Karen A. Frenkel

Science and Technology Writer

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

Excerpt

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...

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