As was discussed in this column throughout 2013, the year 2014 is going to be an interesting one for Pixar Animation Studios. We have to look well into 2015 for the company’s next feature, and between now and that time, there will only be more rampant speculation about the studio’s upcoming slate. (Here’s hoping, of course, that the neverending glut of Star Wars casting rumors as well as this or that Marvel movie’s unveiling overshadows everything out of Pixar, in case people spin it to the negative.) Last week, it was confirmed via Entertainment Weekly that this won’t be an entirely Pixar-free year: the short Party Central, from the Monsters University universe, will be attached to Muppets Most Wanted this March. The short has been ready for a long enough time that it was nearly included on the Monsters University Blu-ray, but its director, Kelsey Mann, mentioned in the article that the party’s bigness lends itself to a silver-screen presentation. Party Central continues a now-long line of Pixar films being extended into the world of shorts, and hopefully it fits well alongside Partysaurus Rex and Small Fry, among others.
But that’s not the topic of this week’s column, although it may be the biggest story of the week (and, depending on how things go for Pixar, perhaps the month). Instead, today, we pay tribute to the recently retired Loren Carpenter. Carpenter hasn’t ever directed a Pixar film or short, nor has he voiced one of its supporting characters, or written one of their films, but despite not having the same level of name recognition as John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, or Lee Unkrich, he was a massively important part of Pixar Animation Studios well before the company began working with the Walt Disney Company. Without Carpenter, there literally would be no “Pixar,” because he’s the man who came up with the name for the Pixar Computer, which directly led to the studio’s name. Since Pixar was acquired by Disney in 2006, Carpenter began working as a Senior Research Scientist at Disney, but before that, he was one of Pixar’s earliest employees, alongside Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith.
We often rightly praise Pixar films for their emotional honesty and complexity, as well as their memorable storytelling, but it’s important to remember that the company took Hollywood by storm did so via technological force. People like Loren Carpenter are the reason behind that technology. Every now and then, it’s worth remembering how none of the films we love so much would be possible were it not for breakthroughs in technology that started small, but wound up massive. Consider some of the videos on that link to the story of Carpenter’s retirement. (It is strange, to be clear, that the Pixar employee who tweeted about Carpenter retiring this past Friday has deleted it already.) Vol Libre, for example, is not a particularly cutting-edge short to the eyes of a 2014 viewer, but in 1980, it represented the potential of a visual shift in cinema. It was the Vol Libre video that got Carpenter hired at Pixar, the sixth employee the company ever had, back when they were still owned by Lucasfilm. Within two years, he was working, via Pixar, on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
It’s interesting that we (including this writer) have, in discussing the films of Pixar, championed them for their photorealistic animation in films like WALL-E and Cars, and yet we don’t often champion the people who make it possible for that animation to exist. Carpenter worked primarily, in the early days of Pixar features, in the area of visual effects, but when you watch the two minutes of Vol Libre, it’s instantly obvious to see that his work had a much greater impact than on making an effect or two possible in Monsters, Inc. Loren Carpenter, like many others, toiled for years to further the form of computer animation beyond its elementary beginnings in ways that non-animators may consider impactful. It’s sometimes said, of course, that feature animators care less about praise for their artwork than for the stories they tell within that artwork. However, we must spend at least some of the time acknowledging the power of computer animation and how that power began.
Loren Carpenter, to be clear, is but one of many at Pixar who work at perfecting the technology of computer animation. His research over the decades led him to creating the REYES rendering algorithm, which is implemented at Pixar via the RenderMan system. Of course, RenderMan isn’t just used at Pixar, but has been employed in such films as Titanic, the Lord of the Rings series, and the Star Wars prequels. Quality aside, this much is true: those films wouldn’t exist in their current form without RenderMan, and thus, without Loren Carpenter. Carpenter may not have had the same type of creativity as Lasseter and the other directors of Pixar features, but no doubt, his forward thinking and scientific outlook is as key to the success of computer animation, either at Pixar or at its competitors, as a film like Toy Story is.
And then, of course, there is the creation of the name “Pixar,” which is now as familiar to most people as Disney or Paramount in the industry. The story goes, per the book Droidmaker by Michael Rubin, that Carpenter, Alvy Ray Smith, and a few other employees were out having a meal and were debating what the name should be for the computer they developed. Per Rubin’s account, Smith said, “Let’s just name it after what it does. It makes pictures…It should sound cool and scientific, like ‘laser.’” He suggested “pixer,” but Carpenter said it sounded “weird,” tweaking it to instead be “pixar.” Certainly, this is not a story steeped in the company’s history and lore, but so much of Hollywood’s past is now some kind of mythology. This is why it’s so important to remember the legacy that Loren Carpenter left behind, because though some kind of fiction may tell a better story, the truth is, as so often is the case, appropriate. Myth can be more enjoyable than truth—for example, the oft-repeated and inaccurate idea that if you shout “Andy’s coming!” to the Toy Story characters at the Disney theme parks, they’ll all lie flat on the ground—but there’s no beating legitimate fact.
The legitimate fact, here, is that Loren Carpenter represents the non-cinematic side of Pixar, the side that doesn’t pay obvious dividends to the Walt Disney Company. Of course, if it wasn’t for Carpenter, characters like Sheriff Woody, Marlin, Mike Wazowski, and more might not look as vibrant or colorful or lovable. But to the layperson’s eye, his work was far too cerebral to understand. As the Cartoon Brew article notes, Carpenter worked on troubleshooting problems like “the A-buffer hidden surface algorithm and the rules for making procedural modeling practical.” Most of us may look at that quote and not understand, visually, what any of that means. Does the A-buffer hidden surface algorithm make Woody walk in a subtly different way, or Mike’s green exterior a little closer to aquamarine? Likely not, but we can only begin to grasp, on a non-technical level, the magnitude of Loren Carpenter’s accomplishments while working for Pixar over the past 30 years.
The kind of groundbreaking technical inventions he took part in, granted, are more important than the fact that he invented the name “Pixar,” but the latter creation is somewhat easier to digest. (The closest any competition has to a similar, non-studio-specific name is that of Blue Sky Studios, which has made the Ice Age films as well as Rio.) Pixar has become a household name, in ways that RenderMan hasn’t. Pixar is the standard-bearer for mainstream animation these days, just as Walt Disney Animation Studios was in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, and at least during the Disney Renaissance of the 1990s. The name matters in the public eye more than it should, perhaps, but the word “Pixar” is vital to this company’s success. Carpenter was not wrong to call “Pixer” a weird name, something that wouldn’t trippingly roll off the tongue. Who knows what future Pixer might’ve had, as opposed to Pixar. (Of course, anyone even remotely familiar with the company’s history before its first feature films knows that the 1980s were a period when the future was unsure at best and bleak at worst. And that’s when it was called Pixar.)
So, as he retires from the company that moved well beyond its modest beginnings, we should applaud Loren Carpenter for the tangible and intangible work he contributed to Pixar Animation Studios. Like so many of the employees in Emeryville, he worked on a number of Pixar’s features, and never had such a vocal contribution as to get a writing or acting credit, but his tireless efforts behind the scenes cannot and should not be ignored. Perhaps it’s fitting that the initial tweet announcing his retirement (not from an official Pixar account, of course) has been deleted, because by now, it seems obvious that Carpenter wasn’t very interested in some kind of going-away fanfare, or fanfares in general. Most of his employment was spent in the background, tweaking the tiny things that most audience members wouldn’t notice on first blush; we may first credit him for inventing the name Pixar, but while we champion him for this small part of his legacy, let’s remember that without the work of Loren Carpenter, we might not have a Pixar Animation Studios at all. Someone else could’ve run with that technological baton instead of Carpenter; we should be glad that alternate-universe scenario never came true.