NEW YORK-- --Two visitors were scrutinizing a painting at the Museum of Modern Art and pondered aloud the artist's thought process.
On another evening, they might have been studying the museum's signature pieces - Van Gogh's luminous Starry Night, Andy Warhol's iconic Campbell's soup pop art and Picasso's early cubist Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, which is said to be reproduced in more art history texts than any other 20th-century work. But those creations were all several floors above them.
No, this winter's night they were marveling over Buzz Lightyear and Woody.
The recent MOMA exhibition of the cartoon animation of Pixar drew some of the biggest crowds in years to the museum to see its largest-ever animation display. The show, and the public response, underscored the advances in the craft in recent years.
Groundbreaking work in animation is taking many forms, from video games to its use in reconstructions for courtroom arguments. Computer-generated characters in movies - from Gollum in 2002's The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers to the latest King Kong - have set a high bar for what viewers expect.
Last weekend, the computer-animated film Ice Age: The Meltdown, by 20th Century Fox and Blue Sky Studios, earned nearly $70 million in North American theaters, a record for a March movie opening. It was the fourth-best opening for any animated film, behind DreamWorks SKG' Shrek 2 and Pixar's The Incredibles and Finding Nemo, all during the past three years, according to box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations Co.
Animation in TV commercials during this year's Super Bowl and Winter Olympics included United Airlines' "Dragon" ad that transformed paper shards into medieval knights, and Charles Schwab's "Talk to Chuck" spots. The Schwab ads used a tracing technique called rotoscoping that Walt Disney used for Snow White 70 years ago and that George Lucas originally used for his "light sabers."
In IMAX theaters this year, the Disney production Roving Mars garnered praise for its eerie computer-generated depictions of an unmanned craft bouncing toward a landing on the red planet. Even forms of animation that have been around for decades are wowing audiences, such as the Japanese anime in Hayao Miyazaki's Howl's Moving Castle and the British claymation creation Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit, which won an Academy Award last month.
Cartoons aren't just for Saturday breakfast anymore. The nightly feature known as "adult swim" on cable TV's Cartoon Network cultishly draws young people to such fare as Aqua Teen Hunger Force, about the bizarre exploits of a meatball, a milkshake and some fries. Pixar's Cars and Monster House, a student film that caught the eye, and backing, of Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg, are among the latest crop of computer-animated films expected to create some box-office buzz this summer.
Perhaps not since the 1940s - when Walt Disney's famed mouse and company were challenged by a group of striking Disney cartoonists who'd launched their own studio with their own stylized form - has the art of animation entered such a diverse and creative era.
"The way young people consume animation has changed. You don't see borders between things," said Maureen Furniss, a professor at the California Institute of the Arts, whose alumni include John A. Lasseter, widely described as the creative force at Pixar. "It used to be all Disney, and everything else was considered bad animation."
Furniss meant a long time ago. After Walt Disney died in 1966, his company's grip on animation loosened. The studio regained stature during Michael D. Eisner's leadership, with a string of animated blockbusters that even transformed Broadway, most notably The Lion King. But it took a back seat in recent years to Pixar.
After wowing audiences with its 3-D depictions of Buzz Lightyear, Woody and the other characters in Toy Story, Pixar helped transform public expectations for cartoons. Audiences weren't merely entertained by computer-generated depictions of toys, and later bugs, monsters and fish; they were transfixed by them.
Disney conceded that it needed to adopt Pixar's creative edge - so it's about to buy the company for $7.4 billion. Some animation fans fear that the Hollywood giant could end up smothering the iconoclastic culture that Pixar cultivated in Silicon Valley. But Steven Jobs, the Apple Computer impresario who built Pixar out of the computer graphics lab he'd bought from George Lucas' famed Industrial Light and Magic in the 1980s, said he agreed to the deal only after he and Lasseter were assured they'll be able to preserve their approach.
Some hope that the combination of Pixar and Disney will propel an already fertile period for animation. Pixar's success has also tempered the traditionalists' view that computer animation was less pure and artistic than cartoons produced wholly by the human hand.
Pixar's impetus in providing its work for the Museum of Modern Art exhibit was partly to demonstrate its artistic bona fides. The exhibit, which moved this month to the Science Museum in London, includes vivid watercolor storyboards and polyurethane busts of the movie characters that were the foundation for the computer designs. Intricate pastel studies of flora and fauna that became the wellspring for Pixar's A Bug's Life would have done Audubon proud.
"In our world, the computer is a tool, the same as a pencil or a brush," Lasseter said in a statement before the exhibit opened. "Our artists create so much beautiful art for each film that most people never get to see. ... "
But Pixar's artistry is secondary to its storytelling, animation pros say. Pixar has been vintage Disneyesque in its ability to create beloved and memorable characters, as have some other competitors, like DreamWorks.
"It's not about the technique. It's the story, stupid. Shrek could have been animated with matchsticks," said Leonard Maltin, a longtime film critic for Entertainment Tonight who wrote an animation history, Of Mice and Magic, in 1980.
It's impossible, however, to overlook technology's influence on the art, driven by faster, cheaper and more-accessible computing power. Even Pixar has a side business generating about $14 million a year by selling its proprietary animation software (albeit a fraction of its nearly $290 million in revenue last year).
The GEICO gecko, star of the Washington-based insurer's ad campaign, is the lizardly embodiment of the rapid advances in animation computing. With improvements in shadowing and anatomical detail, the character has become increasingly lifelike during six years of commercials. The character has evolved from one with flattened physical features in the initial ad in 2000 to appearing near-human in recent spots, with facial expression, musculature and a cockney accent to boot.
"If you're going to play in this era, the [computer-generated] world, people expect the next thing. They expect a certain amount of realism," said Steve Bassett, creative director at the Martin Agency of Richmond, Va., the ad agency for GEICO.
Animators at the Framestore, a British special-effects studio that helped produce the GEICO spots, bought a gecko at a New York pet shop for inspiration and modeling as they designed the mascot on the computer. They eventually sent their work to a "render farm" - hundreds of computers that process the immense amount of data to make a computer-generated scene.
It takes about an hour to process one frame of computer animation, and every second of film requires about 24 frames, twice as many as 2-D animation. So one computer needs about a day to fully process one second of computer animation.
Pixar said a 115-minute animated feature film such as The Incredibles requires about 165,000 individual frames.
"Films like Toy Story come out and send ripples through the advertising industry, and people use the feature films as a reference," said David Hulin, head of computer generation at the Framestore's New York office.
His firm's animation credits include scenes in several of the Harry Potter films, including the big snake in The Chamber of Secrets and the magical half-bird, half-horse hippogriff in the Prisoner of Azkaban. Its commercial work included the FedEx caveman spot that scored big during this year's Super Bowl, which it completed in a month.
"What was unfeasible to attempt on a commercial deadline three or four years ago, now can be done," Hulin said.
But some say animators have created their own Frankenstein of expectations.
"This emulation of life will continue to be a huge trend," said James Duesling, an Emmy Award winner and animation professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. "The more realistic you get, the more people notice the things that are wrong."