“To infinity, and beyond!” | Toy Story (1995)

Twenty-five years ago film history was made when Walt Disney released Toy Story, the debut production from Pixar Animation Studios. It was the first computer-animated feature film ever produced, and not only was it a commercial and critical success it fundamentally altered the animation medium for good.

Toy Story made its debut in the middle of the ‘Disney Renaissance’, a period spanning from The Little Mermaid in 1989 and Tarzan in 1999 in which Disney produced a string of unprecedented smash hits with groundbreaking animation techniques. All of these acclaimed pictures were ultimately hand-animated. Jump forward a quarter-century, and outside of a select few independent productions no one in America makes hand-drawn animation any more. Toy Story has been followed by a staggering 200+ computer-generated features. Pixar themselves have made a total of 23 CGI films from 1995 to 2020; the latest, Soul, is due sometime before the end of the year. Collectively Pixar’s films have grossed a total of US$14.3 billion dollars. To find an animated film with as great an effect on the global industry, you need to go back to Walt Disney’s own Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. Toy Story is, quite literally, a film that changed the world. To infinity and beyond indeed.

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Explaining the history and impact of Toy Story requires a jump back in time, and a look at three converging elements: the development of computer-generated images (CGI) in the motion picture industry, the evolution of the Pixar Animation Studios, and the early career of aspiring animator and director John Lasseter.

To start with CGI: the potential of using computers to develop specific images and animations was seen very early in the development of information technology, however it took time for the computing power at the cutting edge to reach a standard where it could be applied to narrative film. Technically speaking, the first feature film to include computer-generated images was Michael Crichton’s Westworld in 1973. In that case a computer was used to reprocess footage and simulate the point of view of the film’s robot antagonist.

It was three years later in Westworld’s Sequel Futureworld that the first attempt at visualising a three-dimensional object in computer graphics was made. In this case, basic renderings of a face and a hand were put together by students Fred Parke and Edwin “Ed” Catmull and observed on a computer monitor by the film’s characters.

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Parke and Catmull’s CGI hand in Futureworld; the first 3D CGI in movie history.

Ed Catmull was inspired by Walt Disney animation as a child, and grew up harbouring dreams of becoming an animation director. In his studies, however, he shifted into the relatively new field of computer science. While at the University of Utah his interest shifted from developing programming languages to working on digital imaging: using a computer to create simulated images. It was during his postgraduate studies that Catmull invented texture mapping – the technique of mapping higher definition two-dimensional textures over a three-dimensional object in a computer graphic. He later developed the computer application Tween, which could generate two-dimension frames of animation automatically based on a hand-drawn frame on either side.

Catmull harboured a vision of using computer graphics to create an entire feature film; something not even countenanced by America’s movie studios at the time. His attempts to stimulate interest among the studios was entirely unsuccessful – until he attracted the attention of producer/director George Lucas.

In 1979 Lucas was deep in production on The Empire Strikes Back, the sequel to his record-breaking 1977 blockbuster Star Wars. For that earlier film he had set up his own special effects and modelling company, named Industrial Light and Magic. Seeing the long-term potential of CGI in movie-making, he approached Ed Catmull with an offer to become the vice-president in charge of ILM’s new digital division: the Graphics Group. Lucas did not simply want to experiment with computer graphics – he saw enormous long-term potential for computers to be used in editing, colour correction, remote camera control, and other practical applications. Catmull said: ‘It was thrilling to do research within a film company that was pushing the boundaries. George didn’t try to lock up the technology for himself and allowed us to continue to publish and maintain strong academic contacts.’(1)

In 1981 ILM was contracted to provide special effects for Paramount Pictures’ forthcoming Star Trek sequel The Wrath of Khan. While the main firm worked on a series of model shots and optical effects, the digital division was tasked with producing a computer-animated sequence depicting the terraforming of an alien planet. While not technically the first CGI sequence in a motion picture (that will always remain Futureworld), it was the first time CGI had been used for a sequence that would previously had been achieved with modelwork, fine art, or optical effects.

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The Graphics Group’s CGI sequence for Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan.

While ILM worked on The Wrath of Khan, across town a conglomerate of computer graphics firms were working with the Walt Disney company on Steven Lisberger’s ambitious science fiction adventure Tron. While much of the film, in which a man (Jeff Bridges) is sucked inside a super-computer, was animated by hand, a few key sequences utilised CGI to an unprecedented level of quality. When both Tron and The Wrath of Khan opened in cinemas in 1982, they were effectively a joint announcement that CGI had arrived.

While CGI research continued throughout the early 1980s at both ILM and other companies, its on-screen applications remained limited. A major breakthrough occurred during the making of Barry Levinson’s 1985 film Young Sherlock Holmes. A scene required a stained glass window depicting a medieval knight to come to life, break out of its frame, and terrorise a man in a cathedral. Catmull successfully argued that the scene could be best achieved by rendering the window in CGI and then digitally animating it – with all of the advantages that technology would allow. The sequence, which is the most impressive of an otherwise quite ordinary film, was supervised by Graphics Group employee John Lasseter.

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Young Sherlock Holmes‘ computer-animated stained-glass knight.

Lasseter was born and grew up in California, drawing cartoons and comic strips from childhood. As soon as he could watch television he was obsessed with animation. After seeing Disney’s The Sword in the Stone at the cinema in 1963, the six year-old Lasseter resolved to grow up to be an animator. In 1975 he got his wish: the California Institute of the Arts (colloquially known as ‘CalArts’) had just opened a collaborative training program with the Walt Disney Company to educate and upskill aspiring artists and animators for a career with the movie studio. Lasseter was the second student to enrol in their program, after Jerry Rees (director of 1987’s The Brave Little Toaster).

At CalArts, Lasster learned the art of traditional cel animation from several of Disney’s oldest and most respected artists, including Ollie Johnson, Frank Thomas, and Eric Larson. During the course of his studies, his classmates included a range of future directors, including Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles), Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas), John Musker (co-director of The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules, and Moana), and Tim Burton.

In 1979 Lasseter graduated and was offered a job inside Walt Disney as an animator. He worked on a sequence for an in-production thematic sequel to Fantasia, named Musicana. The project was ultimately shelved – Fantasia got a direct sequel in 1999. He also provided animation work for The Fox and the Hound and The Black Cauldron – the latter a dream project of senior animator Don Bluth, who was itching to break Disney out of its old, conservative traditions. Lasseter was keen to see the company innovate as well. After seeing in-production computer animation on Tron, he became fixated on the idea of using CGI to make a feature film. Unfortunately Lasseter’s enthusiasm to develop a proof-of-concept CGI short stepped on the toes of more than one Disney executive and he found his contract with the company cancelled.

Shortly afterwards Lasseter met Ed Catmull at a computing trade show, and in talking with him found a friendly partner with whom to pursue the idea of CGI animation. Catmull hired Lasseter, first on a contract basis and then as a full-time employee of the Graphics Group. At the time there was talk that George Lucas was about to sell off the digital division due to his costly divorce and a drop in Star Wars revenue following the release of Return of the Jedi. Walt Disney considered putting in a bid to take over the operation. A figure of US$12 million was bandied around – a price Disney considered too high for an R&D unit.

While the unit ostensibly continued its research work, Catmull and Lasseter collaborated with computer scientist Alvy Ray Smith in assembling a two-minute animated short, composed entirely in CGI. The Adventures of André and Wally B premiered at the 1984 SIGGRAPH conference, and represented the first major step towards a CGI-animated feature. Two years later Lasseter directed a second two-minute short, Luxo Jr, starring an animated table lamp that would eventually form part of the Pixar Animation Studios logo.

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The Adventures of André and Wally B.

During this period Andrew Stanton joined the team at the Graphics Group. The Massachusetts-born Stanton was an aspiring artist who found out about Disney’s CalArts program via his high school guidance counselor. After graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in character animation in 1987, he worked under animation industry icon Ralph Bakshi on The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse (a production that also included future Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi). After being rejected to join the Walt Disney animation studio on three separate occasions, he was invited by Lasseter to join Pixar – where Stanton worked on the CGI shorts Surprise and Light & Heavy.

A key creative figure in Pixar Animation Studios, Stanton would go on to co-write Toy Story, Monsters Inc, Toy Story 2, and Toy Story 3. He wrote and directed Finding Nemo, Wall-E, and Finding Dory. Outside of Pixar he co-wrote and directed Disney’s 2012 science fiction epic John Carter.

In 1986 Lucas finally elected to sell off the Graphics Group. Numerous bids were presented and either were rejected or simply collapsed. Walt Disney again considered a bid to purchase the group, but reconsidered. In the end, former Apple computer owner Steve Jobs purchased the Graphics Group for US$10 million. Needing a new corporate name, members of the group – including Alvy Ray Smith, Ed Catmull, and John Lasseter – turned to their own computer graphics system that they had developed in-house: Pixar.

George Lucas had always considered the Graphics Group in terms of the hardware it could develop; things that would make the act of live-action filmmaking easier and cheaper. Jobs perceived the value of both the software and the talent at the newly minted Pixar Animation Studios, and wanted to put it to work generating commercially viable CGI animation.

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There was still a widespread belief within Disney that computer-generated animation would become a reality sooner or later, but there was no consensus on when it would, or indeed how it would happen. By the late 1980s the studio was working with Pixar to develop a ‘computer animation production system’, but it was intended only as an aid to colouring and cleaning up hand-drawn animation.

Pixar’s short films were always considered tests for what was still considered the technology’s ‘holy grail’: a full-length computer-animated feature. Progress, however, was hard: numerous layoffs occurred over the first few years, as insufficient revenues forced Jobs to order cutbacks. 

The company received a major boost in 1989 when John Lasseter’s latest short film Tin Toy won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short. It legitimised the CGI technology, and demonstrated an audience existed for its unique visual aesthetic.

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Academy Award-winner Tin Toy.

Back at Walt Disney, a long run of disappointing animated features, including The Fox and the Hound, The Great Mouse Detective, Oliver & Company, and the disastrous The Black Cauldron, had come to a sudden end with the 1988 release of Robert Zemeckis’ live-action/animation hybrid Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The film’s production had included the training up of an entire generation of animation talent in both the USA and Europe, and when their work was completed those animators moved on to new, hugely successful Disney animations including The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin.

With animation now a hugely lucrative business again, Disney’s enthusiasm for the medium blossomed. In addition to their own in-house features, the company started investing in outside productions with their unique style. They teamed with Tim Burton and producer Denise De Novi on The Nightmare Before Christmas. They expanded their TV animation studio to produce theatrical features like A Goofy Movie and Ducktales: The Movie.

Seeing a chance to finally get financial backing for a computer-animated feature – and backed up by Tin Toy’s Academy Award – Steve Jobs met with the Disney executive to negotiate a production deal with Pixar.

When looking for a subject matter on which to base their first feature, those in Pixar rapidly homed in on toys. They had the advantage of being mostly hard, and made of smooth plastic, which would make rendering them as 3D models easier, and they tended to stay in a child’s bedroom which meant a simple environment with a flat floor. This toy-based concept was drafted into a proposal and titled Toy Story. It was not the only proposal considered by Pixar at the time. Other rough concepts were later developed into films including Monsters Inc and Wall-E.

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In July 1991 Pixar signed a production contract with Walt Disney Pictures to make Toy Story, followed by two other pictures; either sequels or original works. Disney insisted on assigning their own producer, Bonnie Arnold, to oversee the project. Pixar had already appointed Ralph Guggenheim to represent the company at a producer level; both producers shared control of the picture. Disney also stipulated that Pixar first produce a 30-second proof-of-concept tape, in order to demonstrate the visual quality expected from the film. ‘This technology was all very new,’ said Lasseter, ‘and not many people really knew what computer animation could look like.’(2) The scene included everything that Pixar’s animators could think of that was not possible via hand-drawn animation, including complex shadows and lighting, and patterns such as plaid shirts. The scene was edited to a segment of Randy Newman’s orchestral score to the film Avalon, a combination that led to Newman being successfully pursued to score the final work.

Ed Catmull, then a software engineer, recalled: ‘At that point, none of us knew what we were doing. We didn’t have any production expertise except for short films and commercials.’(3)

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In October 1992 Joe Ranft was an animator and story supervisor coming off of working on The Nightmare Before Christmas. He was one of several hires made by Lasseter to find enough staff to cover the enormous commitment of producing a feature-length film. He found a far more dynamic and youthful group of artists than he had been used to on Disney films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Beauty and the Beast. ‘It was great. Everyone was questioning, “Do we have to do it the same way?’(4)

Andrew Stanton recalled Ranft’s arrival as the final piece of Pixar’s creative jigsaw. ‘Somebody would start a joke, somebody would come up with a punchline, somebody would come up with a middle, and then the whole thing would just kind of come out, almost effortlessly.I guess it’s like finding the right performers in a band.’(5)

The original attempt at developing Toy Story focused on a beloved tin toy left behind by its owner at a service station. While trying to find its way home, the toy would befriend a similarly abandoned ventriloquist’s dummy. While abandoned, this storyline did home in successfully on what would drive the film’s characters forward: a desire to be played with by a child. Anything that lied in the way of that goal – being lost or broken, or supplanted by a more entertaining toy – would motivate them during their adventures.

The idea of a toy’s fear of being replaced led the story in a fresh direction: what if a child received a new toy for their birthday, and started to neglect playing with their former favourite? The shiny tin toy of the original story was transformed into a 1980s-style action figure, with a space theme and electronic sounds. The ventriloquist’s dummy was turned into something more likely for a child to play with, and yet keep the old and outdated feel: a cloth doll with a pull-cord activated voice. The gulf of the toys’ respective ages led to the older one becoming re-imagined as a cowboy: westerns being the science fiction of an earlier generation. The spaceman was temporarily named ‘Tempus from Morph’ as he was being developed, before being renamed Buzz Lightyear. The cowboy was always named Woody. One of the most popular animated double-acts of all time was born.

At first the intention was for Buzz to be a vain character, puffed up from his manufacturer’s slick advertising campaign and considering himself a superior toy to others. As the character was developed, however, it was decided there was more comic potential if the toy Buzz believed his fictional backstory and did not know he was a child’s toy at all. His catchphrase ‘To infinity and beyond’ came out of a senior creative meeting; it was considered the best and most asinine phrase a toy company could think of, with both false gravitas and being essentially nonsensical.

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One actor that the production team was keen on approaching to play Buzz Lightyear was comedian Jim Carrey, then a popular cast member on the television comedy In Living Color. This choice did not pass with Disney, however, with executives feeling that Carrey was not a famous enough name to cast in the role. One actor that was famous enough was Billy Crystal, but he turned down Pixar’s offer. (A few years later Crystal was approached about starring in Pixar’s Monsters Inc. Having now seen the quality of their work, he accepted the role before he was told what it would be.)

Another TV star seemed far more bankable: Home Improvement’s Tim Allen. Since Home Improvement was an ABC production and owned by Disney it was a neat piece of corporate synergy and seemed a much safer bet. Between being passed over for Buzz Lightyear and Toy Story’s release, Jim Carrey starred in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask, and Batman Forever. In all things, at the end of the day Hollywood is one big guessing game.

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For the role of Woody, John Lasseter only ever considered one actor: Tom Hanks. In order to convince the noted and popular actor to accept the part, the production team produced a short scene of the then still in-development Woody speaking with Hanks’ voice – using a scene from the Disney comedy Turner & Hooch for the soundtrack.

‘I remember the first time I met Woody,’ said Hanks. ‘They wanted me to come over because they were going to try this new form of animation. And there was Woody and the whole bit. I watched this test probably six times in a row and just thought, how did they do that? Not how did they make the image, but how did they make it spark to life so seamlessly?’(6)

 

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The supporting cast of Toy Story is a wonderful combination of the canny and the inspired. Comic legend Don Rickles, Ernest star Jim Varney, and Cheers actor John Ratsenburger all played fellow toys in the child Andy’s bedroom. There was a love interest for Woody in the shape of Annie Potts’ Bo Peep. Acclaimed New York actor and playwright Wallace Shawn – still probably best known for The Princess Bride – played the voice of the dinosaur Rex. In one inspired gag, Lasseter cast former drill sergeant and Full Metal Jacket star R. Lee Ermey as the leader of a squad of green plastic soldiers.

A critical focus for the Pixar team was story. While the use of computer graphics would be groundbreaking, it was felt that the film’s long-term success would rise and fall based on the quality of its plot and character. ‘We said anything that we break ground with, computer graphics-wise, will be subservient to getting the story right,’ said Andrew Stanton, ‘because that’s what history has shown wins.’(7) To this end the Pixar team watched and made notes on a series of films, each originally praised for its visual effects but then appreciated long term for its story. The films included The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, and Disney’s own Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

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To help improve the film’s screenplay, Disney assigned a Pixar outsider to write a fresh draft. Joss Whedon – a writer and son of TV writer/producer Tom Whedon – was working on a rewrite of what would become Atlantis: The Lost Empire when he was redirected by Disney to work on Toy Story instead. Whedon recalled ‘they sent me the script and it was a shambles, but the story that Lasseter had come up with was, you know, the toys are alive and they conflict. The concept was gold.’(8)

At the time Whedon was one of Hollywood’s most promising ‘script doctors’ – essentially a screenwriter that reworks and improves other people’s scripts. Over the course of the early 1990s he would restructure screenplays, add dialogue, and advance themes for a variety of films including Speed, Twister, The Quick and the Dead, and Waterworld. As his work mostly involved rewriting, it is difficult to pinpoint the exact contributions that Whedon made. One that can be credited to him, however, is Rex: the clumsy, awkward green dinosaur toy that lives with Woody and the other toys.

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Through the first year of active development, there was a gulf between Pixar’s plans for Toy Story and Disney’s expectations. John Lasseter had to fight against Disney’s desire to make the film musical like their internally-made animated films. Jeffrey Katzenberg, then chair of Walt Disney Pictures, expressed concerns that a film about animated toys would only attract young children. He even pressured Lasseter to change the prospective film’s title, feeling any movie with the word Toy in the title would repel adults and teenagers. ‘When Andy, the kid, goes to sleep, the toys come to life, and they behave like adults,’ said Lasseter. ‘They have personalities that adults can identify with. We were making a film that was a movie that we would want to see, and we’re adults. We wanted to capture a children’s world too, but we felt we were aiming for a very broad audience.’(9)

Katzenberg’s producing style put the Pixar team under extraordinary pressure. Unused to the grind of animated feature production – particularly under Disney’s control – they struggled with the regular routine of storyboarding a sequence, having it harshly criticised by Katzenberg and other studio producers, and heading back to the studio to rework each scene to Disney’s group satisfaction.

At the end of the first year, a loosely collated reel of work completed to date was screened in front of Disney executives. It played extremely poorly with those present: in an attempt to make Woody ‘edgier’, as per Katzenberg’s request, the character had become actively unlikeable. Seeing that significant expense had been invested in what was fast becoming an unreleasable picture, Katzenberg ordered the entire production shut down. Disney’s head of animation Peter Schneider recommended cancelling the production entirely, and writing off the US$7 million already invested in it. Katzenberg, aware of the potential losses, decided not to abandon the film entirely. Work on Toy Story would continue, but inside Disney itself where the production team could be more carefully controlled.

Joss Whedon, who had finished his scripting work on the project and moved onto other films, referred to the shutdown as ‘Black Monday’. ‘I don’t know if it was a Monday,’ he later said. ‘I think it was a Monday. But it was definitely referred to as “black”.’(10)

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A desperate Lasseter convinced Katzenberg to give the Pixar team two weeks to rework what they had made, and demonstrate they could still make the film themselves. Privately, he assembled the Pixar ‘brain’s trust’ and announced they would ignore any instructions from Disney with which they did not agree, and simply work on making the film they wanted to see instead. Over the two weeks afforded to them, the production extensively reworked the film’s first act. Woody was made a more considerate and upbeat character, while most attempts to give the film an adult-oriented ‘edge’ were excised. ‘From that point on,’ said Lasseter, ‘everything started working. We turned the reels around; we showed it to Disney. It wasn’t great, but it was good. It showed the potential of what Toy Story could be.’(11)

John Lasseter later identified the creative process of those two weeks – meeting together, throwing concepts around, and aggressively improving one another’s ideas – as the defining moment of Pixar’s future production style.

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While the new reel had bought back control to Pixar, Disney remained unhappy with the film’s screenplay and insisted on having it rewritten. For the second time in just over a year, they appointed Joss Whedon.(Other writers sent in to tweak the script included Alec Sokolow and Joel Cohen.) Whedon spent another six months with the project, rewriting some scenes and replacing others. One planned sequence involving a Barbie doll was developed, but cancelled due to objections from toy manufacturer Mattel.

After Whedon moved on for good – 20th Century Fox was developing a TV version of his 1992 film Buffy the Vampire Slayer – the Pixar brains trust continued rewriting the Toy Story script themselves. As production continued, the film’s crew also continued to expand in size. Producing an entire feature with such a small crew was difficult – as Toy Story was widely considered within Disney to be an experimental work of research and design, it had only been assigned roughly half the budget of a traditionally animated feature.

To help form the individually animated shots into an edited feature, Pixar hired Lee Unkrich. Unkrich, who had been working as an editor and director on television, had no specific training in animation. His visual instincts, however, impressed Lasseter. Almost as importantly, he had trained at the University of Southern California (USC) in using the brand-new Avid non-linear editing system (Toy Story was ultimately the first animated feature to use the software). Unkrich was hired on a temporary basis, only to have his contract serially extended as his work continued to excel. He ultimately remained on staff at Pixar until January 2019 having directed or co-directed Monsters Inc, Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo, Toy Story 3, and Coco.

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Once Unkrich had started putting scenes together, John Lasseter introduced the practice of regular group reviews of completed scenes. By including all animators and encouraging all participants to give their opinions, Lasseter ensured each artist would improve their work as they went. The growing size of the production also necessitated the development of tools that could connect animators in different locations and ensure smooth collaboration.

Toy Story is, to this day, one of the most remarkable examples of picking up a task and improving as one goes. It commenced production with a crew of IT professionals learning to be filmmakers. Despite numerous commercials having been produced at the studio, in terms of film production Toy Story was preceded by only four brief shorts. An early preview screening of the film to members of the public, made to get audience feedback on the half-finished work, resulted in some of the worst audience scores in Walt Disney history. A subsequent preview, made when more scenes had been added and others refined, resulted in some of the all-time best. It is not an exaggeration to claim that the production of Toy Story was akin to learning how to drive a car in the middle of a city during rush hour. This learning-on-the-go process was visible in the film’s production process: despite a four-year production process, all of the finished animation in the released film was created in the final year of work.

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One part of the animation process that needed to be learned was how to animate with CGI. One of the key elements of the ‘Disney method’ of animation was to appoint a senior animator for each animated character, to ensure fluid and consistent appearance and movement of that character from scene to scene. Producing characters in CGI eliminated the need for such specialist animators, since once a character model had been constructed it would look exactly the same throughout the film. Automated routines could animate facial movements, a walking gait, or any other behaviour with 100 percent accuracy. In the place of character lead animators, the Pixar production crew were divided into separate teams – each of which would work on individual scenes. Over time the teams would specialise, not in terms of character but in terms of tone: a particularly funny physical comedy bit might go to one group of animators, whereas a more touching dramatic beat might be assigned to another.

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As the test results improved, and the Walt Disney company started to realise what a potential hit they had on their hands, toy companies were approached to manufacture tie-in products for the film’s late 1995 release. Disney was a popular license for the toy industry, particularly with their animated films grossing such unprecedented amounts since the release of The Little Mermaid in 1989. To the studio’s dismay – and that of John Lasseter – no major toy brand took an interest in the Toy Story license.

When a small manufacturer named Thinkway signed up to produce a range of six-inch action figures, Lasseter personally visited the company to plead with them to make a film-accurate 12-inch Buzz Lightyear doll. Thinkway assented to the request, and secured pre-orders for 60,000 dolls for the film’s release. When the Toy Story trailer started screening in cinemas, interest was so high that the entire run sold out before the film actually opened. The first reorder by the retail industry was for an additional 1.6 million dolls. Buzz Lightyear was America’s must-have toy for the 1995 Christmas season.

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Toy Story was released in American cinemas on 22 November 1995.

Its commercial success was immediate and profound. Globally the film grossed more than US$363 million – vastly exceeding its US$22 million budget. In America alone it remained at the top of the box office until January 1996, finally losing pole position to Terry Gilliam’s time-travel thriller 12 Monkeys. The critical success was even more surprising, with the film receiving wide and enthused acclaim from the critic’s community. In early 1996 Toy Story received a special Academy Award for being the world’s first computer-animated feature, and scored a competitive nomination for Best Screenplay.

The success of Toy Story propelled Pixar to even greater commercial and critical success. A week after Toy Story hit cinemas, the company was publicly listed. Steve Jobs’ US$10 million investment was now worth more than $US1 billion. In 2006 Disney bought Pixar outright for US$7.4 billion dollars. 

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Watching Toy Story again, almost 25 years from release, feels rather like watching a museum piece. Computer-generated animation is not like watching more traditional forms such as hand-drawn or stop-motion. The technology of CGI is always advancing: the resolution increases, as does the complexity of the character models and backgrounds, the levels of realism possible, and the automation of simulating natural phenomena such as water, fire, smoke, and so on. As a result there is a jarring effect caused by viewing a film that has, simply by virtue of its age, a remarkably primitive look. The toys, by virtue of being mostly rigid, plastic characters, have aged the best. The human characters are by far the least accomplished, suggesting a film that bit off a little more than it could chew.

The film’s dated visuals show why it was smart for the Pixar brains trust to focus so carefully on story and character. The animation was always going to date and look increasingly simple. The narrative by-and-large still works. It is uneven here and there, revealing precisely what it is – a feature film made by people that have never made one before – but within the structure there are numerous highlights that still stand out a quarter century later. For every sequence of Woody being aggressively petty (the unlikeable elements from the film’s first attempt never quite got ironed out), there is an insightful and sensitively developed scene like Buzz learning he is indeed a child’s toy. The parts of the film that do not work are still fairly enjoyable. The parts of the film that do absolutely sing.

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The visuals are also still easy on the eye because at no point do they undertake a movement that would not be possible with a real camera on an actual set. It limits the scope, but makes it feel more realistic. It leads to outstanding sequences like a climactic street chase, which works to a large degree because it apes so accurately the sort of chase one would see in a live-action film. Even the scope of the story is comparatively modest, and resists all temptations to expand in ambition.

Each character works exceptionally. It is a key reason why, even when this film’s screenplay does not entirely work smoothly, each and every sequel has been better written and more enjoyable. That is pretty much unprecedented in cinema. From 1995’s Toy Story to 2019’s Toy Story 4, the characters are more beautifully developed and stories more meaningful and subtle.

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It is difficult to imagine a more promising start to CGI animated features. Rival studios would be relatively quick to jump on the CGI bandwagon, but even with the benefit of a few extra years to develop the technology, competing features such as Antz (DreamWorks), Ice Age (20th Century Fox), and The Polar Express (Warner Bros) lack the charm and fluidity that Pixar achieved on their first attempt.

The enduring success of Toy Story is not in its animation – that simply reserves it a place in the history books. The long-time popularity is guaranteed by its characters: Woody, Buzz, Bo Peep, Mr Potato Head, Slinky Dog, and Rex the dinosaur (still, thanks to a superb performance by Wallace Shawn, the ‘most valuable player’ of the film). Toy Story has added itself to pop culture, and after 25 years it shows no sign of the characters ever losing their iconic status.

‘We were at Disneyland with the kids,’ Tom Hanks once explained. ‘You know they’re always having parades and things like that, and there was a thing, an absolute extravaganza, and Woody is a part of it. We were there watching it and my daughter – who’s in her 30s, by the way – the first time we saw it, she burst into tears. And I said, ‘It was kind of great, wasn’t it?’ But she pointed out to me that Woody will be part of that for the rest of time, the same way Mickey is. And in no small way, I am Woody.’(12)

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  1. Ed Catmull, “How Pixar fosters collective creativity”, Harvard Business Review, September 2008.
  2. Karen Paik, To Infinity and Beyond! The Story of Pixar Animation Studios, Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 2007.
  3. Julia Zorthian, “Toy Story at 20”, Time, 9 November 2015.
  4. Paik, 2007.
  5. Paik, 2007.
  6. Darryn King, “Tom Hanks on the pleasures and perils of being Woody”, New York Times, 18 June 2019.
  7. Zorthian, 201
  8. Jim Kozak, “Serenity Now!”, in Focus, August 2005.
  9. Christopher Finch, The CG Story: Computer generated animation and special effects, Monacelli Press, New York, 2013.
  10. Kozak, 2005.
  11. Paik, 2007.
  12. King, 2019.

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