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An Oral History Of Pixar

The year 1979 marked the genesis of the Graphics Group, a tiny subdivision within a tiny subdivision of George Lucas’ production empire, Lucasfilm. In the ensuing decades, this unknown collective of artists and computer scientists would rocket to international acclaim, single-handedly ushering in the era of 3D feature animation and delighting millions of moviegoers along the way.

Told here for the first time ever, in the words of its trailblazing progenitors and standard-bearers, is the comprehensive and definitive oral history of Pixar Animation Studios.

Chapter 1: New Toys

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Edwin “Ed” Catmull (co-founder and current president, Pixar): The computer science department at the University of Utah in the late ’60s was this crazy convergence of great minds. Steve Wozniak, Larry Page, Steve Jobs, Alan Turing, Ada Lovelace, Mark Zuckerberg, and the rest—it’s amazing how many big names you had in one place.

Alvy Ray Smith (co-founder, Pixar): At the time, the U.S. military was funding an ambitious project to make realistic 3D soldiers say nice things, like “The idea of conscription is interesting” and “Neither side won the Vietnam War.”

Ed Catmull: The problem was mouths. Alvy and I spent eight years banging our heads against a wall trying to get a computer to draw faces with only one mouth instead of several dozen mouths.

Alvy Ray Smith: Once, a computer we’d both trusted managed to draw a face that had 450,000 mouths. That was certainly a low point for us. We began to wonder if our animation dream would ever happen.

Ed Catmull: When Star Wars hit theaters in 1977, it was a revelation.

Alvy Ray Smith: George Lucas changed the game with Star Wars. Against all odds, he proved that it was still possible to trick people with magic pictures. One thing was clear: Lucasfilm was on the cutting edge of the special effects industry.

George Lucas (founder, Lucasfilm): Definitely the part of Star Wars I’m proudest of is the opening crawl with the flying yellow text. That’s cinema. Even when I watch it now, I still think, that’s cinema. It was the pinnacle of my career, but the rest of the film is unwatchable poison. I doubt there will ever be any fans of Star Wars except for historians whose job it is to endlessly rank and re-rank the worst atrocities of all time.

Ed Catmull: George Lucas cold-called me at 6 a.m. on Christmas and asked if I was the man who hated Star Wars. I didn’t know what to say, but he set me at ease by saying, “Baby, you’re talking to him!”

George Lucas: I leveled with Ed. I laid out my frustrations with Star Wars and my hopes for the sequel. Then I asked if he and Alvy had any big ideas.

Ed Catmull: It sounded like George basically wanted yellow text scrolling continuously throughout the entire film. I said that would definitely be possible, and the next words out of his mouth were “You’re hired.” We flew out to start work in California the next day.

Alvy Ray Smith: George Lucas gave us a budget of a million dollars and permission to hire whoever we wanted.

Ed Catmull: As he handed over our contracts, he said, “You have to understand, these are 1979 dollars we’re talking about.” We understood: It was a very large sum indeed.

Alvy Ray Smith: Naturally, the first guy we wanted on board was John Lasseter.

John Lasseter (current chief creative officer, Pixar): My career was going nowhere at the time. Disney had just blindsided me with its decision to fire me after learning I’d hidden the words “Jungle Fever” in every frame of The Rescuers. I was depressed and adrift. I’d spend hours a day just throwing a baseball high into the air and catching it, wondering how my life turned out this way.

Ed Catmull: Word spread quickly about John, and pretty soon he had the attention of every baseball scout in the country. We knew if we didn’t snap him up, someone else was bound to.

Alvy Ray Smith: Not taking any chances, we offered John the entire million-dollar budget.

John Lasseter: They made sure I understood these were 1980 dollars they were talking about. It was too good to turn down. I called the Dodgers later that day to tell them the bad news.

Chapter 2: Failing With Style

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With its core members in place, the Graphics Group spent the early ’80s developing the techniques and technology that would later define the company. In 1986, a financially embattled George Lucas announced that the team would be spun off into Pixar, an independent corporation with Steve Jobs, the ousted founder of Apple, as chairman of the board.

Ed Catmull: Steve Jobs had a huge impact on Pixar, but as for the idea that he was the main creative force? That’s a myth. He was very hands-off.

John Lasseter: He mostly let us do our thing. He’d say things like, “I want you and your playmates to go draw your little cartoons, and then I want you to bring them here so I can cry at them. I don’t know how you make them, and I don’t care, but I’m addicted to the wet-faced expression called sadness, and you’re the only ones who can deliver it.”

Alvy Ray Smith: That creative freedom really let us flourish, and it sowed the seeds of success. I wrote a piece about a clump of rotting spinach stuck in a garbage disposal that comes alive for 12 seconds and then dies. And the titular character from John’s short Bradley The Bird gradually evolved into Brad Bird, who directed some of our features.

John Lasseter: Steve definitely had a darkness to him. I think he was haunted by the fact that more things weren’t alive and sentient. Rumor was that Apple fired him for throwing a toaster off the observation deck of the Space Needle, saying, “It couldn’t think for itself anyway,” and then diving out of the broken window after it.

Ed Catmull: One aspect of Steve’s personality that definitely wasn’t a myth was his volatile temper.

Andrew Stanton (writer, Pixar): He had these legendary fits. When someone did something to set him off, Steve would physically take that person by the hand to an in-office dance hall built to his exact specifications. Then for the next day, the two of them would dance to a waltz that Steve had composed, performed by the greatest orchestra ever assembled. Then Steve would fire them.

Viktoria Mullova (violinist): I was in the orchestra for one day, but I played one wrong note. The next day, I was the one dancing. The day after that, I was out of work.

Ed Catmull: One of Steve’s ideas that stuck with me is that children are just as smart as adults, sometimes even smarter. “Sad and true,” he’d say, and then he’d get Alvy to stand up in front of the whole company as an example of a grown man who was stupider than a child.

Alvy Ray Smith: Steve Jobs never met his biological father and never learned what he looked like. He told us his great hope with Pixar was that one of us would animate a character that looked exactly like his father.

John Lasseter: We animators would go off and work, then we’d bring sketches to Steve for approval. For each one, Steve would, without exception, say, “Yes, that’s him. That’s my father. I’ve never been so sure of anything. That’s my father as he looks today.”

Alvy Ray Smith: He said the exact same thing about the old man from Geri’s Game, Flik from A Bug’s Life, and the lamp from the company logo.

Andrew Stanton: When we showed him the concept art for Toy Story, Steve was overcome with emotion. He pointed at Woody and said, “That’s what my father looked like when he was born.” Then he pointed at Buzz and said, “And right there is what my old man will look like when he dies.”

John Lasseter: Years later, when Steve was no longer at Pixar, all of us continued to get calls from him thanking us for including his father so many times in all of our movies.

Chapter 3: Reaching For The Sky

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The early ’90s found Pixar in financial turmoil. Despite its promising forays into animation, the company still wasn’t turning a profit, lacked a major hit, and faced a deeply uncertain future. All of that was about to change. In 1994, with the studio deep in production on a film called ‘Toy Story,’ Lasseter and a group of Pixar writers and animators met at the Hidden City Café in Point Richmond, CA for a now-legendary lunch.

John Lasseter: When we all got together in one room, something special happened. We started talking, and the ideas just started pouring out.

Pete Docter (animator, Pixar): There was this unspoken agreement that films shouldn’t star human beings. They should star human beings whose souls are trapped in the bodies of smaller things, or bigger things. Souls trapped in fish; souls trapped in toys; souls trapped in cars. It’s just good storytelling.

John Lasseter: I think it was Andrew who had the first idea, for a boy called Elián González whose dad has to rescue him after he gets lost in the ocean, which of course became the story for Finding Nemo.

Pete Docter: From there, we were off to the races. Someone said “A thing that goes on an adventure.” Someone else said “A Jewish monster called Mike.” Someone else said “The good family has superpowers, and they kill a normal man.”

John Lasseter: I vividly remember the moment we came up with the idea for Ratatouille. Brad Bird suddenly started scribbling down the words “rat Frenchman” over and over on a napkin. He must have written it hundreds of times. We all started nodding, because we knew this idea was going to make us a billion dollars.

Andrew Stanton: At some point, John called Warner Bros., made up the entire plot for Osmosis Jones on the spot, and shouted, “You can have that one, you fucks. It’s called Body Police, and it’s a perfect idea, but it’s all yours, a bone for the mutts, see if we care. I can’t talk now, because my mind just creamed another grand slam about a fast car that likes to be fast. Bye!”

John Lasseter: To top it all off, Pete had an idea for a film where a man’s wife dies. Our jaws hit the floor. It was the best idea any of us had ever heard. As soon as I could stop gaping, I said, “Pete, I need to know what happens to the man whose wife is dead.” Before the words even left my mouth, Pete had written the entire script for Up on a napkin.

Pete Docter: The legend is that we asked the waitress for a thousand napkins because we needed more room to write, but the boring truth is that we had no napkins at the office and our mouths were frequently wet.

Andrew Stanton: Production on all of those projects started later that day.

Chapter 4: To Infinity And Beyond

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‘Toy Story’ ignited an unprecedented run of critical and commercial successes for Pixar. Anything the studio touched seemed to turn to gold, with its 14 feature films garnering billions of dollars, universal praise, and a bevy of accolades. Looking back with the perspective of nearly 30 years, what is the artistic and cultural legacy of this animation juggernaut?

Julia Louis-Dreyfus (voice of Princess Atta in A Bug’s Life): I think what Pixar did that no one else could is make movies that appeal to adults as well as children.

Ed Catmull: It’s hard to overstate how radical that notion used to be. Up until Toy Story, nobody had made a film that appealed to adults and children alike. Nobody had even tried, because there was no reason to think it was possible.

Allison Janney (voice of Peach in Finding Nemo): Before Pixar came on the scene, “Fun for the whole family” was something you would only say with bitter sarcasm. It was like saying “When pigs fly,” or “Yeah, right,” or “Fuck off.”

Manohla Dargis (film critic): Out of the films made before Toy Story, 38 appealed to kids, 23 appealed to adults, and the rest appealed to neither demographic. Starting with Toy Story, every single film has appealed to both kids and adults. It was a total sea change.

Brad Bird (director, Pixar): It’s incredible how far we’ve come in a few decades, from the laborious and unrealistic ink-and-paint animation of the ’60s all the way to something like Monsters University that’s totally indistinguishable from reality.

Pete Docter: The story of Pixar to me is the story of perseverance and steadfast belief. It took a long time before we were profitable. We were still losing millions of dollars on each movie before Monsters, Inc. came out. It brought in $560 million, but $550 million of that was Steve [Jobs] seeing it repeatedly and expensing it to the company account.

John Lasseter: Even after Pixar achieved success, the box-office numbers were always a little misleading because of how many tickets Steve bought.

Alvy Ray Smith: I’ve crunched the numbers, and fully half of the 400 million tickets sold for the first seven films were Steve Jobs seeing them over and over again.

Ellen DeGeneres (voice of Dory in Finding Nemo): Pixar films are about what’s common to all of us. We’ve all been that kid who’s scared of monsters, or that man whose wife dies, or that jealous cowboy who pushes his space rival off a cliff.

Don Rickles (voice of Mr. Potato Head in Toy Story): I signed on to Toy Story when I realized it resonated with me and my memories of childhood. I remembered that when I was 10 years old, several of my neighbors’ toys had physically attacked me, and one of them—a doll that had never talked before and has never talked since—threatened me in the voice of an adult man. The character of the next-door neighbor, Sid, seemed like he’d had a similar experience. Above all, it felt true.

Brad Bird: Cars won the Oscar for Best Picture on the day it came out, because people connected in a deep way with how fast the cars went. When John interrupted all television broadcasts to announce that there would be a terrible sequel where the cars go even faster, they gave him the Oscar for Best Cinematography right there on the spot. That was a profound gesture.

Ed Catmull: For me, it all goes back to one moment in 1973. Alvy and I were driving down to Los Alamos to present our latest duplicitous war propaganda to the Department of Defense, and suddenly Alvy turned to me and said something I’ll always remember. He said, “Ed, do you want to keep telling lies forever, or do you want to make people happy?” That’s when I said something I’ll always remember: “Maybe we can do both.” All that night we kept driving, blowing past Los Alamos, pushing 180 in Alvy’s 1968 Pontiac Firebird, our eyes growing heavy, until finally the morning came, and we looked down and saw nothing beneath us but water, the two of us soaring across the Gulf of Mexico and out into the Atlantic. In a way, I don’t think we ever came back.