Karen A. Frenkel

Science and Technology Writer

Feature: The New York Times' CyberTimes Toy Story: Origin of a Species


For the launch of CyberTimes: The New York Times on the Web, January 15, 1996

John Lasseter was a new Disney animator back in 1981 when two friends working on “Tron,” the first feature-length movie to employ computer animation, showed him dailies of a sequence in which motor cycles zoomed around a video game inside a computer. Lasseter was dazzled.

“I did not get excited about what I saw,” he recalled in a recent interview, “I got excited by the potential of what I saw.”

That potential was not fully realized until November, when Walt Disney Pictures released “Toy Story,” the movie industry’s first feature-length computer-animation film. Lasseter directed the movie, employing computer technology developed by the Pixar Animation studio, where he is Vice President of Creative Development.

Perhaps no scene in “Toy Story” says more about the evolution of computer animation since those early “Tron” days than the climax, a frantic six-block chase scene through a virtual neighborhood in which two toys––a space-ranger action hero name Buzz Lightyear and a pull-string talking cowboy named Woody––conjure fantastic schemes to catch up with a moving van. If they fail, they will be abandoned by their owner, a boy named Andy. The action is set on a sunny residential street lined with pleasant suburban homes and trees that each have precisely 1.2 million leaves.

As they race through this virtual neighborhood, Buzz and Woody, digitally controlled at 700 points each, move more realistically than they would if they had been rendered with traditional animation techniques. Even more important, they move the audience with complex facial expressions that evoke a full range of emotions. More than any other scene in the movie, the chase sequence––which took four terabytes (the equivalent of 957,855 floppy disks or 167 CD-ROMS) to realize––represents the cutting edge of computer animation technology.

“Toy Story” is a technological feat not only because at 77 minutes, it is the first completely synthetic feature-length cartoon, but because of its three-dimensional look and feel. In traditional animation, the characters and backgrounds are flat, but here they are volumetric––that is, they exist as computer-generated three-dimensional objects that animators are free to explore from an almost infinite variety of angles and attitudes. The Pixar technology has, in effect, made high-tech cartoons-in-the-round possible.

But beyond satisfying the urge of computer wizards to demonstrate a new technology, why tell a story with computer animation? What can it offer an audience that hand-drawn animation cannot?

Filmmakers have long adapted new technologies––or in many cases invented them––to enhance their visions...

Selected Works

Bloomberg.com, Bloomberg Businessweek, Businessweek.com
A company tackles the wasteful data center industry with a new business model.
The fashion industry goes tech in order to step up efficiency when it comes to ordering threads.
Hudl's software lets coaches edit athletes' plays and use them for training. But the company must psych out coaches from different cultures to learn how they train to win.
New-fangled milk crates designed for college students, with the incite of the crowd and made in the U.S.A.
Blue Microphones has expanded its reach, making mics for iPhones, iPods, and iPADs and any other USB device.
The University of Illinois engineering professor creates self-healing materials, and has successfully applied the idea to electronic circuits
Automating recruiting with anonymous job references
A textile company aims for sustainability.
Saving power for supercomputers, laptops, and now data centers.
A new smartphone app that suggests routes to drivers, saving them time and fuel.
"Our fundamental advance allows us to deliver devices that can provide cooling for refrigeration or waste heat recovery and efficiently convert it into power," says Phononic Devices Chief Executive Officer Anthony Atti.
Pressed for time, doctors are less and less amenable to face-to-face meetings with pharma reps. Viscira's biomedical computer animation reach tech-savvy MDs.
Tech from Plextronics Could Replace Lightbulbs, ’Do Away With iPads’
Essence Magazine
Influential Black women in tech and an entrepreneurial mother-daughter pair.
Creative Non-Fiction
An unusual gift, an unusual heritage
Memories, triggered by Hurricane Sandy, of storms of the past.
A true short story from and to Manhattan's Upper West Side.
Is the Web a Threat to Creativity and Cultural values? One Cyber Pioneer Thinks So.
Troubled teens benefit from role-play in virtual worlds with their therapists.
Special imaging technology shows the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy.
Posthumous emails, videos, and animations.
KNO goes up against TOMS, asking to buy more, give more.
Kids use the kit, called Hummingbird, to build whatever they imagine.
Engineer and entrepreneur Karen Purcell highlights some of strategies for women in STEM in her book, Unlock Your Brilliance.
Email reminders help people keep track of their spending.
At-risk students thrive with a new style of learning.
An Interview with Encyclopaedia Britannica President Jorge Cauz.
The Murray/Jackson trial showcases iPhone forensics, experts comment on the state of the art.
Researchers find privacy breeches possible.
A 1989 interview with the late, titanic visionary while he was CEO of NeXT,Inc., in which he discusses the Mach OS, robotic manufacturing, mentoring employees, digital Shakespeare and Webster's...
U. S. News and World Report and InsideScience.org
Robotic camera technology inspires virtual exploration by students around the world.
Science Magazine and Science NOW
Scientists shoot gigapixel panoramas to make discoveries
The First Conference on Computational Sustainability
Scientific American MIND
Scientists debate how synapses work
Scientific American
A New Algorithim Could Soon Vanquish Go Pros
The Village Voice
Three neurological studies reveal that traumatic memories of those near the site and bereaved children affect functioning of parts of their brains.
The New York Times
The making of the first fully computer-generated cartoon feature film.
Why online shoppers abandon their shopping carts.
Book Reviews
Two books look for answers in the lives of a few who succeeded.
Other Magazines
Technology Review
Communications of the ACM