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June 03, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, June 03, 2005

The story behind 'Toy Story' The story behind 'Toy Story' (June 03, 2005)

Animation gurus say humans, not technology, are key to their success

By Sue Dremann @text Brad Bird, the writer/director of "The Incredibles" and a self-described geek, was in motion. As he spoke, his face got as rubbery as a cartoon character's. His voice rose with an almost manic comic timing.

"It's getting to be a drag talking to the press," he said. "'What do you have that's new?'"

"Nose hair! I have nose hair! I have the first computer-generated nose hair!" he screamed, as the audience roared with applause.

Contrary to popular belief, computer-generated technology doesn't create an artistic and commercial success like "Toy Story," he said. So what's the secret? According to Bird, it's the story.

"Everybody in this room has a set of experiences," said Bird, speaking before a capacity crowd at Mountain View's Computer History Museum. The characters, he said, tell the human story in its myriad forms: love, loss, and redemption -- topics that resonate throughout such hits as "Toy Story," "Finding Nemo" and "The Incredibles."

Bird was joined by Ed Catmull, president of Pixar Animation Studios, the pioneer of the new wave of computer animated movies; Alvy Ray Smith, co-founder of Altamira, Pixar and Lucasfilm; and animator Andrew Stanton, director and screenwriter of "Finding Nemo." The topic: the human factor guiding computer animation.

"It was never about the technology. If we had focused on the technology of 'Toy Story,' we would have failed," Catmull said.

When "Toy Story" -- the first full-length feature computer-animated film -- hit movie screens in 1995, traditional animated films were nearly dead. "No one thought any animated film could make more than $50,000, except maybe for Disney," Bird said.

But no matter. There was a palpable passion behind the creation of "Toy Story." It was born out of boredom with the formulaic story lines of 2-D animation, Stanton said. "How come it has become law that you have to have a villain, a prince. ... Why do we have to have a song?" Stanton said, to the audience's cheers.

"We'd hated what was out there for 10 years. We knew so badly there was a better movie that could be made out there -- they (the early computer animators) were too young and stupid to know they couldn't do it," he said.

Pixar looked to character-driven films such as "Star Wars" and "The Wizard of Oz," Bird said. And they didn't discount "the greatness" of Disney's classic 2-D films, where animators studied and understood every nod of a head and shrug of a shoulder. "That stuff they drew from their own observations. Life was being brought into animation," Bird said.

Getting hung up on the technology, on creating the most realistic water, fur or hair, "is like counting the number of notes in a symphony," he said. Participation in real life, like playing catch with a child, really seeing how water splashes when he jumps in a puddle, is how Pixar animators develop believability.

Believability is sometimes mistakenly called realism, Bird said. "A lot of my friends come out of "Nemo" and say, 'Wow -- that was so real,' but what they mean is that it was believable."

While photo-realism has its place, mainly in live-action hybrid movies such as "Lord of the Rings," "Nemo" wouldn't have worked as a photo-realistic film, Smith said. It's more of a fantasy.

But "realism" is often created by making the more intrinsic qualities of an object believable, such as capturing the weight of a falling object, Bird said. In "The Incredibles," shattering glass seems real not because it's ultra-realistic, but because the animators have captured the kinetic energy of that glass breaking into pieces.

Great films in any genre also set up the audience for humor or drama. It's the tease, the subtle suspense that draws the audience in, Bird said. "It's all about dropping the bra strap and not just getting naked. ... taking it slow. Take Spielberg's 'Jurassic Park' -- people try to emulate the dinosaur chasing the car; very few emulate the cup of water rippling as the dinosaur approaches."

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