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'Toy Story' at 20: How Pixar gambled on computer animation and changed movie history

The iconic characters from
The iconic characters from "Toy Story" were the building block for Pixar's success.
The iconic characters from
Animator Pete Docter.
The iconic characters from
John Lasseter (L) and Ed Catmull look over the storyboards for "Toy Story."
The iconic characters from
Early sketch of Buzz Lightyear and Woody.

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Twenty years ago, moviegoers witnessed the birth of a new filmmaking technique that would prove as revolutionary as sound and color: computer animation. The movie that brought it to the masses was “Toy Story.”

Produced by what was then a little-known company that operated out of modest offices in the San Francisco Bay Area, “Toy Story” was Pixar’s first feature film. It was also the first computer-animated film released in theaters. Rather than use hand-drawn images filmed in rapid sequence, “Toy Story” artists worked with computers. Buzz and Woody, the two main characters, were purely digital creations.

But they almost didn’t get created. Before “Toy Story” came out, Pixar was clinging to life. It was a struggling special effects company making commercials for clients such as Listerine and Life Savers.

The company had started experimenting with short films that were computer animated, including "Luxo Jr.," which was nominated for a 1987 Academy Award, and it's the origin for Pixar's iconic hopping lamp. Then, the company's "Tin Toy" won the 1989 Short Film (Animated) Academy Award. The films were, in a way, the research and development for "Toy Story."

All the same, Pixar was on the ropes. Its chairman and owner, a computer whiz by the name of Steve Jobs, was actually trying to sell Pixar just before “Toy Story” was released.

"We did not know that Steve was writing our paychecks from his own personal bank account," recalls Pixar producer Galyn Susman. "He was completely bankrolling the whole venture. He just sat down in front of us and said, 'I am an exceedingly wealthy man, [but] I'm not that rich. We have to pick one thing, and I have to bet on one horse. I am going to bet on the animation horse.'"

It was a very smart wager. A lot of people underestimated "Toy Story" — Mattell wouldn’t allow Barbie to appear in the film — but critics and audiences loved the movie. (Mattell came on board for the sequels.) Importantly, it grossed more than $360 million at the global box office. Right after the movie opened,  Pixar filed for its initial public stock offering. When trading began, Jobs became a billionaire.

Pixar had created a new way of merging technology and storytelling, and in the wake of “Toy Story," many imitators followed. They included DreamWorks Animation, which produced the “Shrek” movies, and Universal Pictures’ Illumination Entertainment, the outfit behind the “Despicable Me” films.

But the tipping point for Pixar was “Toy Story 2,” which was released in 1999. It was originally intended to be a direct-to-video sequel. But not long after the movie was given the green light, the creative leadership at Pixar realized they had made a bad decision by making a less-than-perfect follow-up.

Longtime Pixar director Pete Docter remembers, "Everybody kind of said, Alright, let's do this. It's going to be fast and cheap. [But] along the way we realized that we can't put this out unless we [were] proud of it ourselves."

So Pixar fired one of the film’s original directors, shut down production on “Toy Story 2,” and started all over.

"It was an intensive time to make it as good as it could be and release it as a feature in the same way we would an original film," Docter says. "Since then, we've done a combination of original stuff and sequels. But regardless of what they are, we tried to make every film as strong, unique and powerful as we can."

Unlike most sequels at the time, “Toy Story 2” actually outperformed its predecessor, taking in more than $485 million around the world. The results — both commercially and critically — proved that Pixar was right in believing that it sometimes had to destroy its movies in order to save them.

Pixar is famous for its exhaustive process. Movies are assembled, torn apart and reassembled —sometimes many times over. It’s why the studio didn’t even release a movie last year. Every Pixar movie must now be reviewed by a group of filmmakers called the Brain Trust, which includes directors Pete Docter, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich, among others.

Jonas Rivera started as a lowly production office assistant on Pixar’s first “Toy Story” film. Now a veteran producer whose credits include “Up” and “Inside Out," he explains:

We make movies in some ways the same way we did in 1994. We write, re-write, create a storyboard, cut reels, and we mock it up. Then we throw it away and do it again. That part is unchanged. The actual creative part of the filmmaking hasn't changed, but the toolset and the technology we use has evolved tremendously.

So even as Pixar’s computing power has become ever more powerful in the 20 years since “Toy Story” premiered, the studio's focus — making sure its stories are as good as they can be — hasn’t really changed at all.

That's largely why Pixar is the most successful studio in modern Hollywood history — even though it's still based in the Bay Area. Its films have won 12 Academy Awards, with global ticket sales of more than $9.4 billion.

And the company is still going strong. After a quiet year in 2014, Pixar saw its first double-release year in 2015. "Inside Out," a story in which an 11-year-old girl's emotions are anthropomorphized, was released in the late Spring to much acclaim.

And “The Good Dinosaur," in theaters on Nov. 25, will be Pixar's sixteenth feature film.

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