In 1995, when Pixar released Toy Story, the first feature-length computer animated film, the studio pushed the limits of what was possible when it illustrated rain with smudges on a window rather than individual droplets. Fast forward 24 years to , and viewers will see a remarkably life-like, detailed storm that shows the impact of raindrops on objects and water gushing in the street.
Pixar's technology has come a long way in two decades.
Toy Story 4, in theaters now, brings back familiar characters like Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and Jessie (Joan Cusack) alongside new toys like Duke Caboom ( ), Forky (Tony Hale), Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key) and Bunny (Jordan Peele). Picking up where left off, Andy has passed his beloved toys to Bonnie, who's getting ready to start kindergarten. She's nervous about school, and Woody wants to help by tagging along, even though toys aren't allowed. His decision ultimately leads the gang on a journey far from home as Woody does everything he can to keep Bonnie happy.
Over the last two decades, advancements in Pixar's animation tools have allowed it to create scenes and characters that wouldn't have been possible in earlier films, such as in 2016's and that opening rain scene in . Still, Pixar has made sure to stay true to the look and feel of characters in each sequel.
That's no simple task. Because software evolves from movie to movie, filmmakers have to rebuild the characters every time.
"If we try to use Toy Story 2 Woody, it's like putting a CD-ROM into a Blu-ray player," director Josh Cooley says. "It just wouldn't work."
After re-creating the characters, animators enhance them and add far more detail. In Toy Story 4, for example, they added fibers and weave to Woody's clothing, and characters like Andy have a more smooth, realistic appearance. Filmmakers reference previous films to ensure visual consistency and check that characters animate the same way they always have.
"We've created this world," says production designer Bob Pauley. "We don't want to mess with it."
Raising the bar
Toy Story 4, which lands in US theaters June 21, opens with a flashback scene from nine years ago showing pouring rain outside Andy's house. The incredibly realistic storm scene wouldn't have been possible in earlier films, Pauley says. In fact, in the first Toy Story movie, filmmakers wanted to create a rainstorm in the scene where Woody and Buzz are trapped in Sid's room. But they were limited by both the technology and experience on the team.
So they came up with a compromise. Instead of showing pouring rain outside, they created shots showing rain dripping on the window from inside the bedroom. That way, they could more vaguely illustrate that it was raining outside without having to create the droplets.
"It was every bit as emotional and important to the storytelling, but we just used a creative way to not have to do rain," Pauley says.
More advanced effects tools available today allowed Pixar to create realistic rain droplets in Toy Story 4's opening sequence. Dust can also be added for atmosphere on floors, cabinets and rafters, and cobwebs add an ominous touch to darkened nooks and crannies. Shots of an antique mall were also an opportunity for Pixar to push its limits by creating millions of objects such as lamps, dishes and toys to create a realistic image of a crowded shop.
Perhaps the biggest development since the first Toy Story is how images involving light are rendered. In the first film, creating a simple reflection off a mirror took about half a day to set up, says global technology supervisor Bill Reeves. Today, it's essentially automated. A mirror simply has to be modeled with a reflective surface and tagged in the right way. Whereas before the work was in adding the reflections, the difficulty now lies in removing them if they're distracting in a scene.
Producer Jonas Rivera says they've pushed the bar on Toy Story 4, but they've also maintained visual consistency.
"Our hope is that if you watched all [the movies] back to back, they would still have a continuity," Rivera says. "You would definitely see the progression, but we worked hard in the art department in the way we shot the film to maintain that connectivity."
End of an era?
Many critics and viewers thought Toy Story 3 was a perfect (albeit heartbreaking) ending to the film franchise. Which is why it came as a surprise to some people -- including the filmmakers -- that there would be a fourth installment.
"All of us have felt that each of these Toy Story movies were the end when they happened, so all of us are a little surprised even that we were making 4," says producer Mark Nielsen.
Still, Rivera, Nielsen and Cooley say this could in fact be the final Toy Story film. Even Tom Hanks, who voices Woody, has said Toy Story 4's ending is "could see there being a fifth film.." (In other words: Get your tissues ready.) And, whatever it's worth, he's also said he
"You never know," Nielsen says. "But our focus has really been on making Toy Story 4 a complete film that falls in line with the others."
Originally published June 18.