By Jay Rao and Jim Watkinson
We live in an age dominated by machines, sensors, software, and automation, so it is easy to lose sight of the fact that all great innovations have a common thread running through them – people. Regardless of discoveries and technology, nothing new and important has ever been created without great people with a passion to find new solutions.
The importance of this has been made increasingly clear to us as we move forward to complete our upcoming book examining the early innovation years at Pixar. So it is appropriate that we continue in our blog articles previewing some of our book’s concepts by focusing on several of the key people who influenced, or were directly involved in starting and building Pixar during its early difficult struggles to become a maker of great animated films.
One very famous entertainment pioneer had a strong influence on several early Pixar people, and it was the work and inspiration of this man, and his company, that moved them toward animation and computer graphics. As a consequence, the whole story of how Pixar’s founders came to the field of animation begins many years earlier. To understand the source of that inspiration, and how he sparked the thinking and motivation of others that followed we must wind our story way back, back to a time when there was no recorded entertainment.
The Beginning of Cinema
The birth of cinema and the film industry as we know it began with a wealthy man, a photographer, and the legend of a wager.
While at his horse ranch, former California Governor and future founder of Stanford University, Leland Stanford, often admired the beauty of the horses in motion as they galloped. To his eye they appeared at certain points to be flying across the ground without any hooves touching the earth. So convinced was he, that in 1872, he made a large bet with a friend on this point, and engaged well-known photographer, Eadweard Muybridge, to discover a way to photograph and capture proof of his belief.
Muybridge conducted his first effective test in January 1873, and his photos did indeed show that horses have all four feet in the air between strides, but his initial images were blurry because of the speed of the horses and technical limitations of the camera. To compensate for the blurring, Muybridge had an artist create hand-painted versions of the photos, and then photographed these images for showing to the public. Viewers, however, recognized they were painted, and judged the work with cynicism as a proof of Leland’s premise.
Some years passed, and in 1878, with additional money from Stanford, Muybridge took up the project again. This time, the photographer used a faster electro-mechanical shutter he had developed capable of freezing the horse in mid-flight for a sharp picture. He combined this new shutter with a system of twelve cameras capable of taking photos in quick succession. The new process worked, producing a sequence of shots clearly showing a horse throughout its running stride, and now all could see that horses did fly between strides.
Much acclaim followed, and Muybridge next adapted a child’s toy, a zoetrope, to put the images in motion. He applied photos to a glass disk that, when spun, showed the images in quick sequence, giving the illusion that the horse was moving right before the eyes of his audience. To correct the image compression that occurred in the process, Muybridge had an artist draw the pictures, and it was these hand-drawn images, in a sense an early form of animation, that were used in the show. Muybridge called his device a zoopraxiscope.
In February of 1888, Muybridge was in Orange, New Jersey, to give a lecture about his techniques. In attendance, was the well known inventor, Thomas Edison. Seeing an opportunity at hand, Muybridge proposed that the two partner to join his motion picture device with Edison’s phonograph, resulting in a machine that would play motion pictures and sound together. After some examination, Edison decided his own staff could produce a much better device and Muybridge’s zoopraxiscope concept did not advance any further.
With his interest sparked, Edison’s engineers and photo experts worked to design an effective motion picture device, and over the next two and a half years they would invent a new machine for recording motion pictures called the Kinetoscope, which became the first successful motion picture camera. Many other innovations would come along to power the growth of cinema, and the list of those who contributed to the development of the film industry is long. But despite his lack of success, Muybridge is still called the Father of Cinema, and some would say that his use of hand-drawn images in his first short film, marks animation as the true starting point for what would become the Hollywood film industry.
Through the first 30+ years of film, animation was relegated to a minor role in cinema, serving to provide short, humorous cartoons to warm the audience up before the feature film was shown. But that began to change when a man whose company had created one of the most popular cartoon characters leapt into the unknown, spending a previously unheard sum of money to produce what would become the first successful animated feature film.
The Inspiration of Walt Disney
I do what I do because of Walt Disney – his films and his
theme park and his characters and his joy in entertaining.
– John Lasseter
People may find it hard to believe that the man who transformed short, humorous cartoons into highly popular and profitable feature films was not a very good artist, but it is true. Walt Disney was, however, gifted with the ability to see stories, scenes and characters in his mind, and then act them out with such convincing drama that people who could draw were able to transform his ideas into characters and films filled with human emotion, and loved by millions of people of all generations.
Nearly broke after his first animation business failed in Kansas City, Disney decided to aim high and in 1923, at age 21, he moved to California, where his older brother Roy and an Uncle lived. He hoped to gain a job directing live-action films, but after two months talking with film studios, all that Disney had gained was frustration. Now struggling without money, but still possessing some sample animations he had prepared in his old business, he sent a note and copy of the film to a New York cartoon distributor, proposing he could make this story about a girl named Alice into a series. To his surprise, he quickly received a note back accepting his proposal at the then astounding amount of $1,500 per short film. With the letter in hand as evidence, Walt visited his brother Roy, who was in the hospital recovering from the effects of tuberculosis. Walt told him a story of how he could create great cartoons and make a lot of money if Roy joined him in the business. The next day, without his doctor’s permission, Roy checked himself out of the hospital, and soon the two brothers had a place to setup their new business, the Disney Brothers Studio. . . in their uncle’s garage.
When ideas for creating new episodes for the Alice series dried up in 1927, the Disney’s created a new rabbit character that proved very successful. They were expecting big things from their rabbit, but the Disney brothers learned a hard lesson when through the use of some fine print in their contract, their distributor took over production of the rabbit series, cutting the Disney’s out, and hired away most of their staff. Left with no character series to sell and no other source of revenue, the Disney’s future looked grim. In desperation, Walt came up with an idea for a new mouse character. Working over the following weeks with one of his few remaining employees, Ub Iwerks, they turned the mouse into what we now know as Mickey Mouse.
Though famous now, the first two Mickey Mouse cartoons were rejected by all film distributors because there were already many animal character cartoons. Walt needed to find a way to make his mouse stand out. Sound had only recently been added to live action films, yet sensing an opportunity, Walt looked for a way to add sound to his next Mickey cartoon. He needed to make it unique from competing characters, so he hired a full orchestra and found a way to time the music to the beat of the cartoon and the actions of its character (a first in cartoons). Distributors found the new Mickey very entertaining, but were still reluctant to buy, and with bills to pay, Roy Disney had to sell Walt’s car to raise cash. Having no other prospects at hand, Walt broke with accepted practices and had Mickey shown in one theater in New York City with the hope that a strong audience reaction and news coverage would build credibility and draw in a distributor. The ploy worked. The little mouse received great applause and acclaim in the local press, and within the year he was a national hit, making the Disney’s famous.
Despite the worldwide fame of Mickey Mouse, the cartoon business was very competitive and pricing for these short films was falling, while production costs were rising. As a result, by 1933, Disney was losing money on his Mickey Mouse films. Recognizing they needed a new film product that could generate more revenue than short cartoons, Walt decided to make another big jump, this time to create the first successful feature length animated film, Snow White. Taking more than 3 years to make, the cost of the film ballooned to over $1.5 million, then a record for any film, and forcing Disney to borrow huge sums of money. Before it was released, some industry experts predicted that no one would sit through a ninety minute cartoon, but Disney proved them all wrong, when thousands of people waited in long lines to see his Snow White, generating $10 million in ticket sales and more in merchandise.
Walt Disney would go on to create many more firsts in innovative entertainment products, most of them dismissed at first by the experts as impossibly crazy, and sure to fail. A full list would fill most of this page, but some of his best known ideas would include the first popular educational nature films, Disney’s True-Life Adventures, which his distributor refused to sell, certain that no one would pay to see short films about nature and animals; the Walt Disney TV show (continued for many years and known by many names); Disneyland, the first theme park, that amusement park experts told him would fail; Walt Disney World, the world’s first destination resort; and life-like mechanically controlled animal and humanoid figures called audio-animatronics.
Each of these ideas moved the Disney Company not with a single step, but a giant leap into an area it had no prior experience, in fact, into areas where no one had ever gone. Unlike the characters in his films that have remained perpetually alive, Walt’s time here on earth ended in 1966, and with his passing, the end also came for the long string of giant-leap innovations by his company.
By the time of his passing, the theme park business had grown larger than all their film operations, and now generated the lion’s share of the company’s profits. As a consequence, the always risky, hit or bust business of films received far less attention from company leaders and began to stagnate. The Disney Studio’s next generation of films all had new titles of course, but they were often just repeats of old themes and characters. This was particularly true for the animation division from which all of the Disneyland attraction ideas sprang.
Company leaders could not see that the creation of new films and characters were the source of new attractions in the park, and that this in turn drew visitors back year after year, and drove park, hotel and merchandise revenues and profits. Thus Disney films, a winner of 48 Academy Awards during Walt’s time, now began a two decade decline. So despite the many successes of his company, and a large pool of very creative people, once Walt was gone, so too was the Disney magic for films and characters loved by children, teens and adults alike. Without an opportunity to advance and make their own mark on the world, good people left Disney, and other good people would never come.
One of the people who never came, was a young graduate student named Edward Catmull. Visiting Disney to recruit their involvement in computer graphic research while he was a graduate student at the University of Utah, Catmull was instead offered an intern job to apply his computer knowledge to the design of a new ride at Disney World. He declined the offer because it had nothing to do with his main interest – making computer animation.
Next in our series: The Early Years for Pixar Co-founder Ed Catmull