Today, the world’s greatest animation studio turns 25 years old. I know — I can’t believe it either. Naturally, this milestone cannot be allowed to pass by without celebration. So put “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” on repeat, because we’re going to take a trip into the past, present, and future of Pixar Animation Studios.
Believe it or not, it started with George Lucas.
Before there was a Pixar Animation Studios, there was The Graphics Group, which comprised a full third of the computer-generated-imagery unit at Lucasfilm. The Graphics Group produced the first CGI effects ever used in filmmaking, including the “stained glass knight” in Young Sherlock Holmes and the “Genesis Effect” demo seen in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn. Soon, The Graphics Group changed its name to Pixar.
Disney animator John Lasseter left the mouse house out of ongoing frustrations and signed on with Pixar to create animated short films. His first short was The Adventures of Andre and Wally B.
Lasseter’s second short film was the seminal Luxo Jr., the story of a pair of desk lamps and their bouncing ball, which stunned the animation industry with its photo-realistic imagery that managed to maintain the whimsy of hand-drawn animation. It debuted at SIGGRAPH, an annual conference where computer graphics creators show off their latest work. The CGI short film would go on to be nominated for an Academy Award in 1987 — a first in Oscar history — and would eventually be used as part of the Pixar logo that appears before every film.
That same year, George Lucas decided to sell Pixar due to a loss of funds from his divorce. He let go of it for $10 million — a bargain, by all acounts — to Steve Jobs, who had just left Apple. Jobs hoped to manufacture and sell Pixar’s proprietary computer system, the Pixar Image Computer, to high-end customers like hospitals, but that never panned out.
Lasseter and his animation team produced their third short film, Red’s Dream, about a unicycle that longs to be a circus performer all by itself. Like Luxo, Jr., it debuted at SIGGRAPH.
Faced with a rising financial deficit, Steve Jobs strongly considered shuttering Pixar’s doors forever. His only sale of the Pixar Image Computer to date was, ironically, to Disney, who used it as a new technique for automating complicated scenes in traditional hand-drawn films (such as the antelope stampede in The Lion King). An impassioned plea from Lasseter where he brought forth the idea of selling their animation expertise to TV commercial producers saved the company at the 11th hour.
In addition to soliciting its services to commercials, Pixar also produced its fourth short film, Tin Toy (which clearly sprang from the same well of inspiration that would give birth to Toy Story years later), which again debuted at SIGGRAPH. Clocking in at over five minutes, it was the longest Pixar production yet.
Pixar produced and debuted its fifth short film, Knick Knack, about a toy snowman trapped in a snowglobe. Having abandoned the Pixar Image Computer after Tin Toy, this was the first Pixar production to use the company’s proprietary animation software, Renderman. It would also be the last short film produced by Pixar for eight years.
Pixar’s commercial work was kicked off with a spot for Tropicana orange juice called “Wake Up,” followed by a string of TV spots in the years to come.
Faced with more and more commercial orders, Pixar branched out by hiring two new animators — Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter — and moved to a new office space in Point Richmond, California.
Pixar finally climbed out of debt with a savvy piece of negotiating by Jobs, who convinced Disney to partner with Pixar on up to three full-length CGI films that Pixar would produce and Disney would distribute. According to some reports, the deal was worth as much as $26 million.
Also in ’91, the character Luxo Jr. appeared in a pair of shorts for Sesame Street called Surprise and Light and Heavy.
Pixar’s commercial work continued as production of its first feature film, Toy Story, was well underway. The famed Pixar “Brain Trust” — a core group who guided all of the company’s creative efforts — was completed when animator Joe Ranft exited Disney to join Pixar. He, Lasseter, Stanton, and Docter made up this first iteration of the Pixar Brain Trust.
More commercials. Pixar was hired by IBM to design its new logo.
With Toy Story nearing completion, the company kept making commercials, and created the new animated version of Paramount’s logo.
Toy Story finally made it to theaters in November, becoming a critical darling and a major box office smash. It went down in history as the first computer animated movie ever, and became the highest grossing film of the year with a total haul of $362 million in worldwide box office. The movie also set a number of precedents that would become hallmarks of its feature films, such as the inclusion of a short film before the feature (in this case, it was their first short, The Adventures of Andre and Wally B), and giving John Ratzenberger a role in every film they’ve produced.
Jobs took Pixar public, offering 6.9 million shares at $22 a share. The IPO raised $140 million for Pixar, making it the biggest IPO of the year.
Pixar ended its regular production of commercials to focus solely on shorts and feature films. Disney continued to rake in profits from Toy Story, in the form of VHS and Laserdisc sales as well as hot tie-in merchandise. Thanks to its new cash flow, Pixar enjoyed an explosion of creativity by hiring 125 new employees. Pixar received numerous film award nominations and wins, including a Special Achievement Award for John Lasseter, recognizing his leadership in bringing the historic Toy Story to life.
The company kept adding employees until their numbers reached 375 and their offices could no longer hold them all, forcing them to rent a second space in Point Richmond. Pixar released its first short film in eight years, Geri’s Game, showing off significant advances in technology.
In the face of the company’s unprecedented success with Toy Story, Pixar sadly made very little money from the film, having signed away the majority of its profits to distributor Disney. This didn’t sit well with Jobs, who renegotiated Pixar’s deal with Disney where the two were partners and would split future revenues 50/50, share above-the-credit billing on movies, and Pixar would retain full creative control with no meddling from Disney. Amazingly, Disney agreed. The terms of this deal provided for the next five feature films from Pixar to be distributed by Disney, and replaced the previous three-picture deal.
A Bug’s Life was released to theaters, and remarkably, tied its predecessor’s worldwide profits at $362 million. Geri’s Game was awarded the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. It was shown in theaters alongside A Bug’s Life.
Another milestone infamous among Pixar lore took place in ’98: Toy Story 2, which had been planned as a direct-to-video release, was changed to a theatrical release.
Toy Story 2 arrived in theaters and bested its predecessor with a domestic gross of $245 million and a worldwide total of $485 million. Paired with the feature film in theaters was Luxo Jr.
The biggest event of the year was Pixar moving to its lavish new building in Emeryville, California, where it still resides to this day. The building became known as an environment largely sealed-off to outsiders, where employees are encouraged to design and construct their own unique work spaces that are conducive to their creativity.
Also in 2000, the short film For the Birds was produced.
With its employee count rising above 600, Pixar released Monsters, Inc. to theaters. For the Birds was paired with it. Monsters, Inc. continued Pixar’s trend of topping itself, with a worldwide gross of more than $525 million. The film is remembered by computer animation professionals for being the first CGI production ever to produce realistic-looking fur (for the character of Sulley).
Monsters, Inc. was released to home video, and for the first time, Pixar produced a special short film specifically for a home video release. Mike’s New Car starred the Monster’s, Inc. characters Mike and Sulley in a side story that had nothing to do with the film, besides being set in the same world.
Finding Nemo was released, breaking box office records to become the highest grossing animated film of all time, with a worldwide gross of $868 million. (It remained Pixar’s top-grossing film until Toy Story 3 was released in 2010.) Knick Knack was paired with it in theaters. The success of Finding Nemo contributed to a surge in popularity for owning Clownfish as pets, and tourism to Australia, where the movie’s events took place.
The Incredibles, from new Pixar powerhouse and celebrated director Brad Bird, was released to theaters. According to most reviewers, the film marked a turning point for Pixar, with its realistic depiction of a modern family dynamic and more sophisticated themes. It was also noteworthy for being Pixar’s first action adventure, its first film with an entirely human cast of characters, the first to receive a PG instead of a G rating, and the first to clock in at nearly two hours in length (all previous Pixar films had stayed close to the hour-and-a-half mark). Fox was forced to make significant changes to its upcoming Fantastic Four film after The Incredibles defined the “family of superheroes” genre so well. Shown with it in theaters was Boundin’.
The Incredibles arrived on home video, and brought an original short film, Jack Jack Attack!, along with. For the first time, Pixar used a short film to fill in a missing side story from a full-length film.
Original Brain Trust member Joe Ranft was tragically killed in a car accident in August.
John Lasseter returned to the director’s chair for the first time since Toy Story 2 for Cars, the company’s seventh major motion picture. It would go on to become a major cash cow for both Pixar and Disney, through the sales of licensed toy cars based on characters from the film. Short film One Man Band was released with Cars. The movie grossed $462 million internationally. Later in the year, when Cars was released on home video, Mater and the Ghost Light was released with it.
Disney’s distribution deal with Pixar ended with Cars, so following two years of at-times hostile negotiations between Steve Jobs and Disney’s Michael Eisner — during which it seemed almost certain that negotiations would fall apart and the longtime partnership between both entities would come to an end — a dramatic reversal occurred: Disney purchased Pixar outright for $7.4 billion. Pixar retained its name, offices, and creative control of all of its projects, Jobs took a seat on Disney’s Board of Directors, and Lasseter, in a particularly delicious reversal of fortune, was appointed Chief Creative Officer for both Pixar and Disney, giving him complete oversight over every film Disney produces.
After production stalled on Ratatouille, Brad Bird was asked to take over the film as a favor to Lasseter. The film released in the summer alongside the short Lifted, and then arrived on home video before Christmas with the short film Your Friend the Rat. Ratatouille grossed $621 million at the global box office.
Pixar released a home video collection of all of its existing short films.
Disney World replaced a long-running Tarzan-themed live show at Animal Kingdom in Florida with a stage musical version of Finding Nemo. It was the first Pixar production to be remade as a live stage show.
Pixar branched out into full-fledged science fiction for the first time with WALL-E, which was released with the short film Presto. The film made $521 million worldwide. WALL-E was the first Pixar production to use snippets of live action. When the film was released on home video, it included a side story short called BURN-E.
Pixar put into production a series of “Cars Toons” called Mater’s Tall Tales, which feature the popular Cars character regaling his hometown friends with unlikely-to-be-true tales from his supposedly-storied past. These short films were largely debuted on the Disney Channel before later being compiled into a home video collection.
Up, the first Pixar film to be released in digital 3D, hit theaters and grossed $731 million at the box office. It was paired with short film Partly Cloudy. Dug’s Special Mission was included on the home video release.
Toy Story 3 was released and went on to become the highest grossing animated film of all time, with more than $1.06 billion in global ticket sales. The film is Pixar’s tenth full-length picture and its tenth box office smash in a row.
Pixar opened the Glenn McQueen Pixar Animation Center studio in Vancouver, British Columbia, as an extension of its animation capabilities. The new facility was assigned to work on short films and TV specials based on Pixar’s existing library of characters.
A previously-announced film entitled Newt, which was scheduled for a 2012 release, was unceremoniously canceled and pulled from production. Pixar remained largely hush-hush regarding its reasons for canceling the film.
Cars 2 is scheduled for release on June 24. A short film entitled Hawaii is expected to be released with Cars 2.
For the first time ever, Pixar will be releasing two animated films in one year. Brave releases June 15th, while Monsters, Inc. 2 (rumored to be a prequel about Mike and Sulley’s first meeting) hits November 2nd.
No doubt numerous other Pixar films are in production or pre-production, but nothing more has been announced.