terça-feira, 4 de abril de 2006

PIXAR faz 20 anos

Let there be light. Well, an anglepoise lamp to be precise. It's 20 years since Pixar, the mega-billion animation company, launched its first movie - a short film about a lamp with a life of its own, called Luxo Jr.

Along with iconic brands such as Google and the iPod, Pixar's computer-generated movies have become part of the digital era - with the animation firm becoming one of Hollywood's biggest players.

Marking its 20th anniversary is an exhibition at the Science Museum in London, which displays the art and the craft behind Toy Story, Bug's Life, Monsters Inc, The Incredibles and the soon-to-be released, Cars.

This is a world of movies where the images are instantly-recognisable, but there are no stars. If anyone was going to walk down a red carpet, it would have to be an anonymous army of artists, directors and software designers.

Or maybe it would be the industrial-scale "renderfarms" that provide the processing power for the computer-generated animations.

Digital Disney

Pixar's big success wasn't instant. For the first decade the company had made its living from advertising, producing animations for products such as Listerine and Kellogg's All Bran.

But the big breakthrough came in 1995 with its first full-length movie - Toy Story. This first ever fully computer-animated feature film was the biggest grossing movie of the year - earning $362m (£208m) worldwide.

Appropriately for an animation company, Pixar had impeccable timing.

Toy Story was launched when new computer power was convincing audiences that they should become more techno-friendly.

Just as Disney created the animations for the great age of cinema, Pixar has produced some of the iconic animations of the digital age.

The movies that followed were all runaway successes. Monsters Inc reached the $100m box office benchmark quicker than any animated film in history.

But Pixar also discovered a goldmine in another side of the digital market - the arrival of DVDs - a format which showed off its crystal-clear animation to full effect. Finding Nemo shifted eight million copies on its first day of release.

Artists not anoraks

The exhibition shows how much work is involved - with a single movie requiring the efforts of 230 people and a whole load of supercomputers for four years.

But not everyone is convinced that the quality of computer-generated animation matches hand-drawn films.

Richard Taylor, former head of animation at the Royal College of Art, says such films might be lucrative, but "something is filtered out" in the process.

"Computer animation has less direct appeal, less charm, it's less humane - it lacks the roughness that nature gives."

But Pixar's creative boss, John Lasseter, says: "Computers don't create computer animation any more than a pencil creates pencil animation. What creates computer animation is the artist."

And the exhibition shows the creative perspiration involved. Before the computer animation process, artists will draw and paint up to 50,000 storyboards - and the exhibition includes examples of the so-called "colourscripts" which set the visual style and tone of the story.

Discarded toys

These are works of art in their own right - and reveal the attention to detail. How would fur look in the snow? How do you re-create the precise texture of clothing?

There's a cover of Good Fishkeeping magazine from Finding Nemo, with the cover-strap "Learn to say 'no' to your fish."

Would anyone have seen that as a micro-size glimpse in the movie? Probably not, but part of the success of Pixar has been its ability to work on different levels, showing something extra that you might glimpse in the corner of the screen.

For children, Monsters Inc is a story about getting scared at night and big blue furry monsters. But for the adults, there's another story about dead-end jobs, dodgy bosses and mistrusting strangers.

And Toy Story works for children as an adventure story about toys that come to life - while the grown-ups will be remembering the poignant stuff about the favourite toy that gets discarded and forgotten.

Osnat Shurer, in charge of Pixar's short films, says the company's strength has been based on retaining a creative rather than a corporate culture, and that in the long term "it pays off to over-deliver".

And she says that rather than being driven by technology, the most important factor is the storytelling - and in that respect, Pixar has taken up the baton from Disney.

And it's not about developing technology to be more "realistic", she says. "It's about believability, not realism - about creating a universal story, with characters you can feel with, whether it's a car, a child or a toy."

Finding pay day

As an example of this playfulness, the star attraction of the show is a "zoetrope", which uses figures from Toy Story to show how static figures can be made to appear to move.

It's a really impressive exhibit, built for no purpose other than to entertain - and perhaps that's what you do when you've got billions in the bank and plenty of spare time.

But Pixar's accountants must be enjoying the ride, because the company's business relationships have given it a highly-influential strategic position for the next phase of the digital entertainment era.

Disney and Pixar are being spliced together in a £4bn deal. And adding to this formidable media alliance is the presence of Pixar's Steve Jobs - also the head of Apple computers, who is now the biggest single shareholder in Disney.

And Pixar short movies are now appearing for downloading on Apple's iTunes - with every likelihood that full-length movies will eventually be sold through the same route.

Pixar movies straight to the iPod? Will that mean Pixar will be in our pockets, or will we be in theirs?

BBC News

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