A Brief History of Pixar Animation Studios

Although these days Pixar Animation Studios, usually shortened to just Pixar, is synonymous with the Disney brand – known for producing some of our favourite children’s films, characters and childhood memories – it wasn’t always this way.

Pixar was originally established in 1979 as “The Graphics Group”, part of filmmaker George Lucas’ production company Lucasfilm’s Computer Division. Lucas hired Dr Ed Catmull from the New York Institute of Technology to take charge of the Computer Graphics Lab. The Graphic Group’s task was to develop state-of-the-art computer technology for the film industry. Lucas’ wish list included a digital film editing system and sound editing system, and a digital film printer.

It was four years later in 1983 that John Lasseter would join The Graphics Group to work on short film The Adventures of André & Wally B, and the following year Lasseter was hired as a full-time member of The Graphics Group as an interface designer. A partially finished version of The Adventures of André & Wally B was premiered in 1984, and the technology used to create the short was considered ground-breaking at the time. The film is considered to be Pixar’s first film even though Pixar did not yet exist when the film was made.

In 1986 George Lucas sold The Computer Division of Lucasfilm to Steve Jobs who had recently left Apple. Jobs established an independent company and “Pixar” was incorporated in the state of California on 3rd February 1986. Jobs served as CEO of the company until 2006.

In August that year, John Lasseter’s directional debut Luxo Jr was the first film released after Jobs’ purchase of the company, premiering at the 1986 SIGGRAPH conference. The title character, desk lamp Luxo Jr, was the source of Pixar’s hopping desk lamp mascot who appears in Pixar’s logo today. In order to complete the film in time for the SIGGRAPH conference, Lasseter and Catmull worked tirelessly, with Lasseter even taking to sleeping under his desk so he was in the studio early each morning. The film received an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Short Film, becoming the first CGI film to be nominated for an Academy Award. In 2014, Luxo Jr was selected by the Liberty of Congress for Preservation in the National Film Registry on the grounds that it is “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

The studio’s first Academy Award winner came in the form of Lasseter’s 1988 short film Tin Toy, Pixar’s fourth short film. It took home the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film at the 61st Academy Awards.

In 1989, the first version of “RenderMan” was released. This software would eventually go on to become the standard software used in the film industry for rendering computer graphics. In 2001, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honoured Ed Catmull, Loren Carpenter, and Rob Cook with an Academy Award of Merit for “significant advancements to the field of motion picture rendering as exemplified in Pixar’s RenderMan”. It was the first Academy Award to be given for a software package.

1991 saw Disney finally enter the picture, with the two companies announcing an agreement had been made to produce and distribute at least one computer generated animated film. That film finally came in November 1995 in the form of the award-winning Toy Story, Pixar’s first feature length film. Toy Story saw Lasseter win a Special Achievement Oscar at the 1996 Academy Awards for his “inspired leadership of the Pixar Toy Story Team resulting in the first feature-length computer animated film.” In 1997, Pixar and Disney announced an agreement to produce five feature length films over the next 10 years – these films were: A Bug’s Life (1998), Toy Story 2 (1999), Monsters, Inc. (2001), Finding Nemo (2003) and The Incredibles (2004).

In 1997 and 1998, Pixar picked up another 5 Academy Awards, with William Reeves receiving the Scientific and Engineering Academy Award for Particle Systems and Rick Sayre receiving the Technical Achievement Academy Award for Direct Input Device in 1997. At the 70th Academy Awards in 1998, Geri’s Game directed by Jan Pinkavatook home the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film, and Eben Ostby, William Reeves, and Tom Duff received the Scientific and Engineering Academy Award for Marionette 3-D Animation Systems. Thomas Porter earned the Scientific Academy Award for Digital Painting.

From 1998–2004 Pixar and Disney’s 5 film, 10 year deal was played out, with the five feature length films collectively being nominated for 14 Academy Awards. A Bug’s Life broke all previous Thanksgiving Weekend box office records in 1998. Toy Story broke box office records in the USA, UK and Japan in 1999. In 2001, Monsters Inc. grossed $100million in the domestic box office in 9 days, faster than any previous animated film. Finding Nemo broke all previous opening weekend box office records for an animated feature film in 2003, and then became the fastest selling DVD of all time in 2004. The Incredibles broke all Pixar records in 2004, grossing over $70million at the box office over its opening weekend.

In June 2006, John Lasseter’s Cars was Pixar’s final film as an independent company before it was purchased from Steve Jobs by Disney. Disney’s takeover of Pixar saw Ed Catmull become president and John Lasseter become chief creative officer of Disney and Pixar Animation Studios. And the rest, as they say, is history.

It seems Pixar will be providing children (and adults) with wonderful films, characters and treasured memories for years to come.

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