In 1986, Steve Jobs and Ed Catmull founded Pixar — then just a tiny company that began as an outgrowth of Lucasfilm and primarily focused on selling high-end software, with a small side-business in computer animation. This was almost 25 years ago, when computers were still big and prohibitively expensive for most users; when the cutting edge meant traditional Disney-style cel animation; and when nobody had ever heard of CGI. The fledgling company had 44 employees. Now, Emeryville’s own animation studio has produced eleven feature films, racked up 22 Oscars, become one of the most consistently critically acclaimed film studios of all time, and completely revolutionized animation.
Pixar: 25 Years of Animation — opening this week as the first major special exhibition in the newly redone Oakland Museum of California (1000 Oak Street, Oakland) — traces this transformation with over 500 paintings, drawings, sculptures, and storyboards. These date from the studio’s earliest days through the present and range from crude line-drawings of well-loved characters to masterful, detailed watercolors of the universes they inhabit. The exhibition, which first opened at New York’s Museum of Modern Art five years ago, also includes behind-the-scenes video, a series of workshops and lectures with animators, and two room-size installations — one, a thirty-foot digital projection; and the other, a sort of 21st-century zoetrope. It’s part art show, part history exhibit — which, according to director Lori Fogarty, makes it an ideal fit for the museum, which is dedicated to the state’s history. Animation has, after all, been in California’s blood since Walt Disney, and part of the idea behind the exhibition was, she said, to “directly make the connection between Pixar and their artistry and what the museum’s about, which is California.” She continued, “Pixar is working from a long-standing tradition — California and the Bay Area have such a long history of innovative and technical filmmaking.”
But, she said, it’s not all zeros and ones. “I think people have an idea of animation, and especially animation at Pixar, that all of the artwork is done by computer artists staring at computers,” Fogarty said. “But the greatness of Pixar is not just the technology, it’s the artistry. I mean, some of these look like Vermeer paintings.”
In that sense, by bringing the likes of Buzz Lightyear and Ratatouille‘s Remy to the museum circuit, the show’s curators accomplish something rare: They honor animation as art and pay respect to a group of people who all too often are relegated to tiny print toward the end of the credits. “All these artists are not usually recognized,” Figarty said. “And now they get to have their work in a museum.” Pixar: 25 Years of Animation runs July 31 through January 9, $1.50-$12. 510-238-2200 or MuseumCA.org