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Pixar's rise to animation powerhouse

Pixar is owned by Disney as of 2014, making it part of a behemoth of modern animation. It did not take long for Pixar to become as iconic as Disney. It is a name as synonymous with modern, top-quality animation as Disney is with nostalgia and old-fashioned family entertainment.

Since companies as iconic as Pixar do not come about very often, a look at the history of Pixar sheds some light on why the studio has been so successful.

The movie industry was in flux during the first few years of the 1970s. The old Hollywood studio system was no longer relevant, and major studios were not sure how to appeal to younger audiences. They also faced difficulties adapting to a changing culture. While this led to some great films from directors such as Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman, it did not take long for a new Hollywood blockbuster paradigm to emerge. This all began with "Jaws" in 1975 and "Star Wars" in 1977.

"Star Wars" was such a game-changer that director George Lucas became one of the industry's biggest figures. However, by the time "Star Wars" was released, the filmmaker already had his own production company, Lucasfilm, which he founded in 1971. Lucas correctly saw computer technology as crucial to the future of film, and he hired Edwin Catmull to run the company's computer division in 1979.

At the time, Catmull was the director of the New York Institute of Technology's Computer Graphics Lab, an entity that was gaining notoriety for innovating early computer animation techniques. After hiring Catmull, Lucasfilm became an industry leader in computer and visual effects. In 1983, former Disney animator John Lasseter joined the Lucasfilm computer graphics team. Along with Catmull and fellow computer animation pioneer Alvy Ray Smith, Lasseter helped produce the animated short "The Adventures of André and Wally B."

Produced in 1984, this cartoon featured complex, computer-rendered characters, environments and movement. The work gained attention from both the film and computer industries. In 1986, Steve Jobs made a deal to buy the computer graphics division wholesale from Lucasfilm for $5 million. At this time the company took on the name "Pixar" and produced the short "Luxo Jr."

This short, which featured anthropomorphized desk lamps, was the first film produced under the Pixar name. A huge hit at that year's SIGGRAPH computer exhibition, the Lasseter-directed "Luxo Jr." featured not only innovative computer animation but also boundless charm and humor. These elements quickly became hallmarks of Pixar's work.

In its early years as a company, Pixar continued to produce shorts. However, it focused on selling its high-end Pixar Image Computer. Marketed as a device to enable powerful and complex computer imaging for various industries, the machine cost well over $100,000, and this figure does not include the hefty price of additional necessary hardware. While the price went down drastically over the next few years, Pixar did not have much success selling hardware. Eventually, Jobs sold the computer division in 1990.

In 1991, Disney helped keep Pixar in business by contracting the small company to produce three animated features. Pixar produced "Toy Story" as its first feature. The movie was inspired by the 1988 short "Tin Toy," which was written and directed by Lasster. Although the production was lengthy and plagued by various problems, Disney released "Toy Story" in 1995 to enormous success. Its success was largely attributed to a fantastic script and the casting of actors who were perfect for their roles.

Over the next few years, Disney and Pixar continued to work together, producing hit animated features including "A Bug's Life" and "Monsters, Inc." The 2003 release of "Finding Nemo" saw unprecedented box office success for an animated movie. It also won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. All of these films managed huge box office success, but they were also met with ecstatic reception from critics. From "Toy Story" on, Pixar developed a reputation not only for groundbreaking visual work but also for crafting entertaining, poignant and timeless family pictures.

In 2006, Disney solidified its partnership with Pixar by purchasing the company. John Lasseter and Ed Catmull retained important positions at Pixar, continuing to guide the studio toward producing some of the best animated movies in history. After Disney's purchase of Pixar, the release of films like "Ratatouille," "WALL-E" and "Up" confirmed that the magic of Pixar is here to stay.