Mill Valley Film Festival
SAN RAFAEL, Calif. — The “overnight” success of Pixar Animation Studios has seemed like such a smooth rocket, going further and further into the frontier of computer animation with each new film, that Leslie Iwerks’ documentary about that ride, “The Pixar Story,” is a jolting reminder of what a risky business venture it truly was. An unstable combination of sheer determination, unending struggle, initial failures and gut instinct, it took an almost karmic combination of talent and fortuitous events to get that baby off the ground. Many, many people participated, but the film rightly zeroes in on John Lasseter, Ed Catmull and their entrepreneurial godfather and backer, Steve Jobs, who all but willed the Pixar success into reality.
Having the run of the studios’ archival footage, going back to before Pixar existed, and unparalleled access to just about everybody she needed to interview, Iwerks — who previously made “The Hand Behind the Mouse,” a docu about her famous animator grandfather Ub Iwerks — delivers an incisive and often inspiring story of a group of super talents for whom failure was not an option.
After its world premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival, Iwerks says she means to qualify the film for Oscar consideration. She then hopes to secure a theatrical release. But its real value will undoubtedly be as a DVD with expanded footage of the interviews and behind-the-scenes peeks that didn’t make it into the 86-minute feature. This film will be an invaluable resource for film and animation historians, as well as multitudes of Pixar fans, from here to infinity and beyond.
Iwerks counts herself among those fans. So her portrait, narrated by Stacy Keach, is admiring, not journalistic. Even so, the most hard-bitten investigator would be hard pressed not experience wonder at such a rousing story.
Computer animation has been around long before Pixar. Animators in Europe and North America were experimenting with this combination of art and science in shorts dating back to the ’70s. Yet there was often a lack of warmth in the designs and representing humans, even cartoony ones, was a challenge. Features were out of the question.
Lasseter and Catmull were among the first to see the future so clearly. Lasseter came out of Cal Arts with training in Disney animation. He worked at Disneyland in Anaheim and eventually landed a job in Disney’s Burbank studios. When “TRON” (1982), one of the first features to mix computer generated action with live-action, came out of Walt Disney Pictures, Lasseter pushed for and got a unit that experimented with 3D animation.
But such as the fear of the computer — a fear that somehow the computer would replace humans rather than becoming a new tool for animators — that Lasseter was actually fired by Disney when he completed his project.
He joined the computer division of Lucasfilms where he met Catmull, a computer scientist trained at the University of Utah, who helped develop digital image compositing technology.
In 1986, Jobs bought Lucasfilms’ digital division and founded Pixar with Lasseter and Catmull as his key men.
After losing $1 million a year for five years, Jobs needed to see a return on his investment. So Pixar put “Toy Story,” the first feature-length computer animated film ever, into production.
“Some of us had never even worked on a movie,” Lasseter notes.
Initially, Disney, which was to release “Toy Story,” imposed its ideas on the production to disastrous results. The first trial reel was awful, Roy Disney recalls.
Only when Pixar animators tore up those notes and went with gut instincts did the production take off. The worldwide gross of $350 million by “Toy Story” (1995) lead Jobs to Wall Street where he raised $132 million through an IPO. That put Pixar on a firm footing and lead to a string of hits.
The company has never experienced either a critical or boxoffice failure although the film makes clear that “Toy Story 2,” which had to start all over with nine months to go, was a close call.
What has made each film successful, Lasseter insists, is “not the idea but the people.” The Pixar staff, working with new directors hired either from within the company, such as Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter, or in the case of Brad Bird from outside, has been up to the challenge to stretch the digital envelop as each new story drives the need for innovation.
After Disney, under its new chief executive Bob Iger, acquired Pixar in January 2006, Lasseter and Catmull were put in charge of reinvigorating the Burbank studio. They have given directors more creative control of their projects and will return to traditional animation techniques instead of relying solely computer animation, a reversal of a decision made by former CEO Michael Eisner only to do digital animation.
The film with its talking heads interviews does pile on the techy talk pretty heavily at times. But Iwerks more than makes up for this with home movies by the various Pixar pixies at work and play — it often is hard to tell the difference — and even Lasseter’s own Student Academy Award-winning shorts. And the many interviewees from Tom Hanks, Tim Allen and Billy Crystal to George Lucas and Pixar animators do extremely lucid jobs of explaining that technology in terms of the artistic impact on each film.
It took Iwerks six years to make this film since the Pixar story kept evolving even as she worked. One suspects a sequel, were she so inclined, might be even more fascinating.
THE PIXAR STORY
Leslie Iwerks Prods.
Writer/director/producer: Leslie Iwerks
Narrator: Stacy Keach
Director of photography: Suki Medenevic
Music: Jeff Beal
Editors: Leslie Iwerks, Stephen Meyers
Running time — 86 minutes
No MPAA rating