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COVER STORY

Creating a New Buzz

How much further can computer animation go? Disney and Pixar stretch the limits in 'Toy Story 2.'

November 18, 1999|MICHAEL MALLORY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar Animation Studios first set the moviegoing public on its collective ear in 1995 with "Toy Story," some people believed they were seeing the future of computer animation. In the wake of "Toy Story 2"--which opens Friday at Hollywood's El Capitan Theatre, followed by nationwide release Nov. 24--it becomes clear that what was seen four years ago was only the beginning.

"It's addictive, this pioneering spirit here, always trying to do something that no one's ever done before," says Pixar's John Lasseter, director of both "Toy Story" films. In what will likely be the most resounding refutation of Hollywood's legendary "sequel curse" since "The Empire Strikes Back," "Toy Story 2" brings back Woody and Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, respectively, as if you didn't already know) in a story that revolves around the kidnapping of Woody and his discovery that he is a collectible doll from the 1950s who must now decide whether to remain with Andy, the boy who loves him but will someday outgrow him, or attain immortality in a toy museum.

The film also introduces new toy characters, including cowgirl Jessie (voiced by Joan Cusack), an old prospector named Stinky Pete (Kelsey Grammer) and a rubber penguin named Wheezy (Joe Ranft, who also served as co-head of story for the film).

More important, the film has enough new miracles up its sleeve to virtually re-create for audiences the "wow" factor of the original. And despite the vast leaps in digital technology since the first movie's release, the filmmakers maintain that it's not just about computers.

"I know there's a fascination because people look at these movies as technical," says Thomas Schumacher, president of Walt Disney Feature Animation, "but we don't obsess about the technology. It comes down to whether you love the characters and get caught up in the story."

Whether creatively or technologically inspired (or both), these are some of the most notable (and noticeable) of the new things that will be on display in "Toy Story 2."

1. Improved Facial Expression and Lip-Sync Animation. The original "Toy Story" was hailed for providing its computer-animated characters the same facial mobility as their hand-drawn brethren. But shading and rendering technology, not to mention animation techniques, had so vastly improved by "Toy Story 2" that virtually all the returning characters had to be remodeled or re-shaded in order to match the new ones.

"We've become better at building mouths and facial articulation in general," says Galyn Susman, supervising technical director for the film. "On the old Woody, the corners of his mouth came to these razor-sharp points that would split if he opened his mouth too wide. Now we have better control over the parts of the lips."

As for the lip-syncing itself, which appears precise enough to satisfy lip-readers, Lasseter adds, "That's not technology, that's the animators getting really, really good at what they do."

2. Fantasy Elements. Sure, the whole thing is a fantasy, but in the original, the action never strayed far from Andy's neighborhood. "Toy Story 2" opens with an outer space showdown between Buzz Lightyear and his evil nemesis, the Emperor Zurg, the outcome of which will stun some viewers ("We wanted to start the movie off with a bang and really fool the audience," notes co-head of story Dan Jeup). Later in the film, we experience a nightmare of Woody's and a flashback sequence involving Jessie.

"Toy Story 2" also features many more locations--which necessitated 18 separate computer-generated sets--including an airport, the mammoth toy store owned by obsessive toy collector Al McWhiggin (voiced by Wayne Knight) and Al's high-rise apartment.

3. Heightened Photorealism for Settings. Even the best-trained eyes stand to be fooled by the reality of "Toy Story 2's" settings, both interior and exterior. "We spent a lot of time trying to understand surfaces," Susman says. "One thing that we spent a lot of time developing over the last couple years was a three-dimensional paint system, where a traditionally trained painter can feel like they are painting directly onto these 3-D objects. Computer graphics are very perfect, and [the 3-D paint system] gives us the ability to take the edge of perfection off everything and add a level of organic detail to make things feel much more real."

The backgrounds also feature such detail as leaves on trees gently, almost subliminally, swaying in the breeze. "A lot of the exterior things, like putting motion into leaves, were technological problems that we solved on 'A Bug's Life' and could directly import to 'Toy Story 2,' " Susman says.

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