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"The Pixar Touch" shares seldom-told tales about the early days of this animation studio

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"The Pixar Touch" shares seldom-told tales about the early days of this animation studio

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If you were to ask David A. Price when Pixar Animation Studios first came on his radar, he'd probably tell you about this tech conference that he attended in the late 1980s where the work-in-progress version of "Tin Toy" was shown.

"Tinny had just gotten stuck in that box," Price recalled. "And as he looks up to see that giant baby bearing down on him, this title card comes up: 'To Be Continued.' And this huge groan went through the auditorium. Because we all want to know how that story was going to end."

Well, if you'd like to know how the Pixar saga began, how this remarkable animation studio came into being, then have I got a book for you: "The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company" (Knopf, May 2008) does an absolutely brilliant job of walking you through how this Emeryville-based operation actually got up out of the ground.

Okay. I know. There's already another Pixar history on the market. To Infinity and Beyond: The Story of Pixar Animation Studios" (Chronicle Books, November 2007). Which is the companion volume to Leslie Iwerks' excellent documentary, "The Pixar Story."

And while I admit that I did enjoy that 320-page coffee table book ... If "To Infinity and Beyond" does have a flaw, it's that this particular Pixar book is an authorized history. Which means that Paik has a tendency to omit and/or step around some of the awkward moments in Pixar's history.

Whereas the 304-page "The Pixar Touch" ... Well, this unauthorized history doesn't exactly revel in this animation studio's trials & tribulations. But it makes no bones about how often Pixar was right there at the edge of extinction.

 Copyright 2008 Random House, Inc. All Rights Reserved

"As I was talking with people like Alvy Ray Smith, the co-founder of the company, I was struck by how much Pixar truly struggled in the early days," Price remarked. "How -- like small businessmen everywhere -- they sometimes had trouble covering their expenses. And they'd then have to go hat in hand to Steve Jobs, seeking more money to keep the place afloat."

And as "The Pixar Touch" makes clear, this animation studio's revisionist history (i.e. That Steve Jobs was always in Pixar's corner. That he never ever lost faith in the studio's staff) ain't exactly true. Price goes into great detail about the numerous times that Jobs put Pixar on the block. Trying to sell off this loser of a company to candidates as varied as Microsoft & Hallmark.

Price also brings to light other often-overlooked parts of the Pixar saga. Like -- for example -- this fledgling animation studio's very first attempt at producing a full-length animated feature.

"That project was called 'Monkey,' " David explained. "It was to have been a retelling of a classic story of Chinese and Japanese legend. The monkey of the title was to be an expert trickster and magician accompanying a priest on a trek from China to India."

That film project was started in 1985 while Pixar was still under the Lucasfilm umbrella, and it carried over after this animation studio was spun off in February 1986. The Japanese publisher Shogakukan was to have financed it. The film never got as far as storyboards. But there were lengthy, detailed story meetings and John Lasseter created fun, expressive drawings of the main character.

 Copyright 2008 Random House, Inc. All Rights Reserved

"The reasons that Pixar didn't make the film are a bit involved," Price continued. "But ultimately they come down to the fact that its production would have been exorbitantly expensive and Pixar was focused on its computer hardware business at that time."

You see what I'm saying here? You can go from cover-to-cover in "To Infinity and Beyond" and you'll find absolutely no mention of "Monkey." Whereas David -- who didn't have access to the Pixar archives -- uncovered this story the good old-fashioned way. By doing research.

"I'm kind of an energetic researcher," Price admitted. "So I contacted anyone and everyone who had dealings with Pixar. Even the SEC. I uncovered a lot of great info about the company by going through its old financial filings."

Which -- I know -- may make "The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company" sounds kind of dry. Believe me, it's not. David skillfully weaves the tech talk side of this tale in with all of that behind-the-scenes Hollywood gossip. The end result is a thoroughly readable, highly enjoyable history of this much beloved animation studio that features tons of stories that have never been told before.

So don't make the mistake of thinking that "To Infinity and Beyond" is the definitive Pixar history. As "The Pixar Touch" clearly proves, there's lots that we don't know about yet when it comes to this Emeryville-based operation.

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  • PingBack from http://www.directorscup.it/2008/05/15/quando-la-pixar-pensava-a-monkey/

  • While I haven't read this book, I did see the "Pixar Story". I REALLY enjoyed it and would definetly buy it on DVD, but it was definitely the "Disney fairy tale story" of Pixar.

    Like when George Lucas said he sold it because he didn't have the money to make a full length animated movie (which was like $20 mil). Of course he had like $50 mil to make Star Wars Ep 1!! And I heard the REAL story was he needed the cash for his divorce settlement.

    So an unauthorized version would be nice too.

  • "The Pixar Story" did quite a job in its 88-minute running time -- and I think it glanced at many of the stuggles, even if it wasn't too deeply. Karen Paik's book does a better job digging into that material -- much of it based on the hours and hours of raw interview footage shot by Leslie Iwerks. The two work very well in tandem for those interested in getting a sense of the larger picture.

    That said, I'm very much looking forward to reading Price's book and getting an even deeper appreciation of the world's top animation powerhouse and its humble and beleagured beginnings.

    My interest grew even more intense when Price said that many of the people no longer working for Pixar Animation Studios actually have a deeper appreciation of the company than those still in the trenches.

    It should be a great read (and less expensive that Paik's book), but both books and the documentary film are all pieces to the puzzle and worth consideration by anyone looking to have a better understanding and appreciation of Pixar.

  • Hi Jim,

    Good piece, I just wanted to suggest that you shake things up a bit and use a phrase other than "the Emeryville-based studio". It was used twice in this article alone. Most of your loyal readers know the studio is based in Emeryville by now. If you want to use something other than "Pixar" to describe "Pixar," how about "The computer animation giant" "the birthplace of Toy Story," "The studio that toys built," "Lasseter's Cinematic Playground" or anything other than "the Emeryville-based studio" :)

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