Pixar's digital details

Inside the CG filmography, from 'Toy Story' to 'WALL-E'


Toy Story
"Toy Story" -- unique in plot, look and technology -- was John Lasseter's feature directorial debut. The first-ever full length computer animated film was also the first of a three-picture financing and distribution deal that Pixar signed with Disney in 1991. Initially designed to tell the story of a vengeful ventriloquist's doll who vies for the attention of his owner, the movie eventually became Woody (Tom Hanks), a cloth pull-string cowboy who - while still a bit envious of the new guy in the room, an action figure named Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) -- is a benevolent figure who guides Andy's other toys. When Woody and Buzz are separated from Andy, they must work together as a team to get home, underscoring the importance of cooperation and friendship.

The film, for which Pixar developed new software, was an immediate hit with critics and audiences of all ages: The few licensed toys available were hot sellers and Pixar stock suddenly became a valuable commodity.

Release date: Nov. 22, 1995 | Worldwide gross: $362 million




A Bug's Life
The groundwork for "A Bug's Life" was laid a year before "Toy Story" became a global phenomenon. Lasseter had been playing with the idea of using insects in a story; and, during a lunchtime conversation with writer-director Andrew Stanton and the late writer Joe Ranft, both members of Lasseter's "Brain Trust," the trio developed a story they called "Bugs," based on Aesop's fable "The Grasshopper and the Ant." After Disney chairman Michael Eisner approved a story treatment in July 1995 -- what Lasseter called "an epic with miniature proportions" -- Stanton was appointed co-director. Thanks to the success of "Toy Story," Pixar's deal with Disney was renegotiated so production costs and receipts (after a distribution fee was paid) were split evenly. During production, it was learned that the first CGI feature from Pacific Data Images and DreamWorks SKG -- former Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg's new studio -- was also about ants. Opening two months before "A Bug's Life," it threatened to preempt the market. Ultimately, though "Antz" had a higher-profile voice cast, "A Bug's Life" was a much bigger hit ("Antz" grossed $90 million compared to $363.4 million for "A Bug's Life").

Release date: Nov. 20, 1998 | Budget: $120 million | Worldwide gross: $363.4 million
 




Toy Story 2
After the success of "Toy Story," the idea of a sequel quickly started taking shape. If Joe Roth, who succeeded Katzenberg as Disney chairman, had had his way, "Toy Story 2" would have become a direct-to-video release, following the path of other lucrative sequels to such Disney titles as "Beauty and the Beast" (1991), "Aladdin" (1992), "The Lion King" (1994) and "Pocahontas" (1995). That's the direction the film was going until Disney executives looked at the film's first reels and, impressed with the quality of work they saw, decided it merited theatrical release. The premise originated with Lasseter, who wondered what would be emotionally upsetting for a toy. The answer? Being denied its purpose -- to play with children. Buzz, Woody and the rest of the gang from the original film returned with four new toy characters. Using digital backgrounds created for the first movie, what Pixar called a digital backlot, the film had subtle technological improvements over its predecessor, including more realistic cloth textures and better interaction with the characters' body parts. Critics praised it as that rare sequel as good or better than the original.

Release date: Nov. 19, 1999 | Budget: $90 million | Worldwide gross: $485.1 million




Monsters, Inc.
"Monsters, Inc.," essentially a buddy story between Sulley, a big, hairy blue monster, and Boo, a fearless two-year old girl, was the first Pixar film directed by someone other than Lasseter, the assignment going to Pete Docter. Initially meant to be about a 32-year-old man coping with monsters in his closet, over time it came to center on Boo instead. When she inadvertently enters their world, Sulley (John Goodman) and his green, one-eyed sidekick Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal), do everything in their power to get her home. (Crystal regretted not taking the role of Buzz Lightyear in "Toy Story" when it was offered to him, and jumped at the chance to be part of "Monsters, Inc.")

Goodman likened his character to a seasoned NFL football player, a real pro at what he does. Sulley's lead animator, John Kahrs, liked the analogy and used that when creating the monster, who is big but moves well despite his size.

There was a concerted effort by the animators to bring new realism to the rendering of Sulley's fur, which included the casting of shadows, and the technical team invented software for that purpose, with dazzling results. The overall complexity of the film required more computing power than all three prior Pixar movies combined.

Release date: Nov. 2, 2001 | Budget: $115 million | Worldwide gross: $525.4 million




Finding Nemo
The intensity of a father's love is at the heart of "Finding Nemo," Pixar's most successful film to date and the first to be released in the summer blockbuster season. Marlin, a father clown fish (Albert Brooks), loses his wife and all their eggs except one, in a barracuda attack. He's overly protective of what grows into his surviving son, Nemo, (Alexander Gould), only to see him caught by a scuba diver on his first day of school. Aided by a forgetful friend, a regal tang fish named Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), Marlin searches relentlessly for his son. Nemo, meanwhile, tries to escape from the dentist office fish tank in which he has been placed. The story was inspired by director Andrew Stanton's own relationship with his son and also by the intriguing possibilities of creating a story that takes place primarily underwater. Pixar created software for the ocean environment, based on the research of the animators, which included everything from screening Jacques Cousteau documentaries and scuba diving in Hawaii to incorporating the expertise of an aquatic consultant who was subsequently hired as a production consultant.

Release date: May 30, 2003 | Budget: $94 million | Worldwide gross: $867.7 million




The Incredibles
Brad Bird, whose film "The Iron Giant" (1999) was a critical - if not boxoffice - success, pitched the idea of a family of superheroes to Lasseter, a friend from Cal Arts. Bird became the first outside director in Pixar history and his story was also the first primarily about human characters. There were significant technical challenges in creating human characters (designed by Bird's "Iron Giant" collaborators Tony Fucile and Teddy Newton) made tougher because Bird wouldn't compromise his vision for the characters' appearances, which were integral to their personalities and superpowers. The Incredibles' insecure and defensive teenage daughter, Violet, for instance, had to have long hair covering half her face. This was a physical representation of her powers -- to turn invisible and to activate a shield. Skin was made more realistic by the development of "subsurface scattering," a technique developed at Stanford University to make skin and its tones more realistic.

Release date: Nov. 5, 2004 | Budget: $92 million | Worldwide gross: $635.2 million




Cars
After the release of "Toy Story 2," Lasseter, a lifelong fan of automobiles, told Ranft he wanted to do a movie about talking cars, though he didn't have a story yet. When he returned from a two-month, cross-country road trip with his wife and five sons the following summer, however, he had it: His lead character would learn the importance of taking time to enjoy life and the value of friendship. With his characteristic devotion to research and detail, Lasseter traveled to racetracks throughout the country and took racing lessons. He developed a story, along with Ranft and Jorgen Klubien, which detailed a world where cars held jobs, had romances and friendships. A brash rookie race car would accidentally be separated from a tractor trailer on the way to a race and would find himself in a decrepit Western town that had lost its luster after the Interstate was built. There he would learn his lesson.

Release date: June 9, 2006 | Budget: $120 million | Worldwide gross: $462 million




Ratatouille
Everyone knows rats are creepy little villains. At least that's how they've been portrayed in films ranging from Disney's "Lady and the Tramp" (1955) to "Willard " (1971) and "Ben" (1972). So when Jan Pinkava came up with the idea of a Paris rat with aspirations of becoming a chef, it was somewhat radical. Pinkava worked on the script with Jim Capobianco and it was approved in 2003 as Pixar's eighth feature. In the summer of 2004, Pinkava welcomed a co-director, Bob Peterson, who had worked at Pixar as an actor, writer and story artist. But to Pinkava's dismay, Peterson was given control of the story and what they ultimately pitched in June 2005 didn't go over well with Pixar heads. Peterson left and, after unsuccessfully trying to regain sole writing credit, Pinkava followed. Catmull and Lasseter turned to Brad Bird, who, with only 18 months before the film's release, took charge, salvaging much of the work that had been done on sets and characters but making major changes in the story. The theme, like many Pixar films before it, stressed the importance of believing in oneself.

Release date: June 29, 2007 | Budget: $150 million | Worldwide gross: $620.4 million




WALL-E
What if mankind left Earth and somebody forgot to turn off the last robot? Such was the idea introduced by Stanton at a Pixar lunch around the time "Toy Story" hit theaters. The robot would be the ultimate lonely character, Stanton said, the definition of futility. He was intrigued by the idea that the machine would continue to do its work, not knowing it was a waste of time. Some at the lunch said the robot should be like "Star Wars'" R2-D2 or Pixar's own Luxo, Jr. -- a machine doing what it's intended to do and not one that speaks like a human. The concept percolated in the back of Stanton's mind over the ensuing six years as he wrote "Finding Nemo" and worked on other Pixar projects. He revived the idea after the success of "Nemo," because the technology had evolved to a point where it would do his story justice. He also planned to direct. Stanton called his lead character, a robot designed to compact trash, WALL-E, or Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class. WALL-E was given treads for locomotion and hinged binoculars for eyes, which allowed for expression. His box shape contrasted with that of his romantic interest, Eve, a smooth, round robot who comes to Earth to test the soil. WALL-E was given voice by Ben Burtt, a multiple Oscar-winning sound designer who worked many years at ILM before joining Pixar in 2005.

Release date: June 27, 2008 | Budget: $180 million | Worldwide gross: $469.2 million (at presstime)
 
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