The Birth of Pixar

And the somewhat elusive nature of truth.

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The progenitors of Pixar in 1980: Ed Catmull, Alvy Ray Smith and Loren Carpenter. (©1980 Lucasfilm Ltd. Courtesy of Pixar)

A few folks have asked me if these stories are true. Yes. But Jen points out it’s my truth. Not objective reality. I’ll admit I have long wrestled with the complicated nature of truth and accuracy. The more you know the harder it can be. Let’s say you’re interested in Pixar. “When was Pixar created?” you ask. This shouldn’t be a hard question, but it is, and is a fine example of how even simple questions depend on context and how various biases tune answers.

When was Pixar Created?

It could be in 1972, when Ed Catmull created the first computer animation (of his hand) for graduate school. It was then he decided that he wanted to make a full-length animated film with computers… some day. This was pretty much the proto-moment, although that’s probably not the one you’re looking for. No one would call this the birth of Pixar, but I think it’s a key moment in the history. What we know of as Pixar today was totally a dream of Catmull’s in 1972 and the beginning of a long road of invention that was required.

Better would be 1974, when the founding team was assembled by Catmull. This was when Ed Catmull (and Malcolm Blanchard) met Alvy Ray Smith (and David DiFrancesco) at NYIT. The two pairs of engineers spent years together doing some of the deep foundational work in computer graphics. They were the core of what was to become Pixar. Alexander Schure, the guy who created NYIT and hired them, is usually not given much credit, but it should be noted he had his own dreams of making animations with computers.

I’d say the most accurate date is 1979, when George Lucas hired Ed Catmull away from NYIT to start the Lucasfilm Computer Division — and specifically, the graphics project. Catmull then brought his NYIT team over to Lucasfilm. Over the next few years the graphics group grew and renamed themselves and their key product “Pixar.” So now the team and name were assembled. Most would say this was the true birth of Pixar. In 1984 John Lasseter came in, the first real animator in the group. I suppose some might argue that could be the birth too.

In February 1986 Lucas divested himself of the entire project, and sold Pixar to Steve Jobs. Actually it wasn’t so much “sold” as Jobs invested in the new independent company. This is certainly the “birth” of Pixar in the legal sense, presided by Catmull and Alvy. Jobs was busy doing other things, but Pixar released Luxo Jr. — the short film made at Lucasfilm to demonstrate the power of the Pixar Image Computer, which won an Academy Award for animated short film, the first time this was given to a computer-animated movie. Luxo subsequently became the iconic logo for the company.

It should be noted that Alvy and Jobs didn’t get along, and even though Jobs kept clear of Pixar in those years, he fired Alvy, and generally expunged him from the history — while reversed decades later, it was truly a corporate whitewashing of the history. History also gives Jobs more credit than is perhaps warranted. He really wasn’t the “founder” but he did bet his cash on Catmull’s project, and used his influence to get their first feature film deal put together, for Toy Story, in the early ‘90s. Photos of the “founders” of Pixar usually show Jobs, Catmull and Lasseter.

I think it’s important to note that in 1995 Jobs was trying to sell off Pixar as it didn’t seem to be going anywhere and he had bigger fish to fry. But only when he saw the completed Toy Story he not only changed his mind, but decided to IPO the company. It’s a great example of how hard it was to see the value in Pixar when even a genius like Jobs missed it until it was unmissable. This is another moment that could be the birth of Pixar, the movie and IPO. Incidentally, Jobs didn’t become a billionaire from creating Apple, it was from investing in Pixar.

In the years leading up to this, Pixar was a failing computer graphics hardware company, but the short (and then long) animations increasingly became the direction they would take. In all the failing years, inexplicably, Jobs recapitalized the business, taking most of the equity away from the founding teammates and redistributing it (mostly to himself, but also to some of the leadership). Later generosity somewhat corrected this, but you could easily argue that 1995 was when Pixar became a feature animation company; 1995 was when it became the company we think of today when we think of Pixar.

So. Depending on how much time you have, you could easily pick any of these moments as the “birth” of Pixar. And anything shorter is potentially misleading. I think this sort of thing happens with lots of news and facts — it’s all a little true, but it depends.

Where did the name Pixar come from?

While we’re talking about Pixar, a related and hopefully relevant illustration of elusive truth is the story of how these guys came up with their name. In 1981 four men sat in a booth at restaurant in Mill Valley — Alvy Ray Smith, Loren Carpenter, Jim Blinn and Rodney Stock. What’s clear is that they arrived with the intent to come up with a name for the product they were making — a digital film processor. What’s also clear is that they left with the name “Pixar.” I interviewed each of the four about how it happened, and I got four somewhat different stories. Alvy Ray Smith, the heart of the group and co-founder, because of his relative fame, tended to have his version of events solidified as “the story.” If I was a journalist, I could have interviewed him and had a credible primary resource for the facts of the matter, case closed. But as an historian, his isolated version fell short.

Speaking to each of them, I looked at where their stories fit and where they missed. Then I came up with my own version. Knowing the guys a little, as I did, I felt like I could imagine a version of events that would lead each of them to remember the story the way they told it. I felt like the actual details weren’t set out in any one tale, but a hybrid.

In writing Droidmaker, I created a fictional narrative of that conversation and then I gave it to the four guys to review. “This isn’t exactly what you told me, but I wonder if this could be closer to the way it went down?” They each agreed: yes, this was likely who said what to whom. Alvy, in particular, was shocked and relieved, that the story he had been telling was a little off. He told me that going forward he’d adopt this one. Here’s the final version:

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So after all this, the true interviews with any one guy are plausibly fictional fabrications of their memory, yet my fictional re-creation of events, where I obviously wasn’t present, is perhaps a more accurate version. I find this unsettling.

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Living a creative life, a student of high magic, and hopefully growing wiser as I age. • Ex-Lucasfilm, Netflix, Adobe. • Here are my stories and photos.

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