The cartoons – shot one frame at a time

The art of animation went to infinity and beyond with ToyStory – the world’s first completely computer-generated movie. With an all-starcast of voice talent headed by Tom Hanks and Tim Allen and a score by Grammywinner Randy Newman, the film became the number one box office champion of 1995and won a special Academy Award (Tim, 2015). Toy Story also represents an amazing breakthrough in the waymovies are made, when the Walt Disney Studio joined creative forces with thecomputer 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 frameat a time but instead of using traditional ink and paint. Toy Story’s animatorsgave their characters life by moving three-dimensional images created acomputer.

From there, state of the art computers built the geometric shapesinto lifelike puppets before rendering them with colour, texture and shadows.Director John Lasseter and his computer artists and scientists spent four yearsdesigning 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 wasthe heart and spirit of fun that the filmmakers put into the characters andstory. Every animator is child at heart and the best toys for them are thecomputer programs that they invented to put high-tech graphics into the handsof cartoon animators (Julia, 2015).  When John Lasseter first saw the computer animation of anykind when he was working at Disney as an animator on Mickey’s Christmas Caroland two of his friends were working on Tron, and from there on he thought thatwas the next step – the next plateau towards the future of animation (Tim, 2015).

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Tron was the first feature film to explore computer graphics set inside a videogame, the environment, vehicles and special effects were all computer-generatedimagery. Walt Disney feature animation continued utilising computer assistedanimation to create elaborate three-dimensional architecture – like theballroom in Beauty and the Beast, the massive stampede in the Lion King isanother good example of how computer-generated models can be combined withhand-drawn characters for a spectacular effect (Tim, 2015). Disney teamed with thehigh-tech innovators at Pixar to invent a computer assisted production systemwhich revolutionised the way animation is coloured and layered, and since thenit’s been used on every Disney animated feature.  The film’s commercial and artistic success launched computeranimation as an exciting new medium, creating a successful alternative toDisney that inspired more companies to invest in animated features, therebycontributing to what many considered a new golden age of animation (Tom, 2015).After the film’s debut, many industries were interested in the technology usedfor the film. Graphic chips manufacturers desired to compute imagery similar tothe film’s animation for personal computers, game developers, video games,artificial intelligence and many more.

Also, the idea that something computeranimated could physically express emotions was deemed nearly impossible withthose relatively untested computer technology that they have during that time.Not to mention the even harder task of simply writing complex enough charactersthat 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 itsvery first feature-length film.John Lasseter and the artist at Pixar were also inventingnew techniques for making character based movies by computer, thereforeexperimental short films were unlike anything audiences had ever seen (Susan,2015). When Tin Toy came out in 1988, it was the first computer animated filmto ever win an Oscar as the best animated short of 1989. Its success fuelled theirdreams of creating a full-length movie by computer (Susan, 2015). Theproduction team were inspired by Tin Toy with the ideas that they developed inthere of toys being alive, and they thought there was a tremendous potentialfrom there so they came up with the idea for the buddy picture with two toysinstead of two humans. When they made Buzz, their goal was to make a toy thatany boy would want – something made out of steel, plastic bubbles, and a newtech toy. In contrast, the ventriloquist dummy began to evolve into an old-fashionedcowboy rag doll named Woody Pride – which is designed as an old-fashionedWestern loose-limbed marionette without the strings (Crystal, 2015).

 Early character models were created and put through theirpaces, for a while the under sized space man was called Lunar Larry and laterTempest from morph which made Toy Story off and running (Crystal, 2015). ByJune, 1992, they did a screen test to see if the toys would be believable onthe big screen. These tests prove the technology would work even though theearly woody seemed to be a bit mean-spirited to his rival. As for the littlespaceman he needed more stature, so to bolster his appeal they decided to opena movie with a cartoon version of The Buzz Lightyear TV show (Crystal, 2015).  The film editors put together a version of the movie usingonly story sketches from there on, the computer process differs from the wayanimation has been made for the last century, no more drawing, tracing orpainting – instead, computer animators manipulate quickly rendered polygonsthen send each frame through the incredibly complex computer process ofoverlaying shades of colour, texture maps and reflectivity as they render oneframe at a time (Julia, 2015). But every setting, toy and props starts out as ahand-drawn design created by art director Ralph Eggleston and the artdepartment (Tim, 2015). The colours and mood of the scenes were defined in thepastel drawings and concept paintings many years before they ever came to lifeon the big screen. Compared to Disney’s great animated features, with theirfine arts style and fairy tale naturalism, Toy Story looks like a veritablework of Pop Art, dominated by glossy, brightly coloured commodities (Tom,2015).

At that time, Disney was doing a Broadway-styled musical and colourfulfairy tale animated style in their films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfsand Beauty and the Beast, whilst the artists on this film made it lookglimmering with reflective surfaces, vibrant and shiny toy packages, glowingcolours, and industrial plastic forms. As with Andy Warhol and other PopArtists, the Pixar film-makers sought to counter or challenge the dominantconventions that had developed in their respective mediums (Tom, 2015).  The film-makers did not draw upon theinfluence of the Pop Artists, rather they kept a similarity to the relatedmotives, within their mediums, inspiration, and recognising the other assets.  The human characters provided animators with some of theirgreatest challenges. Computer scientists figured out how to give skin and oilytexture and how to layer thousands of individual hairs (Crystal, 2015).

PiecingSid together meant balancing reality and caricature in a way that will do justiceto the first all computer animated screen villain. Every colour, texture andpattern within the film is a shader right down to the reflection in Buzz’shelmet and the decals on his suit. Details too time consuming and expensive tobe drawn frame by frame in cel animation (Crystal, 2015). Lighting wasaccomplished by breaking the shot down into the various light sources thencombining them until the desired effect was achieved. Only then is a shot readyfor final rendering where a specially invented digital film printer takes overfrom the humans and combines the shapes and colours for each of the frames (Julia,2015). What makes toy story so unique is the collaboration betweentraditionally trained artists and animators together with the computer geniuses,which developed some of the most complex moving shapes ever generated bycomputer.

Supervising animator Pete Docter helped new animators trade theirpencils and paint for a keyboard and mouse (Crystal, 2015). By doing this, theycan control the characters within the computer to give them movements. Petealso suggest the idea of nailing down their shoes onto a piece of wooden boardto better study the movements for the toy soldiers, and the entire production teamparticipated. Overall, computer animated films are thus infinitely moreengaging than their traditional counterparts and Toy Story perfectlydemonstrates its boundless power. People will notice and talk about the factthat this is the very first computer animated feature film but the computersare just tools, they didn’t create this picture, it’s the people that createdthe picture. Disney himself blew the audiences minds when he really took theidea of drawing cartoons and raised it to this true art and Toy Story is thenext version of that’s in the grand Walt Disney tradition.

As to the future ofcomputer animation, perhaps Buzz Lightyear can sum it up best, “to infinity andbeyond”.