The cartoons – shot one frame at a time

The art of animation went to infinity and beyond with Toy
Story – the world’s first completely computer-generated movie. With an all-star
cast of voice talent headed by Tom Hanks and Tim Allen and a score by Grammy
winner Randy Newman, the film became the number one box office champion of 1995
and won a special Academy Award (Tim, 2015).

 

Toy Story also represents an amazing breakthrough in the way
movies are made, when the Walt Disney Studio joined creative forces with the
computer pioneers at Pixar, they didn’t just make a movie – they made history (Julia,
2015). Until now, feature animation meant hand-drawn cartoons – shot one frame
at a time but instead of using traditional ink and paint. Toy Story’s animators
gave their characters life by moving three-dimensional images created a
computer. From there, state of the art computers built the geometric shapes
into lifelike puppets before rendering them with colour, texture and shadows.

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Director John Lasseter and his computer artists and scientists spent four years
designing everything you see in the film – every house, character, and cars (Julia,
2015). It wasn’t just computer magic that made Toy Story such a success, it was
the heart and spirit of fun that the filmmakers put into the characters and
story. Every animator is child at heart and the best toys for them are the
computer programs that they invented to put high-tech graphics into the hands
of cartoon animators (Julia, 2015).

 

When John Lasseter first saw the computer animation of any
kind when he was working at Disney as an animator on Mickey’s Christmas Carol
and two of his friends were working on Tron, and from there on he thought that
was the next step – the next plateau towards the future of animation (Tim, 2015).

Tron was the first feature film to explore computer graphics set inside a video
game, the environment, vehicles and special effects were all computer-generated
imagery. Walt Disney feature animation continued utilising computer assisted
animation to create elaborate three-dimensional architecture – like the
ballroom in Beauty and the Beast, the massive stampede in the Lion King is
another good example of how computer-generated models can be combined with
hand-drawn characters for a spectacular effect (Tim, 2015). Disney teamed with the
high-tech innovators at Pixar to invent a computer assisted production system
which revolutionised the way animation is coloured and layered, and since then
it’s been used on every Disney animated feature.

 

The film’s commercial and artistic success launched computer
animation as an exciting new medium, creating a successful alternative to
Disney that inspired more companies to invest in animated features, thereby
contributing to what many considered a new golden age of animation (Tom, 2015).

After the film’s debut, many industries were interested in the technology used
for the film. Graphic chips manufacturers desired to compute imagery similar to
the film’s animation for personal computers, game developers, video games,
artificial intelligence and many more. Also, the idea that something computer
animated could physically express emotions was deemed nearly impossible with
those relatively untested computer technology that they have during that time.

Not to mention the even harder task of simply writing complex enough characters
that another human could identify with what they’re going through emotionally –
which is just astonishing and Pixar managed to do both at the same time in its
very first feature-length film.

John Lasseter and the artist at Pixar were also inventing
new techniques for making character based movies by computer, therefore
experimental short films were unlike anything audiences had ever seen (Susan,
2015). When Tin Toy came out in 1988, it was the first computer animated film
to ever win an Oscar as the best animated short of 1989. Its success fuelled their
dreams of creating a full-length movie by computer (Susan, 2015). The
production team were inspired by Tin Toy with the ideas that they developed in
there of toys being alive, and they thought there was a tremendous potential
from there so they came up with the idea for the buddy picture with two toys
instead of two humans. When they made Buzz, their goal was to make a toy that
any boy would want – something made out of steel, plastic bubbles, and a new
tech toy. In contrast, the ventriloquist dummy began to evolve into an old-fashioned
cowboy rag doll named Woody Pride – which is designed as an old-fashioned
Western loose-limbed marionette without the strings (Crystal, 2015).

 

Early character models were created and put through their
paces, for a while the under sized space man was called Lunar Larry and later
Tempest from morph which made Toy Story off and running (Crystal, 2015). By
June, 1992, they did a screen test to see if the toys would be believable on
the big screen. These tests prove the technology would work even though the
early woody seemed to be a bit mean-spirited to his rival. As for the little
spaceman he needed more stature, so to bolster his appeal they decided to open
a movie with a cartoon version of The Buzz Lightyear TV show (Crystal, 2015).

 

The film editors put together a version of the movie using
only story sketches from there on, the computer process differs from the way
animation has been made for the last century, no more drawing, tracing or
painting – instead, computer animators manipulate quickly rendered polygons
then send each frame through the incredibly complex computer process of
overlaying shades of colour, texture maps and reflectivity as they render one
frame at a time (Julia, 2015). But every setting, toy and props starts out as a
hand-drawn design created by art director Ralph Eggleston and the art
department (Tim, 2015). The colours and mood of the scenes were defined in the
pastel drawings and concept paintings many years before they ever came to life
on the big screen.

 

Compared to Disney’s great animated features, with their
fine arts style and fairy tale naturalism, Toy Story looks like a veritable
work of Pop Art, dominated by glossy, brightly coloured commodities (Tom,
2015). At that time, Disney was doing a Broadway-styled musical and colourful
fairy tale animated style in their films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
and Beauty and the Beast, whilst the artists on this film made it look
glimmering with reflective surfaces, vibrant and shiny toy packages, glowing
colours, and industrial plastic forms. As with Andy Warhol and other Pop
Artists, the Pixar film-makers sought to counter or challenge the dominant
conventions that had developed in their respective mediums (Tom, 2015).  The film-makers did not draw upon the
influence of the Pop Artists, rather they kept a similarity to the related
motives, within their mediums, inspiration, and recognising the other assets.

 

The human characters provided animators with some of their
greatest challenges. Computer scientists figured out how to give skin and oily
texture and how to layer thousands of individual hairs (Crystal, 2015). Piecing
Sid together meant balancing reality and caricature in a way that will do justice
to the first all computer animated screen villain. Every colour, texture and
pattern within the film is a shader right down to the reflection in Buzz’s
helmet and the decals on his suit. Details too time consuming and expensive to
be drawn frame by frame in cel animation (Crystal, 2015). Lighting was
accomplished by breaking the shot down into the various light sources then
combining them until the desired effect was achieved. Only then is a shot ready
for final rendering where a specially invented digital film printer takes over
from the humans and combines the shapes and colours for each of the frames (Julia,
2015).

 

What makes toy story so unique is the collaboration between
traditionally trained artists and animators together with the computer geniuses,
which developed some of the most complex moving shapes ever generated by
computer. Supervising animator Pete Docter helped new animators trade their
pencils and paint for a keyboard and mouse (Crystal, 2015). By doing this, they
can control the characters within the computer to give them movements. Pete
also suggest the idea of nailing down their shoes onto a piece of wooden board
to better study the movements for the toy soldiers, and the entire production team
participated.

 

Overall, computer animated films are thus infinitely more
engaging than their traditional counterparts and Toy Story perfectly
demonstrates its boundless power. People will notice and talk about the fact
that this is the very first computer animated feature film but the computers
are just tools, they didn’t create this picture, it’s the people that created
the picture. Disney himself blew the audiences minds when he really took the
idea of drawing cartoons and raised it to this true art and Toy Story is the
next version of that’s in the grand Walt Disney tradition. As to the future of
computer animation, perhaps Buzz Lightyear can sum it up best, “to infinity and
beyond”.