Pixar’s Technological Evolution From ‘Toy Story’ To ‘Toy Story 4’
Wednesday, May 1st, 2019 at 12:00 pm
Pixar Animation Studios has come a long way from where they first started out releasing commercials for top brands names. After the release of Toy Story in 1995, they became the premiere animation studio and are now recognized all over the globe for creating beautifully animated films that are rich in color and story. Though they pride themselves in releasing original stories, they have also released prequels and sequels to some fan-favorite films. And now they will be releasing Toy Story 4. The film is the 21st feature released by Pixar, and sees Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), and the rest of the gang going on a new adventure and reuniting with an old friend, Bo Peep (Anne Potts).
Geeks of Doom and a select number of journalists were flown all the way to Emeryville, California to visit the Pixar campus and get a behind-the-scenes look at the film. We will have extensive coverage on Toy Story 4 and our visit to Pixar Animation Studios in the coming weeks. So be sure to stay tuned. But we will first start off with how far Pixar’s technology has come since they first started out in 1995. So let’s take a look at how the technology has advanced by leaps and bounds. Check it out below.
Bob Pauley, a production designer, has been a part of Pixar since 1995 when the first Toy Story film was released. Bill Reeves, a technology supervisor, has been a part of the Pixar family since 1986 when the animation studio was first launched. Legends in their own right, the two looked back on the company and the evolution of the Toy Story films.
The one theme that kept recurring throughout all of the Toy Story films was the emphasis on creating great stories and filling sets with equally great characters. Four years after the first Toy Story came out, Pixar would release A Bug’s Life, which would then be followed up by Toy Story 2. It would be 11 years after that, and seven films later, when the studio would revisit the franchise with Toy Story 3. It would only be nine years and nine films later that Pixar found another great story for the fourth installment of the Toy Story franchise.
In between those four Toy Story films are 17 other films, a changing of the guard, and huge technological upgrades.
Pixar had long dreamed of releasing a computer-animated feature-length film long before the studio became what it is now. Though, at the time, they weren’t really ready to develop and produce them. So they released early shorts in order to hone in on the craft. It wasn’t until 1991 that Pixar would pitch a very early draft of Toy Story, which featured a ventriloquist doll which we now know as Woody, and Lunar Larry, an action figure spaceman who we now know as Buzz Lightyear, to Disney.
Once Disney approved of the pitch, Pixar would develop Toy Story into a buddy movie, where a cowboy doll has his life turned upside down with the arrival of an exciting new action figure toy. But story is king at Pixar and no level of technology could overshadow the importance of it. So it was Pauley and Reeves’ responsibility to process that story in the characters, sets, shading, graphics, effects, and other details and nuances that may go into a Pixar film.
In addition to the design challenges that Pixar had to overcome, the studio had to also make a feature-length film. Before Toy Story, their longest piece of work ran five minutes long. Toy Story is an 82-minute film. So you can imagine the daunting task they had before them. So they took a “seat-of-the-pants” approach to solve some of the problems they came across.
Pixar had never had an art department, story department, or editorial department. Eventually, the animation team grew from three to over 50; the number of technical directors grew from 10 to over 70; and the art department, which started with zero, added four people – and even then, they still did not believe it was enough, but it was all they could afford at the time.
The software used to make Toy Story was also very primitive. Layout and lighting were created by using a text editor. With no visual feedback available, this meant the animator had to type in the commands and crossed their fingers in hopes of getting a good result. The rigging system was also very primitive, meaning the animation controls used to animate these characters was very crude and elementary. So the controls were very restrictive when compared to the ones Pixar uses today.
While shading on surfaces like human skin proved to be a bit difficult, plastic was Pixar’s friend. The renderer could process these plastic surfaces much easier and it was the only thing that they could do well. This was actually one of the reasons why Pixar based their first film on toy characters. It was sort of a way to sidestep some of the difficulties of animating humans because the renderer processed plastics quicker and more efficiently.
Toy Story would use many of the same basic animation principles that Disney had been using like “squash and stretch, anticipation, and timing.” But some of the more subtle principles like “follow through and secondary action” were more difficult because of the early version of the tools they had at the time.
Furthermore, light sources were also very limited. For example, there were only six or seven light sources used in the Dinaco scene. Today, they would probably load it up with 200 or 300 different light sources so as to reflect what a gas station would look like today.
Basically, Pauley and Reeves were both designing within the limitations of what they had in terms of tools and budget.
Four years and A Bug’s Life later, Pixar would move on to their very first sequel, Toy Story 2, which looked and felt like the original. With the director changes and story changes, and the tools that were already available, they were able to make Toy Story 2 in about eight months. They also had access to better lighting and shading software, and far more experience than they had the first Toy Story. This allowed them to take more risks by adding more characters like Al the Toy Collector, and the Cleaner, which had far more detail and features than Andy and his mom. Experience with crowds in A Bug’s Life also allowed the team to have the kind of opening they did in Toy Story 2.
In June 2010, Pixar would release Toy Story 3. There would be 11 years and seven feature films in between Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3, but, by then, there had been some major advances in software programs and the studio grew in size.
Enhancements in hair technology would allow animators to put more hair on all of the characters like Andy, Bonnie, and Barbie. Improvements in shading also made humans much more appealing and believable. And new lighting created richer and more complex scenes, as well as to help tell the story. Depth of field and haze would help pull the audience’s attention.
Nine years later, we will be seeing Toy Story 4. Which will be the biggest leap in new software and technology yet. New rigging systems allow animators to pull off some of the more subtle emotional scenes in the movie. They were also able to create new soft and plushy textures, which we will see in Ducky and Bunny (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele), something we never saw in any of the previous Toy Story films.
New shading and lighting systems allowed animators to build more complex and detailed scenes. And new rendering systems mimic the physics of light and how it interacts with objects within a scene. New effects tools help make the water look and feel real; dust and cobwebs can now be added to the floors, corners, nooks and crannies, and the rafters of a building. Dust can even be added to give off visually pleasing bokeh effects.
With access to all of these tools, they now have the time to add richness to any scene in the film. But even with these improvements to the textures, Pixar will always stay true to the designs of the toys. With these technological advances, they can have richer and more depth to the world they are creating. But when it comes to a character like Andy, he has gotten some major upgrades, which you may have noticed over the course of the previous three Toy Story films.
Although the major changes happened in between Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3, it was always going to be about the toys. “I think in [Toy Story] 3, in particularly [Toy Story] 4, we’ve reached our goal,” Pauley said when talking about animating humans. “We are not making live-action, that is the key. We are not making a live-action Toy Story, we are stylizing things. So there are a lot things and details you will connect with the real world because we wanted it to be believable. But it’s not live-action.”
They also wanted to stay consistent with the world the toys inhabit. So they wanted to bring in textures and richness, but also maintain a level of stylization. But one of the biggest differences between Toy Story and Toy Story 4 is the level of polish Pixar is bringing in. Animation in a shot is broken down into two aspects, blocking and polishing. “Blocking you get the characters acting and moving to tell the story points of the shot,” Reeves said. “Polishing, you add all of the subtle movements in the acting that really makes the shot come alive. Examples of polishing like leading an action with the eyes or making a character breath.”
“It’s estimated that animators spend 10 times more time polishing shots on Toy Story 4 than Toy Story and Toy Story 2,” Reeves said. These differences are subtle. They are supposed to be felt rather than seen. So when comparing Toy Story to Toy Story 4, the latter has much more of that allusion to life than the former.
When comparing the numbers, Toy Story had 294 cores, 129 crew employees, and 129 employees. Don’t ask me what a core is, even Reeves could not describe it for us. But in layman’s terms, it’s the technology necessary in order to process what we see in the Pixar feature films. As Toy Story 4 nears, Pixar has 1247 employees, 475 crew employees, and a render farm that is composed of a 55,000 core supercomputer. So it is pretty safe to say that technology has significantly improved.
An example of how much a different 24 years makes is when Reeves talked about how they added a rain sequence in Toy Story at director John Lasseter‘s request. The scene was described as virtually impossible because of technological constraints, at the time. Using the tools that they had, and some shortcuts, they were able to show the rain in the exterior shots and raindrops on the window for the interior. This would help set the tone for the film, and for all intents and purposes, it worked in the context of the story. “The limitations are essential to the design challenges,” Reeves said. “Limitations. Less limitations. Both are design problems. It’s what you do with what you have and how you use them to tell the story, that’s the key.”
Reeves says one artist took a month to work on that entire sequence.
Flash-forward 20 years later, and Toy Story 4 will have another rain sequence that took an entire team six or seven months to work on, most of which was dedicated to the effects. Pauley and Reeves call it the “money shot.” In it, we will see Woody and Bo Peep coordinating a rescue operation in which RC is about to be swept away by rain, and they work with the toys to rescue the remote control toy car before he gets to the storm drain. This scene helps set the tone for the rest of the film and it explains what happens to Bo Peep in between Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3. We will have more about this later on.
The biggest takeaway from Toy Story and Toy Story 4 is that Pixar now has 24 years of experience, more talent staffed, and way more powerful tools. However, story is king at Pixar. They prioritize story over any of the tools that they have before them. For them, the tools are in service to the story. Which is why Pixar is able to deliver us quality films time and time again.
Toy Story 4 opens in theaters on June 21, 2019. Click right here for trailers and more.