Great paradigm-shifting narratives — entrepreneurs seeing clarity where others saw only fog — often have a feeling of manifest destiny about them. What’s striking about David A. Price’s history of Pixar, the computer animation studio behind “Toy Story,” “The Incredibles” and other movies, is how provisional it all seemed in the moment, how key players at important junctures didn’t really understand what they were doing even as they were doing it. But they kept working because of a sixth sense that something would eventually happen.
Pixar began to take shape in the late 1970s, when George Lucas, after the success of “Star Wars,” hired many of these men (virtually without exception, they are men) into Lucasfilm’s computer division. But he didn’t have a clue what to do with them. Even with the best computer animators on his payroll at Skywalker Ranch, he used no computer animation in “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980), resorting to scale models for special effects. Indeed, in a desperate bid for attention, Lucas’s computer division — named, unimaginatively, Computer Division — persuaded another studio, Paramount, to include a 60-second computer animated sequence in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” (1982) to show Lucas what they could do. It didn’t work then or later. “He couldn’t make the leap from the crudeness of it then to what it could be,” said one of the short’s creators, Alvy Ray Smith.
Frustrated with Lucas, the Computer Division renamed itself Pixar in 1986 and sought an outside investor. Through a friendship with Alan Kay, a crucial figure in the earlier creation of the personal computer at Xerox PARC, Pixar’s central figures were introduced to Steve Jobs, already worth $185 million and beginning his Apple exile. After Jobs’s $5 million offer was rejected, the team attempted to do a deal with Disney, then a bastion of hand-painted cel animation. Pixar’s cause was championed by Disney’s chief technologist, Stan Kinsey, who was convinced that Pixar’s technologies would “not only lower costs, but also allow freer camera moves and a richer use of colors.” Kinsey wanted Disney to buy Pixar outright for $15 million, but he was overruled by Jeffrey Katzenberg, then head of Walt Disney Studios. “I can’t waste my time on this stuff,” Kinsey says Katzenberg told him.
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(Via NYT > Technology.)