Computer and imagination bring toys to life Mouse that roared: Computer graphics turn childhood play into a full-length computer-animated movie, "Toy Story."

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For many adults, toys are just overpriced plastic things they consider buying only when their children begin to vigorously test their diaphragm capacity in a department store.

But few adults pay as much attention to toys as John Lasseter.

In Mr. Lasseter's office at Pixar Animation Studios in Richmond, Calif., toys line the shelves, and many of them were there long before he began work five years ago on "Toy Story," the first fully computer-animated feature. "The main reason to do this film," says Mr. Lasseter, "was so during work hours, I could go to a toy store and buy toys on the company credit card."

"Toy Story" concerns Woody (Tom Hanks' voice), an old-fashioned pull-string gunslinger and the favorite toy of a boy named Andy. Until, that is, the youngster receives a high-tech action figure complete with laser lights and sound effects, Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen's voice).

Buzz and Woody squabble, then get lost in the big, bad real world where they must quit bickering and join forces if they're to survive the clutches of Sid, the sadistic kid next door.

"So many things in the movie were spurred from the things we did when we were kids," explains Andrew Stanton, one of six people who did the screenwriting and/or story. "When Sid is introduced, he's blowing up a Combat Carl, something I used to do with G.I. Joes."

Before "Toy Story," which opened yesterday, Mr. Lasseter directed a series of acclaimed and ground-breaking computer-animated shorts (one, "Tin Toy," won the 1989 Oscar for best animated short).

He worked as an animator for Disney in the early '80s, what he calls "the dark days of 'Black Cauldron,' " the years before Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg came in to rescue the studio's animation heritage from sloth and indifference.

Mr. Lasseter was awakened to the possibilities of computer graphics when he saw some early dailies from the otherwise forgettable sci-fi thriller, "Tron." "I was blown away by what I saw not the imagery, but the potential, the extreme potential for character animation."

He begged his superiors to let him do a test blending cel and computer imagery to bring a brief sequence from Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are" to life. "It was very successful from my standpoint, but . . . they were only interested if it saved them money."

After a brief stint at Lucasfilm, Mr. Lasseter went to Pixar, which initially was a company marketing computer hardware and software. Despite the accolades and awards that had gone to such Mr. Lasseter efforts as "Luxo Jr.," "Knickknack," "Red's Dream" and the Oscar-winning "Tin Toy," the animation department was a perennial money-loser that was kept around because it showed off exotic applications of the firm's products.

Eventually, Pixar began making serious money from its animation thanks to TV commercials. Disney, which had purchased software from the company, began negotiations for a feature film. "Toy Story" was green-lighted more than three years ago, and has been in production ever since. In the meantime, Pixar's animation department has ballooned from a staff of six to 125, which is still a fraction of that for a traditional cel-animated feature.

"Toy Story" was made by a variety of these artists and technicians, each adding levels of detail to ensure that the final product appears eye-poppingly realistic.

"To get great acting out of your characters, you need traditional animators," Mr. Lasseter says. "That's the only place where you're trained to think in terms of acting with your characters. When we started hiring people, the most important criterion, no matter what the medium, was whether they made the characters look as though they were thinking. I didn't care if they knew computers or not, and would say the vast majority of the animators had no computer backgrounds."

An exception is Ebon Ostby, one of the production's animation scientists. He takes a physical mold sculpted for each character, and draws a grid on it. Then, with a digitizer, he inputs information with an electronic wand -- specifically, where each grid intersection is on the sculpture -- into the computer. This gives the computer a three-dimensional vision of the character.

As opposed to traditional cel animation, in which one artist and a supporting team work on one character throughout the entire film, animators on "Toy Story" would animate entire sequences.

The computer monitor at Pete Docter's work station is set up for a scene in which a chastened Woody pulls himself out from under Andy's bed, where he has been casually tossed. Mr. Docter's screen splits into a number of views of the scene -- a rough animation of the scene as it is expected to appear in the film; another, a close-up of Woody's face and still another is a vocal track that helps sync Woody's animated mouth with Mr. Hanks' words.

"In this scene, I've broken it down into three passes," says Docter, a supervising animator. "One's just a basic rough thing, I don't animate the hands or feet. The second is all the extremities, down to the finger tips. Once I have the body moving, I'll do a facial animation."

Other animators will add such details as clothing, backgrounds, lighting and textures.

"Computers are a completely different animation medium," Mr. Docter says, allowing the animators to work in three dimensions.

"The biggest struggle in this film is the humans," says Ralph Eggleston, the art director. "The skin was the hardest; there are several layers. The blood layer, the epidermal layer, the peach fuzz layer, and two oil layers, one that catches blue light, the other that catches other light; they're just slightly offset to give the skin depth. There's something like 140 paintings on it to get this effect."

Mr. Eggleston also designed many of the "sets" adding, with Mr. Lasseter and the rest of the crew, some inside jokes. Andy's bookcase includes titles from past Pixar projects. The carpeting in Sid's home is a design "borrowed" from "The Shining." The license number for Andy's family's minivan is the room number of the animation department where Mr. Lasseter went to college.

Each object went through a series of painting passes to achieve its realistic look, says Tia Krater, a project "painter." "For example, the bedspread. One layer was painting flat images that show the color. Another layer was to show dirt. Another layer was to show stitching and where the stitching gets puckered."

Ms. Krater's work goes to animation scientist Tom Porter. "I put surface appearances on everything," he says, picking up a cowboy hat and examining its felt. "There's a lot of detail -- this part is fuzzy, this part is beaten up. . . . How do you explain to the computer things like dust and labels and dirt and grunge and cracks and splotches? I write computer programs to describe surface detail. In order to describe the bumpy pattern of a toy, it's a standard matter of sines and cosines, simple high school trigonometry." Simple to him, maybe.

But it started with Mr. Lasseter's studying the toys "to create their personalities," he says. "Toys are made to be played with by children. So when you think of things that would cause anxiety in a toy's life, it would be the things that would prevent him from being played with by a child -- he could be broken, stolen, lost or he could be outgrown."

Mr. Lasseter picks up a cheesy plastic dinosaur. "Every kid needs a dinosaur, and everyone's favorite is T-Rex," he says. "We thought he could be mean, because they are supposed to be the most fearsome creatures that ever lived -- but look at these pathetic arms! He can't even scratch his nose!

"I started thinking about this Godzilla I had on my wedding cake and how badly spray-painted he was and if he wagged his tail or shook his head, the paint wouldn't line up anymore. So that's where I came up with the idea of playing the Rex against type -- he's completely insecure and neurotic.

"Look at the army men," Mr. Lasseter says. "With the mold casting, their faces aren't lined up, and their gun barrels are always bent. They have these plugs in the back of their heads. For our characters, we had to have the mold casting, the plugs in the back of their head, their guns bent, but most of all we had to have their feet stuck to these little bases."

Next, Mr. Lasseter produces another American classic -- Mr. Potato Head. "We needed a guy who questioned authority and was a rabble-rouser, so we came up with Mr. Potato Head," he explains, "because his facial features are always falling off. You'd have a chip on your shoulder, too, if your features were always falling off."

When they first talked to Don Rickles about speaking for Mr. Potato Head, he told them, "I don't need this Popeye-Olive Oyl stuff. . . . I'm glad I did it now."

No sooner had Pixar completed "Toy Story" than Mr. Lasseter and his team had a script for their second project for Disney. Its title, subject and targeted release date remain closely guarded secrets.

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