Sucking the Life out of Animation

walle Sucking the Life out of AnimationThe Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company
By David A. Price
Alfred A. Knopf, 308 pages, $27.95

David Price unerringly puts his finger on the primary problem with The Pixar Touch in his acknowledgments, where he thanks his editor for "taking a chance on a book about business and technology and filmmaking."

It sounds suspiciously as though the editor did some worrying about the combination—if so, she was right.

Throughout The Pixar Touch, but especially in the first 100 or so pages, Mr. Price pays slavish attention to the technology that made computer animation possible. But technology is only interesting to techies, and the reliance on jargon and acronyms effectively puts the book into a deep freeze when it should be in its opening sprint.

The first half is full of sentences like this: "The frame buffer had not shipped yet from Evans & Sutherland, so the men started by teaching themselves how to use the 3-D linedrawing system that had already come in, as well as the lab’s mini-computer, a PDP-11/45 from Digital Equipment Corp."

That’s not actually the worst of it.

Here’s the worst of it: "The medium of motion pictures had had its start in the Bay Area a little more than a century earlier at an estate called Palo Alto, the future site of Stanford University. There, an engineer named John Isaacs helped the photographer Eadweard Muybridge capture still images of a horse and rider in motion."

It’s as if someone writing a biography of Walt Disney had insisted on spending dozens of pages detailing George Eastman’s invention of celluloid, dozens more about Edison’s devising of the Kinetoscope and so forth. All of these things were archeologically crucial to Disney’s eventual purposes, but none of it had anything to do with Disney personally. Like Monroe Stahr, he was just making pictures. So is Pixar’s John Lasseter, but we have to hike over a lot of arid ground before we get to the movies.

Perhaps James B. Stewart or Michael Lewis, superb business reporters who also brandish glistening styles, could have figured out a way to keep all these balls in the air, but the task defeats David Price.

Ultimately, the first half of the book is mostly technology with some business, while the last half is almost all business and filmmaking. Needless to say, the last half is considerably more interesting.

Mr. Price also misses perhaps the most crucial aspect of why Pixar has been so successful. Yes, they’ve released eight pictures, from Toy Stor (1995) to Ratatouille (2007), with nary a critical or commercial stiff among them, which is a remarkable record. But, once past novelty’s first blush, it’s not because of the technology.

Lasseter and company went back to First Principles: story, story, story and character, character, character. Disney, the unquestioned animation leader for more than 40 years, began a slow but inexorable descent sometime in the ’60s, when they began allowing celebrity voices to define their characters more than the very ordinary scripts or animation.

Jeffrey Katzenberg revised the formula somewhat by turning animated films into Broadway musicals that happened to be drawn as much as performed, but as The Lion King inevitably gave way to The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Pocahontas, something new was clearly called for.

That turned out to be a digital technology developed by computer engineers that gave a bright, photorealistic gleam to the most mundane objects, and whose novelty factor was enough to propel even sloppily animated, crass films—and yes, I mean Shrek—to incredible financial success.

For Walt Disney, substitute John Lasseter, and you have the same old story of a basically benign genius wresting enchantment out of an intractable, time-consuming technology that others used like apprentice plumbers. Similarly, the gang at Blue Sky studio, the makers of Ice Age and Horton Hears a Who!, have opted to emulate the razor timing of Chuck Jones and the rest of the reprobates at Warner Bros. animation, and do it extremely well.

Mr. Lasseter is a great admirer of Disney’s Nine Old Men, especially Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. Thomas initially didn’t think that computers could replicate the delicate expressions of pencil animation, but later came around after seeing an early Pixar short called Red’s Dream. I would have loved to have Mr. Lasseter’s telling of that moment, but he chose not to speak to Mr. Price, which seems a terrible pity.

Once he gets past the Himalaya of the technology, Mr. Price tells the story effectively, tracing Pixar from its founding by Ed Catmull through Steve Jobs, who bought Pixar from Lucasfilm for $5 million and kept it going with his personal funds until it tied up with Disney under initially onerous financial terms. Pixar, of course, ended up being bought by Disney and taking complete control of the studio’s animation operation.

My advice: Go directly to Chapter Five, "Pixar, Inc." Pretend it’s page one. You won’t have missed a thing.

Scott Eyman reviews books regularly for The Observer. He can be reached at seyman@observer.com.