In the middle of Pixar’s sprawling campus in Emeryville, California, a 43-foot-tall desk lamp stands beside a super-sized yellow ball with a red star and blue stripe.
For anyone who’s seen a Pixar film, the tribute is obvious. The lamp appears at the beginning of each movie, bouncing on a ball that suddenly bursts, then turning its lamp-shaded “head” to look sheepishly into the camera.
But even before that, the lamp starred in the company’s first animation, Luxo Jr.—a two-minute short from 1986 about a large “adult” lamp and a smaller, “young” one. The baby Luxo lamp is iconic at this point—enough of a mascot for Pixar to justify the towering replica—and the inspiration behind it has a Penn connection. John Lasseter, now the company’s chief creative officer, came up with the idea one day thanks to an alumnus-employee and his visiting baby. As David A. Price explains in The Pixar Touch:
“[Lasseter] had felt inspiration strike when Tom Porter [C’72] brought his infant son into work one day and Lasseter, playing with the child, became fascinated by his proportions. A baby’s head was huge compared with the rest of its body, Lasseter realized. It struck Lasseter’s funny bone and he began to wonder what a young lamp would look like. He fiddled with the dimensions of all the parts of his Luxo model … and he emerged with a second character, Luxo Jr.”
Tom Porter has been at Pixar for so long that he’s often asked to reminisce about its earliest days for books and documentaries about the company. He arrived in 1981, more than a decade before Buzz Lightyear flew or Nemo swam, and even before the group was called Pixar. Back then, it was the Computer Graphics Division at Lucasfilm, Star Wars creator George Lucas’s production studio.
When Apple co-founder Steve Jobs bought the Lucasfilm offshoot in 1986 and turned it into an independent company, Porter became one of Pixar’s first 44 employees. Though he was unavailable for this article, in an interview with The Exeter Bulletin, Porter revealed that a Penn professor unintentionally guided him away from further studies in math, which he majored in at Penn, and into the world of technology. “He told me, ‘Computers are going to be big,’” Porter reportedly said with a chuckle. He went on to study computer science at Stanford before landing at Lucasfilm.
Along with Catmull and several of his Pixar peers, Porter won the Scientific and Engineering Achievement Academy Award in 1993 for their RenderMan software. By then, RenderMan had helped filmmakers create computer-generated visual effects for Jurassic Park, Free Willy, The Abyss, and Batman Returns. When Pixar released its first feature-length film in 1995, Porter’s name appeared in the credits. He had supervised Toy Story’s shading and, using RenderMan, also its visual effects.
“Sure, the humans didn’t look great and there were other issues,” Porter told the author of To Infinity and Beyond!: The Story of Pixar Animation Studios, “but we were pretty much able to get the film that we all wanted.”
That same year, in the midst of the Toy Story frenzy, Nicole Grindle C’83 arrived at Pixar for her first day of work. She had been hired to oversee production of the Toy Story Activity Center—“a CD-ROM with a bunch of computer games based on the Toy Story world,” she says. “It seems so primitive now. It’s funny to talk about.”
Once the new game disc was in kids’ computers, Jobs—then president and CEO of Pixar—“decreed that it didn’t make sense for us to do that kind of game development at Pixar,” Grindle says. She moved over to managing the company’s films, overseeing production for A Bug’s Life, The Incredibles, Monsters, Inc., and Ratatouille. More recently, she associate produced Toy Story 3 and Monsters University, which opened in theaters in June.
Grindle recalls “just inventing everything as we went along” during the mid-1990s at Pixar. There were only about 100 employees and “we were creating our own process for everything, and it was hard,” she adds. “We worked really long hours.”
As for the notoriously temperamental Jobs, “he inspired you to do great things,” she says. “He was very demanding, so you didn’t want to disappoint him. You wanted to be sure you always said the right thing to him and surprised him—that you were honest and creative.”
She also remembers the champagne. It flowed frequently when Grindle first came to Pixar because there were so many milestones to celebrate: Toy Story’s theatrical release, then its glowing reviews, then its $192 million domestic box-office gross. “I thought, Oh goodness, what a place to work!” she says. “Since then, I’ve had a lot of champagne at Pixar, year after year” as the successes continue rolling in. The company now leads the animated-film market with 30 Academy Awards and more than $7.7 billion grossed at the worldwide box office to date. As Grindle sees it: “It’s been an amazing ride—an amazing 17 years.”