Samuel Goldwyn Theater
8949 Wilshire Blvd
Beverly Hills, CA 90212
Audiences embraced it, and Toy Story announced to the industry that there was a new game in town. Pixar Animation Studios, led by John Lasseter and Ed Catmull, inspired a digital revolution, blurring the line between art and technology and bringing beloved characters to life with heart and humor. We celebrated the 20th anniversary of 1995’s Toy Story, the first entirely computer-animated feature film, by joining Lasseter and Catmull in conversation with moderator Jon Favreau as they shared their stories and the challenges they faced along the way.
John Lasseter received a Special Achievement Oscar in 1995 for Toy Story. Catmull went on to receive a Scientific and Technical Award from the Academy for his contributions to RenderMan, the software that was instrumental to the creation of the film. The film earned Oscar nominations for Original Song, Original Musical or Comedy Score, and Original Screenplay. Pixar Animation Studios has received multiple Oscars for a myriad of films since then.
As hard as it may seem to believe, one of the most beloved and influential animation films of all time turned twenty in 2015, and the Academy celebrated it in high style on October 1, 2015 at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater with “Toy Story: 20 Years of Being an Animation Game-Changer.”
Academy governor Bill Kroyer welcomed the sold-out audience after a screening of the original Toy Story trailer in 35mm, just as it was seen in movie theaters in 1995. Little could anyone have known then that this, the first theatrical feature by Pixar Animation with theatrical distribution by Walt Disney Pictures, would revolutionize the animated feature film forever. The moderator for the evening was Jon Favreau, whose career ranges from writing and acting in the indie hit Swingers to directing such films as Iron Man, Elf and Chef, who drew parallels between this film and the revolutionary breakthroughs of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs , which established the medium of animated feature films in 1937. As he noted, “Technology becomes the magic trick to tell a story that’s timeless.”
Favreau’s enthusiasm was contagious as he welcomed to stage two of the men behind the film: director/co-writer John Lasseter and executive producer Ed Catmull, whose RenderMan software was a vital part of the film’s creation. Also appearing with them in the second half of the program were technical director Galyn Susman and production designer/art director Ralph Eggleston, who played essential roles in establishing the film’s bold, colorful and striking design.
Lasseter and Catmull recalled their early days in Pixar’s infancy as a property of Lucasfilm, later acquired by Steve Jobs, who regarded it primarily as a computer company with animation as a sideline – at first. The creation of the first Pixar short, Luxo Jr. (1986), featured the bouncing lamp that has become the company’s signature image, but it also turned Jobs into a believer who said “I was blown away!” after seeing it. The short’s launch at SIGGRAPH in Dallas that year got the ball rolling, and soon Pixar was cutting its teeth on dynamic commercials for products like Gummi Savers and Listerine (both shown to the audience) as well as additional shorts like Tin Toy (1988), which became the first computer-animated film to win an Oscar when it took home the award for Animated Short Film in 1989.
The commercial projects allowed Pixar to bring aboard more names like Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter, who have gone on to direct some of the company’s acclaimed films in their own right, and soon they decided to embark on a half-hour TV special featuring the title character from Tin Toy. Encouraged by Disney under the leadership of Roy Disney at the time, the team’s idea morphed into a feature film that became Toy Story, which was originally about a ventriloquist’s cowboy dummy named Woody and his contentious relationship with a new interloper who transformed from Tinny into Buzz Lightyear.
Rarities from the Pixar vaults seen in the theater included a proof of concept film showing early version of Woody and Buzz (whose relative sizes changed dramatically by the finished film) and a storyboarded version of the early conception of Woody, who was far less likeable in early conceptions due to Disney’s suggestion to keep the project “edgy.” Given two weeks to rethink the film, Lasseter and company buckled down and told the story they wanted to tell; the newly revamped concept, a buddy movie for the ages, impressed the studio heads who gave it a green light (with the news still preserved on video with a delighted Lasseter hearing the news for the first time). Also seen was co-writer and future Cars director Joe Ranft enthusiastically acting out an Army toy sequence to the Pixar crew with detailed storyboards, a charming peek behind the scenes at how much fun and passion went into the project.
The rich colors and lighting details that contribute immensely to the film’s enduring appeal were also explored by Susman and Eggleston, who explained the Colorscripts process now used regularly to develop the effective, meticulously considered palettes of every shot to convey the necessary emotion in conjunction with the music and dialogue. Much of the film required the wholesale invention of new hardware and software for their needs, such as creating motion blur in the computer-rendered frames to give the natural impression of film.
John Lasseter had the most touching moment of the evening when he brought out a much-loved Woody toy left by a Disneyland visitor and accompanied by an emotionally powerful note, and everyone on stage still seemed astonished by the immense legacy of their film. Lasseter noted that 255 computer-animated films have been made by Hollywood studios to this point, providing both a host of job opportunities for new artists and technicians while taking audiences to places never made possible before inside a movie theater. “Animation is a great career,” he concluded. “It’s a fun life.”