Sunday, November 22, 2015

Toy Story Theatrical Release, Pixar's IPO and the Brilliance of Steve Jobs

In honor of the 20th anniversary of the theatrical release of Toy Story (which occurred exactly 20 years ago today), I want to do some historical looks at Pixar and its employees back around the time of Toy Story's release. This post is one I've wanted to write for quite a while.

I don't think there's any argument that Steve Jobs was a marketing genius. I think on his return to Apple in 1996, he had a well thought out strategy for the company and its products and services. To me it's clear he knew exactly where he wanted the company to be in the future and he laid it out perfectly.

But his genius went beyond marketing, which he demonstrated at Pixar. Perhaps his most brilliant and boldest move was taking the company public only a week after the release of their first feature film, Toy Story. To understand, companies usually don't try to access the public markets until they are on firm ground and have a history demonstrating that their business plan is working. Without this confidence, investors will not give the company a high valuation and likely shy away from investing.

Pixar's situation in late 1995 couldn't be farther from solid ground. This was a company that had already lost approximately $50 million. They were going to release their first ever film, never having made anything longer than commercials and some short films. In addition, they were using this new technology called computer generated animation. Everything screamed "Stay Away!"

But Jobs had reasons for his timing, much of which was explained in Ed Catmull's excellent book, Creativity, Inc. To take a step back, Jobs wanted to turn Pixar into a world-class studio. To do this would require a lot of money, more than the 10%-15% of profits they were receiving under the current Feature Film Agreement with Disney. He knew they would need a new agreement with Disney that evenly shared profits between the 2 partners. But he also knew that Disney wasn't going to just hand Pixar such generous terms - Jobs needed the financial footing necessary so that they could leave Disney and go it alone if the 2 companies couldn't come to agreement.

Jobs knew he had the best artists and computer animation engineers assembled at Pixar. He'd also seen how strong of a story John Lasseter and the creative team had constructed.  Then, in the spring of 1995, Jobs saw the power of Disney marketing with the release of Pocahontas. With that knowledge, all the pieces were in place to give him confidence that Toy Story would be a success.

He knew if Toy Story was as big of a success as he expected, Michael Eisner would immediately want to extend their agreement rather than risk Pixar going independent and becoming a formidable competitor. With the film's success he knew an IPO would also be a success, giving him the financial footing he could utilize in his negotiations with Eisner. In his mind, Jobs knew Eisner would have no choice but to agree to his terms.

The Pixar management team in 1995: Lawrence Levy, CFO; Ed Catmull, CTO; Steve Jobs, CEO;
John Lasseter, VP of Creative; Sarah McArthur, VP of Production

By the fall of 1995 the board was set and the game played out exactly as Jobs envisioned. Toy Story was the #1 film its opening weekend and for the year, going on to make almost $362 million worldwide and garnering a 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes. A week after its release, Pixar went public in a very successful IPO, raising almost $140 million for the company and valuing Pixar at close to $1.5 billion. Within weeks, Eisner called to renegotiate their agreement, which led to Disney and Pixar signing the Co-Production Agreement, a 10 year, 5 film agreement entitling Pixar to 50% of all theatrical and merchandise revenue.

I marvel at how Steve Jobs was able to so clearly see the future and predict how Michael Eisner would respond. This demonstrates a deep insight not only in business logic but also human behavior, something I don't think Jobs gets enough credit for. Because of his vision, he was able to put Pixar on the path of stability and accomplish his goal of creating a world-class animation studio.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Toy Story: The Art and Making of the Animated Film

Living in Minnesota, our family has a tendency to want to get away to someplace warm. That usually consists of going to either Disney World or Sanibel Island. My wife and I made our first trip to Sanibel about 20 years ago and since then we've returned a number of times. I can remember on our first trip bringing the book Disney's Art of Animation by Bob Thomas. I was mesmerized by this book and loved learning about the process of making animated films. I especially enjoyed the second part of the book that focused on Beauty and the Beast. It's how I began learning about the current generation of Disney artists like Chris Sanders, Kirk Wise, Gary Trousdale, Glen Keane, Brenda Chapman, James Baxter, and Lisa Keene. That first trip started a tradition of bringing an Art of book whenever we go to Sanibel. I find it very relaxing to sit on the patio or lanai, listening to the waves and reading some sort of Art of or Making of animation book.

We just returned from Sanibel where we were celebrating my wife's birthday. On this trip I brought Toy Story: The Art and Making of the Animated Film by John Lasseter and Steve Daly. It felt right to bring this book as this month is the 20th anniversary of the release of Toy Story.

Toy Story: The Art and Making of the Animated Film is a gorgeous book and is so fun to look at, starting with the lenticular cover. If you're familiar with other Pixar Art of books, this one is somewhat different. True, it is full of pre-production artwork. There is plenty of beautiful color script and lighting art from artists like Ralph Eggleston and Tia Kratter, plus character concept and story art by Bud Luckey, Jeff Pidgeon, Andrew Stanton and Joe Ranft. But the book also has gorgeous fully rendered images from the film to complement the artwork. It's cool to see the storyboards side-by-side with their rendered versions.

Also, where there is usually limited text in the Art of books, this one provides great, in-depth discussions of Pixar's film-making process. There are detailed descriptions of character development and the voice actors, with extra time spent on the main characters including Woody, Buzz, Sid, Rex, Slinky, Mr. Potato Head, Hamm and Bo Peep. In addition, there are separate sections for story, modeling, layout, sets, animation, lighting, rendering, music and sound effects. I also enjoyed that the book talks about some of the tools used, such as the animation software. There are also a number of great stories, such as Black Friday, the story session that led to the green aliens and "the claw", and the evolution of the Pizza Planet restaurant.

All in all, this is a great book and addition to the rest of the Art of collection. I highly recommend picking up a copy!

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

17th Annual Animation Show of Shows

It's not too often we get to see animated short films on the big screen. But producer and curator Ron Diamond is bringing his Animation Show of Shows cross country throughout October and November. This looks to be a great opportunity to see shorts using many different animation styles from a number of countries. Diamond has a knack for picking out great shorts; many shorts from previous shows have gone on to be nominated for the Academy Award Best Animated Short Film, with a number of them winning the award.

The list of films include:
  • Ascension - Colin Laubry, Thomas Bourdis, Martin de Coudenhove, Caroline Domergue, Florian Laubry, France
  • The Ballad of Holland Island House - Lynn Tomlinson, USA
  • Behind the Trees - Amanda Palmer & Avi Ofer, USA
  • Love in the Time of March Madness - Melissa Johnson, and Robertino Zambrano, USA
  • Messages Dans L’Air - Isabel Favez, France/Switzerland
  • Snowfall - Conor Whelan, Ireland
  • The Story of Percival Pilts - Janette Goodey & John Lewis, Australia, NZ
  • Stripy - Babak Nekooei & Behnoud Nekooei, Iran
  • Tant de Forets - Geoffrey Godet & Burcu Sankur, France
  • We Can't Live Without Cosmos - Konstantin Bronzit, Russia
  • World of Tomorrow - Don Hertzfeldt, USA
 Here is the trailer for the show:

The tour will visit approximately 2 dozen theaters during its run, with Ron Diamond attending a number of them. Additional screenings may be added so keep an eye on their website or Facebook page! If you're lucky enough to attend, I'd love to hear what you thought of the films!

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Good Dinosaur Giveaway! UPDATED With Winner!

The excitement for The Good Dinosaur is really starting to build! A couple weeks ago was the bloggers press event, and last week Pixar released a new trailer for the film. We're only a little more than a month away from its theatrical release!

I was very fortunate to go to the Pixar studio last month. It had nothing to do with The Good Dinosaur press event; rather it was due to the amazing thoughtfulness of my friends Santi and Laura, and the generosity of Pixar Supervising Animator Victor Navone and his wonderful wife Candy. I had a great time, and was able to meet some Pixar legends like Ralph Eggleston and Bob Peterson.

While there, we of course had to stop at the Pixar Studio Store. At that time they didn't have much Good Dino merchandise, but they did have some cool t-shirts and I picked up a few. So with the film just a few weeks away, I thought it would be fun to give one away in a Good Dino giveaway!

This is a women's medium Arlo tee. It a soft tee with the film's protagonist on the front. The word "Pixar" is on the left sleeve, and on the back is the film's title. I just love the minimal, clean design. What a great way to show your Pixar spirit at The Good Dinosaur theatrical release!

So how do you win this Pixar Studio Store shirt? Hopefully it's not too tough, just fill out the form below and hit submit! There are a couple of rules. To enter, you must be at least 18 years of age and live in the 48 contiguous United States. If you are under 18, you can have a parent enter. Only one entry per person - multiple submissions will be ignored. No purchase necessary to enter. The giveaway starts NOW and will end Saturday, October 17, 2015 at 11:59pm Central Time. One random winner will be chosen and contacted via the email address used to enter the contest. Once the winner claims their prize, I will announce it here in this post and on Twitter. Good luck!

UPDATE (October 18, 2015)
Congratulations to Jenny Y. on winning the contest!

As part of the contest I asked, "Which upcoming Pixar film are you most excited for". Perhaps not surprising, The Good Dinosaur was the overwhelming favorite, taking in over 55%. Next was very close with The Incredibles 2 coming in at 18% and Finding Dory at 16%. Coco only received 9% of the votes, which surprised me.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Thoughts on Pete Docter's Talk at Westminster Town Hall Forum

Westminster Presbyterian Church was a beautiful setting for the talk

As I wrote earlier, Pete Docter came to the Twin Cities earlier this week to give a talk at the Westminster Town Hall Forum. You can find Pete's talk on Minnesota Public Radio. so I'm not going to give a full write-up of the talk, instead I wanted to just write about a few of the highlights for me from the evening.

In true Pixar form, the night started with a short film. Pete showed Winter, one of his student films while he was at CalArts. It can also be found on the Pixar Short Films Collection Volume 2.

After the short, Pete got into the main part of his presentation. While speaking, he showed clips of Pixar films to help get his points and ideas across. He talked about how Pixar was originally a computer hardware manufacturer, and that the first time he met CEO Steve Jobs was when Steve came to lay off half the staff. He then began talking about Pixar's feature films and directing his first film, Monsters, Inc. While he thought the original premise (monsters scare because it's their jobs) was great, it just wasn't working. He said it wasn't until after he and his wife had their daughter Elie and he began to struggle with spending time both at home and work that he realized Sulley's conflict between loving his job and Boo should be the key premise of the film.

He then talked about Up and how it began as a floating city with 2 princes. Again, the film went through major changes as he realized what he liked about the story was the idea of escaping the real world.

After a description of film development process at Pixar he went into a great discussion on the development of Inside Out. He discussed how they came up with the 5 emotions, their voice actors, and each emotion's trigger (Fear - uncertainty, Anger - injustice, Disgust - purity, Sadness - loss, Joy - benefit, gain). He said that over 177,000 storyboards were created for the film. (I think Monsters University still holds the record for largest number of storyboards with 227,000). He went into how story reels are created and how much time the process takes - for an average film with 27 sequences, each sequence takes 3-5 sessions, each of which take 3-4 hours.  They will do this 7 or 8 times throughout the development of the film. He also said making mistakes is an essential part of the process, as they know they'll get things wrong. He said they know if they don't schedule the time to be wrong they'll quit trying new things.

This and the next picture taken by
Pete's high school music teacher!
A few other interesting comments Pete made, most of which came during the Q&A portion of the event:
  • When asked which Pixar character was most "Pete Docter-esque", he said Kevin from Up. He then proceeded to do the voice of Kevin (he also did the voice for the film).
  • Some of his favorite movies include Wizard of Oz, Dumbo and Paper Moon.
  • His favorite cartoon character was Bugs Bunny.
  • He mentioned a couple of teachers in particular that were influential to him, his 4th grade and 12th grade writing teachers. Both were in the audience and received large applause.
  • Speaking of applause, if you listen to his talk on MPR, let me say that the applause Pete received, both at the beginning and end of his talk, went on much longer than what's recorded!
He ended the formal part of his presentation answering the question why he makes films. Pete said movies are an art form, and all art is about storytelling. He stated " is as essential to our existence as breathing and eating." By telling stories about our life experiences, it can bring us closer to each other.

These are awesome and powerful words. I think our world needs these words, and I'm so glad Pete Docter and the folks at Pixar make the films they do.

During Pete's talk he spoke of the importance of collaboration, and the sense of community in Minnesota, which I think was very present during the event. Afterwards as people waited in line to meet Pete, there was an energy as people mingled and talked. There was a wide range of people, from parents with children, high school and college students, and older adults. I spoke with a few students who were animators or wanted to become filmmakers and work at Pixar, and spent quite a bit of time talking to 2 of his music teachers from when Pete was in elementary and high school (the pictures of Pete and myself were taken by his high school music teacher). In a way, those of us at the talk were doing what Pete does when he makes films - telling stories and getting closer to each other.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Pete Docter Talking Animation at Westminster Town Hall

Exciting news for anyone living close to Minneapolis! Pete Docter, long time Pixar animator and director of this summer's tear-inducing mega-hit Inside Out, is coming back to his hometown to give a talk titled Inside the Creative Community: The Power and Process of Animated Film. I don't have any further information on what Pete will talk about, but I'm hoping we'll get some great information on how Pixar creates films and the studio's creative and collaborative culture. At the same time, given the title and forum, I hope it includes the positive impact animated films can make on society.

Courtesy of Westminster Town Hall Forum
Pete will be speaking at the Westminster Town Hall Forum on Monday, September 28th. The forum is free and will take place at the Westminster Presbyterian Church, a beautiful venue in downtown Minneapolis. According to its website, the mission of the Westminster Town Hall Forum is to engage the public in reflection and dialogue on the key issues of our day from an ethical perspective. Previous speakers have included a variety of well known and influential celebrities, politicians and educators, including Al Gore, Desmond Tutu, Andrew Zimmern, Salman Rushdie and Tom Brokaw.

The doors open at 6pm and the event will start at 7pm. It should last about an hour, consisting of Docter's talk and a Q&A session where audience members can submit written questions. It will be followed by a public reception. From other talks I have attended at Westminster, the presenter has participated in the reception, meeting guests and signing books, but there's been no confirmation that Pete will be able to stay for the reception. If I get official confirmation, I'll update this post. For directions to the church, see the Westminster website.

I will try to tweet some pictures and updates during the event. If you can't make it, I think it will be recorded and posted on the Westminster archive page. They also usually broadcast the events on Minnesota Public Radio's MPR News Presents show.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Traveling Route 66 through Springfield, Missouri

Last week my family and I spent a few days in Springfield, MO while my daughter played in a fastpitch softball tournament. When I found out her tournament was being held in Springfield I was happy as I knew Route 66, which was a major locale and inspiration for Pixar's 2006 film Cars, ran through the city. Cars is one of my favorite Pixar films - a story with simple yet important concepts like friendship and slowing down and enjoying the journey, not just the destination. Something about the charm, the music and beautiful sets in the film made me nostalgic for a simpler time when families traveled together and spent time together without all their electronic devices to pass the time. So imagine my surprise and excitement when I discovered the hotel we were staying at was only a block away from this historic highway! In between going to softball games, I tried to spend as much time as I could driving the road through the city and taking pictures.

An early route of U.S. Highway 66 took travelers into
Springfield on this road to Division Street
This small, original segment of Route 66 was just a block from our hotel on the SE corner of
Kearney and Glenstone. I can neither confirm nor deny I made my family drive on it multiple times!
One of the B&N workers rebuilt this pickup into an awesome replica of Mater!
Also at B&N is this original Model T that they found had been in a garage for years!
Their only customization was the eyes.

I enjoyed Cars so much it inspired me to take my own journey on the Mother Road. My first trip was just a couple months after the Cars release. My son Sam and I drove my Mini Cooper Convertible on Route 66 from Lincoln, IL to Catoosa, OK and we had a blast! We had no reservations and no plans - we took our time and stopped whenever we saw something that interested us. Since that first trip I've driven other portions of the route in Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona and California, and one day I hope to drive the entire route.

Signs mark the path of Route 66 through the city
You can still find plenty of businesses proudly displaying the U.S. Highway 66 logo
along the route through the city

Route 66 was officially decommissioned as an U.S. Highway in 1985, and while many attractions and whole segments of the Mother Road have disappeared, one can still drive large portions of the road as it goes from Chicago to Los Angeles. Springfield is one of those cities that has done much to maintain the history and importance of the route. Springfield holds the distinction of being the city where the declaration was signed naming the route U.S. Highway 66 in 1926. Besides providing road signs so one can easily follow the different routes of the Mother Road through the city, there is also a Route 66 visitor center, a roadside park and the annual Birthplace of Route 66 Festival that includes live music, car show and parade, exhibits, plus many artists and authors.

The Best Western Rail Haven hotel, on the corner of Glenstone and East St. Louis Street,
was built in 1938 and once hosted Elvis Presley when he did a show in Springfield
I found these 2 vintage cars at the Best Western Rail Haven
These classic gas pumps are outside the Rail Haven lobby
The Route 66 Roadside Park features a replica of Red's Giant Hamburg restaurant sign,
seen in the background of this photo. Red's featured the first drive-thru window!
Directly across from the Roadside Park are these tile mosaics

Speaking of nostalgia, I definitely felt a bit more nostalgic on this trip. It was exactly 9 years ago this month that my son and I took that first trip from Illinois through Springfield and on to Kansas and Oklahoma. Now, my son is 18 and attending college, so he didn't make this trip with us. Just as time has caused plenty of changes along the Mother Road, time reminds us to enjoy what we have today because tomorrow will be different.

This classic Steak & Shake opened in 1962 along Route 66 (now East St. Louis Street) is on the
National Register of Historic Places. It is one of the few remaining Steak & Shake's with the original design
and sports the slogan TAKHOMASAK (Take home a sack).
A little further west on East St. Louis Street is the Springfield Visitor Center
The visitor center is full of Route 66 memorabilia
Also along the city route of U.S. Highway 66 is Park Central Square
This plaque in Park Central Square commemorates the naming of U.S. Highway 66 in Springfield in 1926

There is so much great stone architecture along Route 66 in Springfield. I love the Rex Smith gas station
on West Bypass, which was the Route 66 bypass route through the city.
The Rest Haven Court also sports some great stone cottages...
... as does the Rancho Court

There is so much to see along the Mother Road

After leaving Springfield, we headed to Sanibel Island on the gulf coast of Florida, where we'll be for almost 2 weeks. I will be posting pictures from that portion of the trip on my other Twitter and Instagram account if you're interested.

This year's Birthplace of Route 66 Festival starts next week on August 14! If anyone is able to attend the festival, I'd love to hear about it or see pictures! Leave a comment below or send me email!