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Pixar’s Pinnacle

June 1st, 2004 · No Comments

Wired has a cover story on Pixar, Steve Jobs’ other company:

By any standards, Pixar Animation Studios has reached infinity and beyond. From 1995’s Toy Story – the world’s first all-CG feature – to last year’s Finding Nemo, Pixar’s five hermetically crafted movies have grossed a staggering $2.5 billion at the box office, making it the most successful film studio, picture for picture, of all time. “You have to take your hat off to them,” says Neil Braun, head of CG-animation company Vanguard and former president of the NBC Television Network. In the history of film, there’s just one precedent for this level of economic triumph, this ability to add to the American childhood’s beloved cast of characters: Disney Animation Studios.

Pixar hasn’t just turned into the new Disney. It has out-Disneyed Disney, becoming the apprentice that schooled the sorcerer. Pixar’s most talented animators grew up admiring Disney, worked at the sketching tables in Burbank, and went on to crib the company’s DNA. Pixar’s story development process as well as its internal lexicon – including sweatbox, when the director critiques individual animations, and plus-ing, heaping more and more good ideas on a structure that’s already working – come directly from the House That Mickey Built. Both companies are technical pioneers: Disney imbued 2-D cel animation with comedy and heartbreak; Pixar coaxed empathy from digital effects. Now the flipbook animation style that made the Magic Kingdom a powerhouse is fading to black: Disney’s Home on the Range, released in April, is the last fully 2-D production for the studio, and competitors like DreamWorks are retraining illustrators to be 3-D mouse jockeys. Pixar’s digital animation is the wave of the future.

As Disney did in its heyday, Pixar has created an assembly line of wonder: Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo. While the rest of the film industry depends on inherited properties from popular media (Mystic River, Starsky & Hutch, even The Passion of the Christ), each Pixar story is sui generis. “What Pixar is so great at is developing wholly original ideas,” says Chris Wedge, the director of 20th Century Fox’s Ice Age and next year’s Robots. “And it’s not just the idea – it’s the story, beat by beat, and the characters and relationships. That’s the real hard part.”

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