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Entries in Early Pixar projects (5)


Pixar's Listerine commercials

In the early to mid 1990’s, one of the ways Pixar tried to support itself was making television commercials for products like LifeSavers candy, Trident gum, and Pillsbury rolls. Not surprisingly, Pixar specialized in commercials that used character animation to give products a personality.

Some of its most admired commercial work was for Listerine; the agency involved, J. Walter Thompson, gave Pixar considerable creative freedom. 

How do you give a personality to a faceless bottle? Below, several of Pixar’s classic Listerine ads—

Boxer (1990) 

Director: John Lasseter

The concept was inspired by the 1980 film Raging Bull. A newly-hired Pete Docter assisted with the animation.


Swinging Bottle (1993)

Director: Andrew Stanton

This ad and Arrows, below, caused a minor craze for the accompanying New Wave song, Tarzan Boy.



Arrows (1993)

Director: Jan Pinkava

This ad won Pixar its first Gold Clio award—loosely speaking, the Oscar of advertising. 


(Thanks to Ralph Guggenheim for helpful tips.)


Pixar product plan, circa 1989

This slide shows Pixar’s product strategy as envisioned in 1989 or so. The “Pixar Imaging Software” and “Pixar Image Computer,” at right, processed 2D images, like photos and radiographs. The “Pixar Rendering Software” and “Pixar Rendering Accelerator,” at left, handled 3D rendering.

Within a couple years after this chart was made, Pixar had either sold off or dropped everything on it as part of a decade-long struggle to find a self-sustaining line of business. The one exception is the rendering software, which Pixar still markets (quite successfully) under the name RenderMan.

Pixar-created animation wasn’t part of the picture, except for a few guys who once a year put out a short film like Knick Knack to promote the company’s products. Soon, however, those guys would start making commercials, and animation would begin making money for Pixar for the first time.


Star Trek

When I went to see JJ Abrams’s Star Trek a couple months ago, I went with a lot of skepticism. But the film turned out to be terrifically smart and entertaining. I thought it was interesting that Abrams didn’t seem to be channeling Gene Roddenberry as much as George Lucas—the Lucas of three decades ago when he was at the height of his storytelling powers.

So what does Star Trek have to do with Pixar? From a historical point of view, everything: The computer graphics group of Lucasfilm—the team that would later start Pixar—did its very first feature-film work on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). It was a special-effects shot, not the kind of character-oriented work that Ed Catmull, Alvy Ray Smith, and the others in the group aspired to do. But what an effect…

The shot simulated the operation of the Genesis device, an experimental system that transformed a dead moon or planet and brought it to a verdant, Earth-like state. 

Alvy, who had sold Lucas’s special-effects division, Industrial Light & Magic, on the idea of letting the computer graphics group handle the shot, told me that he thought of the project as “a sixty-second commercial to George Lucas”—he and his colleagues wanted to give Lucas a glimpse of what computer graphics could do if Lucas would unleash the talent he had under his roof.

The Genesis effect was created by the future Pixarians Loren Carpenter, Rob Cook, Tom Duff, Tom Porter, Bill Reeves (who invented particle systems for the occasion), and Alvy Ray Smith. (John Lasseter joined the group roughly a year and a half later.) If you have the chance to rent Star Trek II, you’ll find their work still looks pretty impressive after 27 years.


Pixar's film that never was: "Monkey"

One of the interesting side stories, for me, while researching The Pixar Touch was that of Pixar’s first attempt at creating an animated feature film—ten years before Toy Story.

The film was called Monkey. It was to be a retelling of a classic, beloved tale of Chinese and Japanese legend. The monkey character is a trickster and magician who has adventures while accompanying a priest on a trek from China to India.

The film project started in 1985 while Pixar was still the computer graphics group of Lucasfilm. It continued for a while after the group was spun off to Steve Jobs as a separate company in February 1986. The Japanese publisher Shogakukan was to finance it. The film never got as far as storyboards, but there were lengthy, detailed story meetings. 

The reasons that Pixar didn’t make the film are slightly complicated—I go into a little bit more detail in the book—but in essence, they come down to the fact that its production would have been exorbitantly expensive and Pixar was focused on its computer hardware business.

John Lasseter created appealing drawings of the main character. Here are two of them. (Click to enlarge.)


Art challenging technology

In explaining the relationship at Pixar between art and technology, John Lasseter often describes it this way: The art challenges the technology, and the technology inspires the art.

Here’s an early example of art reaching out to technology at Pixar before it was Pixar. The predecessor to Pixar, Ed Catmull’s Computer Division at Lucasfilm, contracted with Lasseter in late 1983 to work on a short film directed by Alvy Ray Smith; the film eventually became The Adventures of André & Wally B. The group’s modeling software at the time offered only basic geometric shapes like cones and cylinders. Lasseter asked Catmull and Smith for a new shape, a flexible, teardrop-like form, that would let him create a more appealing character.

Below, Lasseter reaching out to the technologists. (Click to enlarge.)