Book Review: The Pixar Touch

As part of my life of nerdiness, I’ve attended animation festivals since I was in high school in the late-ish 80s. At Cal (1989-1993), I would work the shows when Spike and Mike’s Festival of Animation came to school (it paid $5/hr!). Computers were also (obviously) an interest, and each year one company would produce a computer animated short that was always loved at the festival — Pixar. I was an eager audience member for Toy Story, and have seen every Pixar film, except for Cars (which looked simply juvenile, and, well, I’m not a car guy).

So, reading The Pixar Touch was a walk down memory lane for me. David A. Price offers a biography of the pioneering animation company, tracing it’s founders from their roots in computer graphics and animation, to how they meet at Lucasfilm, to their struggles as a hardware company, through their ownership by Steve Jobs, the triumph of Toy Story, and Disney’s acquisition of Pixar for $7.4 billion (which, given the terms, you could argue was as much of a merger as an acquisition).

Apart from nostalgia, however, the book doesn’t offer all that much. It’s a serviceable history, relating the facts of Pixar’s story, but it provides very little in the way of insight — what makes Pixar the special kind of company it is, particularly how it has been 9-for-9 in terms of feature film successes, a track record unheard of in major motion pictures. In other words, it doesn’t really reveal what “the Pixar touch” actually is. I think the biggest problem is that it’s clear the author had no access to the three most important people at Pixar – John Lasseter, Ed Catmull, and Steve Jobs. So everything he has about them is secondhand.

If you’re a Pixar fan, the book is probably worth reading, as it’s quick, (I finished it in just a few days), and provides some context about the people who made the company what it is. I suppose I’d recommend it as a library read, since I don’t think it warrants permanent placement in anyone’s library.

There’s one part of the Pixar tale that I did find illuminating. It came from a letter to shareholders written by Steve Jobs in 1997 (thank you Internet Archive!), after he had renegotiated with Disney a more equitable contract:

Second, branding. We believe there are only two significant brands in the film industry– “Disney” and “Steven Spielberg”. We would like to establish “Pixar” as the third. Successful brands are a reflection of consumer trust, which is earned over time by consumers’ positive experiences with the brand’s products. For example, parents trust Disney-branded animated films to provide satisfying and appropriate family entertainment, based on Disney’s undisputed track record of making wonderful animated films. This trust benefits both parents and Disney: it makes the selection of family entertainment that much easier for parents, and it allows Disney to more easily and assuredly draw audiences to see their new films. Over time we want Pixar to grow into a brand that embodies the same level of trust as the Disney brand. But in order for Pixar to earn this trust, consumers must first know that Pixar is creating the films. Hence, our need to dramatically expand the Pixar branding of all our products.

Jobs was right (and, to a large degree, still is). It’s interesting how film studios have pretty much put no stock in branding, probably thinking that the stars are the only brands they need. Pixar, by working so hard to associate themselves with certain characteristics, a certain “brand promise,” were, 10 years after this was written, able to get $7.4 billion from Disney in the acquisition.