In 1995, animation was changed forever. The genre, known for transporting audiences to new worlds, was up until that point mostly hand-drawn, using techniques made popular by Walt Disney Studios and Warner Bros. But when Disney joined forces with Pixar — a then-up-and-coming computer animation studio chaired by Steve Jobs — for Toy Story, the first computer-animated feature film was born, and a new world of film was unlocked.
While the project had a roadmap (founding Pixar member John Lasseter's Oscar-winning short film Tin Toy inspired the new Disney-Pixar partnership to explore a movie from a small toy's perspective), it also faced its share of challenges.
The script — written by Joss Whedon, Andrew Stanton, Joel Cohen, and Alec Sokolow from a story by Lasseter, Stanton, Pete Docter, and Joe Ranft — went through re-writes, while computer scientists continued to work on building the software that would make computer animation possible.
"Back then, the people who were dealing with the technology were technologists," Galyn Susman explained during a 2015 Academy panel celebrating Toy Story's legacy. Susman, who went on to produce numerous Pixar projects, including the new Toy Story spin-off Lightyear, was a lighting supervisor and modeling artist on the original film.
"We were not filmmakers at the time," she recalled. "We did not understand film language. We were simply doing whatever we were told to get graphic images on the screen by programming as quickly as we could to get the pictures made… and we were learning along the way.”
So, as computer scientists wrote code trying to mimic the freedom of film, Lasseter focused on trying to imitate a camera’s limitations. Working with then-software engineer (and later Pixar and Disney Animation president) Ed Catmull, the team focused on critical aspects of filmmaking like motion blur. The end goal was for Toy Story to occupy a previously unheard of sweet spot between animation and live action.
"Everyone was trying to create computer animation tools to make something that looked absolutely real," Lasseter shared during the Academy panel. "Now, I'm going to step back from reality [to] produce something that the audience... knows this doesn't exist. And then make it as real as possible."
After a long and turbulent conceptual and production phase, Toy Story was finally released in theaters on Nov. 22, 1995.
Telling the story of rival toys Woody (Tom Hanks) and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) as they set aside their differences and embark on a journey to be reunited with their owner Andy, Toy Story was a monumental success. The film captivated audiences with cutting edge technology and a heartfelt story. All of the hard work that had gone into creating Toy Story paid off when it was a huge hit at the box office, becoming one of the highest grossing films of 1995. And Toy Story wasn't simply a commercial success; the film remains one of the most highly acclaimed animated films ever released to this day.
"It was a movie. It was lit, it was dimensional, we had cameras moving around through things. We had Steadicam kind of shots, all that stuff, and it felt like a movie," Lasseter said of the final product. "Yet, they were cartoony, and they were moving like cartoons, and yet I could touch them. They were plastic. It was all that uniqueness — understanding the limitations of what the medium was at that time, and creating the characters and the storytelling."
The Oscar for Best Animated Feature did not exist at the time (it was introduced in 2002), but the film was nominated for three Academy Awards (Best Original Screenplay, Best Score and Best Song for Randy Newman's "You've Got a Friend in Me"). It was the first time that an animated feature film was nominated for Best Original Screenplay.
During the 68th Oscars ceremony, Lasseter was presented with a Special Achievement Oscar for his innovation in computer animation — which he said in his speech was shared with "everyone at Pixar Animation Studios." "Computers alone did not create Toy Story. A group of very talented people did," he remarked.
"You know, winning an award is great," Lasseter later reflected in an interview with the Academy. "But being nominated is also a very, very special achievement. It's an award unto itself. And that is something that forever in my career will be something that I'm most proud of is being nominated for [Best Original Screenplay]."
Toy Story, which went on to inspire numerous CGI animated films and the modern animation era, became one of Disney’s most successful franchises, spawning three sequels. And now a spin-off film arrives with Lightyear.
Pixar, meanwhile, has since gone on to make 25 animated features, winning over a dozen Oscars. And it all started with one of the most groundbreaking animated films ever made, Toy Story.
By Reyna Cervantes