This Day in Tech History

On This Day . . .

Took One Week for 8 Seconds


November 22, 1995: Toy Story Released

Toy Story is the first feature-length movie that is created completely by computer-generated animation. A breakthrough film, Toy Story set the standard for all future computer animated films and catapulted Pixar into a household name.


Toy Story is a buddy-comedy adventure film produced by Pixar Animation Studios and directed by John Lasseter, released by Walt Disney Pictures.  Toy Story follows a group of anthropomorphic toys who pretend to be lifeless whenever humans are present, and focuses on the relationship between Woody, a pullstring cowboy doll (Tom Hanks), and Buzz Lightyear, an astronaut action figure (Tim Allen).


John Lasseter










Pixar, which produced short animated films to promote their computers, was approached by Disney to produce a computer-animated feature after the success of the short Tin Toy (1988).

The top-grossing film on its opening weekend, Toy Story went on to earn over $361 million worldwide. Reviews were entirely positive, praising both the animation’s technical innovation and the screenplay’s wit and sophistication, and it is now widely considered by many critics to be one of the best animated films ever made.

The Rest of the Story


“We couldn’t have made this movie in traditional animation. This is a story that can only really be told with three-dimensional toy characters. … Some of the shots in this film are so beautiful.”

—Tom Schumacher, Vice President of Walt Disney Feature Animation

Lasseter spoke on the challenges of the computer animation in the film: “We had to make things look more organic. Every leaf and blade of grass had to be created. We had to give the world a sense of history. So the doors are banged up, the floors have scuffs.” The film began with animated storyboards to guide the animators in developing the characters. 27 animators worked on the film, using 400 computer models to animate the characters.

Each character was either created out of clay or was first modeled off of a computer-drawn diagram before reaching the computer animated design. Once the animators had a model, articulation and motion controls were coded, allowing each character to move in a variety of ways, such as talking, walking, or jumping. Of all of the characters, Woody was the most complex as he required 723 motion controls, including 212 for his face and 58 for his mouth.

Toy_StoryThe first piece of animation, a 30-second test, was delivered to Disney in June 1992 when the company requested a sample of what the film would look like. Lasseter wanted to impress Disney with a number of things in the test piece that could not be done in traditional, hand-drawn animation, such as Woody’s plaid shirt or venetian blind shadows falling across the room.

Every shot in the film passed through the hands of eight different teams. The art department gave a shot its color scheme and general lighting. The layout department, under Craig Good, then placed the models in the shot, framed the shot by setting the location of the virtual camera, and programmed any camera moves. To make the medium feel as familiar as possible, they sought to stay within the limits of what might be done in a live-action film with real cameras, dollies, tripods and cranes.

From layout, a shot went to the animation department, headed by directing animators Rich Quade and Ash Brannon. Lasseter opted against Disney’s approach of assigning an animator to work on a character throughout a film, but made certain exceptions in scenes where he felt acting was particularly critical. The animators used the Menv program to set the character into a desired pose. Once a sequence of hand-built poses, or “keyframes”, was created, the software would build the poses from the frames in-between. The animators studied videotapes of the actors for inspiration, and Lasseter rejected automatic lip-syncing. To sync the characters’ mouths and facial expressions to the actors’ voices, animators spent one week per 8 seconds of animation.

After this the animators would compile the scenes, and develop a new storyboard with the computer animated Toy-Story1characters. Animators then added shading, lighting, visual effects, and finally used 300 computer processors to render the film to its final design.

The shading team, under Tom Porter, used RenderMan’s shader language to create shader programs for each of a model’s surfaces. A few surfaces in Toy Story came from real objects: a shader for the curtain fabric in Andy’s room used a scan of actual cloth. After animation and shading, the final lighting of the shot was orchestrated by the lighting team, under Galyn Susman and Sharon Calahan. The completed shot then went into rendering on a “render farm” of 117 Sun Microsystems computers that ran 24 hours a day.

Finished animation emerged in a steady drip of around three minutes a week. Each frame took from 45 minutes up to 30 hours to render, depending on its complexity. In total, the film required 800,000 machine hours and 114,240 frames of animation.


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