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"To Infinity and Beyond!" is an entertaining look back at Pixar's first two decades

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"To Infinity and Beyond!" is an entertaining look back at Pixar's first two decades

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There's this genuinely eerie passage in Karen Paik's "To Infinity and Beyond! The Story of Pixar Animation Studios" (Chronicle Books, November 2007), which talks about how a single book basically changed the course of John Lasseter's life.

In ninth grade, Lasseter was searching the art section of the school library for a book to write a report on when he came across a battered old copy of "The Art of Animation," Bob Thomas's history of the Disney Studios.

 Copyright 1958 Simon & Shuster / Walt Disney Productions

"There's a handful of little moments in my life that I could look back to and say were key to me following the path that I've ended up on," said Lasseter. "Finding that book was one of them. I read it cover to cover, and it dawned on me: People make cartoons for a living. They actually get paid to make cartoons! Right then, right there, I knew that was what I wanted to do."

"Why would you think that that passage was eerie?," you ask. Well, because I have this uneasy feeling that -- in the years ahead -- would-be animators are going to come across copies of "To Infinity and Beyond!" and have the exact same epiphany that Lasseter did. As they page through this beautiful coffee table book, aspiring artists will be startled to discover that some people actually earn a living from making cartoons. And that -- if they work hard -- these future toonsmiths could someday land a job just like John has.

Copyright 2007 Disney / Pixar & Chronicle Books

Of course, as Paik details in this handsome 320-page hardcover (Which -- FYI -- is the companion volume for Leslie Iwerks' great new documentary, "The Pixar Story"), Lasseter may have an advantage over all of those other would-be animators back in the 1970s. In that John's mom continually encouraged her son to draw. Even going so far as to bring along pads of paper whenever she took the family to church. So that young Lasseter -- rather than just sitting there in the pew, being bored out of his gourd -- could then scribble away during the sermon.

And clearly -- as Karen points out -- that extra pencil time paid off. For John won his very first award (i.e. a $15 grand prize for drawing the Headless Horseman from Disney's "The Adventures of Ichabod & Mr. Toad") at the tender age of 5.

 John in the back of the Lasseter family station wagon with his brother,
sister and his beloved Casper the Friendly Ghost doll.
Copyright 2007 Chronicle Books

"To Infinity and Beyond!" does a great job of tracking Lasseter's career in animation. Which basically started when he was accepted at the California Institute of the Arts and wound up being a member of CalArts's very first character animation class.

The first class of character animation students at CalArts. Copyright 2007 Chronicle Books

Though it may be hard to recognize them under all that long hair and bad skin, there's a pretty formidable group of animators assembled in the above photo. You'll find John Lasseter at the top, with a pencil in teeth. "Ratatouille" director Brad Bird is seated in the middle row with his right elbow resting on his knee, while "The Little Mermaid" & "Aladdin" co-director John Musker is seated in front on the right.

And -- sure -- Lasseter is smiling in the above photo. But he wasn't grinning once John graduated and actually got hired by Disney. Once he arrived in Burbank, this passionate young filmmaker began butting heads with Walt Disney Feature Animation's calcified middle management. Which -- as Ms. Paik recounts from her interviews with Mr. Lasseter -- was extremely resistant to anything that might upset the status quo at the studio.

One conversation in particular remained vivid in Lasseter's memory over thirty years later. "This guy said to me, 'So, you want to be creatively in charge here? I'll tell you how to be in charge. You sit down and do in-betweens for twenty years, then you can be in charge.' I remember walking away and deciding right then that if I was ever creatively in charge of anything, I'd never say to a young artist what that guy had just said to me. In that one exchange he killed all the enthusiasm I had to help make the project better."

John Lasseter hard at work on Disney's "The Fox and the Hound."
Copyright 2007 Chronicle Books

So you can just imagine how the old guard at Disney Feature Animation reacted when John began talking up computer animation as the wave of the future. With the blessing of Tom Wilhite, the then-head of Motion Pictures and TV production for the Walt Disney Studios, Lasseter began development of a few CG-based projects. One was a hybrid featurette (Which was to have combined hand drawn & computer animation to bring to life Maurice Sendak's much beloved picture book, "Where the Wild Things Are") while the other was a full-blown CG feature based on Thomas M. Disch's "The Brave Little Toaster."

But as Karen explains, it was John's obvious enthusiasm for "Toaster" film that wound up burning a lot of bridges for this young animator at Disney.

 John Lasseter's own designs for the characters to be featured in
Disney's never-produced version of "The Brave Little Toaster."
Copyright 1981 Walt Disney Productions / 2007 Chronicle Books

Shortly after Lasseter returned (to the studio), he was notified that "The Brave Little Toaster" had to be pitched to Ron Miller, the head of (Disney Studios), and Ed Hansen, the manager of the animation department, immediately. This made Lasseter uneasy -- he believed in the project, but he also perceived some coolness in Hansen's manner after Wilhite had given Lasseter's experiments the go-ahead. When Miller walked into the pitch looking grim, Hansen by his side, Lasseter knew it was going to be a tough sell. After the pitch, Miller stood up and asked how much the project would cost. When Lasseter said it would cost no more than a regular film, Miller replied that there was no point in using computer animation unless it would make things "faster or cheaper." With that, he walked out of the room. At first, Lasseter was too perplexed by what had happened for his disappointment to fully register. But there was more to come.

"About five minutes later," Lasseter said. "I got a call from Ed Hansen. I went down to his office, and he said, 'Well, John, your project is now complete, so your employment with the Disney Studios is now terminated.' "

"I couldn't believe it. I had just been fired."

Of course, the upside of this story is -- if Ed Hansen hadn't gone out of his way to try & torpedo young John Lasseter's career at Disney Feature Animation -- he'd have never been in a position to accept Ed Catmull's offer. Which was to come up to Marin and help the guys at Lucasfilm's computer division with a little project that they were working on. Which turned out to be "The Adventures of Andre & Wally B." The SIGGRAPH short that -- through its skillful mix of character comedy & cutting-edge technology -- provided the template for every Pixar project that followed.

That's what (me personally) I think that Karen Paik does best with "To Infinity and Beyond! The Story of Pixar Animation Studios." She makes you keenly aware of all the baby steps that eventually led up to those huge successes like "Toy Story" and "Monsters, Inc."

So is "To Infinity and Beyond!" a perfect book? Well ... I could have done without Paik glossing over the fact that -- during all those years when Pixar was genuinely struggling to break through -- Steve Jobs was continually shopping the company around. Looking for someone -- anyone ! -- to take this money pit of an animation studio off his hands.

 (L to R) Steve Jobs, Jane Eisner and John Lasseter all enjoy a cocktail
in Pixar's most exclusive club, the Love Lounge.
Copyright 2007 Chronicle Books

But on the other hand, I loved how Karen takes you into places where Pixar visitors seldom get to go, like that animation studio's super-secret "Love Lounge." Or when she reveals fun little factoids like how "Toy Story" wasn't actually supposed to be Pixar's first full-length feature. How -- if John Lasseter had had his druthers (More importantly, if author Roald Dahl had just agreed to sell this animation studio the movie rights to one of his more popular books back in 1989) -- "James and the Giant Peach" would have been Pixar's first big production.

Plus Paik tries to give her readers some sense of the real human costs involved in the production of their favorite CG films. Take -- for example -- the ...

... nine months of almost nonstop work (on "Toy Story 2") with a keyboard and mouse, (which resulted in) nearly one in three employees (at Pixar developing) a repetitive-stress injury. (With) one person (being) permanently disabled and (forced) to leave the (CG) field altogether.

 Bob Iger stands in front of the staff of Pixar Animation
Studio staff in January of 2006, as the details of
the Disney acquisition deal are announced.
Copyright 2006 Disney / Pixar & Chronicle Books

As for this book's other flaws ... Yeah, it's somewhat frustrating that -- after quickly touching on the Disney acquisition and "Cars" -- "To Infinity and Beyond!" basically runs out of gas. With "Ratatouille" only receiving a single fleeting reference in this entire coffee table book. (Though -- to be fair -- if you'd like to learn more about this critically acclaimed Brad Bird film, you should probably pick up Karen Paik's other Chronicle Book for 2007. Which is "The Art of Ratatouille.")

But -- that said -- there's still an awful lot of history and inspiration to be found in "To Infinity and Beyond! The Story of Pixar Animation Studios." So if you're looking for something extra special for that aspiring animator on your holiday shopping list, then you might want to consider giving this new Chronicle Books publication a look-see.

And speaking of the holidays ... Tis the season, folks. And if you'd like to show your appreciation for all the great stories that you regularly read here on this website, then why not start out your next Amazon shopping spree by clicking on the banner above? That way, JHM gets a tiny chunk of what you spend.

Happy Holidays!

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  • Gotta go with Ron Miller on the Toaster feature. You've already got the world's best traditional animators on the payroll at that time, there's no reason to make an experimental feature on computers that won't utilize the animators you've got, and doesn't save any money. It probably would have set computer animation farther back if it was made at that time. No other studios would have deemed it profitable and Disney wouldn't be too excited about throwing lots of money away on another experimental feature. Originally, lower cost was suppossed to be one of the benefits of computer animation - get a character rendered in the computer and it would be simple to have that character perform any movement. Somehow, the Shrek films never seem to benefit from this cost savings - it's always got to be re-done with newer software each time. All the Pixar films could have been traditionally animated and they would still have been hits. Toaster and Chicken Little and Home on the Range could have been 3D holograms and I'd still fall asleep.

  • I still have my Pixar coffee mug I picked up at a trade show many years ago. I had suddenly become a computer Geek early in the seventies. I didn't know Lasseter, but I had heard of Ed Catmull and Avy Ray Smith. I knew this company would someday change animation forever.

    Much like a Disney fairy tale, it was the Mouse (flush with cash after Lion King) that came to Pixar's rescue in the nineties. Fortunately, Pixar delivered the goods, and the rest is history.

  • Fantastic review, Jim. If I see this book, I'll be sure to pick it up.

  • I have the book and have seen the documentary feature.

    Both are good, although I did like the film a bit better just because I think it's easier to connect to on an emotional level when you're hearing Steve Jobs, Ed Catmull, John Lasseter or others telling their stories.

    It's far better to see John's jaw drop when he recounts his dismissal from Disney than to read it dry, to hear the sadness in his voice. At this scene, the audience actually gasps and some cry out "no!"

    Both the documentary and book are a good introduction to Pixar's history and filled with great stories about some of the struggles Pixar faced in forging it success. The film also offers footage of "Where the Wild Things Are" that was cleared far too late to be included in the book.

    As a coffee table book -- "To Infinity and Beyond" is a bit large (read heavy) to really enjoy in bed before hitting the sheets or to lug back and forth to read during a break at work. Also, with its $75 list price, it's a bit expensive although it does have several full color pages with great art. Most other Pixar making of books are about $40 -- and like "To Infinity and Beyond" can often be found discounted at Amazon.com and elsewhere.

    "The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company," by David A. Price, coming out in May might be as good or better in telling the Pixar's story ... Time will tell.

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