Computer and imagination bring toys to life Mouse that roared: Computer graphics turn childhood play into a full-length computer-animated movie, "Toy Story."

November 23, 1995|By David Kronke | David Kronke,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

For many adults, toys are just overpriced plastic things they consider buying only when their children begin to vigorously test their diaphragm capacity in a department store.

But few adults pay as much attention to toys as John Lasseter.

In Mr. Lasseter's office at Pixar Animation Studios in Richmond, Calif., toys line the shelves, and many of them were there long before he began work five years ago on "Toy Story," the first fully computer-animated feature. "The main reason to do this film," says Mr. Lasseter, "was so during work hours, I could go to a toy store and buy toys on the company credit card."

"Toy Story" concerns Woody (Tom Hanks' voice), an old-fashioned pull-string gunslinger and the favorite toy of a boy named Andy. Until, that is, the youngster receives a high-tech action figure complete with laser lights and sound effects, Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen's voice).

Buzz and Woody squabble, then get lost in the big, bad real world where they must quit bickering and join forces if they're to survive the clutches of Sid, the sadistic kid next door.

"So many things in the movie were spurred from the things we did when we were kids," explains Andrew Stanton, one of six people who did the screenwriting and/or story. "When Sid is introduced, he's blowing up a Combat Carl, something I used to do with G.I. Joes."

Before "Toy Story," which opened yesterday, Mr. Lasseter directed a series of acclaimed and ground-breaking computer-animated shorts (one, "Tin Toy," won the 1989 Oscar for best animated short).

He worked as an animator for Disney in the early '80s, what he calls "the dark days of 'Black Cauldron,' " the years before Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg came in to rescue the studio's animation heritage from sloth and indifference.

Mr. Lasseter was awakened to the possibilities of computer graphics when he saw some early dailies from the otherwise forgettable sci-fi thriller, "Tron." "I was blown away by what I saw not the imagery, but the potential, the extreme potential for character animation."

He begged his superiors to let him do a test blending cel and computer imagery to bring a brief sequence from Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are" to life. "It was very successful from my standpoint, but . . . they were only interested if it saved them money."

After a brief stint at Lucasfilm, Mr. Lasseter went to Pixar, which initially was a company marketing computer hardware and software. Despite the accolades and awards that had gone to such Mr. Lasseter efforts as "Luxo Jr.," "Knickknack," "Red's Dream" and the Oscar-winning "Tin Toy," the animation department was a perennial money-loser that was kept around because it showed off exotic applications of the firm's products.

Eventually, Pixar began making serious money from its animation thanks to TV commercials. Disney, which had purchased software from the company, began negotiations for a feature film. "Toy Story" was green-lighted more than three years ago, and has been in production ever since. In the meantime, Pixar's animation department has ballooned from a staff of six to 125, which is still a fraction of that for a traditional cel-animated feature.

"Toy Story" was made by a variety of these artists and technicians, each adding levels of detail to ensure that the final product appears eye-poppingly realistic.

"To get great acting out of your characters, you need traditional animators," Mr. Lasseter says. "That's the only place where you're trained to think in terms of acting with your characters. When we started hiring people, the most important criterion, no matter what the medium, was whether they made the characters look as though they were thinking. I didn't care if they knew computers or not, and would say the vast majority of the animators had no computer backgrounds."

An exception is Ebon Ostby, one of the production's animation scientists. He takes a physical mold sculpted for each character, and draws a grid on it. Then, with a digitizer, he inputs information with an electronic wand -- specifically, where each grid intersection is on the sculpture -- into the computer. This gives the computer a three-dimensional vision of the character.

As opposed to traditional cel animation, in which one artist and a supporting team work on one character throughout the entire film, animators on "Toy Story" would animate entire sequences.

The computer monitor at Pete Docter's work station is set up for a scene in which a chastened Woody pulls himself out from under Andy's bed, where he has been casually tossed. Mr. Docter's screen splits into a number of views of the scene -- a rough animation of the scene as it is expected to appear in the film; another, a close-up of Woody's face and still another is a vocal track that helps sync Woody's animated mouth with Mr. Hanks' words.

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