A last-ditch effort to prove the Pixar Image Computer was a valuable tool for entertainment and not just scientific imaging proved to be the serendipitous beginning of a new genre in animation when Tin Toy won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short in 1989. Lucky for Faith, today’s guest, Richie Clark, knows quite a bit about the Pixar film catalogue.
(THE FRONTIER THEME PLAYS)
Well, first of all, Richie, welcome back to the Frontier podcast. Always a joy to have you. How has the transition been to being outnumbered? <Laugh>.
We are getting past the fog. We are just about…she is six weeks as of Monday.
Oh my gosh.
So we are, we’re hitting the ground running and hopefully getting there to the final point where it’s like…four months has always been our like, point where it’s like, okay, you hit four months and they can actually like, get into a sleep schedule, (Faith: Yeah.) and so it’s just like, let’s get to that four month mark, and then…
I love that you have a data-based strategy now to rearing children <laugh>.
Yes. We have a time point where it’s like, all right, this is when we’re good.
How’s everybody else adapting to older sibling life?
Yeah. Actually our two kids have been, our two older ones have been excellent, and love her, and try and love up on her a little too much and…
Oh, that’s sweet.
What’s the age difference?
My daughter is five and a half, and James, my son, is three and a half, he’s about four.
I didn’t realize we had two Jameses on the next generation of the team.
That’s such a good age gap, because I feel like it’s enough where they’re like, at very clearly different phases of development and thus can be charged with taking care of each other at various stages of their lives.
Absolutely. They play together and can do their own thing, and I think that makes it way easier than when we went from one to two, just because she was only one and a half and so she still needed a lot of attention and help and…
Yeah. But what’s cool is I feel like there’s a solid 10 years where, regardless of the age difference, there’s some things you can do that everybody’s happy with. Right? Even if it’s not exactly developmentally appropriate. Like the, (Richie: Right.) I’m the youngest of three, and I feel like my family was like, “You don’t wanna do calculus? Tough shit, six-year-old.” (Richie: <Laugh>.) Like, “That’s what your brother’s doing.” But it was fun, you know, I think I got to like, watch a lot of movies that were probably over my head and, you know, adventure science centers are a thing in Nashville, and it’s the same thing. It’s like, you know, babies like the lights, and the eight year olds are like, reading the placards. So…
Yes, totally. I am the youngest of…I have three older sisters, too, and they’re 8 years older and 10 years older, and it’s like, the youngest gets to do things that the first child never gets to, ‘cause of just the age gap and differences and…
Oh, it’s the best. (Richie: Yep.) It’s the best. (Richie: Absolutely.) But speaking of a cross-generational entertainment and delight, this is probably the “This Week in Tech History” episode I’m most excited for, for this very reason. (RETRO SYNTHESIZER MUSIC FADES IN) I could sit and watch a Pixar movie today, as a 30 year old, the same way I could 20 years ago, 25 years ago. The event this week that we’re talking about is Pixar winning an Oscar for an animated film called Tin Toy. (TIN TOY MUSIC PLAYS)
On March 29th, 1989, Pixar’s Tin Toy became the first CGI film to win an Academy Award, but how Pixar came to the world, in the first place, is a story in its own right. So it began as a computer division of Lucasfilm. I had no clue that it was at all related to Lucasfilm. So that’s huge. (RETRO SYNTHESIZER MUSIC RESUMES) So it started as a computer division of Lucasfilm and was later renamed Pixar where they worked on developing the Pixar Image Computer. The computer was originally aimed at scientific and high-end visualization markets like medicine, geophysics, and meteorology. While the high cost of the PIC made it prohibitive for large scale use in those arenas, what a bummer, it found a home in the digital animation space thanks to an investment from then owner, Steve Jobs. I did not know that either. This is wild. The world is so small.
In the spring of 1988, cash flow was running low at Pixar, and the entertainment division wasn’t feeling the love. In a last ditch effort to secure funding for the firm, despite widespread cuts to other parts of the business, director, John Lasseter, presented Jobs with storyboards for the five minute short, and Jobs loved it so much that he invested $300K of his own money to fund the project, saying, “All I ask of you, John, is to make it great.” Tin Toy is a story, this is gonna sound very familiar, of a small tin toy that finds itself living with a rambunctious toddler who plays too roughly and makes Tinny, the toy, unhappy. Tinny tries to hide under a couch, only to discover the trove of other toys also hiding from the boy. The short film ultimately became the basis for the famed Toy Story franchise, which rocketed Pixar. It took global fame. In 2003, Tin Toy was selected for preservation in the US National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant. And to date, Pixar has won 23 Academy Awards, 10 Golden Globe Awards and 11 Grammy Awards, so close to an EGOT, so close, among numerous other accomplishments. So to start, Richie, what is your definitive tier-one, all time favorite Pixar film? Go. (RETRO SYNTHESIZER MUSIC FADES OUT)
I think it’s gotta be Toy Story.
I think it’s the OG. I love Toy Story 2, as well, but I just, those two are cemented. I think I can literally remember going and watching Toy Story in the theater, (Richie: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) and like, I was with my grandpa and my dad, and I can just remember being blown away, and I still, I just watched Toy Story three days ago. (Faith: <Laugh>.) And I do have kids, so I watch a lot of Disney and Pixar, (Faith: Yeah.) and so, we are on rotation, but I think that one still wins for me.
Man. I have the same memories. And what’s funny is I was going through the Wikipedia list, and I got to the ones like Cars, Ratatouille, WALL-E, and I was like, those are so new. I like, of course I haven’t seen them yet, (Richie: <Laugh>.) and, in fact, they’re not new. They came out in the early 2000s. But in my frame of reference, I kind of have to say Monsters, Inc. (Richie: Hmm <affirmative>.) I don’t know. There’s just so many one-liners that have worked their way into my daily vernacular that I’m pretty sure come from Monsters Inc. and The Incredibles.
Ironically, I was reading about Pixar and Toy Story last night for this, and Billy Crystal was up for Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story, and he declined it, because he didn’t think it was gonna become something.
But then, they brought him back for Monsters Inc.
Wait, who is Billy Crystal in Monsters Inc.?
He’s the green monster with the single eyeball.
Ah, oh my god. Of course.
What’s-his-face. I can’t think of his name now. Yes.
Yes. Not Sulley.
Nope. The other one.
God, this is terrible. The fact that I’m gonna have to put a Monsters Inc. character in the show notes…
Yep, yep, yep, yep. I also love Up. I feel like I can’t watch Up without getting a little teary, and I think that’s a defining characteristic of Pixar.
Yeah. And for me, I love Up, in terms of just the dynamic of it, but it isn’t something I can watch over and over again. (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) Like, it’s not something I go to, because of the emotional, kind of, drive of it. So like, Cars and Toy Story are kind of the two that I can put on repeat and watch. Although, I’ve watched Ratatouille quite a bit, as well. (Faith: <Laugh>.) I skip the first like 15, 20 minutes where it’s like all these mice running through her ceilings and whatnot, ‘cause like, (Faith: Yeah.) I’ve experienced mice in my ceilings, and it’s awful, (Faith: No, no.) and so I skipped to the part where he is more human <laugh>.
I love that you have like, a strategy like, emotional preservation strategy for watching Pixar movies. I feel like we chose the right superfan for this episode <laugh>.
Oh yeah. <Laugh> I’ve invested in Pixar and invested in their movies, and (Faith: Yeah.) yes, I do pick and choose based on emotion.
I feel like you and I being in the target audience for when Pixar first started releasing films in the late ‘90s, mid to late ‘90s, means that we’re probably in this…you may feel the same way. I often am watching movies, even if they’re not animated films, but I know that they’re CGI, and I still always say out loud like, “Man, computers are so cool.” (Richie: <Laugh>.) You know? And I think the, the generation that came after us where, you know, you weren’t watching like, claymation or actual like, drawn animation, they don’t have that same kind of like, reverence and shock at what a computer can do, you know?
Mm-Hmm <affirmative>. Yeah. It was such a stark contrast, ‘cause I can remember like, Disney, in their animation, I can’t remember which film it was, whether it was Lion King or earlier than that, but they did this special panning where it started to create kind of a 3D effect. And so they had like, multiple artboards, and the way they could slide it gave it kind of more of a dimensional look. (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) And I can remember being like, “Oh, that’s a cool tech,” but like, this contrast between what Pixar then came out with, with this 3D/CGI kind of feel, was just like, whoa. Like, (Faith: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) we’re taking this to a whole new level of computers. And the thing about Toy Story that’s always so funny to me is like, I think it took a day to render 30 seconds of the movie or something like, (Faith: No way.) yeah. The sheer amount of time it took to render out the first one was just like, crazy.
You know, what’s crazy to me is I always forget, even though like, I am still in that headspace of like, “Man, computers are so cool. Look what we can do with CGI,” for some reason I think of the technology industry and the entertainment industry as totally siloed, when obviously there’s a ton of overlap. Like, Steve Jobs <laugh> was the investor in the first Pixar short film. That’s a fascinating part of this story of Tin Toy, how like, to essentially, to like, save the business that Pixar was. They were like, “Okay, fine. We’ll pivot to entertainment instead of this other stuff we were building for, ‘cause it’s such a cash cow.” Right? (Richie: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) And I think of like, all the other examples of that phenomenon in tech today, or maybe even 10 years ago. Like, do you remember the obsession with building games? And everyone was like, “Oh, we’re just gonna build games, and we’re gonna make a bunch of money on ads.” And it’s like, well yeah, ‘cause entertainment is a cash cow. It’s like, consumers will pay to be entertained. Will businesses pay for software? Not always <laugh>, but consumers will pay you a dollar, you know?
Mm-Hmm <affirmative>. That’s where I can see why the pivot from science into entertainment happened, because I feel like certain industries, it’s a hard sell to use technology for certain things, or “How much is this gonna cost us, first?” Like, entertainment, I feel like, throws a lot of money at a lot of things that don’t end up being successful. (Faith: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) Though, I know Pixar was like, always on the brink of <laugh> failing, but (Faith: Yeah.) you have to have someone for technology that’s willing to back you and basically fight to the death for it. And I feel like that’s why Pixar succeeded, because you had Jobs, and then you had Lasseter, couple others, Pete Docter, and Andrew Stanton, who just kind of were like, “We’re gonna–”
“We’re gonna make this work.”
Yeah. It’s gonna happen, and we’re gonna do it no matter what, and…
Well, it’s interesting, ‘cause it started with the technology, right? It was like, “Okay, so we’ve got this…here’s our use cases.” What were their intended use cases? Medicine, geophysics, and meteorology. The challenge was like, which industry is this actually going to stick in? And of course, now we know like, if Pixar can do what they do with CGI, then the opportunities for those industries are endless. But, in terms of adoption, I do think kind of the release into the entertainment industry and animation for consumption made a difference in those industries being willing to adopt it.
Mm-hmm <affirmative>. Yeah, for sure.
I’m curious, ‘cause, obviously, you are an engineer on our team. If you were to put yourself in the shoes of an engineer working at Pixar before this pivot, and you know, your intentions were to build for something like, medicine, or geophysics, or meteorology, something that’s really gonna have a huge impact on the world, and then what you built was pivoted to like, children’s movies <laugh>, how would you feel? What would your take be?
Yeah, I mean, I think it’d be hard, especially because like, we have the advantage of hindsight. So like, Pixar did change the world and like, you and I can reminisce about going to a movie theater and seeing a Pixar film, and like, Pixar’s known for their emotions, but when you are building something, and then it pivots, and you don’t see that fruition for 10, 15, 20 years, it’s like, yeah, I’d be disappointed <laugh>. I’d be like, “Why are we doing this?” Especially, because like, I feel like, that time like, I feel like Pixar was probably 10 years before their time almost like, (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) they created an industry off of it, and so he had no frame of reference. It was just like, “Yeah, we’re building something, and now we’re pivoting to some entertainment thing? Like, this makes zero sense.” The fight is real in certain areas of trying to advance them. And so like, I’m sure a lot of blood, sweat, and tears went into trying to help meteorology, and science, and all that, and I’m sure a lot of ’em were disappointed <laugh> that it was…
Yeah. I mean obviously, like you said, hindsight’s 20/20, and today we can see that, so the technology has permeated all kinds of industries in these cases. But I would love to have a time machine or just like, speak with somebody who was in the room, because obviously, you imagine the success of Pixar animation technology, they won an Oscar <laugh> in 1989, and of course when a company, specifically, their technology has success like that, there’s a huge instinct to protect it, right? If another company got its hands on Pixar’s animation technology, that sucks. That’s your competitive advantage, and now everybody has it. But we also know that that animation technology makes a huge difference, even if we just think about medical use cases, right? Like, using that technology for ultrasounds, right? Like, there’s so many use cases that make a huge difference for the greater good, and in those cases, it’s like, yeah, of course we wanna open source it. Like, how do you navigate protecting IP for use in industries that are competitive with yours, with releasing your technology so that folks can use it for the greater good? Or do you just say, “Screw it, there’s no balance. You gotta choose one side or the other”?
Yeah, I mean that’s a tough question, and it’s probably easier to answer than if I actually had some intellectual property that would make me millions or something, as I recall. And I, and this could be wrong, so I understand I might be saying something wrong, but Pixar, when they did it, they did eventually release some of their technology, and I know some of it was for like, funneling back into their own system, as I recall. (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) So like, you could use Pixar’s software, it was basically like, “Hey, so that you can learn and then come work for us and do better.” And then like, there was projects that came from that, that were then open-sourced. Like, the open-sourced one is Blender, which is the 3D modeling software.
I didn’t know that that came from Pixar.
I don’t think it came directly from Pixar, but it was a side product of seeing kind of what Pixar…yeah, and like, you know, so like, some of it is like, when people see something, they can, you know, figure out how it works and imitate it, and I think like, some of that is a benefit.
Yeah, I mean, I think the hard thing is we always see the end result and like, (Faith: Yeah.) you know, Pixar is five years trying to make the first film, and then just to be like, “Here. Have our software that we spent five years of stress and whatever,” you know, like, feels a little bit like, I don’t know that I’d be willing to do that, and I don’t think, you know, they didn’t either, but it was, yeah. It’s an interesting balance of what to do.
Yeah. I think the rule of innovation, just listening to you talk, I’ve decided this is my opinion <laugh>, (Richie: <Laugh>.) I think the rule of innovation is like, if you create something brand new that is kind of like, it’s a step change for your industry, it’s only a matter of time before everyone else figures out how to do that, too. Like, look at AI chatbots right now. It’s not a coincidence that everybody is releasing their own version of it, you know, in short order. So I think the rule is like, rather than protecting what you’ve built, you need to constantly be innovating, and iterating, and trying to stay one step ahead of your competition, assuming that they’re gonna do the thing that you just did pretty shortly after you. So it’s kind of, unfortunately, a never-ending marathon. I know that’s probably bad news for people who are hoping that their next big break will just get ’em set for life.
Yeah. It’s a copycat world. I mean, (Faith: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) you can look at different products and just see the trajectory of everything changing, you know, like the iPhone touchscreen, (Faith: Yep.) the iPod, you know. Like you can go Apple for about five years, where they basically shifted entire markets based on what they came out with, and then you look at a smartphone now, and everything is a touchscreen. We’ve all gotten smaller, (Faith: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) now we’re going back to bigger, but it’s like, it’s yeah. It’s a copycat.
Yeah. For better or for worse too, you know? (Richie: Right.) Like, I think inevitably, competition and pressure to do better is good for free markets, so (Richie: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) I can appreciate the copycat mentality. Still, I think, kind of scary when you come out with something as innovative as an animated film like Tin Toy, which I’ve never seen, but I think I’m gonna watch tonight, before I watch the season finale of…
Yeah. You should watch it. I watched it last night. It’s five minutes. It’s not too bad.
Yeah, it’s really short.
Cool. I’ll do that as either like, a warmup or a cool down from the season finale of Last of Us, ‘cause I’ve really…have you been watching Last Of Us?
I haven’t taken a dive yet. I’ve heard really good things. I don’t have HBO Max at the moment, (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) so I…
Yeah, I’m glad I’m watching it. It is a feat of emotional and mental strength, (Richie: <Laugh>.) and it takes a toll on my body and just like, internal stress. I’m constantly like, pausing it to see how much time we have left. (Richie: <Laugh>.) It’s like a workout when you’re like, “Alright, I can stay with it for 15 more minutes.” So maybe I’ll do Tin Toy as a cool down, because I certainly need something after that <laugh> for some levity <laugh>.
Yes, and see, I am…that’s not my type of show at night like, after a day of work and whatnot. It’s like, I just need something to zone out on <laugh>.
Yeah. Yep. After this, it is all mindless TV. I think I need like, a full 365 days <laugh> to cool down from it. So, and we’ll start with Tin Toy. Richie, this was so much fun. I don’t know if Abbey intended to bring on our resident Pixar expert <laugh>, such as yourself, but…
I dunno that I would say I’m an expert, but I do love Pixar, so…
Yeah, I learned a lot. And although I’m not a parent, I might join you in rewatching Toy Story this weekend, just for kicks.
It’s good; they’ve redone it, so it’s better quality now than it was when they originally released it.
Oh, I didn’t know that. You know what’s shameful is I’ve never seen any of the Toy Story sequels, so maybe I’ll just do a little binge.
See and, and so like, that’s an interesting thing too, ‘cause Pixar…so back in the day, sequels were just kind of one-offs, and they just were like, “go direct to video” type of behavior. (Faith: Yeah.) Pixar was like, “No, we’re gonna make something valuable that’s a second addition and not make…” so like, they had, it was a hard sell to get Toy Story 2, ‘cause everyone just kind of assumed it was gonna be terrible, (Faith: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) because that’s how all sequels were, and they were like, “No, we’re gonna actually put value into it.” (THE FRONTIER THEME FADES IN) And so then, Toy Story 2 came about and started a new trend of sequels being seen as another money maker.
So what you’re telling me is it’s worth spending my money binging Toy Story <laugh>?
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. Toy Story 2 is almost, almost better than Toy Story 1.
And I didn’t realize that Toy Story 4 was…it came out 4 years ago.
It did, and supposedly, Toy Story 5 is in the works.
You know what, I’m gonna pregame this binge today, (Richie: <Laugh>.) just listening to some Randy Newman playlists.
Hey, there you go.
That’s the other thing with Pixar.
That would do it for you. (Faith: Yeah.) That would make you just wanna watch a Pixar movie.
That music will get you.
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