Does Pixar Really Have a Technological Advantage?

There’s an annual report called the Global Animation Industry Report: Strategies, Trends & Opportunities. I wrote about it last year, but since there’s a new report for 2014, I’m writing about it again. While the $5,000 price is a bit too steep for me, you can view the contents online for free, and that’s where one sub-heading picqued my interest: ‘Pixar’s Technological Advantage’. While that may have been true many years ago, does it still hold up?

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Pixar is famous for the RenderMan software which gave them the edge over other CGI competitors for a long time. The question is, has that lead diminished, or indeed, disappeared completely? Consider how Antz compared to A Bug’s Life. There’s no competition is there? Despite PDI’s best efforts, their efforts lack the detail and sheen that Pixar put into their film.

Fast forward just a few years though, and Shrek highlights a marked improvement. Sure, Pixar went all in to make sure Sully’s fur seemed as real as it possibly could, but outside of that, the overall look of the film was carried much more by the concept than the execution.

Pixar did maintain their lead with hits like The Incredibles and Finding Nemo which compared very favourably with Shark Tale and Madagascar, but skipping ahead to today reveals a different story.

Is anyone hard pressed to tell the difference between say, The Croods and Monsters University? Both films look outstanding. Both films are set in a pseudo-realistic world and both films offer an astonishing level of detail. Other studios, (such as Sony) have gone in a different but no less impressive direction by embracing the cartoony side of CGI in a no-less-impressive way.

Which leads to another question: just how far can CGI progress? Photo-realism is widespread throughout the film industry (heck, Life of Pi did away with sets entirely) and even if Pixar’s technological prowess continues, are they heading down a creative dead-end? At what point does a Pixar film stop looking like true animation and instead turn into a live-action film with what appears to be animated characters? Plenty of films already do it the other way around, which is surely harder.

It’s a good point to raise, because it’s clear that whatever technological advantage that Pixar has, they can’t continue to put it on the screen. DreamWorks has long partnered with Hewlett Packard and has forged their own technological developments, especially on the hardware side.

Given that pretty much anyone and everyone is releasing CGI features, it’s hard not to think that although Pixar’s films look superior, the gap is far narrower than many believe.

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