From Unquestioned Animation Domination to Questionable Doubt: My History of Pixar Animation Studios

Introduction

Pixar Animation Studios is the world’s most famous animation studio. To date their nine released feature films have grossed over 2.5 billion dollars worldwide.

Released   

Movie Name   

1st Weekend   

US Gross   

Worldwide Gross   

Budget   

11/22/1995 Toy Story

$29,140,617

$191,796,233

$361,996,233

$30,000,000

11/20/1998 A Bug’s Life

$291,121

$162,798,565

$363,398,565

$45,000,000

11/19/1999 Toy Story 2

$300,163

$245,852,179

$485,752,179

$90,000,000

11/2/2001 Monsters, Inc.

$62,577,067

$255,870,172

$528,970,172

$115,000,000

5/30/2003 Finding Nemo

$70,251,710

$339,714,978

$866,592,978

$94,000,000

11/5/2004 The Incredibles

$70,467,623

$261,441,092

$635,564,642

$92,000,000

6/9/2006 Cars

$60,119,509

$244,082,982

$461,982,881

$70,000,000

6/29/2007 Ratatouille

$47,027,395

$206,445,654

$624,445,654

$150,000,000

6/27/2008 WALL-E

$63,087,526

$223,806,889

$532,936,655

$180,000,000

[1]

Pixar’s success not only comes from the technology they use to make their films, but also the process and degree of freedom used in their development. Pixar’s success has made the animation studio the envy of other animation studios such as DreamWorks and Fox. The Pixar reign began with the 1995 release of Toy Story and peaked with the successful release of Finding Nemo in 2004. Starting this year through 2012 Disney/Pixar plans on releasing 9 new films and re-releasing 2 films in 3-D format. The re-releases are Toy Story in October of this year and Toy Story 2 in February of 2010. Disney/Pixar new upcoming releases are as follows:

[2]Up – May 2009

The Princess and the Frog – Christmas 2009

Toy Story 3 – June 2010

Rapunzel – Christmas 2010

Newt – summer 2011

The Bear and the Bow – Christmas 2011

Cars 2 – Summer 2012

King of Elves – Christmas 2012

Although Pixar’s success has lead to a merger with Disney, there has been talk around the animation industry and the cinema world in general that it might be time for Pixar to panic. When it comes to some of their newer releases such as Ratatouille (2007) and WALL-E (2008) as well as Up, which is being released on May 29, 2009, there is a fear that the movie going audiences will not go to see these films as they did for Pixar’s previous releases. It might be time to worry that the studios that feared Pixar’s animation domination have now began to catch up to them. Many people in the animation industry feel that if Pixar does not begin to rethink the new direction, of after school specials lecturing people on subjects such as the environment and how to deal with loss as well as rising above obstacles, that their films are going and does not quickly adapt to the new technology of digital 3-D being used in the cinema, Pixar will get left behind.

From Lucasfilm To Pixar

Pixar Animation (formally known as the Computer Division) was founded in 1979 as a part of Lucasfilm. Lucasfilm was formed in 1971 by Star Wars director George Lucas. Lucasfilm is one of the world’s most successful film and production companies. One of Lucasfilm’s early successes was the release of American Graffiti in 1973. With only a budget of 750,000, the film went on to gross 100 million dollars worldwide.[3] At that time the success of the film made it the most successful movie ever produced in terms of cost-to-profit. Lucasfilm did not only have major success at the box office, but it also had great success in the creation of its film and production technologies. [4]In 1975 the company established Sprocket Systems.  Sprocket Systems, later renamed Skywalker Sound, was a way to do sound editing on films. The first film edited using this technology was Star Wars. Industrial Light and Magic was created in that same year to handle the special effects on Star Wars. When Star Wars opened on May 25, 1977 it was a huge success and at that time becomes the biggest grossing film of all time. It went on to win eight Academy Awards including Visual Effects, Editing, and Sound Effects. In 1979 George Lucas created the Computer Research and Development Division. This was created to research new and upcoming technologies that could later be used on films. In 1986 George Lucas sold the Computer Division for 5 million dollars to Steve Jobs shortly after he left his job as CEO of Apple Computers, and Jobs renames it Pixar Animation.

Early Pixar

            At the very beginning of Pixar’s existence it was a company which sold and manufactured computer hardware. The product they sold was called the Pixar Image Computer. This computer was used to design graphics with better visualization and a clearer picture. The primary buyers of the system came from government and medical agencies as well as Disney Studios. Disney Studios used the Pixar Image Computer as part of their CAPS project.[5] This project was a way of making the drawing and coloring part of Disney’s 2-D animation process much quicker as well as less strenuous because that work could be placed in the computer’s system. Even though the computer was being used by these companies it was not selling as well as Pixar had hoped. In order to drive up sells John Lasseter began to create short computer animations in order to showcase the computer’s capabilities. One of his first animations was called Luxo Jr. This computer animation was about two desk lamps, a parent and a child, playing with a beach ball. One of these lamps is now used in the Pixar logo in the beginning of its films. It received great reviews. Pixar also created commercials for other companies such as Tropicana and LifeSavers using computer animation. Even though Pixar received rave reviews for its computer animated work the company was still struggling to sell its product. In 1991 with the company still struggling to stay in business it entered in to a contract with Disney Studios, one of the companies it had done business with in the past. The contract was worth 26 million dollars. Pixar would now produce computer animated movies for Disney[6]. The first film made by Pixar for Disney was Toy Story.

Pixar’s Domination in Animation

            Toy Story made history when it was released on Thanksgiving Day of 1995. It was the first film ever made using only computer generated imagery. In order to make this film it took 117 computers running 24 hours a day to get the movie done. Each frame took anywhere from 45 minuets to 20 hours to complete[7]. When it opened at the box office it received praise from critics for its use of computer imagery as well as praise for its story telling. In its first week of release it grossed over 190 million dollars and took in 356 million dollars worldwide[8]. The amazing aspect about Toy Story was the movements of the toys within the film. It was no accident that Pixar decided to make the first computer generated animation film about toys. As stated in the article ‘From “Toy Story” to “Chicken Little“’ from The Economist:

Toys were chosen… because they are relatively easy to model and animate on a computer. They do not have complicated features (such as fur or wavy hair), and nobody expects them to make fluid, life-like movements[9].

Since Pixar Animation Studios’ first film Toy Story the technology for computer animation has advanced.  Looking at Pixar’s other film releases since Toy Story, one can see the advancements. Looking at films like Monsters Inc. (2001), Finding Nemo (2003), and The Incredibles (2004) it is noticeable that the characters in these films have become more flexible with lifelike movements[10]. In both Monsters Inc and The Incredibles the characters’ hair moves when they walk, jump or fly as if the wind is really going through it. You can also see it when putting on a piece of clothing like a shirt or a coat. When it comes to Pixar Animation Studios the advancement in computer animation is not the only thing that makes other animation studios jealous. It also has to do with the degree of freedom had by the writers and animators as well as the type of stories Pixar develops.

Creating Animation in a Pixar World

When it comes to making a Pixar film, it is not only about taking an idea of a character and writing it out on paper. At Pixar a person has to be willing to “invest their own embodied experiences and energies in communicating a story to others[11]” (Pixar Phenomenology: The Embodiment of Animation). Together with one’s own experience, doing research for a character is also a part of the process. In a conversation with Pixar animator Andrew Gordon in the article “Eyebrow Acting” he discusses the research he did while working on the film Monsters Inc. for the character of Mike Wazowski:

…I did a lot of work on Mike and so the first thing I thought was, ‘Whoa, he’s an eyeball! Maybe we should figure out how an eye moves correctly’. I just did lots of close-up research on the physical nature of an eye- how it moves and blinks and sticks and the brow moves and changes shape.[12]

Andrew Gordon also says in his interview that Mike’s personality came from the friends he used to hang out with in New Jersey.

At Pixar there is also an acting room where the animators and writers can go and act out a scene so that they can see the facial and body movements that the character might perform. In the room besides having mirrors there are also cameras so that the animator/ writer can rewind it and see it again with other animators or by themselves to see if there is anything that might need to be modified. At Pixar Animation Studios an animator/ writer is always learning. At Pixar they have classes to help foster a better working environment with every member of the staff. Having these classes helps “people become more comfortable learning in front of their peers” and that “they can come to have a greater respect for ‘being imperfect, making mistakes, and soliciting and sharing advice’” (Pixar Phenomenology: The Embodiment of Animation).[13]

When it comes to creating a film at Pixar everybody’s role is equally important; there is no set leader. ‘There is an unspoken lead. Someone will be a lead by the work they do” (Eyebrow Acting)[14]. When making a film no one argues for the part they want on the film or which character they want to voice; at Pixar everyone gets it by their work. Unlike in other studios where the director may have power over the animators, like Jeffrey Katzenberg at DreamWorks, here that is not the case. In other studios “[t]he scripts are written not by the directors but by sitcom writers” (The Problem with Pixar, Weinman; lines 53-54). At Pixar the animators and directors write the scripts.

Another key to Pixar is like its famous saying “story is king”[15]. As Thomas Huxley, editor-in-chief of UpcomingPixar.com puts it “I think the money has been secondary to them, and making a good movie first” (The Problem with Pixar, Weinman)[16]. When it comes to a Pixar film no actor or actress is bigger than the movie. As Jaime J. Weinman states in the article: “[u]nlike Pixar, which uses some famous voices, but doesn’t publicize them much, other studios make celebrity voices (Jack Black, Jerry Seinfeld) the literal stars of the film”(The Problem with Pixar, Weinman; lines 54-56). Brandon Neeld, who operates the Pixar Planet website, says that when it comes to Pixar as compared to the other animation studios is that “Pixar movies aren’t held together by toilet humor and pop-culture references that bring in the kiddies for a blockbuster weekend and then get cast aside” (The Problem with Pixar, Weinman lines 40-41).

Concern for Pixar?

            Although Pixar has been the heavyweight when it comes to computer animation films, some critics say that it might be time for Pixar to panic. For a couple of years other animation studios have worked hard to catch up to Pixar. Studios such as DreamWorks and Fox have released their own computer animation films with huge success. In 2001 DreamWorks released Shrek, a computer animated movie about a green ogre and his friends. The movie went on to gross over 42 million dollars its first weekend in theaters, making it the number one movie that weekend. Another one of DreamWorks’ hits was the release of Kung Fu Panda in 2008. That film went on to make over 60 million dollars its opening weekend. 20th Century Fox has had success of its own with the release of Ice Age in 2002. That film went on to make over 176 million dollars at the US box office. The success had by these films might serve as a warning to Pixar that it might be in danger of losing its dominance to its competitors[17].

It is the success of the films by Pixar’s competitors that has critics worried about the new direction that Pixar has chosen to take. Pixar Animation Studios’ recent film releases such as Ratatouille (2007) and WALL – E (2008) have moved in a different direction than Pixar’s previous feature films. Pixar’s previous releases showed original ideas such as the computer animated Toy Story. They also had original concepts for their films such as toys that come to life (Toy Story) and a day in the lives of bugs (A Bugs Life, 1998). They did not have to rely on “jokes and pop culture references” (The Problem with Pixar, Weinman; line 41). That has seemed to change. Pixar’s new releases don’t focus on up beat comedy; instead now their films are starting to feel like after school specials. The film Ratatouille focuses on a rat that wants to cook and become a famous chief. The film feels like a documentary that follows a rat struggling from nowhere to worldwide notoriety. When it comes to the film WALL – E, in my opinion, underneath the love story between the two robots it feels like a 98 minute PSA on the dangers we face if we don’t clean and protect the planet earth. As author Weinman states in his article the film has been “jokingly referred to as an animated version of An Inconvenient Truth”. [18]

            With the new Pixar release of Up the trend of creating after school specials does not seem to be dying for the animation studio. The premise of the film has to do with a 78 year old man named Carl who has to deal with losing his wife, who was his childhood sweetheart, named Ellie. This movie, I believe, could set Pixar apart from the animation studios, although probably not in the way they might want. As Anthony Breznican writes in his article “’Up’ could elevate animated moviesfor USA Today this film deals with “themes rarely seen in bedtime storybooks: romance, financial hardship, a lost pregnancy, loneliness and the blink-of-an-eye passage from childhood to wrinkles”.[19] Many critics are uneasy about the release of Up because of the presumed lack of commercial and merchandising appeal. Many of Pixar’s films have created partnerships with fast food chains such as MacDonald’s or Burger King to advertise their product.   Many critics are not sure if those chains would want to advertise to kids about a 78 year old man who has just lost his wife; and even if they wanted to that would bring up a question on how they would go about doing it.

The 3-D Revolution: How Pixar Can Stay In the Race

            In the world of cinema and especially in the realm of animation, 3-D is the new black. In a world where everyday there is some new technical gadget on the market, the cinemas and the studios have had to invent new ways to get the audiences interested in going to see new films. With the invention of the DVD and now the Blue Ray the former movie going audiences have decided to wait for the movie to be released on these formats so that they could watch it at home. Due to this effect on the movie going market, animation studios have decided to release some if not all their upcoming feature films in 3-D. In 2005 Disney released a 3-D format of Chicken Little that played in 84 theaters equipped with the new digital projector. That following year other studios such as Sony and Paramount released some 3-D versions of their films. Paramount released Beowulf and Sony released Monster House. In 2007 a group of Hollywood studios came together and gave over 1 billion dollars to upgrade many cinemas with the RealD technology necessary to play movies in 3-D. In 2005 there were only 84 theaters equipped with the RealD projectors which played 3-D movies. In 2006 that number had grown to 200 theaters. By the year 2007 900 theaters were equipped with the RealD technology needed to showcase films in 3-D. In 2007 Dolby used its own 3-D system and is now in 150 theaters in the United States, and 350 theaters around the world.[20] Unlike many other 3-D systems Dolby’s system does not need special screens. The only thing it requires is the use of reusable polarized glasses.  The key to using digital projectors is that “the digital projectors control the dual images (left eye, right eye) with split second accuracy. This has helped eliminate the headache-producing misalignments of left eye/ right eye frames that can result when two sprocker-based projectors put images on screen” (Rethinking Moviemaking; Robertson, page 11). Not wanting to be left behind, Disney announced that every film created with Pixar Animation Studios will be made in the 3-D format with Disney Digital 3-D, starting with Up. Disney has also re-released films such as The Nightmare Before Christmas in 3-D and plans to re-release old Pixar favorites Toy Story and Toy Story 2 in 3-D as well (Rethinking Moviemaking; Robertson, pages 10-11). I believe that if Disney Studios had not taken that step to begin to release their films in 3-D Disney would have taken the risk of becoming irrelevant. With other animation studios now going in to the market that was once owned by Disney/Pixar, the children market, Disney/ Pixar can no longer wait until they feel like it is time to release a film in 3-D. If they wait too long other animation studios such as DreamWorks or Fox will create a film of their own to target that audience affecting Disney/Pixar profits. If they are not there to give the audience what they want then one of their competitors will.

Conclusion

            As a child growing up I loved to see Pixar films. I would make my parents take me the movies to see films such as Toy Story and A Bug’s Life. I used to think about how the movie looked so cool and that it was a fun story. I wondered about how it would be if I were a toy going on those awesome adventures. Now that I am older I have a better appreciation for the impact that Pixar Animation Studios has had on the world of animated features. As I have gotten older I haven’t seen many Pixar films at the movies. Like many of the writers discussed in this paper I have relied on the DVD to get my dose of Pixar. It is my belief that even though the new technologies have somewhat reduced sections of the movie going audiences, there are those that will still want to go and see a Pixar computer generated film. I believe that young children will want to go to the movie theater and see a Pixar film. I believe that young children always want the quick satisfaction now and not later. When it comes to Pixar’s animation dominance I believe that some of what the critics fear can be valid. Could Pixar be hurt by what appears to be not much marketing for Up…absolutely. However, I believe that Pixar’s real fear is not the competition of the other animation studios, but in the impact that that competition is having on the computer animated film genre as a whole. This impact could not only impact studios such as Fox, Paramount, and DreamWorks, it could also affect Pixar. As other studios began to notice the success that Pixar was having with their films such as Toy Story and Finding Nemo those studios, such as Paramount, DreamWorks, Sony, and Fox, began to write and produce their own computer generated films to try and get a piece of that pie. However, the effect that that competition is having on that genre could turn out to be negative and not positive, as they had hoped. As written by Kate Kelly and Merissa Marr in their article “Animation Pileup”; from The Wall Street Journal “there’s a fear that, just as more studios are sinking hundreds of millions into the game, the audience will begin to feel animation fatigue”[21]. As Chris Meledandri, the president of the Fox animation division, says “[n]ow that we’re 10 years into this, that automatic excitement that came along with this digital, dimensional animation isn’t there,” (Kelly and Marr; The Wall Street Journal; lines 31-32).  At the beginning when Pixar released Toy Story there were only a couple of computer animated films in any given year. However, in the years of 2005 to 2006 studios planned to release up to ten films.[22] There has been evidence to show the negative impact of releasing too many animated CGI films at one time. In 2002 Fox had to shutdown one of its animation studios in Arizona due to the less than dazzling performances of its films, Anastasia (1997)[23] and Titan A.E. (2000)[24], at the box office[25].

With the rush to get many of these computer generated animated films released studios have forgotten something very important. That very important element that is being forgotten is a great storyline that can be enjoyed by both children and adults. This is where new Pixar films such as WALL-E and Up can serve as a way to once again separate themselves from the other animated studios. As Kelly and Marr state in their article, “…nearly all of the computer-animated films to date have been comedies made with children in mind. Many think the genre needs to expand its horizons to include action and even more adult-targeted fare to continue flourishing”.[26] If and when the time comes where the movie going audience begins to get tiered of those comedy films Pixar will be there waiting with films like Up, in the new 3-D format, with its more mature themes to engage the audience. I believe that Pixar’s new direction in teaching lessons on the environment and dealing with its new mature topics such as losing a loved one could either be positive or negative impact for Pixar Animation Studios. I feel that both sides argued in this paper could be valid. However, I feel that it is too early to make such a judgment. It is my belief that some time must pass. Until the release of Up and some of Pixar’s other films done in the new 3-D format we will not know whether or not Pixar will still be number one; we have to wait for the box office returns. If they do not do well then, I believe Pixar will have to panic. Until then we will just have to wonder if Pixar can stay dominant in 3-D as it did with computer animation, while at the same time getting the audiences to appreciate going to the cinemas once again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography and Other Research References For:

From Unquestioned Animation Domination to Questionable Doubt:

My History of Pixar Animation Studios

By Queen

Upcoming films

Pixar total box office

Pixar Phenomenology: The Embodiment of Animation

  • Seton, Dr. Mark. “Pixar Phenomenology: The Embodiment of Animation”. Metro 2008 Issue 157: Pg. 94-Pg. 97.

Animation Pileup

  • Kate Kelly, Merissa Marr. “Animation Pileup”. The Wall Street Journal March 10, 2005: B1-B3.

The Problem With Pixar

  • Weinman, Jaime J.. “The Problem With Pixar”. Maclean’s July 7, 2008: 76-78.

Rethinking Moviemaking

  • Robertson, Barbara. “Rethinking Moviemaking”. Computer Graphics World November 2008: 10-19.

Incredible Movies

  • Garson, Patrick. “Incredible Movies”. Screen Education 2005 Issue 38: 28-35

Everything2

Firstshowing.net

‘Up’ could elevate animated movies

  • Breznican, Anthony . “‘Up’ could elevate animated movies”. USA Today 02/12/2009: Pg. 01d-Pg. 01d.

From “Toy Story” to “Chicken Little”.

  • “From “Toy Story” to “Chicken Little”.”. The Economist 12/10/2005: Pg. 24-Pg. 27.

Pixar Stories

  • Doherty, Brian. “Pixar’s Stories”. Reason Jan 2009: Pg. 68-Pg. 69.

LucasFilm.com

Eyebrow Acting

  • Andrew Gordon, Anthony Lucas. “Eyebrow Acting”. Metro 2008 Issue 157: Pg. 98-Pg. 101.

Created by Queen AKA Gladys Esquijarosa; gladys.esquijarosa@baruchmail.cuny.edu or jroyalty3@yahoo.com


[1]courtesy of The Numbers.com; website: http://www.the-numbers.com/movies/series/Pixar.php

[2] “Disney reveals 3D movie line-up”. BBC News. April 2009

[3] Courtesy of LucasFilm.com

[4] Courtesy of LucasFilm.com

[5] Courtesy of Everything2.com

[6] Everything2.com

[7] The statistics for the discussion of Toy Story In the section “Pixar’s Domination in Animation” come from “Pixar Stories” written by Brian Doherty for Reason in January 2009; pages 68-69

[8] Courtesy of Wekipedia and The Numbers.com

[9] “Chicken Little”’ from The Economist; lines 4-5

[10] Information on “The Incredibles” comes from the article “Incredible  Movies”

[11] “Pixar Phenomenology: The Embodiment of Animation’; Valuing Embodiment: let’s play; lines 17-18

[12] Eyebrow Acting; pages 98-99

[13] Pixar Phenomenology: The Embodiment of Animation; lines 63-66

[14] Eyebrow Acting; pages 99-100

[15] Pixar Phenomenology: The Embodiment of Animation; page 94; line 17

[16] The Problem with Pixar; lines 23-25

[17] Box office numbers courtesy of Yahoo! Movies; Box Office history as well as the Wekipedia pages of the above named films.

[18] The Problem with Pixar; lines 77-78

[19] “’Up’ could elevate animated movies”  lines 9-10

[20] Statistics in this paragraph come courtesy of the article “Rethinking Moviemaking” by Barbara Robertson.

[21] “Animation Pileup”; lines 29-30

[22] Statistics in this paragraph come courtesy of “Animation Pileup” written by Kate Kelly and Merissa Marr

[23] Worldwide box office was 139,801,410; 1st weekend total 120,541; US gross was 58,403,409; Budget for the film was 53,000,000 (courtesy of TheNumbers.com)

[24] Worldwide box office was 36,751,979; 1st weekend total 9,376,845; US gross was 22,751,979; Budget for the film was 75,000,000 (courtesy of TheNumbers.com)

[25] Information found at lines 47-48 of  “Animation Pileup”

[26] Lines 62-63 of “Animation Pileup”