Fri
Jun 15 2012 5:00pm

Lasseter, Catmull, and Pixar: Combining Art and Science

Pixar lampPixar films are known for being computer animated, but they are loved for the stories they tell and the characters that live in them. To get to where the studio is now, they had to combine technical know how and creativity. And no two people better represent these facets of Pixar than Ed Catmull and John Lasseter.

Ed Catmull is mostly known these days for being president of both Disney and Pixar. He’s always loved animation, but figured out he didn’t have the talent for it and went into computer science instead. In the early 70s, he worked at places that pioneered computer imaging and animation, including Boeing and the New York Institute of Technology. He also studied under Ivan Sutherland where he created “A Computer Animated Hand.”

By today’s standards, it may not look great, but 40 years ago it was revolutionary. Today, a lot of work is still put into animating hands: just re-watch the Brave trailer for evidence of how far things have come since then.

Catmull also had a hand with several important developments in computer graphics and animation—one of the most important is probably texture mapping, something so ubiquitous that any 3D rendering software that didn’t incorporate it would be instantly dismissed as useless. This work would eventually lead to RenderMan, Pixar’s engine (and the industry standard) for rendering 3D scenes.

Catmull is more than just a technical wizard who worked on building the tools that would allow him and others to make a computer animated film. He was a visionary and manager, one who knew that fancy technology was not enough to make good films. More importantly, he was smart enough to know his limitations, who could work with the talent he lacked, but needed his technical skills and know-how to push the enveloppe. That someone was John Lasseter.

Nitemare by John LasseterBefore he directed Toy Story, in fact before he even animated anything on a computer, John Lasseter was trained as a traditional animator and made two student films: “Nitemare” and “The Lady and the Lamp,” both at Cal Arts. Unfortunately, even though the former won Lasseter a Student Academy Award for Best Animated Short, both films are almost impossible to find. Apparently Lasseter donated “Nitemare” to the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco, so Bay area people may possibly be able to view the story of a child who befriends the objects whose shapes scared him in the dark.

The Lady and the Lamp by John LasseterBoth films were screened as part of early Spike and Mike Animation Festivals. While I missed seeing “Nitemare,” I clearly recall viewing “The Lady and the Lamp.” Like many student projects, it only made it to the pencil test stage. That didn’t prevent the audience from appreciating both the excellent animation and characterization demonstrated in the film. It’s a credit to Lasseter’s animation skills that after all this time, I can still recall the lamp staggering around, drunk on gin after putting the bottle where a lightbulb should have been.

What’s interesting about these shorts is that, beyond showing Lasseter’s talent as an animator and budding storyteller, they already use two themes that Lasseter and Pixar would continue to touch on later: the anthropomorphization of every day objects (“Luxo Jr.,” “Knick Knack,” “Tin Toy,” and of course the Toy Story trilogy) and learning about others and understanding them (Monsters, The Incredibles, Cars).

Lasseter’s storytelling skills, his sure touch as a classical animator and his willingness to innovate both creatively and technically made him a perfect match to work with Catmull.

Of course, two people a studio do not make and many other people contributed technically and creatively, but Lasseter and Catmull were both key to the creation of the studio and its success. And who knows? Perhaps their working together all these years is one reason friendship plays such an important part in Pixar features.


René Walling is a fan of SF, animation and comics, this has led him to co-chair Anticipation, the 2009 Worldcon, be involved with fps magazine for more than a decade and start Nanopress, a Canadian small press. He looks forward to living on Mars where he would benefit from having more than 24 hours in a day.

4 comments
Jeff Youngstrom
1. jeffy
Thanks for this. That animated hand video is amazing for the time.
Ayka
2. Ayka
Pixar has really earned a great reputation in the world of innovative animation. Undoubtedly, it has utilized the best techniques to give life to their drawings and creations even when using ordinary ink.
Joseph Newton
3. crzydroid
The hand video blew me away for 1972. I tend to think of 3D computer animation from that era as being the old wireframe Star Wars games (which actually came out at least 5 years later, to think about it). Likewise, look at the computer animation in "Star Wars"--wireframes or dots, and this predates that. I'm glad the video showed the process of how they did it...which makes it no less impressive. If anything it shows the innovation and dedication that went into this project. I wonder how long it took to render.
René Walling
4. cybernetic_nomad
@crzydroid
If you're referring to the Star Wars arcade game, it came out in the early 80s.

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