The Real Story of Pixar's Luxo Jr. Lamp
Luxo Jr., a Pixar short released in 1986, has become one of the most recognizable pieces of animation and film introductions of all time. You may have heard that a lamp on John Lasseter's desk inspired the short, but Lasseter's connection to the lamp as a character goes back even further.
The Lady and the Lamp is a short film created while attending CalArts by the aspiring animator-turned-filmmaker. The short featured a lamp going through various stages of emotion, drawing inspiration from the Walt Disney Company's history of imbuing inanimate objects with interesting personalities.
After seeing a coworker's newborn, I realized that the short could be expanded by making a smaller, "baby" lamp in addition to the original. Using a lamp for the shorts, of all things, required some ingenuity to add humanlike emotions and expressions to an otherwise mundane piece of office equipment, and Lasseter relished the challenge.
Lasseter prepared a character study for Pixar's lead creatives and cofounders, Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith, after some work on the lamp project was completed. Aside from the anthropomorphic lamp's expressions, Lasseter's research sought to highlight another notable achievement the short could display: a better way to animate light and shadows.
Another reason for Lasseter's fascination with the lamp was the opportunity it provided for him to experiment with animating various perceptions of light, shadows, and their interaction. It was a difficult task because he had to be careful to edit in the light where it would be reflected by a real-life desk lamp, and he had to capture elements like the lightbulb's glow and shine against the rest of the set.
Another example of Lasseter's character study demonstrating how lighting could be used in computer animation was the turn toward the audience. The thought may not have occurred to you while watching the short ahead of your favourite Pixar films, but consider the light's movements the next time you watch, and you will realize what an accomplishment the work was to the world of animation in 1986.