The groundbreaking tech of 'Toy Story 3'

Once again, Pixar has broken new computer animation ground with its latest film, which will hit theaters on Friday. This time, the studio found a way to use technology to animate a climactic sequence involving thousands of pieces of ground-up garbage.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
5 min read
With 'Toy Story 3,' Pixar has once again attempted to break new ground in computer animation techniques. Disney/Pixar Animation Studios

At Pixar Animation Studios, which will release "Toy Story 3," its 11th feature film, on Friday, each new movie is an opportunity both to notch huge box office numbers and to break new ground in the technique of using computers in digital animation.

To veteran Pixar watchers, the latter dynamic should by now be very familiar. With "Finding Nemo," the studio had to figure out how to use its technology to craft believable underwater scenes. With "Monsters Inc.," the challenge was animating the characters' lush fur. In "Cars," it was determining how to use procedural animation to avoid having to manually animate each of the 300,000 fans in a giant stadium. And with last year's Oscar-winning "Up," the task was finding a way to make thousands of helium balloons hoisting the main character's house take on the characteristics of realistic physics without having to manually animate each and every one of them.

Disney/Pixar Animation Studios

"The whole deal with our films, from our point of view, is that we want you to be enveloped in the emotion and the storytelling and not think about the effects," said Darla Anderson, the producer of "Toy Story 3." We hope that you notice [the effects] maybe the fifth time you watch it...but most of the time we just want to entertain you and envelope you."

With the fantastic "Toy Story 3," Pixar has yet again set out to use its expertise to solve a huge computing problem, one that by necessity takes the place of what otherwise would be an impossible animation task. In the case of the new film, the challenge was to figure out how to craft a very complex scene in which the movie's heroes--Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Jessie, Hamm, Rex, and so on--have to navigate their way down a conveyor belt inside a trash processing facility, on which thousands and thousands of small pieces of ground-up garbage are moving toward a giant blast furnace.

To watch the scene is to believe it's live action. The garbage glints in what little light there is. You can see detail on many of the pieces, and there are thousands and thousands of them. It's a little gross, but it's an incredibly intricate and complex sequence.

According to Anderson, there was simply no way that Pixar had the finances or the time to animate the sequence manually, so supervising technical director Guido Quaroni and his team had to invent a way to use the studio's computers to procedurally animate the countless small pieces of waste and have them look fully realistic.

The same was true, Anderson added, for the animation of a number of large garbage bags, which have an important role in the movie. The bags had to look real and catch light realistically and feel right to the audience, lest they detract from the viewing experience.

"It's very difficult to create all those organic shapes. [Garbage bags] have to fold in and tumble out of the garbage trucks and go up on the conveyor belts," Anderson said, "and the garbage gets chopped into tons of little pieces, and then our characters are running through piles of garbage, and it would be impossible to hand-animate any of that."

It had to be done with technology.

Not a signature, yet just as important
In "Up," the ground-breaking computer work was done on what was certainly one of the film's signature looks, that of the thousands of brightly colored balloons, which would adorn just about every piece of promotional material for the movie. By comparison, it's unlikely that the sequence on the trash facility conveyor belt will make it onto any posters, yet Anderson explained that it was no less crucial that Quaroni and his staff get the technology right for the sequence, given its importance in the narrative arc.

"That's the emotional climax of the film," Anderson said, "so we want you, the viewer, the moviegoer, to...not even think about how the trash was made. We want you to be with our characters and feel like our characters feel, from their point of view."

What will likely get some promotional mileage, however, is some of the work that Quaroni's team did on many of the "Toy Story 3" characters' clothing. For example, Anderson explained, one of the film's new characters, a young girl named Bonnie, is decked out in several pieces of clothing layered on top of each other, and animating that and having it look real was a serious computing challenge. "Most little girls, they're kind of tomboy, layering a tutu over their jeans over everything else," Anderson said. "And that was really important to us, and that wasn't easy to do."

And as with many of Pixar's other films, achieving those animation goals meant inventing new techniques.

'This is mind-blowing'
According to Anderson, Pixar's achievements with animating the garbage dump scenes--as well as work it did on many of the film's human characters' clothing--could merit new patents at some point in the future. Pixar was not able to provide elaboration on the specifics of those innovations, but Anderson recalled that Quaroni would frequently come see her and gush about how "'This is mind-blowing what we're doing on this movie, you have no idea. Like, this is impossible. [But] we're doing it.'"

Anderson said that while it might appear otherwise, Pixar's people don't set out on each new film to break new ground. Yet because the studio employs highly skilled people who are always trying to out-do themselves, those innovations seem to come naturally.

"I think it's so pervasive in our culture here to best ourselves, and we're not even conscious of it," Anderson said. "The old saying that we've always had here, that art inspires technology, and technology inspires art, is true....So I don't think [creating technological innovation is] ever important in and of itself. And we never say, 'You know what, on this film, we're going to break all of our own records.' It just kind of starts happening."

On June 24, Geek Gestalt will kick off Road Trip 2010. After driving more than 18,000 miles in the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Southeast over the last four years, I'll be looking for the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation and more throughout the American Northeast. If you have a suggestion for someplace to visit, drop me a line. In the meantime, you can follow my preparations for the project on Twitter @GreeterDan and @RoadTrip.