Twenty-two years ago, computer animation was just a byte in Pixar guru John Lasseter's eye. Now, he's the director of "Cars," "Toy Story" and "Toy Story 2," not to mention the new animation chieftain of the Walt Disney Co. But back then, he was just a young animator who'd been canned from the Mouse House and had started working at George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic, the special-effects powerhouse.
Lasseter tested out his interest in the fledgling medium of computer animation with a two-minute short, "The Adventures of André & Wally B," about a Pinocchio-like creature who's menaced by a bee, all to the tunes of Mozart.
Soon after, Apple computer founder Steve Jobs bought Lucas' animation division for $10 million and christened it Pixar. The company's first film effort — made by Lasseter and pals — was the short "Luxo Jr." In three minutes of relatively simple animation, Lasseter was able to anthropomorphize a white office lamp and a saucy mini-lamp. The little lamp squashes a bouncing ball, much to the big lamp's dismay. He took his new creation to Siggraph, the annual computer graphics conference.
"He knew he'd managed to tell a good story when some of the audience members came up later and asked whether the big lamp was a Mommy lamp or a Daddy lamp, rather than how the algorithms were done. They knew they'd made a breakthrough on the computer," says Osnat Shurer, head of Pixar's short film group, which like Pixar itself is now part of Disney.
The Luxo lamp is now the Pixar mascot. It hops on top of the letter I whenever the Pixar logo is shown.
Today, the Los Angeles Film Festival presents "Luxo Jr.," "The Adventures of André & Wally B." and a raft of other Pixar shorts, including charming doodles with signature Pixar characters such as Mike from "Monsters, Inc." and baby Jack Jack from "The Incredibles." Part of Pixar's 20th anniversary celebration, the shorts program is a whirlwind tour of the animation house's rapid-fire technological and storytelling growth with such highlights as "Boundin'," about a bounding, dancing desert sheep; "Geri's Game," about an old man playing a maniacal game of chess; and "One Man Band," a mesmerizingly beautiful and amusing film about two Renaissance-era street musicians duking it out musically. Each plays fantastically elaborate instrument-contraptions that marry various woodwinds, violins, horns and drums.
The shorts aren't just in Pixar's past tense. The studio continues to make shorts to run in front of all its films, as well as extras for DVD releases. The company uses the medium as a training ground for rising animators, letting them take leadership positions on the smaller projects, and as spots to perfect new tropes in animation.
Although the shorts don't require the years and years it takes to make a film such as "Cars," they're hardly dashed off.
The five-minute short "One Man Band," which has been playing in theaters in front of "Cars," took nine months. It was written and directed by Mark Andrews and Andrew Jimenez, two protégés of "The Incredibles" director Brad Bird.
Unlike most animated films, this one had to be scored before it could be animated. Says Shurer, who produced the film, "We had someone in L.A. shooting close-ups of musician's fingers as reference for the animators, so they could see what it was going to look like when the hands move on the violins."