Perhaps the most iconic character in the history of computer graphics isn’t a living thing. It’s a desk lamp. For more than twenty-five years, it has served as the symbol for one of the pioneering companies in the field of computer animation, Pixar, and it all started with the fascination held of a lamp on John Lasseter’s desk.
Industrial Light & Magic was founded by George Lucas in 1975 to create the special effects for the epic film Star Wars. In 1984, its Graphics Group, which was only one third of the computer division, debuted a short film called The Adventures of Andre & Wall-B at the annual SIGGRAPH conference. It was the hit of the conference, and was later shown at film festivals around the world. In 1985, the team released the footage of The Stained Glass Knight for Spielberg’s Young Sherlock Holmes, which was a turning point for the graphics community as the first computer-generated character in a mainstream film.
That was the last major project undertaken by the Graphics Group before being spun off as an independent company. Named Pixar, it was not initially a film production company, but a computer graphics hardware and software company. The first few projects were short films created as demonstration pieces to help drum up interest in the products Pixar was releasing: the RenderMan graphics software package, and the Pixar Image Computer.
John Lasseter had been fascinated by animation since he was a high school freshman, setting his sights on working in animation after seeing Disney’s The Sword and the Stone. Lasseter attended the California Institute of the Arts, where he created the short film The Lady and the Lamp in 1979 featuring a broken-bulbed lamp taking part in wacky hijinks. The anthropomorphization of everyday inanimate objects had been a staple of animation dating back to the earliest days of film. Walt Disney particularly understood the appeal of giving regular objects human attributes, as with the animated brooms in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice segment from Fantasia. Lasseter used the iconic Luxo lamp as a model finding ways to make it appear to have human-like emotion. A visit from a co-worker’s baby led Lasseter to experiment with the idea of creating a baby Luxo lamp. He altered some attributes of the lamp, shrinking parts and changing proportions except for the lightbulb, which was purchased at the store and therefore not grown, according to Lasseter’s reasoning.
He planned a short character study where the parent lamp and the child lamp interacted. He justified the project to Pixar’s heads Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith as a demonstration of ‘self-shadowing’: how the intensity of the light from the lamps interacts with their environment and the lamps themselves. Applying shadow maps to simulate the lighting patterns, using RenderMan’s surface shader instead of the more standard use of surface textures, would make the planned film a valuable tool for selling the features of RenderMan.
Though Lasseter had initially envisioned it as a simple character study, the success of an early screening of test footage at an animation festival convinced him to draw up a more elaborate storyline for a parent and child lamp. Told in less than two minutes, it starts with the parent lamp playing with a small ball, knocking it back and forth to an unseen partner. Eventually Luxo Jr. comes hopping into the frame and plays exuberantly with the little ball, finally hopping on it and flattening it. I won’t give away the rest of the movie.
While the storyline is adorable, it’s the ability to give these lamps the illusion of having emotions that is the greatest accomplishment. The way Luxo Jr. shows an undeniable curiosity and enthusiasm, the way the parent lamp reacts to the popping of the ball, and the final reveal, are complex emotions to communicate with non-anthropomorphic objects. Early computer animations seldom reached the level of emotional impact that Luxo Jr. managed to achieve, and it became a famous exemplar of Pixar’s work.
The thing I wanted to do in Luxo Jr. was make the characters and story the most important thing, not the fact that it was done with computer graphics. As you see in the film show at SIGGRAPH, a lot of times it’s computer graphics for computer graphics nerds. People get excited about it purely because it was generated with a computer.
Lasseter worked with the then-small animation department of Pixar to complete the film. A high priority was to complete the film in time for the 1986 SIGGRAPH festival in Dallas, and as the final deadline neared Lasseter brought a sleeping bag into the office and slept under his desk.
The reaction at SIGGRAPH was wild enthusiasm; a standing ovation began even before the final frame of the film reached the screen. Lasseter noted in 1990 to Harry McCracken for Animato Magazine, “I love showing the films at SIGGRAPH because you get such a great reaction. The reaction to Luxo Jr. was phenomenal; people had never seen anything quite like that before, and it got a really wonderful ovation.”
Many computer graphics demonstrations at SIGGRAPH and other film festivals and conferences were either scientific, showing the latest in modeling or scanning techniques, or were simple shapes shown flying across the screen. With Luxo Jr., Lasseter entered a whole new world.
As you see in the film show at SIGGRAPH, a lot of times it’s computer graphics for computer graphics nerds. People get excited about it purely because it was generated with a computer. I wanted people who had never even seen a computer before to look at it and enjoy it as a film. I did a couple of things: I locked the camera down, didn’t move it.
An interesting reaction to Luxo Jr. came from graphics pioneer Jim Blinn. After the initial screening, he approached Lasseter and said “John, was the parent lamp a mother or a father?” Lasseter saw that question as the ultimate sign of the film’s success. “One of the real brains in computer graphics was concerned more about whether the parent lamp was a mother or a father.”
Pixar went on to produce many computer animated short subjects, including Red’s Dream, Knick Knack, and the Oscar-winning Tin Toy, which was the first computer animation to win an Academy Award. They eventually created the first feature-length animated film, Toy Story, directed by Lasseter. A dozen other Pixar films have since been released, including four directed by Lasseter.
Luxo Jr. represents not only a ground-breaking moment in the history of computer animation, but also an important change in the way computer animation is viewed. It was the first fully computer animated film to ever be nominated for an Academy Award. (Peter Foldès’ largely computer-animated Hunger was nominated in 1974.) It played at festivals around the world. The Luxo character is probably best-known now for appearing at the start of every Pixar film in the animated logo. Luxo Jr. hops in, and jumps up and down on the ‘I’ in Pixar until it flattens. It then looks somewhat sheepishly at the camera as the shot fades.
Luxo or Luxo Jr. also appear in the background of several other Pixar films, in much the same way that another famous object of computer graphics study, the the Utah Teapot, appears in various computer animated projects. Luxo Jr.’s influence might even leap beyond the bounds of Pixar; many have commented that the iMac G4 released in 2002 bears a remarkable resemblance to the Luxo Jr. Perhaps that is not such a coincidence when you consider that Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs was the major investor in Pixar!