17 febbraio 2016

MyNewGreatStory: The Creativity of Pixar, 30 years of digital animation

written by Pietro Grandi

Every movie has three things you have to do; you have to have a compelling story that keeps people on the edge of their seats, you have to populate that story with memorable and appealing characters and you have to put that story and those characters in a believable world. Those three things are so vitally important [to make people believe in the adventure you're going to make them live].
John Lasseter 

Well yes, even Pixar has grown up. 30 years of digital creativity, still on the run, built on the amazing skills of its artists, between pencil drawings and colorful pixels. In these 30 years our eyes were immersed in emotions, dreams and overwhelming stories. It's these stories that oversee every single phase of Pixar's creative process, where the technology is more of a mean for supporting the value of human creativity, instead of a landlord.
The animated tool analyses in the deep the reality and our collective conscious  in an incredible visual mash-up of art and technology; stories of friendship between talking toys, animals and cars, of superheroes and elderly in crisis with themselves, of robots saviors of humanity, until living, in first person, the emotions of an eleven-years-old girl.

It was February the 3rd, 1986, when Steve Jobs funded the Pixar studios from the acquisition of Lucasfilm's Computer Division, captained by the engineers Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith. From that moment the great digital revolution set sail, guided by the Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter, and by the directors and storytellers Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton, Joe Ranft, and Brad Bird, graduates from the prestigious California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles.
In 1995, their first feature, Toy Story, transported us into the new dimension of the industry of computer graphic for feature films, the new style of animation that we tasted before in 1982 with Disney's Tron.

It's the legacy of a long history of the Bay Area, that in the 40s had welcomed the first european visual-kinetic experimentation of Fischinger, Ruttman and Richter in the festival “Art in Cinema”, followed then by the birth, in the 60s, of the first computers, to mark the turning point of a new art, the computer art: an expanded cinema, abstract and hypnotic, of artists like Jordan Belson, Charles Csuri, Stan Vanderbeek, Lillian Schwartz, the Whitney brothers, Larry Cuba and Robert Abel. At the end of 70s, George Lucas will orientate the use of the computer to evolve the industry of the visual effects with the motion control, a new camera technique, used in Star Wars (1977).

The coming of Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith, researchers from the New York Institute of Technology, to the newborn Computer Division at Lucasfilm, lays the foundation for the world of animation like we know it today. From a true milestone, the Pixar Image Computer, used to create an evolution of a planet in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) and the stained-glass man from Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), and then, the many softwares: REYES, for rendering (father of the current Renderman), Marionette for animation (the current Presto), and CAPS - Computer Animation Production System, a software made for inking, painting and composition, that made Disney evolve in a new renaissance in the 90s.

The John Lassiter's dismissal from Disney made the fortune of the Computer Division. Lasseter, talented storyteller, after experimenting with his friend Glen Keane the commingling of characters traditionally animated with backgrounds entirely on CGI in Where the Wild Things Are (1983), began in his new home approaching to little animated adventures for the annual conference on computer graphic, the SIGGRAPH. From his creative mind came out emotional characters modeled on simple solid figures: from the android annoyed by a colorful bee in the short The Adventures of Andrè and Wally B. (1984), to the relationship between father lamp and son lamp in Luxo Jr. (1986), and from the dreamer tricycle in Red’s Dream (1987), to the scared one-man-band Tin Toy (1988), and, not forgetting, the playful snowman in Knick Knack (1989).

Steve Jobs was farsighted as Walt Disney, building a new empire of animation, and then selling Pixar to Disney itself in May 2006 thanks to the current CEO, Bob Iger, that resurrected the Disney company from a dark period. Jobs thought that Pixar had to be remembered from generation to generation, reaching with every step unexpected aims. From San Rafael to Point Richmond, until the new campus, tailored on Emeryville; that's how Steve Jobs, together with Peter Bohlin, architect of the Apple Store, built the new incubator in an old sugar factory not far from San Francisco. The creative people, inside, can live in harmony with each other, establishing casual relationships to increase their creative possibilities. They have the possibility to learn new technologies or film studies thanks to Pixar University (that remembers the Disney-Graham model at the end of the 30s), tasting different food at the Luxo Cafè, or playing team sports, walking in the open air surrounded by nature, or taking shelter in little lounges to watch again the progress stages of their films. This was the new Jobsian culture in Pixar: collective creativity in a friendly place, to make the engine of the studios, that is the people, evolve. The important is to continuously motivate them, to make them reach beyond their possibility, transforming the creativity in an alchemy of artists and engineerings. In help of the creative process there's the structure of the braintrust, a group of Pixar veterans that examines every month the projects of the studios, helping directors to pull out doubts or uncertainties in a Socratic method, without giving them orders, but instead suggesting them how to proceed in the creative process.

Pixar, year after year, has expanded its poetic of "painterly realism", pointing out the emotional side of reality. The storytelling department creates stories adding and subtracting dowels to show us the little things of life, the poetry in a glance, the adventure and the freedom of the world that surrounds us, the fortuity and the insight, the strength of friendship, who we are and who we want to be.
That's the power of the Pixar stories. A beginning, an execution, and an end that are processed in an iterative process, conveyed in a parallel and horizontal way between screenwriters, story artists, directors, sculptors, traditional and CGI drawings, editors and music composers that amalgamate each other to instill the emotivity, that is rooted in every aspect of the human society. The imperative is a continuous collaboration. It doesn't matter who has the better idea, but it exists in a continuos exchange in a true own atmosphere, just like the college in Monsters University.

Today, after 30 years and 16 feature-lenght films released (with Finding Dory coming soon), Pixar is a surprising and consolidated reality, able to speak at their audiences, that aren't just the little ones, but the totality of people, using a cinematic language and playing with different genres, from the buddy comedy in Toy Story, to the superheroes adventures in The Incredibles, to the brilliant french comedy in Ratatouille, to the apocalyptic science-fiction in WALL·E, to the Miyazakian adventures in Up. These are the merits that have allowed to the house of animation based in Emeryville, to be on the highest podium among its competitors (Dreamworks Animation, Blue Sky Studios, Sony Pictures Animation) and using a different storytelling method compared to its parent, Disney Animation.
Certainly, Pixar's future looks full of surprises and new digital representations, to make us understand our nature as curious people, just like a magnifying glass does with the little and incredible things of life, amplifying the horizon of our creative imagination.

All images belong to Disney/Pixar, All rights reserved©

Read an Exclusive Interview with Alvy Ray Smith, a Pixel's Pioneer.

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