Taking the Long View – The Pixar Touch
One of the nice things about working in a University is that there is usually the opportunity to hear interesting people talk about a wide variety of subjects. At Dundee we run the usual range of courses one might expect from English to Forensic Science and there are often eminent people who come and give University wide talks on their work. Another particularly nice thing about Dundee is that we have an art and design college (Duncan of Jordanstone) and so we get to have a few more creative types who come and talk about design and graphics and the like.
So this was why I ended up sometime last year going to a talk by Alvy Ray Smith, one of the Pixar founders. His talk was entertaining and largely non-technical, but it did highlight that it is difficult for technical people to work in isolation from people like designers and story tellers if what they want to do is create art or entertainment. Smith worked on some of the first computer paint packages back when computer graphics were primative, and when the idea that you could create a fully computer animated movie was just a pipe dream.*
One of the things that Smith mentioned in his talk was a book, “The Pixar Touch,” by David A. Price, which tells the tale of how Pixar came to be. I can highly recommend the book, which starts with the early days of computer generated graphics and runs up to the later Pixar films. The key figure is Edwin Catmull, who worked on computer graphics for his PhD in the early 1970s. Catmull would go on to work for various companies, building up a team, and the technical knowledge that would finally lead to Toy Story. The book charts this rise, through Catmull’s early dealings with companies, including ILM, and the purchase of his group by Steve Jobs, and the founding of Pixar.
It’s a good read, not terribly technical and what shines through most is the passion of the key players and their desire to use their technical skills to make an animated movie. Bear in mind that this work was started in the 1970s, when computing power was primitive, to say the least. What’s striking is that they always believed that they could do it – even though from Catmull’s first commercial ventures to Toy Story it took 20 years – they did what they needed to get to the point where they could make a film. They built the hardware, did networking before it was fashionable, worked on hard mathematics to enable shots to be produced, and even when George Lucas and then Steve Jobs came along and seriously doubted they could make a film, and focussed them on other things, they always kept their dream in reach.
I think this long view is very impressive, and I wonder how practical it is today in our rapidly changing technical world. I also wonder how this squares with the new requirements that EPSRC applicants have to adhere to, when they try and forecast the value of their work over a 10-50 year timeframe. Could Catmull, hand on heart, have said that his work would revolutionise animated film making? That he would win multiple Oscars for his work? That it would lead to him being President of Walt Disney Animation Studios? Maybe he could, but I think this long view is challenging both in industry and in academia. Funding is hard to come by for something that takes 20 years to deliver.
The other problem of course, is that few people are so visionary, and many dreams of success in 20 years time will have died for a wide range of reasons, but I take heart and hope from the Pixar Story – if you work hard on the technical details, realise your failings and overcome them (hiring John Lassiter, in Pixar’s case was probably their key hire after the technical work was done) then you can make something of value and significance.
Now I just need to find that world class problem that will see me right for the next couple of decades.
* I was watching the new Virgin Atlantic ad last night with all it’s fancy graphical overlays, in a early James Bond-type introduction, and it all seemed perfectly reasonable – but as I started to think about how the images and videos must have been overlaid and animated, it made me realise that I take the remarkable far too much for granted.