Pixar Studios Creates Its First Virtual Studio Film Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The debut of Luxo Jr., a groundbreaking computer-animated short film, paved the way for Pixar Animation Studios to revolutionize the animation industry by showing that it was possible to create realistic and appealing animated characters entirely by computer.

Summary of Event

In 1983, animator John Lasseter was fired from the animation division of the Walt Disney Company. Walt Disney Company In his enthusiasm for pursuing a computer-generated animation project, Lasseter had inadvertently stepped on the toes of some of his superiors, and he was asked to leave. Shortly thereafter, however, Lasseter attended a computer graphics conference in Long Beach, California, where he renewed his acquaintance with Dr. Edwin Catmull, a computer expert employed by the Computer Graphics Project at filmmaker George Lucas’s production company, Lucasfilm. Pixar Animation Studios Animation Luxo Jr. (film) Computer-generated animation[Computer generated animation] Computing, applied;animation [kw]Pixar Studios Creates Its First Virtual Studio Film (Aug. 17, 1986) [kw]First Virtual Studio Film, Pixar Studios Creates Its (Aug. 17, 1986) [kw]Virtual Studio Film, Pixar Studios Creates Its First (Aug. 17, 1986) [kw]Film, Pixar Studios Creates Its First Virtual Studio (Aug. 17, 1986) Pixar Animation Studios Animation Luxo Jr. (film) Computer-generated animation[Computer generated animation] Computing, applied;animation [g]North America;Aug. 17, 1986: Pixar Studios Creates Its First Virtual Studio Film[06140] [g]United States;Aug. 17, 1986: Pixar Studios Creates Its First Virtual Studio Film[06140] [c]Motion pictures and video;Aug. 17, 1986: Pixar Studios Creates Its First Virtual Studio Film[06140] [c]Computers and computer science;Aug. 17, 1986: Pixar Studios Creates Its First Virtual Studio Film[06140] Catmull, Edwin Lasseter, John Smith, Alvy Ray Carpenter, Loren Jobs, Steve

Intrigued by Lasseter’s enthusiasm for computer-generated animation, Catmull hired Lasseter to work for him at Lucasfilm, Lucasfilm and they soon began work on a short film titled The Adventures of André and Wally B (1984). George Lucas, however, wanted to sell the computer graphics division, which, at that point, had not proven to be profitable. Catmull and his longtime colleague Alvy Ray Smith approached Steve Jobs, who had recently been forced out of his own groundbreaking company, Apple Computer. After much negotiation, and with the financial backing of Jobs, Pixar Animation Studios was incorporated as its own company in 1986, retaining Catmull, Smith, Lasseter, scientist Loren Carpenter, and other employees. Initially, Pixar operated primarily as a computer hardware company, producing the Pixar Image Computer, but the expensive system did not sell widely and the company had a somewhat uncertain beginning.

In order to bolster their company’s sales, Lasseter and Catmull worked around the clock to finish a short film titled Luxo Jr., which they planned to debut on August 17, 1986, at the Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques (SIGGRAPH), a huge annual computer technology trade show. Their purpose was to show what the Pixar Image Computer was capable of producing. Although Luxo Jr. is less than two and a half minutes long, including the production credits, its enduring importance to the animation industry is undeniable. The film features two desk lamps, one larger than the other. The two are clearly a parent and a child, and they interact with each other just as a human parent and child would. The child plays with a plastic ball, enthusiastically batting it around with its lamp “head” and, finally, hopping on the ball until it deflates, much to the child’s dismay. The little lamp hops away, dejected, only to return exuberantly a few seconds later with a much larger ball, leaving the parent lamp to shake its head in fond exasperation.

The impact of Luxo Jr. had many facets. The film demonstrated that rather than being limited to high-tech gadgetry and flashy special effects, computer-generated animation could be used simply to bring inanimate objects to life with realistic motions and even emotions. This principle built on the simplicity and charm of earlier animation such as Disney’s Fantasia (1940), which brought to life brooms carrying buckets of water during the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment. In spite of its simplicity, Luxo Jr. demonstrated a new level of sophistication in the way it realistically rendered light, shadow, and motion. The two desk lamps constantly swivel their heads, sending light in various directions and casting complex, overlapping shadows of the ball, each other, and even their own electric cords. The ways the ball rolls and reflects light follow the laws of physics, and when the small lamp hops up and down on the ball, it compresses and expands realistically. This sophistication was due in large part to techniques invented by Catmull, which would eventually be incorporated into an application called PhotoRealistic RenderMan. This creation ultimately earned Catmull an Academy Award Academy Awards;technical in 1993.

Finally, the reception that Luxo Jr. received at the SIGGRAPH meeting and elsewhere seemed to help animators realize that the computer was a tool they could use in their own animation work rather than a technology that would displace animators and produce an inferior result. The film’s positive critical reception was assured when it became the first computer-generated film to be nominated for an Academy Award in the category of Best Animated Short Film. Pixar evidently recognized the importance Luxo Jr. would play in the company’s future, because the company made it a permanent part of its animated logo, with the little lamp hopping on, and crushing, the letter “i” in Pixar, just as it deflates the ball in the short film.


Encouraged by the overwhelmingly positive response to Luxo Jr., Pixar began working on additional animation, including several commercials for products such as Lifesavers and Listerine. The company also began to pursue Lasseter’s dream of making a full-length feature film composed entirely of computer-generated imagery. Equally important, Disney, the same company that had fired Lasseter, was so impressed by Pixar’s technical and creative achievements that Disney decided to back Pixar financially and distribute its initial feature-length endeavor. When that feature, Toy Story, Toy Story (film) finally premiered in 1995, it was an immediate commercial success and led to a long-term arrangement between the two companies, under which they would split both the financing and profits of additional feature films.

Bolstered by the technologies that Catmull, Carpenter, and other Pixar employees developed, each film pushed the boundaries of what computer-generated animation could accomplish, such as rendering realistic fur and cloth movement in Monsters, Inc. (2001), underwater effects in Finding Nemo (2003), and human hair in The Incredibles (2004). However, disagreements between Pixar’s Steve Jobs and Disney’s chief executive officer, Michael Eisner, over the fairness of the financing and profit splits led to tension between the two companies. Pixar’s future again appeared slightly uncertain, but negotiations resumed after Eisner left Disney, and Disney made the surprising announcement that it would purchase Pixar completely for approximately $7.4 billion, a sale that took place in January, 2006.

Some worried that Pixar would lose its identity after becoming a wholly owned subsidiary of Disney, but the terms of the sale ensured that Pixar would remain a separate entity. Catmull not only remained president of Pixar but also became president of Disney Studios. Lasseter was made chief creative officer for both Pixar and Walt Disney Feature Animation and principal creative adviser for Walt Disney Imagineering, the research and development arm of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. The first feature released under the new Disney and Pixar arrangement was Cars (2006).

The impact of Luxo Jr., and Pixar’s early films, is also apparent throughout the broader animation industry. Most notably, DreamWorks Animation SKG also moved from hand-drawn to computer-generated animation; its film Shrek (2001) Shrek (film) became the first winner of the newly created Academy Award Academy Awards;Best Animated Feature for Best Animated Feature, and the sequel, Shrek II (2004), was financially the most successful film that year. In addition, as computer technology continues both to advance and to become more affordable, smaller companies have sprung up to make a place for themselves in this lucrative field, making animated feature films one of the largest moneymaking segments of the entertainment industry. Pixar Animation Studios Animation Luxo Jr. (film) Computer-generated animation[Computer generated animation] Computing, applied;animation

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Auzenne, Valliere Richard. The Visualization Quest: A History of Computer Animation. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994. Although not focused specifically on Pixar, this book places the company’s early years in the context of the overall computer animation industry and provides chronological descriptions of the professional lives of Catmull, Smith, Lasseter, and other individuals associated with Pixar.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bunn, Austin. “Welcome to Planet Pixar.” Wired 12 (June, 2004): 126-133ff. Within the context of Pixar’s history, discusses the contributions made by Brad Bird, writer and director of The Incredibles, Pixar president Ed Catmull, and other key figures in the company.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Porter, Tom, and Galyn Susman. “Creating Lifelike Characters in Pixar Movies.” Communications of the ACM 43 (January, 2000): 25-29. Written by two Pixar employees, this article describes some of the ideals, philosophies, and techniques behind Pixar’s unusually lifelike animation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schlender, Brent. “Pixar’s Magic Man.” Fortune 153 (May 29, 2006): 138-149. Article consisting primarily of John Lasseter’s own words about his childhood love of cartoons, his journey toward becoming the chief creative force behind Pixar, and his lifelong relationship with the Walt Disney Company.

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Categories: History