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07.09.08

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Phaedra

Book Reviews

'The Pixar Touch' and 'Breath'


The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company
David A. Price traces the roots of a new art. It stirred at computer labs at the University of Utah, where Ed Catmull learned his craft. It sprouted inside garages-turned-classrooms at the New York Institute of Technology. It grew healthier at the Lucasfilm Computer Division, at the time, a computer-free upper-floor office in a Victorian in San Anselmo. Finally the word got out to Valencia's Cal Arts in the late 1970s; the Southern California school was then mostly a fast track to a moribund Walt Disney Studios. The technicians and artists who gathered in Northern California were bankrolled by tycoons; first, the fructarian recluse Steve Jobs; later, the innovative movie exec Jeffrey Katzenberg. In 1981, a small group dining at the Country Garden Restaurant in Novato coined the word Pixar as a brand name for a new type of imaging computer. Ten years later, Disney announced the deal to distribute Pixar's first full-length computer-animated cartoon, Toy Story. The box office phenomenon of 1995, Toy Story began the string of triumphs. These were dreamed up in an office park in Richmond, next to an oil refinery. Later, they were undertaken a few miles south, in a brick-lined campus in Emeryville. Only 21 years since the first Pixar short film Luxo Jr., Pixar is now releasing its most mature film to date, WALL-E. Price follows the course of Pixar's groundbreaking work, and he certainly knows about cartoons. Good to hear him commenting on the importance of the 1985 Quebec-made short Tony de Peltrie: mostly forgotten now, it was one of the first indications that computer graphics could create humanoids. The author charts the torments of writing and rewriting scripts, of making characters sympathetic without making them saps, and of using music without letting music steamroll the imagery. In short biographies, we get an idea of the different personalities at Pixar: the nostalgic John Lasseter and the mercurial humorist Brad Bird, not to mention Andrew (Finding Nemo) Stanton, with his peerless ability to reach out to children. Sometimes, Pixar seems like the last studio left that can please an all-ages audience without insulting their intelligence.
(By David A. Price; Knopf; 308 pages; $27.95 cloth)

Richard von Busack

Breath
One night on the job, an Australian paramedic in his early 50s encounters something that retrieves his submerged past. He, Bruce "Pikelet" Pike, grew up in a nowhere lumber town close to the coast in west Australia. Pike changes through his friendships: first with a troubled, risk-taking kid called Looney, later with a charismatic pro surfer nicknamed "Sando" who has abandoned the circuit and, finally, with the athlete's left-alone, crippled wife, Eva. Surfing takes place in a blade-thin realm between air and water; in Tim Winton's new novel, Breath, this separation symbolizes the difference between life and death--or rather, between wanting to live and wanting to die. Despite the potential richness of this kind of material, most surfers write novels about as well as most novelists surf. Here's the exception. Winton's brutally succinct and yet lyrical book excels in depicting natural phenomena like a 15-foot break in 3-foot water: "in fact there were times when the wave broke over no water at all." Or the experience of a wipeout: "Things went narrow--it was like looking through a letter box." The Aus slang is very pungent, too: in one passage, a Speedo bathing suit is referred to as a "Budgie-smuggler." It must be geography that keeps Winton (the author of 13 previous books) from being better known in the United States. The book turns anticlimactic in the finale, with some sketches of Pike's break-down years. These pages insist on something that male adolescents must believe and middle-aged males have to doubt: that it's possible to meet a lover in your youth whose fatal influence persists, decades after they're gone.
(By Tim Winton; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 218 pages; $23 cloth)

Richard von Busack


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