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Thursday, 22 November, 2001, 12:39 GMT
Animation wizards back staff talent
Buzz Lightyear, Buena Vista/Disney/Pixar
Pixar is best known for blockbusters like Toy Story
By Chloe Veltman in San Francisco

Major movie studios are not well known for casting members of staff in their upcoming films.

Pixar is not about computers, it's about people

John Lasseter
It is difficult to imagine Disney CEO Michael Eisner turning around to one of his producers and saying, "Hey, honey, you'd be perfect for the lead in our upcoming blockbuster picture".

But at Pixar animation studios, the company behind the successful computer-animated features Toy Story, Toy Story II and A Bug's Life, things are done a little differently.

At least two people on the Pixar payroll and the young daughter of a third lend their thespian talents to the company's latest endeavour - Monsters, Inc.

'Like a family'

Bob Peterson, Pixar's story supervisor, Dan Gerson, a company screenwriter, and Mary Gibbs, the five-year-old daughter of Pixar story artist Rob Gibbs, join professional actors Steve Buscemi, John Goodman and Billy Crystal in voicing the various shaggy, scaly, and one-eyed characters that make up the world of Monsters, Inc.

Sullivan, Buena Vista/Disney/Pixar
Monsters star James P Sullivan: Characters are all important
"We're like a family," says John Lasseter, Pixar's creative chief.

Like the company's previous features, Monsters, Inc. is the product of a five-movie-relationship with Disney, the Dumbo-sized dictator of the animation world.

But in terms of size and corporate clout, you could not put two more opposite cartoon-creating companies together.

The Disney influence can clearly be seen from the huge marketing and distribution power behind all the Pixar-Disney collaborations to date.

'Anti-corporate beast'

Monsters, Inc. raked in $63.5m during its opening weekend, making it the highest-earning animated-movie debut in history and the sixth highest opening in cinema history.

Pixar employee and scooter, BBC
Pixar employees scoot around the studio
But Pixar is essentially an anti-corporate beast.

Run by a bunch of PhDs, technoids and creatives more comfortable in sandals than in suits, life within the slick glasshouse company offices on the outskirts of San Francisco suggests a very different kind of outfit.

From its roots as the computer division of LucasFilm Ltd in the early 1980s, Pixar's work has always been enmeshed in the latest technology.

Apple founder's role

When technology mogul Steve Jobs bought the division from George Lucas in 1986, his first ambition for his new company was to develop high-end computer graphics systems.

Monsters, Buena Vista/Disney/Pixar
Putting a film together is a slow process
When the prohibitive cost of Pixar's systems made them difficult to sell, the company turned to making digitally animated shorts and commercials for profit.

From the state-of-the-art laser-recording systems in the photo science department to Pixar's industry-adopted Renderman software, the company's investment in cutting-edge tools continues today.

Computers might be a core component of Pixar's work, but the company is keen to downplay their importance. "Pixar is not about computers, it's about people," says Lasseter. "Computers are just the tools."

Ed Catmull, Pixar President, agrees: "What matters more than computers is the story."

Even Thomas Porter, the technical director on Monsters, Inc., is willing to view technology as subservient to telling a good tale. "Far be it for me to swim upstream from this religious view of story."

Years of preparation

Whether following the fortunes of a bunch of toys, ants or monsters, the story drives almost every decision of the filmmaking process at Pixar.

Each of our movies is lovingly handmade by craftsmen

John Lasseter
The life of a Pixar movie begins with the story-makers - the directors, storyboard artists, designers and script-writers. It can take several years to get the plot and characters just right.

Even as the filmmaking progresses through modelling, layout, animation, effects simulation, lighting and rendering into high quality digital images, the editors and directors review the story throughout.

"It's a constant process of refinement," says Torbin Bullock, first assistant editor on Monsters, Inc.

From simulating the 3.2 million hairs on Monsters, Inc. protagonist Sullivan's body to animating the film's 130,000 frames, Pixar's filmmaking process is painstakingly slow.

It currently takes five years to complete a film. Even advances in technology will not greatly accelerate Pixar's pedantic devotion to its art.

"Each of our movies is lovingly handmade by craftsmen," says Lasseter. "It doesn't matter that computers are used."

See also:

19 Nov 01 | Sci/Tech
The man behind the monsters
17 Mar 00 | Oscars 2000
Hollywood braced for the future
03 Mar 00 | Entertainment
Buzz heads for small screen
29 Mar 99 | Entertainment
Digital animators wed art and technology
05 Feb 99 | Entertainment
A Bug's Life: Disney does digital
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