A real game changer
It’s incredible to think that Toy Story will be 17 years old in November but we’re still feeling its impact even now as countless computer animated movies are churned out each year. At the time of its production though, it was considered something of a risk and it took the combined efforts of John Lasseter, Jeffery Katzenberg and the late Steve Jobs to get it made. Of course, it was so successful that these days children think the first man on the Moon was Buzz Aldrin, a fact that probably pleases old Buzz no end.
Toy Story’s director was John Lasseter, who originally started out as a traditional animator at Disney, until he saw a sneak preview of the light cycle chase from Tron. He was impressed by what he saw and felt computers could also be used as a tool in traditional animation, especially as an effective way of creating three dimensional backgrounds. Lasseter decided to create a short test film based on a scene from the book Where the Wild Things Are, in which traditionally animated characters interacted with a computer generated environment. However Disney didn’t share Lasseter’s enthusiasm for computer animation and promptly fired him.
Thanks to the connections Lasseter had made whilst researching computer animation at Disney, he became friends with Ed Catmull who had set up the Lucasfilm Computer Graphics Group. Lasseter joined the group as an 'Interface Designer' because Catmull was not allowed to hire animators but they soon began to create some fully computer animated shorts. Thanks to George Lucas’s financially crippling divorce, in 1986 he was forced to sell Computer Graphics Group to none other than Steve Jobs, fresh from being kicked out of Apple. Jobs initially was interested in producing high end computer hardware with the newly created Pixar and ironically Disney bought a Pixar Image Computer for their CAPS programme. This, at the time, secretive programme was designed to computerise the animation and post-production processes of traditional cell animation, just as Lasseter had tried to do years earlier.
The Image Computer never sold well but Lasseter had been using it to create computer animated shorts to show off the hardware’s capability. Jeffery Katzenberg could see the potential of a computer animated feature, so a deal was struck with Disney, who agreed to fund and distribute three animated features from Pixar, the first of which was Toy Story. It took four years for Pixar to produce Toy Story and the company’s finances were dangerously stretched before the film’s release. To everyone’s surprise and relief the film was a massive hit, taking $361 million worldwide and the rest, as they say, is history.
The film changed animation almost overnight, proving to have the same kind of cultural impact that Snow White had sixty years earlier. The other studios, including Disney themselves, rushed to produce their own computer generated features and traditional cell animation began to fall by the wayside. In fact, within ten years, almost no one was making traditional cell animation and even Disney had shut their cell animation department. In 2006 when Disney bought Pixar, John Lasseter returned to the studio that had fired him, only this time he was Chief Creative Officer of both Disney Animation and Pixar. To Lasseter’s credit, one of the first things he did was reinstate the cell animation department pointing out, quite rightly, that it isn’t the style of animation that counts but the story.
What made Toy Story so good, and the reason that Pixar remained ahead of the pack, was that it has a great story and well defined characters that appeal to both children and adults alike. The screenplay by, among others, Joss Whedon is bristling with wit and sophistication and uses the classic structure of the buddy movie as the basis for its plot. In fact it plays like a toy version of Midnight Run, minus all the swearing, as the mismatched couple of Woody and Buzz initially don’t get on, bickering on their journey home before ultimately becoming friends.
The other element that makes the film work is the performances of the voice cast, especially Tom Hanks as Woody and Tim Allen as Buzz. Lasseter always had Hanks in mind for the role of Woody and in order to convince the actor to take the role, he even animated Woody to a clip of Hank’s voice from a scene in Turner & Hooch. The role of Buzz was originally offered to Billy Crystal who turned it down, although he would voice Mike in Monsters Inc a few years later. So instead the role was offered to Tim Allen who starred in the hit TV show Home Improvements which was also produced by Disney. Both actors really nail their characters and their performances go a long way to humanising the computer animated toys.
By the time Pixar began production on the third Toy Story movie, 3D had come back into fashion and the decision was made to make that movie in Disney Digital 3D. As a result Pixar decided to convert the previous two Toy Story movies into Disney Digital 3D as well and re-release them at the cinema prior to the third film opening. To Pixar’s credit they decided not to just convert the finished films into 3D as had been done with other features but to actually re-render the films as if they had been originally created for 3D.
To do this required a four month period of locating the original computer data, a process that Lasseter referred to as “digital archaeology”, followed by six months of additional animation. To produce the 3D version, the animators placed a second virtual camera into each scene, thus creating the left-eye and right eye views needed to achieve the perception of depth. The entire process was overseen by lead stereographer Bob Whitehill who used the added dimensionality to enhance the emotional impact of the narrative. He studied the film and looked for story reasons to use the 3D in different ways. For example he deliberately narrowed the depth of shots in Andy’s bedroom, where the toys would feel safe. However out in the real world, he made the 3D much deeper to make the environment more frightening and overwhelming.
The result of these efforts was a genuine 3D experience and a chance for the film that started the CG revolution to be seen at the theatres once more. Toy Story has survived the test of time despite the advancements in computer animation because ultimately it's a great story about friendship. The screenplay is clever, the dialogue is laser sharp, the voice work spot and the animation is imaginative, resulting in a film with real heart that will continue to resonate with children of all ages.
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