ltd. for $10 million and creates Pixar, an independent company with 44 employees. John Lasseter’s short film about a pair of bouncing desk lamps, Luxo Jr., is released.

1987
Luxo Jr., is nominated for an Academy Award in the Animated Short Film category. Lasseter directs Red’s Dream, a four-minute short about an unwanted unicycle that dreams about a better life.

1988
Lasseter directs Tin Toy, a short about a toy that tries to escape the persistent threat of a destructive baby. (Clips of Tin Toy, and other Pixar shorts, can be seen by visiting www.pixar.com/shorts/.)

1989
Knick Knack, Lasseter’s story of a snowman trapped inside a snow globe while the other travel souvenirs party, is released. Tin Toy wins the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film.

1990
Pixar moves into a one-story office building in Point Richmond. The studio creates television commercials, including the boxing Listerine bottles.

1993
Pixar’s Computer-Assisted Production System (CAPS) development team wins a Scientific and Engineering Academy Award for its RenderMan animation software.

1995
Pixar releases Toy Story during Thanksgiving weekend. The studio’s first feature, distributed by Disney, becomes the highest-grossing film of 1995, earning more than $191 million domestically and $362 million worldwide. Director John Lasseter is honored with a Special Achievement Oscar for developing techniques that led to the first feature-length computer-animated film. Pixar goes public and offers 6.9 million shares at $22 a share.

1996
Toy Story is nominated for three Oscars: Best Musical Score, Best Original Song (“You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” by Randy Newman), and Best Original Screenplay, becoming the first animated film to be nominated in the screenplay category.

1997
Geri’s Game, a short about an old man playing chess against himself, is released. Pixar expands to 375 employees and a second building in Point Richmond.

1998
Pixar’s second feature, A Bug’s Life, is released. The film earns $163 million domestically and $362 million worldwide. Geri’s Game wins the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film. 

1999
Toy Story 2 becomes the first animated sequel to outgross its predecessor, raking in $245 million domestically and $485 million worldwide. 

2000
Toy Story 2 gets an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song. Pixar moves to its current location, a 215,000-square-foot two-story office in Emeryville.

2001
Pixar’s fourth feature, Monsters, Inc., earns $100 million in its first nine days at the domestic box office and goes on to become the third highest grossing animated film ever. Lasseter signs a 10-year contract with Pixar. Company grows to 600 employees. 

2002 
Randy Newman wins the Best Song Oscar for “If I Didn’t Have You,” from Monsters, Inc. For the Birds, about a bunch of snooty birds perched together on a telephone wire, wins the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film.

2003
Finding Nemo sets a box office record with its $70.2 million opening weekend. Its $865 million worldwide box office take makes Nemo the highest grossing animated film, and the eighth highest grossing film, of all time.

2004
Finding Nemo gets four Oscar nominations and wins for Best Animated Film. It also becomes the best-selling DVD ever, with 24 million copies sold in North America. The Incredibles is released and earns $261 million in the United States and $630 million worldwide. Seventy percent of Emeryville voters agree to amend Pixar’s development agreement to allow the studio to add facilities before 2010. 

2005
The Incredibles wins two Oscars, for Best Animated Film and Best Sound Editing. Sales of The Incredibles DVD triple the company’s earnings for the first quarter of 2005 compared with the same period in 2004.

2006
Disney announces it will buy Pixar for $7.4 billion. Steve Jobs will become a board member and the largest shareholder on Disney’s board of directors. Disney shuts down its computer-animation department; projects like Toy Story 3 are scrapped. Lasseter is put in charge of running Disney’s theme parks, in addition to his work at Pixar. With 775 employees in the Emeryville studio, Pixar releases its seventh feature, Cars, on June 9. 

2007
Pixar plans to release its eighth feature film. Ratatouille, about a rat who lives in a Parisian restaurant run by an eccentric chef, is slated to hit theaters on June 29, 2007.
 

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