How to tell a great toy story
You may not recognise his face, but you’d certainly recognise John Lasseter’s work: Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Cars, Ratatouille and Wall-E, to name just some of his writing, directing and producing output.
Lasseter was a co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios, and a pioneer of computer animation. In fact, pretty much invented computer-animated movies—developing from scratch the process that almost every Hollywood studio now uses. It refined its craft with a series of award-winning short films throughout the 80s, and broke into features with Toy Story in 1995—the first full-length computer-animated movie.
“It began way back when I first started, in 1983, working with the Lucasfilm computer division, which became Pixar,” Lasseter says.
“There inevitably comes a time when they say: ‘Hey, we have this new computer and it’s 10 times faster than the ones you’re using.’ So everybody logically thinks: ‘OK, that means you can do what you’re doing, only 10 times faster.’
“[But actually] what happens is that it takes the same amount of time, but it becomes 10 times more complex. We have more computer power than you can imagine now, and still our movies take the same amount of time to create.”
Each feature is a four-year process, and the animators have to lock down the technology about two years before completion. “That’s when you have to say: ‘We don’t know how to do this, or the movie really requires us to do this’,” he says. “In Cars, it was the reflections on the cars and windows; in Monsters Inc, it was the fur; and there’s the underwater stuff in [Finding] Nemo. There was a tremendous amount of complexity in Wall-E.
Yet this complexity is not the result of clever technology, rather, it was achieved by imitating the way a film camera captures what it sees.
“That was Andrew Stanton, the director, working with Roger Deakins, the great cinematographer,” he says. “[The team] actually had lessons—learning technically what happens with the set of lenses that a cinematographer has to use on a classic Panavision 35mm camera. They studied the way this master cinematographer shoots things. That’s why [Wall-E] looks as if it was shot.
“But that’s classic Pixar. What we’ve always done, since the very beginning, is we have studied what is that unique limitation of the way things look, and we’ve modelled that into the computer.
“That’s why Pixar films have always had this movie feeling about them. For instance, we invented motion blur for computer animation. The way that a 35mm camera works is that it has a disc that spins—its 180° shutter. Half of that disc is clear, and half is solid. As it spins, half of the time it’s exposing the frame, and the frame is still. And when the disc is blank is when the frame advances, and it holds there and is exposed. So there is a look that 35mm has in the way that it blurs, because of this framing. So we studied that and we modelled that into our system when we created motion blur, to get that same look. This was on the first short I created in 1984, The Adventures of André and Wally B. It looked so real, even to myself. But it’s not real because our eyes don’t see motion blur. It’s a limitation of the [film camera’s] lens.
“This understanding of the limitations of how films are actually made, and then modelling that within the computer, is classic Pixar. In live action, you get that for free, but we had to create it.”
Pixar’s visual creativity has developed over the years, from the simple geometric shapes used in early shorts such as Luxo Jr (the lamp that became Pixar’s mascot) and the Oscar-winning Tin Toy, to the more advanced character renderings in Toy Story, Monsters Inc and Ratatouille.
“One of the key things is the speed of the computer being used in an interactive way—by the animators, or the lighters, or the art department,” continues Lasseter. “Because the more complex that a model or something that you’re doing is, the less it can be interactive, because it’s so computationally expensive to do that. Pixar is the only studo that really has a major investment in research, where we’re creating our own modelling and animation system, and we have a new system coming online now. It’s been years in development, and one of the big issues was this interaction.”
Yet, as computers become more powerful, and Hollywood relies more on CGI special effects, does the technology ever get in the way of telling the story? Lasseter thinks that sometimes, it does—but for others, not for Pixar.
“One of the things from the beginning that we recognised is that these are just tools,” he says. “That the technology never entertains an audience by itself. And for us, since we invented much of computer animation, we have a pretty good sense of what our tools can do.
“Like Toy Story—we couldn’t do humans very well, so we kept them in the background, you just see feet and hands and stuff like that. But we could do plastic well, so making a film where the main characters were made of plastic was perfect.”
The next film technology with which Pixar is leading the way is 3D, which has seen a huge resurgence in the past 18 months. Pixar’s next release, Up, has been made in 3D—as will all its features from now on—and there will be 3D versions of the first two Toy Story films in advance of next year’s sequel.
“We’ve been interested in 3D for a very long time,” Lasseter says. “In 1989, Pixar made a short film called Knick Knack in 3D. I realised very early on that what you’re creating inside the computer is a three-dimensional environment. And I’ve always felt sad that you could only see a two-dimensional window into that three-dimensional space.
“We did quite a bit of research in holography, in lenticular imagery, to try to get a true three-dimensional view of the world and objects we were creating. I was doing a lot of amateur 3D photography—in 1988, when I got married to my wife Nancy, we took 3D wedding pictures. But there were no theatres you could see 3D in—you have to do a special setup with a silver screen and polarised projectors and all that stuff—and it was a pain that no one got to see [Knick Knack] in 3D.”
“Theatres started recognising that with digital they could do 3D far more easily than with film. And what’s exciting about that right now is that you can’t get it at home. That’s why theatre owners have been investing heavily in it.”
And Lasseter believes 3D could help cinemas beat the economic crisis.
“They make a little premium on the 3D ticket, so it is beneficial for them to do it. You know, going to the movies has always been recession-proof. It’s fairly cheap entertainment, it’s classic escapism. So in all the recessions and depressions in the last 100 years, movies have done quite well.”
Bolt was made from the beginning as a 3D film. It’s also the first computer-animated film from Walt Disney Animation Studios, of which Lasseter was appointed chief creative officer in 2006, when Disney bought Pixar.
“There’s one technological advance in Bolt that Pixar’s never done before: there is a softness and an interesting quality to the backgrounds,” he says. “The artists at Disney said: ‘Is there a way in computer animation that we can make the backgrounds look more like they’ve been painted?’
“I got to know some of the classic Disney matte painters such as Harrison Ellenshaw and his father Peter—and when you look at some of Peter Ellenshaw’s matte painting from Mary Poppins, which are some of the best ever made, you’re shocked at how rough they are, how impressionistic. But with film it just clicks in there. When you see a matte painting where everything is too perfectly rendered, it doesn’t look real for some reason.
“This new technology in Bolt makes the world believable—not really real, but believable. When you stop a frame and study the backgrounds, you realise wow, that’s pretty painterly—and you have never seen that before in computer animation. There is a beautiful, rich quality to Bolt that no one’s seen before in computer animation.”
With technology still advancing, what does Lasseter think Pixar will be able to do five or 10 years from now?
“It’s hard to say,” he says. “It’s getting to the point where the limitation is in the imagination of the filmmaker: if he can imagine it, chances are that he can make it. Which early on in computer animation was not the case.
“Clearly, the most difficult thing to create is a human being. That’s why, when we’ve created human characters such as those in The Incredibles, we’ve kept them fairly stylised. To create a character that’s totally believable and realistic is always going to be the challenge. But it depends on the story you’re trying to tell.” - guardian.co.uk