Pixar chronicle missing the Midas touch
“Pixar’s ‘Up’? is a fantastical voyage,” the Boston Globe exclaimed when the computer animation film was released in the U.S. last May.
The New York Times pointed out early this month that Wall Street analysts are “heaping praise on Disney for allowing its Pixar unit to pursue ‘Up’ despite the film’s obvious commercial risk.” The film’s main character, after all, is a 78-year-old grouch, which doesn’t exactly lend itself well to the world of action figures, hence the reason toy manufacturers reportedly steered clear of the movie.
All those accolades make you wonder: What’s the secret behind Pixar Animation Studios that gets newspapers and Wall Street applauding?
David A. Price’s “The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company” doesn’t exactly provide a satisfying answer to that question. Pixar is certainly a timely subject, as the aforementioned 3-D computer animation feature film Up recently opened in theaters around Korea (though the book contains no mention of this movie even in its newly updated epilogue.)
Price, who has a degree in computer science, patiently guides the reader from Pixar’s earliest “garage days” to what he now calls “the $7.4 billion jewel in the Disney crown.” The book starts out by introducing Pixar’s co-founder Edwin Catmull, “a geek’s geek who routinely [brings] scientific books and papers... on vacation as recreational reading.”
Getting to know Pixar’s early days as a creative lab with a bunch of talented and self-motivated workers looking for financial supporters is quite enjoyable. But as the chapters go on, it becomes clear that the book isn’t really about Pixar. It ends up being another success story about two men: Catmull and the studio’s animation director John Lasseter, although it seems like thousands upon thousands of names appear (and vanish) throughout the 266-page book.
In this sense, it can actually be divided into two sections. The first part focuses on Catmull’s will to make something out of a “fraternity of geeks,” while Lasseter’s contributions dominate the second half.
Aside from the duo, Price places importance on someone else you might have heard of: Pixar owner Steve Jobs. The author dedicates a full chapter to Jobs, presenting what amounts to a 24-page biography on the Silicon Valley superstar. But Price isn’t exactly going out of his way to be friendly toward the billionaire, who quite obviously did not cooperate for this book. He portrays Jobs as an arrogant and impatient man “who could be cantankerous” enough to blow a deal with major customers in Pixar’s early days. In one chapter, the author compares Jobs to Bill Gates, depicting the former as a cocky “ex-hippie,” while Gates comes off as a gentleman.
But bear in mind that another co-founder of Pixar, Alvy Ray Smith, was one of Price’s primary sources for The Pixar Touch. Smith was the guy who left the studio shortly after a big feud with Jobs back in the early 1990’s. So that obviously makes you wonder about the objectivity of the book.
While the author describes in detail the days when Smith was under the Pixar roof - including his time working with George Lucas - he gets increasingly vague when it comes to current events. Price skims through crucial times in the company’s history, like the Disney-Pixar breakup five years ago, sprinkling in just a few quotes from outside interviews while failing to provide a full account of exactly what happened. The author also doesn’t explain how the company dealt with rising competitors, namely DreamWorks SKG.
The Pixar Touch contains plenty of material about the studio’s achievements over the years. But while it’s hard to refute the company’s enormous success, readers are left clueless as to how Pixar reacted as it lost the throne to a certain large green ogre in 2001, when DreamWorks vaulted up to the top of the field with the hugely popular “Shrek.”
Nonetheless, for Pixar fans out there who want to know how it all began, the book does have great flow. Price also does a good job of providing a picturesque view of the filmmaking process.
The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company
Publisher: Vintage Books
By Lee Hae-joo Contributing writer [email@example.com]