Pixar's Web site provides an interesting history of the company (albeit in bits and pieces). Their first production in 1986 was an animated short titled "Luxo Jr.", featuring a "mother and daughter" pair of desk lamps, and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film (the winner was "A Greek Tragedy" by Linda Van Tulden and Willem Thijssen). It was re-released with the film Toy Story 2 as an example of where the company had come from and why a bouncing lamp is part of the Pixar logo today. Pixar made this film using their own RenderMan software, commercially available today and described as "the highest quality renderer available anywhere."
They continued producing and releasing animated shorts for years, including the Academy Award-winning "Tin Toy", the spiritual forefather to Toy Story. They're still doing it today, in fact -- "Geri's Game" was created in 1997 to put into practice new animation techniques for realistic hair, cloth and wrinkled skin. "For The Birds" was released in 2000 and is still touring animation festivals worldwide in 2001.
During the 1990s they created a number of television commercials for various companies to fortify their income. In 1993 and 1994 they won Gold Clio awards for two of them, a nightclub full of conga-dancing Gummy Savers and a Robin Hood incarnation of the famous Tarzan Listerine bottle (featuring the 80s pop song "Tarzan Boy" -- go on, sing it to yourself for a minute, you know you want to). Fun Thing To Do: if you page frame-by-frame through the TV "channel-clicking" scene near the start of Toy Story 2, the channels you see are almost all frames from these Listerine commercials and Pixar's other animated shorts.
They stopped making commercials after Toy Story swept the box office in 1995. Why bother? The film made $184 million in the United States alone, and that's before it came out on video. A Bug's Life and Toy Story 2 followed successfully; Toy Story 2 astonished everyone by having damned good story despite being a sequel. While Steve Jobs and Disney would both love to take credit for Pixar's success, the real credit deserves to go to John Lasseter, director of all three movies (and "Luxo Jr.") and vice president of creative development for the company. The Web site informs visitors that "it is chiseled in stone at our studios that no amount of technology can turn a bad story into a good one," and probably nothing proves this better than Disney's own first jump into computer-animated movies, Dinosaur.
People say that Disney has "lost its heart" for kids today, and Pixar is probably their last hope for regaining it. Thank goodness they're an independent company, then -- Disney only gets credit for distributing Pixar's movies to theaters and advertising them. (In fact, they had to drastically reduce their cut of the box office profits after Toy Story proved Pixar could succeed on its own, if they wanted to.) For all Disney's best efforts, they are first and foremost a marketing machine today, making more money from their brand and spinoff merchandise than from their creative talent pool. Pixar is nothing but creative talent and great software; they aren't interested in building theme parks or selling action figures, they just want to make great films.
Good for them, then. And may they never stop.