I enjoyed interviewing John Whitney, Jr., and others who were involved with the pioneering digital effects of Westworld for this newyorker.com article. (I also had an enjoyable interview with Larry Cuba about his computer-animation work for Star Wars, but only a little bit of that conversation made it into the article.)
I’ve taken too long to post this video of a very early piece of 3D computer animation, created in 1972 by Ed Catmull and fellow University of Utah doctoral student Fred Parke. The hand animation is Catmull’s and the face animation is Parke’s. (Catmull digitized a cast of his own hand and Parke digitized his wife’s face.) Short bits of the film appeared four years later in the film Futureworld (it was still state-of-the-art stuff).
Some background is in this post by Robby Ingebretsen, son of Robert B. Ingebretsen, a classmate of Catmull and Parke who created the 3D titles; still more background is on pp. 13-14 of The Pixar Touch.
Technical directors at Pixar are masters of RenderMan and the other software tools that are used in the making of Pixar films. They handle things like building computer models of characters, sets, and props; creating the textures that appear on the surfaces of a model; and setting up a shot’s lighting scheme. Najeeb Tarazi, a technical director who worked on Toy Story 3 and Cars 2, recently composed a meditation on a TD’s life at Pixar:
Working at Pixar is like blackberry picking.
You are constantly accruing little gems of juice/joy working on things that are wonderful to look at and experiencing an institution which is intrinsically, of necessity, pretty funny and whimsical… .
But if you’ve ever been blackberry picking you know that it is not always an easy or pleasant activity. There are many thorns, and getting the blackberries you want requires reaching beyond what’s comfortable and sometimes slipping and stepping into the bush. Pixar can scratch you while you’re actually trying to make movies because its internal technology and management is very organic, thus a little disorganized.
If your mind/soul has a large intellectual appetite, you might question the significance of your work compared to, say, energy research, or solving interesting problems in computer science or physics.
But you have to be more zen about it than this. Blackberry picking is a trivial activity of patience and enjoyment.
Or, going in the opposite direction (depending on the day), this attitude ignores the fact that creating culture for a significant portion of the world to consume is not a minor undertaking. But, in this case, if you don’t have confidence in the story and design of the film you’re working on, a sense of triviality becomes a serious concern.
Ultimately, working at Pixar is about learning about how to communicate. I studied physics in college, but I spend every day with some amazing artists whose work has been seen and enjoyed by people of all ages around the world. The education in decision-making and storytelling that that provides is invaluable, and probably unique. And it is a thrill when you let that experience soak in.
Paul Lasseter, father of John and three other children, passed away in his sleep on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, eight days after his 87th birthday.
He enlisted in the Navy in 1941 at the age of 17 and served in the South Pacific throughout the war. He then settled in the Los Angeles area and worked in the parts departments of Chevrolet dealers until his retirement in 2000. He was married to John’s mother, Jewell Lasseter, for 54 years, until her death in 2005.
The image above is one that I located for The Pixar Touch, but didn’t use—a detail from a Los Angeles Times auto dealer ad, February 5, 1983. Paul Lasseter is at upper right (probably wondering what in the world was to become of his youngest son, a junior animator at Disney).