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The Pixar Touch

How once-neglected underdog Pixar became the jewel of the Disney crown.

By John Kehe / August 7, 2008



It’s a rags-to-riches story, a classic example of the cream rising to the top. And it’s as entertaining and heartwarming as, say, a Pixar movie. It’s The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company, and its topsy-turvy, roller-coaster plot has all the thrills of a ride at Disneyland.

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In this unauthorized account of Pixar, journalist David A. Price paints the most complete picture yet of the little studio that could. He talks to scores of insiders, Pixar colleagues and members of the “fraternity of geeks,” true believers in the potential of the pixel to revolutionize animation.

With the precision of a technical writer and the sensitivity of an artist, Price spins the story of the Pixar vision, its achievement, and its art. His ability to turn geekese into plain-old English is a real gift to the reader.

The Pixar idea took root in the fertile imagination of Ed Catmull, a soft-spoken, former Mormon missionary, who entered grad school at the University of Utah in 1970.

Price writes, “Now and then in history one finds a time and a place that seems to be charmed, where talent has assembled in a way that appears to defy all laws of probability.” Such a place was Salt Lake City in the late 1960s and early ’70s.

Specifically the U. of U.’s groundbreaking computer graphics department, which incubated a dazzling array of dreamers, designers, and eggheads (many of whom are still dazzling us today on our flat-screen TVs, Game Boys, and multiplex screens.)

Catmull graduated with dreams of converting the world to digital. The problem was, there were no jobs available in a field that didn’t yet exist. After a few years scuffling for work, Catmull shelved his dreams and took a 2-D programming job in Boston.

Meanwhile, in California, young John Lasseter had idolized the great Disney animators since the age of 5. In 1979, after acing his classes at Disney-affiliated California Institute of the Arts, he was recruited as a junior animator for his boyhood idols.

But his dream job proved to be more of a nightmare, as most of the old guard had retired and the dispirited department seemed rudderless without Walt Disney’s involvement and inspiration (the Disney founder had died in 1966).

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