08/03/2017

Toy Story - Computers Are Just Tools

Thoughts On: Toy Story (1995)


The world's first full-length computer animated film.


Toy Story is one of the most important films ever made for two reasons; one more obvious, the other almost miraculous. The first, more obvious, reason this is such an important film is that it's the first full-length movie made entirely in a computer. And in such, this film was about 30 years in the making.

The first sophisticated computer generated imagery started in the early 60s with Ivan Sutherland's Sketchpad programme.


Sutherland devised a way of drawing and manipulating 2D and 3D shapes with the aid of this gigantic computer and stylus. There were a few other examples of computer animation of this kind in the 60s, but it wasn't until 1972 when things began to get truly impressive. It was at this time that Ed Catmull and Fred Park (co-founders of Pixar) created a 3D CG hand alongside a few other figures:



The animated feature 'A Computer Generated Hand' then signifies a significant progression in CGI that was experimented with and built upon through the 70s and 80s - as can be seen through films like Star Wars and Tron.



It was in the late 80s, however, that John Lasseter began creating short, entirely CG, animated films like Luxo Jr., Tin Toy and Knick Knack.




It's these shorts that show the development of Lasseter's style as well as the technological build towards 1995 and...


... Toy Story. Having touched on a very brief history of CGI, it quickly becomes clear that there was a massive technological jump in just 30 years that saw computer animation go from this...


... to this...


And whilst this is incredibly impressive, this isn't the most significant achievement of Toy Story in my opinion. This is something that I feel John Lasseter tried to put across when talking about the making of this film:

Everybody's going to 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 this picture.

It's this recognition of 'the people' that Lasseter makes that really defines why Toy Story is so good - as well as all the other Pixar films to follow. The technology is a significant part of these movies, but its the creative application of the CGI that makes these movies so historically prominent. And this is the almost miraculous reason as to why this film is so significant that I referenced in the beginning. It's so easy to take technology, use it as an attraction unto itself and let story, character and narrative fall subservient to form. This is certainly what we see in a movie that could have been equally as historically significant as Toy Story:


Avatar brought 3D back into the cinemas and radically improved upon CGI. However, James Cameron didn't do well in producing anything but a spectacle, people love to moan about CG nowadays and no one is really that fascinated by 3D. Avatar then seemed to set a president for empty spectacle movies where Toy Story certainly did not. And this is why Avatar will be remembered 50 or 100 years down the line, but not like Toy Story. Avatar will be to film students or film lovers in a century or so what Griffith's The Birth Of A Nation is to us now.


Yes, this is a hugely significant film, but, it's really hard to watch because there is very little substance to the story told. Whilst you have explosions and action scenes to distract you at points, this is simply a dull movie - the same can be said (to a different degree) with Avatar. Lasseter shows an acute understanding of this in Toy Story which explains why it's the story and characters that live on...

        

... not just the legacy and title of 'first animated feature film'. And whilst there are a billion more Avatar movies scheduled to come out, who on Earth is actually excited about that? I'm intrigued to see what Cameron thinks he has to do/say with this franchise, but... I don't know. Ultimately, what are you looking forward to more, Toy Story 4 or the next Avatar?

That said, let's zoom in on the character and story-centric approach to CG animation that Lasseter has. Starting with a look at Luxo Jr., we can see that Lasseter and his team takes the inanimate and breaths so much life into it.


In this one frame alone we can see this lamp to be playful, curious, yet somewhat nervous. You don't really see that here...


... you could if you squinted and let your imagination play for a moment, but there is an inherent mundanity and reality in this image. However, there is character and life in Lasseter's lamp and it is in every minute movement and detail. And in such, you see the aesthetic approach taken in his films - it's all about the embellishment of the inherently personifiable. A lamp kind of looks like a spine attached to a head and Lasseter forces you to see it as only that in Luxo Jr. Toys, especially to a kid, look like they have something behind their eyes...


... and that spark is what Lasseter allows to consume his animated figures in Toy Story...


This is not just done in the animating process, but the writing process, too. If you look to each and every character in this movie, you see precisely picked traits and characteristics.


Hamm is a piggy bank and so is something of a know-it-all who sits above and controls everyone.


Rex is an awkwardly designed dinosaur with plastic teeth and so is weird, geeky and clumsy - certainly not a blood thirsty tyrannosaur.


Mr. Potato Head is constantly falling apart or being manipulated and so is grumpy and snide.


You see this represented in every scene; just look at the eyes in this image. Rex's are open and unknowing, Potato Head's are scrunched up and questioning, Hamm's eyebrows are raised as he silently assesses. It's this succinct control over character that makes this film so special. The only critique of characterisation that you could have in this movie is that characters are a bit meaner and don't have that sense of community that you see in the later movies. However, I'm sure the animators of this film weren't planning 2 films ahead of them when constructing this story, so we can give them edge there.

Coming back to aesthetics, it's this attention to detail that really struck me when re-watching this movie as I had memories of a far simpler style. We picked up on this subject of memory when looking at The Jungle Book...


When re-watching this film I was somewhat disheartened to see a lack of detail that I had otherwise assumed was there. The opposite happened when seeing Toy Story, however. I was expecting jarringly clunky movement and textureless rendering with flat, ugly lighting. There are certainly bad bits of animation...


... you see this in many of the sequences with humans, but, for the vast majority of this film, everything holds up. And I say this in the same respect I said Spiderman 2 holds up. The CG isn't perfect and you can see its flaws, but it develops a style of its own that you accept as an aesthetic from a certain time-period.

Added to this, the direction and camera movement in this movie also blew me away. I've never appreciated it before, but we are always forced to see the world from a toy's point of view. This gives the narrative such great scope and a unique style/perspective. The best scene that depicts this is the opening soldier sequence:







Throughout this sequence, there's a play with magnitude and scope. One second, we're at an intimate distance...


... and then the next, we see how the house looms over the tiny figurines...


This both shows the dexterity of the direction and also shines a light on the true genius of this narrative. Not only does it have great characters, not only is it funny, not only is it technologically astounding, but, the concept alone is flawless. Toys coming to life has been done before...



... but not like this. The form and content of this movie support each other perfectly, allowing the childish fantasy of toys actually having a life of their own to truly immerse, which distinguishes Toy Story from all films like it because of its unique capacity to not be human-centric. This is something I've moaned about since the blog started and I looked at Batman V Superman...


Far too many 'fantasy' blockbusters take the human side of a story and show everything from a person's perspective. We see this in Transformers...


... The Dark Knight...


... Godzilla...


... and a whole bunch of other blockbusters. All of these movies daren't let the monsters, superheroes, villains or robot aliens have their own movie. They anchor their titles and draw to characters that needn't be there. Pixar films in general do not do this. They have an entirely different approach to cinema, one that would make a Transformers movie about Transformers, a Batman movie about Batman, a Godzilla movie about Godzilla... etc.

It's for these many reasons and more that Toy Story is a great movie. But, the key take away from this film as a historically significant movie is certainly its approach to innovation. Toy Story is not innovation for innovation's sake; it is innovation so a great story could be told when it otherwise couldn't be. On a final note, all I'll then repeat are Lasseter words, computers are just tools.

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