High Tech In Toon Town

Hollywood may be full of big babies, but 38-year-old John Lasseter takes pride in being a kid. The animation genius behind "Toy Story" knows more about Bugs, Daffy, Crayolas and Hot Wheels than any preschooler. And his office proves it, even if it looks like Toys "R" Us after an earthquake. A prize possession resting on the computer: the Godzilla that topped his wedding cake, with the miniature bride and and groom hanging out of its mouth. Lasseter's Sonoma County home isn't for grown-ups, either. On the mantelpiece rests his 1989 Oscar for the animated short "Tin Toy." Next to it is a Mrs. Butter-worth's bottle, spray-painted gold. Lasseter thought Oscar needed a companion. "We have four boys," he says. "My wife thinks it's five."

Little else is child's play about Lasseter's latest film, which opened the day before Thanksgiving. "Toy Story" is a technical wonder and a box-office rocket. It's the first feature ever generated entirely by computers, and its 3-D tale--of a boy's favorite toys who come to life when he's not around-may change the look of animation to come. According to industry sources, "Toy Story" cost about $30 million to make-barely the cost of Jim Carrey and his trailer. The film took in that amount in its first week alone; "Toy Story's" total gross will likely put it among 1995's leaders, and could ultimately rival the biggest toon takes of all time. The promotions orgy is already underway. You won't be able to snarl down a Dorito or Whopper this festive holiday season without a "Toy Story" character watching you chew. Slinky Dog and Etch-A-Sketch are poised for new sales. And Hasbro is breaking out a special version of Mr. Potato Head, who'll cost $10 and have twice as many stickons as the regular version. (Who knows what he'll do for sour-cream and broccoli futures.) Condolences to G.I. Joe and Barbie, whose manufacturers denied them permission to appear in the movie. It could turn out to be as bad a career move as holding M&Ms back from "E.T."

"Toy Story" is the product of a 4 1/2-year collaboration between Walt Disney Pictures, which put up the bucks, and Pixar Animation, a northern California computer-graphics shop that did the pioneering work under Lasseter's direction. Disney is no Mickey Mouse when it comes to cartoons. It's been the leader in traditional hand-painted eel animation ever since "Steamboat Willie" in 1928; that flat, 2-D art led to classics like "Snow White" and last year's "Lion King." But computer-drawn animation has been Pixar's franchise, leading it to high-tech TV ads for products like Listerine and Life Savers, as well as short films like the five-minute "Tin Toy." Disney wasn't looking for a partner, and initially just wanted to hire Lasseter, who had been an animator there when he graduated from CalArts. Lasseter preferred to stay with his burgeoning Pixar team.

Pixar was founded in 1979 by George Lucas, overlord of the "Star Wars" empire, to develop computer hardware. But he eventually sold the company for $10 million to Steve Jobs, the wonder-boy-turned-flameout of Apple Computer. Hoping to marry the firepower of Silicon Valley and glitz of Hollywood, Jobs changed Pixar's focus. He wanted his own studio- a digital back lot that was solely the pigment of a computer's imagination. Even as his after-Apple computer venture, NEXT, got the business-page headlines, Jobs reportedly poured tens of millions of dollars into his own cyberhood. The payoff: "Toy Story." Now Pixar is no longer known as jobs "other company." A truly independent studio, though, is years away. The 150-employee Pixar must do its next two pictures with Disney. Expect "Bugs" to be released by the end of the decade (think spiders, not wabbits).

"Toy Story" is the buddy tale of Woody, the pull-string cowboy (with the voice of Tom Hanks), and Buzz Lightyear, the plastic superhero space ranger (Tim Allen). Together, they lead a toy box full of walking, talking, feeling characters who come to life whenever their humanoid master, Andy, leaves the room. The story could have been executed with eel animation, and the result would've been a regular 2-D cartoon like "Aladdin."

But Lasseter, who has devoted himself to bringing lamps, unicycles and other inanimate objects to life in other films, wanted the more realistic look of 3-D animation that's become his trademark. He could have tried to create characters as totally believable as the T. rex that ate "Jurassic Park" (1993) or the jungle beasts of the upcoming "Jumanji" (box). Instead, Lasseter was after what he calls a "caricatured, more stylized world." It's sort of a cross between "Aladdin" and "Jurassic." While no one would ever believe they're real, Woody and Buzz, Mr. Potato Head and Bo Peep have subtle texture and detail unlike anything that exists in a cartoon.

It's still less work for computers to create a Woody than a T. rex. But what makes "Toy Story's" achievement so impressive is its sheer scale. Digital dinosaurs in "Jurassic Park" got only 6 1/2 minutes on screen; in "Casper" earlier this year, the computer-generated stars were on for 40 minutes. The all-computerized '"Toy Story" runs 77 minutes. Each 1/24th of a second re-quires five megabytes of memory. In geek-speak, that adds up to 550 billion bytes--enough floppy discs to bury Bill Gates in his new house. Kids, don't try this at home. High-resolution animation is done on millions of dollars of Silicon Graphics and Sun Microsystems computers, aided by proprietary software developed by Pixarians. Rendering the full, final images took more than 800,000 computer hours. The geometry and the detail is that fine.

As fast and powerful as all that digital equipment is, the 30 "Toy Story" animators still had lots of work to do. Animation doesn't mean automation. Each second has to be programmed manually. To be believable, when Buzz says "To infinity and beyond," each syllable has to be matched not just to his mouth, but all other facial muscles--a bit like manipulating a cyber-marionette. Woody's body has 712 different mathematical points that an animator must control, including 212 in Woody's face alone. The animator must also keep the proper lighting, shading and camera perspective. Shiny objects like. Buzz's space-suit are quite easy to render. Natural fibers, softer surfaces-wrinkles, creases, dirt, clothing, bumps--are harder. One second of screen time typically took a computer animator 90 minutes to create, far more than in 2-D eel animation. But the digital mechanics aren't the only consideration. Woody has to be taught to be a stage ham. "We hire animators based on their acting ability, not their computer skills," says 27-year-old Pete Docter, the supervising animator who also got part of the story credit. "Because at the keyboard they're going to have to make the movie characters act."

The bean counters in Holly-wood--who like to think technology means cheaper movies-- wonder if "Toy Story" will eventually make animation more efficient. In theory, high tech could do that if feature animation doesn't keep developing. But artists like Lasseter and Doter won't be satisfied the next time around to repeat the relatively simple shots of "Toy Story." Scenes will contain more characters and take place in trickier outdoor settings. That will demand bigger, more expensive computers, which won't go any faster because of all the data being tossed into them. "Give me better equipment and I'll keep pushing it to do better tricks," says Bill Reeves, supervising technical director for "Toy Story."

Lasseter hates all the talk of bits and bytes. He just wants to talk about his "Toy Story" characters and the good yarn they spin. "I think of them as Pixar employees, not computer creations." Lucky thing they don't compete for stock options. The company is scheduled to go public this week, adding many of the Pixarians to the nouveau fiche of Silicon Valley. Lasseter alone will be worth at least $30 million on his virtual spreadsheet. Sometimes it pays to be a kid.