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Toon Tuesday: The story behind "The Pixar Story"

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Toon Tuesday: The story behind "The Pixar Story"

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It's going to seem like "Old Home Week" at Hollywood's Egyptian Theater tonight. What with acclaimed filmmaker Leslie Iwerks sharing the stage with industry legend Roy E. Disney during the Q & A portion of tonight's screening of "The Pixar Story" at the American Cinematheque.

You see, if it hadn't been for Roy's help ... Well, Leslie's first film, "The Hand Behind the Mouse - The Ub Iwerks Story" (Which -- FYI -- is now available on DVD. This award-winning documentary is one of the extra features offered on "The Adventures of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit." This new 2-disc "Walt Disney Treasures" hits store shelves today) probably never would have been made.

To explain: Ms. Iwerks is the granddaughter of this animation pioneer. But because Ub had died just a year after Leslie was born, she never really knew the man. All she knew about her grandfather were the stories that other family members -- particularly her grandmother -- had told her.

But given the important part that this Disney Legend had played in animation history, Leslie felt that something ought to be done to make more people aware of everything that Ub had accomplished. The huge impact that he'd had on Hollywood.

 Animation pioneer Ub Iwerks

"And as a film student fresh out of USC," Ms. Iwerks explained, "I thought that my grandfather's life story had the makings of this really great movie. Plus I hoped that -- by closely studying all of the films that he'd helped create -- that I might finally get to know the man."

The only problem with proposing a production like this is that the Walt Disney Company owns most of the movies that Ub ever worked on. Which meant that -- in order for Ms. Iwerks to be able to make this very personal film -- the Mouse first had to sign off on the project.

Lucky for Leslie, Roy was quick to throw his support behind this proposed documentary. He not only convinced Michael Eisner that the Walt Disney Company should fund this production, Roy even arranged for Leslie to have access to the studio's Animation Research Library. Where she was then able to get her hands on the original drawings that her grandfather had done for such landmark shorts like "Steamboat Willie" and "The Skeleton Dance."

"And it was then -- as I got to read the notes that my grandfather had written in the margins of these drawings that he'd done back in the 1920s -- that I realized that he and I shared the same twisted sense of humor," Ms. Iwerks continued. "More importantly, that we seemed to have the same sort of drive and ambition."

 Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

And it was out of this drive & ambition -- as well as Leslie's desire to do right by her grandfather -- that "The Hand Behind the Mouse - The Ub Iwerks Story" was born. A film that many have called the best movie that has ever been made by the animation process.

At least that's what John Lasseter said about Leslie's film. More to the point, Pixar's co-founder was moved by a comment that Ms. Iwerks made during the question & answer session that followed a screening of "The Hand Behind the Mouse" at the Emeryville campus.

"One of the Pixar employees at that screening asked me if there was anything that I wished I had done differently with that film," Leslie said. "And my reply was that I wish that I had had a time machine. So that I could then travel back to the 1920s and interview Ub & Walt as they were actually making all these breakthroughs. I bemoaned the fact that no one was there to record all of that animation history as it was actually happening."

And Ms. Iwerks' comments really seemed to strike a nerve with Lasseter. Given that there was an awful lot of animation history going on at Pixar, and yet there was no one there to record what was going on.

"Right after that screening, I was sitting down to lunch with Lasseter and Ed Catmull when John asked me if I'd be interested in interviewing some of the folks at Pixar," Leslie remembered. "I think that his initial goal was that Pixar would then have something for its archives that would capture that particular moment in time. But after I did all of those interviews and started to cut them together, I realized that I had a film here."

Leslie Iwerks

Mind you, it did take Ms. Iwerks quite a while to get a handle on this particular documentary. During her first few passes on this project, she worried that its story was far too episodic. That it just went from this Pixar short to that Pixar feature ... and so on. But then -- over time -- Leslie began to refocus her film on the people who'd actually made Pixar possible.

"When you get right down to it, this is really a story about people who were trying to do something impossible. Ed Catmull dreamed of someday producing the first computer animated feature. And thanks to John Lasseter's talent and Steve Jobs' financial support, Ed's dream was finally able to come true," Ms. Iwerks said. "But before that could happen, there were years of struggle."

And that's what "The Pixar Story" does best. It documents who Lasseter, Catmull & Jobs got the company through those years of struggle. How John's gift for story and character made the early Pixar shorts & features really shine. How Ed's insistance that "We always hire people who are smarter than us" gave Pixar the talent that they needed to keep things moving forward. And how Steve's patience (more importantly, the continual pressure that he put on Lasseter & Catmull to succeed) eventually paid off.

Of course, what's kind of ironic about this screening being held in the holiday season is ... Well, if John Lasseter hadn't suggested that Pixar should pitch Disney on the idea of making this 30-minute-long CG holiday special (Which was to have been called "A Tin Toy Christmas" and starred the title character of that animation studio's 1988 Academy Award-winning short, "Tin Toy") ... Well, there probably wouldn't then have been a "Toy Story."

 Copyright 2007 Disney / Pixar & Leslie Iwerks Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Which is why it's probably a good thing that Roy E. Disney will be on hand for tonight's screening of "The Pixar Story" at the Egyptian. Given that Roy was actually head of Disney Feature Animation when John first came up to Burbank to pitch "A Tin Toy Christmas" ... Walt's nephew can then explain how this proposed half-hour-long holiday special then became the springboard for a full-length CG feature.

And who knows? Maybe noted animation historian Charles Solomon (Who'll be serving as the evening's moderator) can get Roy to open up at John's pre-Pixar days. Back when Lasseter was just a lowly inbetweener at WDFA who was regularly getting tossed out of the trailers where effects work was being done on "Tron." All because John was just obsessed with learning everything he could about computer animation.

Well, if you'd like to learn everything you can about the history of Pixar Animation Studios (as well as catch a very entertaining documentary), might I suggest that you stop by the Egyptian Theater tonight and catch that 7:30 p.m. screening of "The Pixar Story"?

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 teeny tiny chunk of whatever you spend.

Happy Holidays!

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  • This is a GREAT MOVIE and I'd love to see it again, if only to hear the QNA with Roy Disney and Leslie Iwerks.

    Roy's certainly one of the stars of the documentary and there's a great scene where he talks about how Disney was leading talented artists off the lot by their nose and selling off animation desks after the company made a decision (thankfully reversed under Lasseter and Catmull) to get out of the traditional 2D animation business and switch to strictly 3D computer animation efforts.

    The first question I'd ask Roy, given an opportunity, would be how he feels about CEO Bob Iger's performance in regards to mending fences with Steve Jobs and entrusting the creative geniuses of Lasseter and Catmull with the company's very heart, soul and extended legacy. How optimistic is Roy today about the future of the company started by his uncle, his father and Leslie's grandfather?

    I was fortunate enough to attend a screening that featured a QNA with Leslie Iwerks, John Lasseter and Ed Catmull ... It included a couple of great stories from each of them.

    Without Lasseter's firing from Disney in the early '80s -- at least in retrospect  --  would there have been the creation of Luxo Jr., memorable TV commercials and a unbroken string of hit animated features with characters that will forever exist as classics introduced to children for generations to come?

    Does Roy think the company is poised for another resurgence in animation and at the theme parks?

  • Thank you Jim for writing about the showing in Hollywood as I had been wanting to see the movie for a while, but had no idea it would have its first showing in Los Angeles this quickly. The event was great and the theater was packed with hardcore Disney/Pixar fans. The documentary was just amazing, and the film print was just pristine, which really brought all the many different color filters used to highlight different emotions for shots. It was easily one of the most comprehensive and entertaining company documentaries I have ever seen.

    The Q/A was a bit short, but was still quite entertaining nonetheless with Roy joking about being 97 the next time he will need to save the Disney company. They also took a few questions from the audience, and were great at sharing stories about not only Disney, but also Pixar as well. The best part about Roy Disney is how honest he was, and how none of his answers seemed manufactured or that he was holding back what we wanted to say.

  • Anybody know if this film will have multiple screenings? I live in Seattle and would love to catch a showing but I'm not to sure if that is at all possible. Hopefully this will hit dvd sometime in the near future. I assume the wonderful world wide web would be the only place to find it.

  • Ms. Iwerks is still working to secure a distributor -- it should be Dick Cook and Disney, but if you think the salesmen in Burbank has trouble marketing a film like "Ratatouille," try handing them a documentary -- even a very good one like "The Pixar Story."

    I don't think Iwerks' is giving up just yet on getting this film out to a wider market -- it's far more than an arthouse movie -- but it'll be a task to convince a distributor and theater owners to see the potential mass marketability of this film. And, that's a shame.

    "The Pixar Story" is an entertaining, educational and inspirational look at the birth of 3D computer animation. Disney's distribution arm is leaving millions of dollars on the table not getting this film out wide. Many of today's most-active filmgoers are teens and young adults who will find this documentary engaging and worth their time -- so will older adults who grew up appreciating and admiring the great storytelling in Walt Disney's and Pixar's animated classics.

  • Oh, I forgot.

    According to Leslie Iwerks, a DVD release is planned within the next year -- with some extended interview footage.

    Still, I can't help but think it's a title that will be more commercially successful if it gets the exposure of a full-blown wide theatrical release, complete with reviews and critiques across the full spectrum of media -- print (newspapers and magazines), -- radio and television -- Web sites like rottentomatoes.com -- and the great blogosphere.

  • To find out more about the screenings check out the official site every week or so:


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