Wednesday 23 May 2012

Interview: Alvy Ray Smith, Pixar Co-founder

Photo by Kathleen King.

Reading Big Screen Animation's Mike Bastoli's interview with Pixar co-founder Alvy Ray Smith reminded me of something: last year, I started writing a book on the history of Pixar, and interviewed Alvy for that, however, as I got snowed under with work, I scrapped the book, and nothing came of the interview. However, after reading Mike's interview with Alvy, I thought: why not post the interview here instead? I emailed Alvy late last night to check this was okay, he gave me the greenlight, so after the jump break you will find a series of questions from me and the answer's by a true visionary and one of the men who created the studio that I, and almost certainly you if you're visiting this site, love and revere, Pixar.

Somewhat less candid than Mike's interview, Alvy here gives us an in-depth insight into the origins of the most critically praised film studio on the planet, the challenges the team met and had to overcome, the general feel at Pixar in the early days, and, also, his thoughts on Steve Jobs.

I'd also like to take this opportunity very briefly to thank Alvy for his time and his kind help in the writing of my book and subsequent allowance of me publishing the interview here. Enjoy:

A113Animation: Firstly, if you could just give some insight into Pixar in those early years; NYIT, Lucasfilm etc..., what was the mindset like?

Alvy Ray Smith: These were the most exciting times ever, starting with Xerox PARC during its heyday, but really taking off at New York Tech. We were excited beyond belief. Everything we touched was a first. We didn’t sleep any more than we had to, then would work until we dropped, then sleep as little as possible, etc. It’s great fun to be the first explorers on a new continent. You get to name everything, for one thing! That feeling lasted unbroken until the long dry spell during the first years at Pixar while we waited for Moore’s Law to deliver finally the necessary horsepower for the first movie. But even during this lean time, there were exciting advances being made constantly and new pieces being generated.

A113: Did you all really believe you could 'get it done' and reach your goals?
ARS: Yes, we were sure we could make the first movie, starting on Long Island at NYIT. We had some serious competition however. The John and Gary team against the Ed and Alvy team. They were John Whitney Jr. and Gary Demos who were worthy opponents. They made a financial mistake (buying a Cray supercomputer) that doomed them, but luck might have turned the story their way instead of ours. Our faith may have been misguided. It’s hard to know. We DID have the great great advantage of working with an honest-to-god team of cel animators (and a full production line) during the early days at NYIT. We KNEW from them what the problems were. Then Ed and I made many many pilgrimages to Disney over years, at least one a year, always learning more and more about The Process. We were ready for it, when the opportunities finally knocked. First was when Disney came to us do CAPS. Second was when they came to us do to the first movie (which became Toy Story of course). And we got some final “tuning up” with the Monkey movie that was just too early (measured by Moore’s Law), but with which we cut our teeth on a real production’s costs.

The Lucasfilm Graphics Group, the early remnants of Pixar. Alvy Ray Smith, in the sunglasses (left-of-cente) to the right of Ed Catmull.

A113: Could you maybe expand on the John and Gary thing? Who exactly were they?
ARS: John Whitney Jr was son of course of John Whitney who made some of the good early analog computer art. Gary Demos is a great video /film engineer. They partnered together for many years at place called Triple-I (Information International Inc.) and Digital Productions. They were located in LA. John grew up in the Hollywood community. Their approach was very high resolution imagery (but no antialiasing). The made several film contributions along the way, Looker, Last Starfighter. When they bought the Cray, Ed and I gulped big. Had we made a mistake? We did our back of the envelope again and still couldn’t persuade ourselves that the Cray was a wise investment. It wasn’t. But Gary and I have remained friends, having fought the High Def television standards battle together in Washington DC (we failed in getting interlaced video ousted from the standard – what a smelly idea! – but did succeed, with the help of others, in getting progressive scan as part of the standard). That’s what I mean by “worthy opponents”. They were technically good. Of course, I also think we won because of our insistence on antialiasing too.

A113: What was it like knowing you were pioneering something that had never been done before?
ARS: I think I answered this above. But I can expand a bit. Since we didn’t  know in advance what the path to the first computer generated movie was to be, we explored and discovered ALL the possible paths, sampling based (a la CAPS, and before that at NYIT with Scan n Paint) and geometry based (Tween at NYIT and of course the 3D geometric method that finally became The Way at Pixar). All tremendously exciting. Ed and I once tried to make a list of all the firsts we (our group) had done. It got to be funny. It was so long and went on and on. So we stopped. It was easier just to say we invented it all (that’s a bit unfair to a host of compatriots at other places, but is still not too far wrong since we hired many of them to come be with us).

Pixar's CAPS system in action during production of Disney's The Rescuers Down Under.

A113: When was CAPS? I believe it was late 80s, but I can only take Wikipedia's word so far!
ARS: Computer Animation Production System (CAPS) was negotiated (by me, for 18 months) with Disney while we were at Lucasfilm (so 1980 – 1986 roughly). It came to fruition as [we] were spinning out Pixar from Lucasfilm and went with the new company. I hired Tom Hahn from my good friend Dick Shoup’s company to head the project with Disney. I forget the year of completion, but it was with the production of Rescuers Down Under.  CAPS was a major triumph and cemented the relationship with Disney that Ed and I had been trying to form for over a decade. Arguably, in fact, Rescuers Down Under, made with  it, at Disney, was the first completely computer generated film. I don’t accept this however, because  with CAPS the original art is still done by hand the old-fashioned way. Nevertheless it was a major achievement, and the team got an Academy Award for it. And Disney’s animation arm was saved. They made billions off it. And the company’s formed a mutual admiration society from the experience, which resulted in you know what

A113: Can you tell us a bit more about the Monkey project?
ARS: I hope you have read (you must) Michael Rubin’s Droidmaker and David Price’s The Pixar Touch. Nearly all of the topics you ask about here are covered in those two excellent books. (And neither is a Steve Jobs hagiography). I’ll defer to them for Monkey. It was to be the first computer generated film, funded by a large Japanese company, featuring the Monkey King, a famous character in China and Japan, familiar to all kids. We got a long ways on it, with John designing characters for it of course, Loren Carpenter talking the technical parts, and me handling the negotiations and organization. I did a detailed financial plan for the movie as it developed and discovered in the details that the cost was simply still too high. We closed it down during the spinoff of Pixar from Lucasfilm and waited for another crank (5 years approx) of Moore’s Law to bring the production costs down into the reasonable realm. Toy Story of course. Monkey never got off the drawing board.

A113: Can you give us some insight into your role in the early days of Pixar?
ARS: This is very straightforward. Ed and I started the company. Our first hires were 38 of the group at Lucasfilm whom we brought with us. After many other attempts to land money (with Ross Perot almost winning) we landed Steve Jobs as the money. Steve was therefore majority shareholder of the corporation (70% to 30% for the employees). Ed and I and Steve were the original Board of Directors. Ed and I ran the company, Ed as President and I as Executive Vice President. Ed ran half of the company (as well as being final arbiter, and I ran the other half.) This is just standard corporate structure. As the company developed we added VPs of course. Steve was running Next at the time. This is all in the founding documents which I have online on my website Click on Pixar. The only surprise is the corruption of the story that makes Steve, Ed, and John the cofounders. Simply not the case. The financier is never counted as a cofounder, especially if he was not even close to the first financier approached. John was part of the original 38 employees we took with us. He is extremely important to the company, but not a cofounder. I call those 38 “founding employees.” The list includes secretaries, receptionists, hardware and software guys, purchasing agent, etc. Everybody we took with us, including John. The other myth that I hear all the time is that Steve bought us from Lucasfilm. Not so. He financed a spinout of our company from Lucasfilm and was the principal shareholder therefore. This is not a “purchase” by any stretch of the imagintation. It is a standard way to start a company as a spinoff of another, called “venture capital.” Again, see the founding documents.

Steve Jobs with John Lasseter and other Pixar co-founder, Ed Catmull.

A113: What are your views on Steve Jobs? What's the real deal with this whiteboard incident?
ARS: Steve was a great COB. He stepped in when there were major financial undertakings, at which he is formidable. The two most outstanding such moments (after the initial capitalization of Pixar) were the IPO and the Disney purchase. This is what a chairman is supposed to do. Standard corporate practice. Steve was good at it. He and I had some major disagreements, the whiteboard incident capturing the most intense one. I wanted him out of my life because of it but I took my time making that happen. I waited until Toy Story appeared to be a go, then I got Pixar (meaning Steve since he owned so much of it) to help me fund a spinout called Altamira that I subsequently sold to Microsoft, thus boosting the coffers of Pixar just at IPO time (Pixar owned 10% of it). Pixar was always a collegiate place, meaning that although Ed and I ran it, we listened carefully to everyone else and everyone else figured in decisions, except for the act of, of course. Steve tends toward the tyrannical, not the collegiate. This is our major difference. It’s a biggie. I greatly resent the giving of credit that is mine to Steve Jobs. He did not have the original idea, he was not the first investor approached, he did not hire the people, he was not part of most of its history, he did not write the business plan, making the movie was not his idea, he did not run the company, he did not name the company, he did not forge the relationship with Disney, he has nothing to do with the movies made or their stories, etc. And yet I do not want to diminish his large role as an outstanding financial guy. I resent the fact that he let the false stories lie (and lie!) without correcting them. Nevertheless he stepped in with the money when we needed it to capitalize Pixar, my company. That cannot be dismissed or diminished in any way. It is also important to give full credit to our other patrons along the way, Alexander Schure and George Lucas (and in a way Roy Disney). All our patrons became billionaires, except the first Alex Schure (who was just too early). This should be glory enough.

ARS: Bottom line: I am an extremely proud papa of Pixar.

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