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Jul 16, 2020

Today, we think of Pixar as the company that gave us such lovable characters as Woody and Buzz Lightyear, Monsters Mike Wazowski and James P Sullivan, Nemo, Elastagirl, and Lightnight McQueen. But all that came pretty late in the history of the company.

Let’s go back to the 70s. Star Wars made George Lucas a legend. His company Lucasfilm produced American Graffiti, the Star Wars Francise, the Indiana Jones Francis, The Labrynth, Willow, and many others. Many of those movies were pioneering in the use of visual effects in storytelling. At a time when the use of computer-aided visual effects was just emerging. So Lucas needed world-class computer engineers.


Lucas found Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith at the New York Institute of Technology Computer Graphics Lab. They had been hired by the founder, Alexander Schure, to help create the first computer-animated film in the mid-70s. But Lucas hired Catmull (who had been a student of the creator of the first computer graphics software, Sketchpad) and Smith (who had worked on SuperPaint at Xerox PARC) away to run the computer division of Lucasfilm, which by 1979 was simply called the Graphics Group. 


They created REYES and developed a number of the underlying techniques used in computer graphics today. They worked on movies like Star Trek II where the graphics still mostly stand up nearly 40 years later. And as the group grew, the technology got more mature and more useful. REYES would develop into RenderMan and become one of the best computer graphics products on the market. Pioneering, they won prizes in science and film. RenderMan is still one of the best tools available for computer-generated lighting, shading, and shadowing.


John Lasseter joined in 1983. And while everything was moving in the right direction, in the midst of a nasty divorce when he needed the cash, Lucas sold the group as a spin-off to Steve Jobs in 1986. Jobs had just been ousted from Apple and was starting NeXT. He had the vision to bring the computer graphics to homes. They developed The Pixar Image Computer for commercial sales, which would ship just after Jobs took over the company. It went for $135,000 and still required an SGI or Sun computer to work. They’d sell just over 100 in the first two years - most to Disney. 


The name came from Alvy Ray Smith’s original name he suggested for the computer, Picture Maker. That would get shortened to Pixer, and then Pixar. The technology they developed along the way to the dream of a computer animated film was unparalleled in special effects. But CPUs weren’t going fast enough to keep up. 


The P-II model came with a 3 gig RAID (when most file systems couldn’t even access that much space), 4 processors, multiple video cards, 2 video processors, a channel for red, blue green, and alpha. It was a beast. 


But that’s not what we think of when we think of Pixar today. You see, they had always had the desire to make a computer animated movie. And they were getting closer and closer. Sure, selling computers to aid in the computer animation is the heart of why Steve Jobs bought the company - but he, like the Pixar team, is an artist. They started making shorts to showcase what the equipment and software they were making could do. 


Lasseter made a film called Luxo Jr in 1986 and showed it at SIGGRAPH, which was becoming the convention for computer graphics. They made a movie every year, but they were selling into a niche market and sales never really took off. Jobs pumped more money into the company. He’d initially paid $5 million dollars and capitalized the company with another $5 million. By 1989 he’d pumped $50 million into the company. But when sales were slow and they were bleeding money, Jobs realized the computer could never go down market into homes and that part of the business was sold to Vicom in 1990 for $2 million, who then went bankrupt.


But the work Lasseter was doing blending characters that were purely made using computer graphics with delicious storytelling. Their animated short Tin Toy won an Academy Award in 1988. And being an artist, during repeated layoffs, that group just continued to grow. They would release more and more software - and while they weren’t building computers, the software could be run on other computers like Macs and Windows. 


The one bright spot was that Pixar and the Walt Disney Animation Studio were inseparable. By 1991 though, computers had finally gotten fast enough, and the technology mature enough, to make a computer-animated feature. And this is when Steve Jobs and Lasster sold the idea of a movie to Disney. In fact, they got $24 million to make three features. They got to work on the first of their movie. Smith would leave in 1994, supposedly over a screaming match he had with Jobs over the use of a whiteboard. But if Pixar was turning into a full-on film studio, it was about to realize the original dream they all had of creating a computer-animated motion picture and it’s too bad Smith missed it.


That movie was called Toy Story. It would bring in $362 million dollars globally becoming the highest-grossing movie of 1995 and allow Steve Jobs to renegotiate the Pixar deal with Disney and take the company public in 1995. His $60 million investment would convert into over a billion dollars in Pixar stock that became over a hundred thousand shares of Disney stock worth over $4 billion, the largest single shareholder. Those shares were worth $7.4 billion dollars when he passed away in 2011. His wife would sell half in 2017 as she diversified the holdings. 225x on the investment. 


After Toy Story, Pixar would create Cars, Finding Nemo, Wall-E, Up, Onward, Mosters Inc, Ratatouille, Brave, The Incredibles, and many other films. Movies that have made close to $15 billion dollars. But more importantly, they mainstreamed computer animated films. And another huge impact on the history of computing was that they made Steve Jobs a billionaire and proved to Wall Street that he could run a company. After a time I think of as “the dark ages” at Apple, Jobs came back in 1996, bringing along an operating system and reinventing Apple - giving the world the iMac, the iPod, and the iPhone. And streamlining the concept of multi-media enough that music and later film and then software, would be sold through Apple’s online services, setting the groundwork for Apple to become the most valuable company in the world. 


So thank you to everyone from Pixar for the lovable characters, but also for inventing so much of the technology used in modern computer graphics - both for film and the tech used in all of our computers. And thank you for the impact on the film industry and keeping characters we can all relate to at the forefront of our minds. And thank you dear listener for tuning in to yet another episode of the History of Computing Podcast. We are so lucky to have you. And lucky to have all those Pixar movies. I think I’ll go watch one now. But I won’t be watching them on the Apple streaming service. It’ll be on Disney service. Funny how that worked out, aint it.