Page last updated at 16:11 GMT, Wednesday, 13 May 2009 17:11 UK

Pixar's journey to Cannes acclaim

By Neil Smith
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

Pixar's invitation to launch this year's Cannes Film Festival with their 3D feature Up marks the latest coup for the US computer animation powerhouse.

Pixar's John Lasseter (right) with Up director Pete Doctor
Lasseter (right) is in Cannes with Up's director Pete Docter (left)

It is testament to how the company behind Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Wall-E and Monsters, Inc. has balanced commercial kudos with critical acclaim.

Winner of more than 20 Academy Awards, the company's own proprietary software has placed it at the vanguard of the computer-generated imagery revolution.

But according to its website, Pixar attributes its success to "memorable characters and heart-warming stories that appeal to audiences of all ages."

Pixar's driving force is John Lasseter, a former Disney employee whose formative experiments in computer animation were rejected by the so-called House of Mouse.

Having had his contract terminated, Lasseter ended up making his first short, The Adventures of Andre and Wally B, for a division of George Lucas's LucasFilm.

Technology

When that subsidiary company was bought by Apple founder Steve Jobs in 1986, Pixar was born.

Around this time, computers were often used to fashion special effects in live-action films and to create backgrounds in animated ones.

Lasseter's colleague Ed Catmull, though, challenged him to use the fledgling technology to make characters as well - traditionally the domain of hand-drawn animation.

John's animated shorts impressed Disney so much his old employer agreed to finance his debut feature, 1995's Toy Story.

A scene from Up
Up tells of an old man and a boy scout who travel to South America

The first fully computer-animated feature film, it became that year's highest-grossing movie with global box-office takings of $362 million (£238.7 million).

Disney continued to co-produce and distribute Pixar's films, with 1998's A Bug's Life becoming another sizeable hit.

Relations were strained, however, by Disney's contention that Toy Story 2 - a straight-to-video title considered strong enough to warrant a theatrical release - was not covered by their three-picture deal.

Outside the boardroom, Pixar continued to generate a string of blockbuster successes - 2001's Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo (2003) and The Incredibles a year later.

Its shorts, meanwhile, continued to nurture new talent while providing useful testing grounds for the company's latest innovations.

Differences behind the scenes, though, suggested Pixar and Disney's profit-sharing agreement was unsustainable in the long term.

Ambitious

So many were surprised when the companies decided to merge in a 2006 deal which saw Lasseter become Disney/Pixar's overall creative director.

The new arrangement led to the 52-year-old maintain his role at Pixar while taking a supervisory role over Disney's animated product.

Wall-E
Pixar's Wall-E won the best animated feature Oscar earlier this year

Last year Disney/Pixar unveiled an ambitious slate of animated features that will include a third instalment in the Toy Story franchise and a sequel to its 2006 film Cars.

Pixar's other future projects include Newt, a comedy about two bickering salamanders, and The Bear and the Bow, an action adventure set in ancient Scotland.

Since 2000, Pixar have been located at a purpose-built facility in Emeryville, California, a small town close to San Francisco.

Earlier this year, it announced it was opening a second studio in Vancouver, Canada to handle its non-feature projects.

The Pixar team's presence at Cannes begins a lengthy roll-out for Up that will take Lasseter and his colleagues around the world.

Later this year he and his fellow Pixar feature directors will receive a special award at the Venice Film Festival in recognition of their body of work.

Early reactions to Up have been positive, with Variety's critic calling it "a captivating odd-couple adventure that becomes funnier and more exciting as it flies along".

Screen International's reviewer agrees, describing Pete Docter's film - out in the UK in October - as "a marvel of a movie which will enchant cinema-goers around the world".



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