The reanimation of Pixar

Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, California.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: There's going to be a big offering from the artists' community known as Hollywood in a couple of weeks. Pixar's latest movie is set to hit the screen at the end of the month and chances are "Wall-E" will be another box office hit for the Disney subsidiary.

That's a pretty safe guess given Pixar's track record with "Monsters, Inc." and "The Incredibles" and all the rest, but the company's future wasn't always so bright. David Price digs into the history of Pixar in his new book called "The Pixar Touch."

Welcome to the program.

David Price: Good to be here.

Ryssdal: It probably bears mention that before Pixar was a movie company, it was actually a computer company, a hardware company, right?

Price: That's right. Steve Jobs bought Pixar from George Lucas -- it was the computer graphics division of Lucasfilm. He did that in early '86 with the idea that it would be a computer company and make another fortune for him.

Ryssdal: How did it go?

Price: Well, it didn't quite work out as planned. The Pixar Image Computer was the name of their product. It was a computer to do high-end graphics for universities and places like that and the total sales were actually in the low three digits. They sold very few of these boxes.

Ryssdal: Three as in like, a couple hundred?

Price: That's right.

Ryssdal: So how did it come to pass that this really lousy computer company turns into a movie company?

Price: Well, they had this guy named John Lasseter working out of a hallway making short animated films to promote the company's products. The idea was that if you were a tech guy who was in the market for graphics hardware, you'd see one of John Lasseter's shorts at an industry conference and you'd think, "Oh, I can do this kind of thing with the Pixar Image Computer; this is really great stuff." And so they never actually meant to make any money off of the stuff he was doing, but he was putting out "Luxo Jr." and "Tin Toy" and "Red's Dream" and that got the attention of Disney and that was really their entry into doing feature animation.

Ryssdal: And the first feature film they did was "Toy Story." What was it about that film that made it the breakthrough for Pixar?

Price: It was groundbreaking artistically simply because it was the first computer-animated feature film and they've got an excellent screenwriting team so you wind up with this really sparkling story, very snappy dialogue. And so that's, I think, the essential element that makes the movie successful.

Ryssdal: Do you think Pixar would be what it is without Steve Jobs?

Price: Pixar would not exist without Steve Jobs. He had the willingness to see it through 10 very tough years. There's no venture capitalist in the world probably who would have staked that much money -- it ran to around $50 million -- and not see really the prospect of a return on his investment for most of that time.

Ryssdal: Let me ask you about the future then: The next big Pixar film is coming out later this month. It's called "WALL-E." What's the buzz? How are you expecting it's going to do?

Price: Well, I think expectations for this film are very high and I think deservedly so. The character is just enormously appealing. My boys never stop hounding me with the question of "How soon can we see 'WALL-E'?" Now, how it's going to be received once it's out is another question because from what I'm hearing from people who've seen the movie -- I haven't seen it myself -- the finale... sort of the last third of the movie, let's say, is really quite bleak and apocalyptic, and so depending on how they handle that may have a big effect on how well it does long-term.

Ryssdal: Yeah, apocalyptic, though, probably doesn't play too well with the kids, huh?

Price: Or their parents.

Ryssdal: Or their parents, you know. The book by David Price is called "The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company." Mr. Price, thanks a lot for your time.

Price: Thanks for having me.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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