A decade of Pixar feature films

Today marks the 10th anniversary of the release of Toy Story, rounding out a decade of feature films from Pixar.

I literally grew up alongside computer graphics; Tron was released, on July 9, 1982, just a month before I was born; also, the adolescence and adulthood of the medium parallel my own. I remember missing Toy Story during its original theatrical run (remember how back then, it was promoted as a "Disney" rather than a "Pixar" film?), instead seeing Jumanji (what a load of crapola that was) while Toy Story was playing on a different screen of the same theater. However, I didn't miss the revolution for long: I've looked forward to each new release since Monsters, Inc.'s wickedly clever trailer in which the characters wind up in outer Mongolia instead of outer Magnolia (oh, the pain-of-anticipation of seeing that one a full year before the release of the film itself).

Pixar has moved from one artistic triumph to another, barely missing a beat: the early shorts like Luxo Jr., Red's Dream (which spawned the spoof Red's Nightmare, itself an impressive example of early CG), and Tin Toy are perfectly charming and work smoothly within the technical limitations; Toy Story looked like it would be a mere exemplar of the crassest product placement imaginable; Toy Story 2 became a worthy sequel (one critic said that in the scene where Jessie the Cowgirl is abandoned by her former owner, the film makes you cry over a computer generated piece of plastic!); and The Incredibles showed that animation was able to deal with human characters, and was a better example of the genre than most "real" superhero movies. Sometimes, they've been one of the few worthwhile movies in their respective years. (For example, in 2003, Finding Nemo faced off against Dumb and Dumberer, Daddy Day Care, The Cat in the Hat, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.) They're to today what rock'n'roll was to the Sixties: the best of an era.

Like Pixar's early shorts, other very early examples of CG that were done well and in keeping with the film, like the Genesis Effect in Star Trek 2 and the T-1000 in Terminator 2, also hold up well. One interesting and almost unknown predecessor is the work at the Computer Graphics Lab at the New York Institute of Technology, where they attempted to make a feature called The Works over a decade before Toy Story. Traditional animator Shamus Culhane (who worked at most of the major studios of the time including Fleischer, Disney, and Walter Lantz) visited them and included tantalizing descriptions of the lab in his two books, Talking Animals and Other People and Animation: From Script to Screen. In the former, he concluded by saying (in 1986) that
I am convinced that computer animation will produce beautiful works of art — beautiful beyond our most fantastic dreams.
Online, there's a fascinating 1983 article about the making of The Works, a collection of pictures from The Works and other CGL projects, and a 1984 animation of Gumby by the creator of the original stop-motion version of the character, Art Clokey (this was one of the earliest examples of character animation using a connected, flexible body rather than segmented, separate parts).

One interesting development is the existence of personal websites of Pixar animators like Victor Navone (his movies page has showreels of the particular scenes he animated on Monsters, Inc.; Finding Nemo; and The Incredibles — a welcome contrast to the anonymity of most animators) and Cameron Miyasaki. One could arguably include Bruce Perens of open source fame, who worked at Pixar as a programmer for software used in the films A Bug's Life and Toy Story 2; see his post on a debian mailing list at the time of Toy Story's release (his involvement in both Toy Story and the Linux distribution debian is the reason why debian's releases are named after Toy Story characters).

Looking at the state of CG today, it's easy to conclude that the other big studios haven't made much of the medium's artistic potential. The Onion once said (I haven't been able to find the source of the quote) that CG has often been "the worst parts of terrible movies", producing particularly annoying characters for the live-action likes of Scooby-Doo and Kangaroo Jack. While Shrek was funny and charming, the copies of its humor became tiresome; perhaps Ice Age was the best with its successful updating of slapstick comedy. The overemphasis on big-name voices has been particularly obnoxious, amounting to saying, "Hey, I'm Will Smith, I'm a clam! I'm Will Smith, I'm a kangaroo!" as Billy West — one of the generation of voice actors who got by on their ability to actually, well, voice cartoon characters — put it in an Onion interview.

So, I want to see the rise of vibrant indie CG features with wacky unique visions, to compare with the likes of those by traditional independent animators like Lotte Reiniger, Ladislas Starewicz, Sylvain Chomet, and Bill Plympton. The decrease in cost of computer animation equipment and software has led to a hobbyist CG community, often using freeware apps like POV-RAY and Blender (see their official movies gallery and the entries in this year's animation festival).

Where will CG be on November 22, 2015? CG technology has opened up a limitless play space, whose possibilities have just been marginally explored. Dare I say "To infinity and beyond!"? Let's prove Culhane right!

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