Monday, August 17, 2009

Famous Firsts - Toy Story

I’ve been giving a lot of attention to the “ink” portion of the site’s name and now it’s time to give the pixels their due. So let’s being at the beginning, with Pixar and the film that got computer animated feature films off to a hugely successful start: Toy Story.

Before I get started, there is something I would like to make clear to anyone who doesn’t really follow the behind the scenes aspects of animation. “Computer animation” does not mean that the computer does all the work. It is not a matter of some random person sitting down and a computer and typing “Woody falls down the stairs” and the computer spitting out a fully rendered scene of Woody falling down the stairs. There is still an animator who decides exactly when Woody is going to blink and another animator who determines when Buzz’s arm is going to move and how it will move, and still another animator who works out the exact expression on Mr. Potato Head’s face in a particular scene. There are artists who design the characters, artists who build the characters in the computer, artists who design and build the world the characters will live in down to the last detail, artists who set the lighting for a scene, and any number of other talented people who work to get every element of the final film just right. A computer is a tool, just like a pencil, a lightbox, or a piece of clay. It has its various strengths and weaknesses, but it cannot substitute for a creative human being who knows how to use that tool to bring characters and their world to life.

Toy Story was the first fully computer animated feature film and therefore had a lot riding on it. Had it failed to perform at the box office, it could have been years before any studio was willing to take the risk and give computer animation another try. But from the beginning, Pixar was making smart choices. They recognized what their medium was and wasn’t capable of at that time. Pixar could have easily decided to simply mimic concepts and formulas that had proven successful for 2D animation. Instead, they played to the strengths of computer animation and made the protagonists of their first film toys with a variety of textures the computer could replicate well, rather than living beings with organic skin and fur that technology of the time had trouble accurately capturing. Pixar paired these new, state-of-the-art visuals with elements present in the classic animated films of the past: great characters and a great story. For while graphics that are cutting edge one year may look dated and cheesy the next, an engaging story with relatable characters will stand the test of time.

One of the movie’s first tasks is to establish the world in which the story takes place. The film’s setting is not a land of magic and the protagonists are not magic toys. These are real toys that you can find in any child’s toybox and the story is about what they do when the humans aren’t looking. In order for this concept to work, the film needs to draw a clear distinction between the familiar role of the toys as lifeless children’s playthings and the secret lives the toys lead when left to their own devices. So Toy Story starts off with a very real world scene of Andy playing with his toys. But this is also our first introduction to many of the film’s major characters and our first look at the relationship between Andy and his toys, particularly Woody the cowboy. So the movie balances this very mundane, real world activity with glimpses of the excitement that Andy’s imagination infuses it with. We never see the drama exactly as Andy imagines it; we still need to understand that these are real toys that cannot move or talk on their own. So it’s up to the score by Randy Newman and camera work that features Woody from a low angle as Andy takes him down from his spot on the bed or cuts in close on his face as his pull-string voice box commands “Reach for the sky!” to tell us that this is a Western. It is, however, a kid’s interpretation of a Western, which means that Woody defeats the nefarious One-Eyed Bart (as played by Mr. Potato Head) by attacking Bart’s force-field attack dog with his dinosaur that eats force-field dogs. The rule of the movie’s world may be very close to those of our own, but the rules of the games Andy plays are whatever he imagines them to be,

Toy Story is not a musical. It’s a surprising choice, given the success Disney was having with the musical format at the time and that Disney was helping to shepherd the fledgling filmmakers at Pixar through the many common obstacles to making a successful animated film. Instead, the movie goes for a kind of “compromise musical” aesthetic. There are still original songs that express the character’s emotions at certain points in the story and help to carry the scenes they accompany. But there are only three songs, and because director John Lasseter, along with a number of other people working on the film, didn’t feel like these were the kind of characters who would burst into songs about what they wanted and how they felt, the vocals are sung by Randy Newman over the scenes rather than being provided by that characters themselves.

The first song, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” is from Woody’s point of view. Andy continues to play with Woody in various ways, making it clear that Woody is not merely the star of this one game, but Andy’s absolute favorite toy. As we watch this, the lyrics of the song tell us that Andy means just as much to Woody, if not more.

One of the most important moments in this sequence is when Andy sets Woody down in front of the living room recliner, pulls the lever, launches Woody across the room onto the couch, and yells “Score!” as Woody lands. Why? Because it establishes that Andy loves Woody as a toy. He can send Woody flying or crash him into cardboard boxes without ever worrying that Woody might be physically hurt. This will become very important later on, when Andy starts doing things that would seem quite cruel if we ever thought that Andy believed that Woody could be hurt, physically or emotionally.

Andy’s birthday party is today and his guests will be arriving any minute, so Andy leaves Woody in his usual spot on Andy’s bed and goes back downstairs to get ready for the festivities. As Woody cautiously looks to make sure Andy is gone, lifts his head to double-check, and finally sits up, we have our first look at what the toys do when no one is around. This is the first true introduction of the toys and their real personalities. Mr. Potato Head is a surly spud, currently upset about having to gather up the pieces of his face after Andy’s baby sister Molly knocked them off him. Hamm the piggybank collects the change that was dumped on the floor during “One-Eyed Bart’s” bank heist. His normal spot is up on Andy’s bookshelf by the window and his view of the wider world gives him an air of superiority. Slinky, who played the role of force-field dog in Andy game, is Woody’s laid-back best buddy, perfectly willing to switch his choice of color in checkers if Woody wants to be red. The dinosaur who helped Woody battle the force-field dog before jumps out and roars at Woody, but the cowboy barely bats an eyelid. It’s only Rex, a cheap plastic tyrannosaurus who is more insecure than ferocious. And Woody? Well, Woody’s status as Andy’s favorite toy gives him a lot of clout among his fellow toys. He is the one who tells the other toys when the coast is clear. He announces and leads the “staff meeting.” The sergeant of the green army men calls him “Sir.” Bo Peep, the porcelain doll from a bedside lamp who reduces Woody to goofy awkward chuckling is clearly crazy about him. And if we didn’t already know how much Andy loves Woody, most of the room – from the bedsheets to the toy box to the drawings tacked up on the walls – is decorated in a cowboy theme.

Part of what makes the film work so well is how it describes life as a toy in a way that feels believable. It isn’t just the physical aspects, such as the soft fabric of Woody’s body or the plastic texture on Mr. Potato Head or the seams and mold flashes on the green army men. It’s how their strengths and limitations are determined by what they are. It makes sense that Etch-a-Sketch is able to draw very fast and very well while most people playing with the toy can barely manage a good looking rectangle. The green army men, professionals though they may be, have their feet permanently attached to their plastic bases, forcing them to waddle and hop around. If Rex’s fear of not being sufficiently scary didn’t make him seem hapless enough, his tail is sideways when we first meet him, putting the light colored airbrushing along his underside off register. The toys’ fears make sense too. They hold “Plastic Corrosion Awareness Day.” Woody insists that everyone pick out a moving buddy to ensure that no toys are left behind when Andy’s family moves in a few days. All of the other toys go into a panic when Woody announces that Andy’s birthday part has been moved up to today. For them, the arrival of new toys means that they are in danger of being replaced. Rex, with his confidence issues, is particularly terrified that Andy will get a better, fiercer dinosaur and have no use for him anymore.

Woody tries to calm the toys down, insisting that no one is going to be replaced. Mr. Potato Head isn’t buying it and points out the one thing that all of the previous scenes between Woody and Andy could not convey: Woody has been Andy’s favorite toy since kindergarten. So while Woody argues that the job of the toys is to be their for Andy when he needs them and it doesn’t matter who gets more or less playtime, he is speaking for the position of Andy’s longtime favorite toy who seems to be in the least danger of being replaced in Andy’s affections. He may be right, but he’ll find his own words a lot harder to swallow when his position at the top is threatened.

In order to stop the toys from panicking, Woody sends the green army men out on a reconnaissance mission. Just like the first scene of the movie, the “Recon Plan Charlie” sequence takes toy soldiers lowering a baby monitor downstairs with a jump rope and use music and camera angles to give it the feel of a dangerous military mission. Casting R. Lee Ermey as the sergeant certainly didn’t hurt either. The scene also provides a good look at the care and detail that goes into the backgrounds of the film. Since the computer’s tendency is to render objects with the same uniform texture throughout, all of the paint chips and scuffmarks that make the environments in Toy Story feel lived in have to be created by hand. In the soil of the potted plant that the soldiers conceal themselves in is a tag reading “Forest Fantasy: Water once each and every day, no direct sunlight.” Unless there’s some horticultural joke in there that I’m missing, it isn’t there to be funny. It’s just one of the numerous little details that contribute to the overall feeling of a real plant, a real house, a real word.

The pile of presents is slowly opened, revealing items like lunchboxes, bed sheets, and games that are not going to be replacing any of the toys. The last present is opened and it looks like everything is going to be OK, until Andy’s mom pulls a surprise present from the closet. Andy is so excited when he opens his surprise present that he rushes upstairs with his friends to play with his new toy. The toys don’t get to hear what the new toy is, only that the kids are on their way. They all rush to get back to their original positions and Woody flops down on the bed seconds before the kids burst through the door. They run around the room, talking excitedly about the new toy. In all the commotion, Woody is knocked aside to make room for the new toy’s spaceship-shaped box and slowly slides off the side of the bed. I’m not entirely sure if Andy is the one who smacks Woody out of the way; only the kid’s arm is visible. But whoever is actually responsible, the message of the action is completely clear: Woody has literally been pushed aside to make way for the new toy.

Woody is a little embarrassed when the other toys discover him under the bed rather than on it, but he quickly recovers and reiterates that neither he nor anyone else is being replaced. He climbs up onto the bed to check out the newcomer. The camera pans up as Woody’s gaze moves from the new toy’s feet up to his head, but not before it pulls back so that we get a front view of Andy’s newest toy: Buzz Lightyear. This not only gives us a better look at the latest and greatest action figure with all of his tantalizingly pushable buttons, but also sets up for the story briefly shifting to Buzz’s perspective.

Though Pixar has never relied solely on the novelty of computer animation and what they can do with it to win audiences over, their early films in particular feature a shot or two that seems to be designed to give the viewer a moment to appreciate the studio’s latest technological breakthrough. In Toy Story, it’s the shot from Buzz’s point of view where he takes his first look around Andy’s room and his face is reflected in the clear plastic of his helmet. The scene is not completely self-indulgent; the effect, combined with the sound of Buzz’s breathing tells us that this character is an astronaut just as clearly as the words “space ranger” that are printed on his chest. But at the same time, it shows off an effect that 3D animation does incredibly well and one that would be very difficult to replicate in 2D.

Well before he corrects Woody when they cowboy starts calling him a “toy,” it’s evident that Buzz is a little…confused. He expects a response when he presses one of the buttons on his chest to call “Star Command.” He refers to the box he came in as his “ship” and believes the torn cardboard wing will take weeks to repair. Everything he says and does indicates that Buzz believes he is a real space ranger who has crash-landed on an unknown planet. So it’s understandable that Woody gets frustrated with him when he tries to both welcome the new toy to Andy’s room and explain as nicely as possible that the bed is usually Woody’s spot. Buzz and Woody don’t talk to each other so much as past each other. Woody is trying to get the new arrival filled in and at the same time diffuse the potential threat to his status as top toy. But to Buzz, this is all just an unexpected delay in his mission. His only concern is getting his ship repaired and returning to Star Command, a goal Woody cannot possibly sympathize with since it is a complete fantasy.

In early versions of Toy Story, back when he was called first “Lunar Larry” and then “Tempus from Morph,” Buzz was more of a traditional superhero. He was still a spaceman, but he had the grandiloquent dialogue and broad gestures of a stereotypical caped crimefighter. Eventually, the decision was made to make him behave less like a superhero and more like a space cop. So though Buzz still takes his role as a space ranger very seriously, the way he talks about it feels more down-to-earth, if you’ll pardon the expression. This simultaneously makes him seem more believable and adds humor that comes from a character discussing ridiculous ideas in a completely straightforward way.

Buzz’s delusions start to get on Woody’s nerves, but that isn’t the real problem. The real problem is that Buzz is the absolute coolest toy ever to hit Andy’s room, as the other toys are all too quick to realize. Buzz seems to have Woody beat on just about every front. Buzz has a digital voice box that activates at the push of a button, far more sophisticated than Woody’s scratchy pull-string model. Buzz has a “laser” – a pulsating red light on his arm. Woody has an empty holster. With all of his various features, Buzz is more than a match for Woody. And if the other toys have already realized this, what’s to prevent Andy from realizing it too?

So Woody gets more and more aggravated with Buzz and all his space ranger talk and keeps trying to get back to the point that Buzz is just another new toy and nothing all that special. As we’ll learn later, Woody doesn’t know yet that Buzz really believes that he is a spaceman. He just sees it as Buzz trying to make himself sound more impressive by calling himself a “space ranger” instead of just a toy. By the time he challenges Buzz to prove that he can actually fly around the room with his eyes closed as he claims, Woody is reduced to such infantile tactics as calling Buzz “Mr. Light Beer.” The challenge backfires on Woody as Buzz scales the bedpost, closes his eyes, recites his catchphrase: “To infinity and beyond!” takes a dramatic leap, and – through a series of Rube Goldberg-esque lucky breaks, manages to circumnavigate the room and land back on the bed triumphantly. Woody tries to dismiss it as “falling with style,” but the other toys are won over. Even Bo Peep decides that Buzz is going to be her moving buddy. Woody mutters to himself that this is just a temporary setback and after a few days, everything will go back to the way it was.

This leads into the film’s second song “Strange Things,” which is also from Woody’s point of view. In addition to emphasizing Woody’s feelings as Buzz’s influence in Andy’s room keeps growing, the song performs a task that songs are good at: connecting up the scenes in a montage. The purpose of this sequence is to show that Woody’s predictions could not have been more wrong as Buzz continues to win over the affections of both the toys and Andy. Buzz is able to teach Rex the fearsome roar that previously eluded him. Etch-a-Sketch now draws Buzz’s portrait. All of the toys seem to idolize Buzz. But what’s far worse for Woody is seeing Andy start to favor Buzz. The posters and drawings that decorate the walls of Andy’s room go from cowboy-centric to Buzz-themed and Woody even finds himself standing on top of a new set of Buzz Lightyear bedsheets. Andy himself trades his cowboy pajamas and hat for space themed nightwear and an improvised space ranger suit made out of cardboard. The scene ends at bedtime, with Buzz nestled in Andy’s arms as he sleeps while Woody can only look on sadly before slowly closing the lid to the toybox he has been relegated to.

The real last straw for Woody is when Buzz reveals that Andy has written his name on Buzz’s foot. Buzz interprets this as a sign that he has been accepted into the local culture, but to Woody and the other toys, it’s an indication of just how important Buzz has become to Andy. Rex and Slinky’s impressed reactions when Buzz shows them his foot tell us that this is not something Andy does with just any toy. Woody looks at the bottom of his own foot, which also has “Andy” written on it. But where the “Andy” on Buzz’s foot features solid black lines and confident block letters, the one on Woody’s foot is worn and the lettering uneven with a backwards “n”. This is a clear visual signal to Woody that Andy, who he once believed would love him forever, has moved on to another toy.

Bo Peep tries to reassure Woody that he hasn’t been forgotten and that Andy will always care about him. While she may have been caught up in the initial excitement of Buzz’s arrival, Bo still cares about Woody and recognizes how neglected he’s feeling. But Woody is too upset to really listen to her, especially when Mr. Potato Head jokes that the “special place” that Andy will always have for Woody is the attic. Woody has finally reached the breaking point. He confronts Buzz directly and tells him outright to stay away from Andy, adding possessively “He’s mine, and no one is taking him away from me.” But Buzz only responds “What are you talking about?” and goes back to repairing his cardboard spaceship. This is what makes Buzz truly infuriating to Woody. Not only is Buzz stealing Andy away, he is doing it without even being aware that he is and without even trying. Buzz is like the new baby who gets constant attention no matter what he does while big brother Woody is left feeling unappreciated and jealous.

Even more aggravated, Woody tells Buzz to knock off the spaceman talk, making at clear that he believes Buzz is just staying in character past playtime. Buzz, of course, misinterprets what Woody is saying and the two start an argument, which gets physical when Woody shoves Buzz and knocks his helmet back. Buzz makes what seem like an overdramatic show of gasping for air until he realizes that the atmosphere is not toxic. He is furious at Woody for opening his helmet on an “uncharted planet” and endangering his life, which is when Woody realizes that Buzz actually believes he is a real space ranger and proceeds to mock him mercilessly. It’s a weakness that Woody is eager to exploit, because while the other toys may not understand or sympathize with Woody’s jealousy towards Buzz, Woody is hoping they will be equally amused by Buzz’s delusional state.

Interestingly, what Woody says when he figures out that Buzz isn’t just playing around is “You actually think you’re the Buzz Lightyear?” Does this mean Woody believes that there is a “real” space ranger named Buzz Lightyear out there somewhere and that this Buzz is merely a toy of him? It’s never made entirely clear, but considering that Woody could theoretically encounter toys based on the likes or Arnold Schwartzenegger or Angelina Jolie, it doesn’t seem too farfetched for him to assume that there is a real Buzz Lightyear.

Woody doesn’t get a chance to let the other toys in on the “joke” before all of them notice a commotion coming from outside. The frightened reactions of the toys tell us that they know all too well what is going on. Living right next door to Andy and his family is Sid, a toy’s worst nightmare. Sid is the type of kid whose idea of “playing” with his toy is tossing rocks at them, letting his bull terrier Scud tear them apart, or blowing them to smithereens. Andy’s toy watch helplessly from the window as Sid proceeds to blow apart an unfortunate “Combat Carl” with a small explosive. All of this serves to put Woody’s reaction to his current situation into perspective. Whether or not Woody is Andy’s favorite toy, he still has a home where he is taken good care of, while right next door are toys who get mistreated on a daily basis. Woody’s plight may still be sympathetic, but it’s clear that he could have it much worse.

That evening, when his mom comes to suggest dinner at Pizza Planet, we find Andy having Buzz pound on Woody. This is the point where it becomes important to remember that what we’re seeing is a kid playing with his toys, toys that he has no reason to think are anything more than inanimate objects. Though the narrative of Toy Story can be seen as a metaphor for just about any situation where someone who was formerly on top is forced to make room for the new guy, the movie never loses sight of the specific reality of these two characters or the fact that they’re toys. Andy is not being cruel, nor has he decided that he hates Woody now. Woody is just no longer a recurring character in his games. Previously, Woody was probably always Woody the heroic cowboy no matter what game Andy was playing. But Andy’s other toys were all essentially character actors, playing whatever role Andy needed them for in that particular game. Mr. Potato Head might be the notorious bank robber One-Eyed Bart one day, but there’s nothing to stop him from being Woody’s sidekick the Six-Gun Spud the next. All that has happened is that Woody has gone from being the perpetual hero to being cast as the guy Buzz defeats. It isn’t guaranteed that this is a permanent change of status for Woody, though Woody fears it is.

One question that the movie never really answers is why Buzz, who does not know that he is a toy, still freezes or goes limp every time there are humans around. I think there are two possible answers. One is that it’s a reflex, something Buzz does without even thinking about it or even realizing that he does it. There are some moments where we see toys moving around while humans are present, but turned away from the toys, but maybe this is because toys that realize they are toys can break the rules a little, as Woody does towards the end of the film. The other possibility is that it’s a “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” situation. Buzz refers to Andy as the toys’ “chief,” so maybe he figures that the toys remain still as a sign of respect when humans are around and does the same to avoid causing an intergalactic diplomatic incident. It’s not such a major question that the lack of an answer distracts from the story, but it is interesting to think about.

Showing once again that Andy hasn’t necessarily forgotten about Woody, it is Andy’s mom who restricts him to bringing only one toy with him to Pizza Planet. Woody is pretty sure that Andy isn’t going to pick him. Mere days ago, he could have counted on Andy to take him along whenever he was limited to just one toy, but now even Woody knows that Buzz is first in line. And that’s when Woody comes up with a plan to get Buzz out of the way for a little while. If Woody knocks Buzz behind the desk, Andy won’t be able to find him and Woody can have Andy all to himself again.

Now Woody isn’t dumb. He knows this isn’t a permanent solution to his problems. If Buzz doesn’t get out from behind the desk on his own or the other toys don’t find him, he will certainly be discovered once all of Andy’s furniture is taken out of the room when they move. But if Woody can take Buzz out of the picture even just temporarily, maybe Andy will start playing with Woody again and remember how much Woody meant to him. At the very least, Woody will get to go to Pizza Planet with Andy.

This scene turned out to be pretty important in the development of Toy Story and underwent some big changes. It is still probably Woody’s least sympathetic moment of the film. Though we can understand that Woody really just wants to spend some time with Andy again, his plan is still pretty underhanded and is all the more so because Woody plays off of Buzz’s view of himself as a hero to get him into position, telling Buzz that there’s a toy trapped behind the desk and begging Buzz to come to the rescue. But in previous drafts of the movie, Woody was less an understandably jealous toy and more of a mean, self-centered bully. The absolute worst moment, when test audiences completely lost all sympathy for this Woody, came when Woody pushed Buzz out the window on purpose. This moment and the negative reactions to it in an early screening at Disney, caused production on the film to shut down until the story could be reworked. Pixar rose to the challenge and revised the film in general and the character of Woody in particular, including making Buzz getting knocked out the window an unintended result of Woody’s much less nasty plan to get Buzz stuck behind the desk.

So Woody appeals to Buzz’s heroic nature and sends RC, the radio-controlled car, over to push him behind the desk. RC is not a willing participant in Woody’s plan. He has what is possibly the strangest and most crippling downside to being a toy of any of the toys we see in the movie. RC is alive; he has a face, can “talk” in horn honks and high pitched motor-revving noises, and can drive around on his own when the humans aren’t around. But if anyone - human, toy, or otherwise – gets a hold of his controls, he can’t help but do what whoever is at the wheel is making him do. RC is sent racing towards Buzz, but misses him and knocks over the bulletin board on the desk instead, setting off a chain reaction that ends with Buzz being knocked out of the window. Woody watched the fast-unfolding disaster with growing horror and calls out Buzz’s name after he falls, making it clear that what has happened is much worse than anything Woody actually intended.

This puts Woody in a very awkward position, albeit one that is very necessary for the story. We still feel sympathy for Woody because we know how worried he is about possibly losing Andy, how annoying Buzz can be, and that Woody never intended to put Buzz in any serious danger. But none of the other toys know that Woody wasn’t trying to push Buzz out the window. And since Woody still isn’t entirely blameless, he doesn’t have a very convincing argument for his innocence, even if he could get the other toys to listen. It’s no surprise that Mr. Potato Head is quick to believe that Woody purposefully pushed Buzz out the window or that faithful Slinky is certain that Woody is innocent. But when the green army men start calling Woody an honorless dirt bag, we know he’s in trouble.

Up to this point, Woody’s ultimate goal has been to remain Andy’s favorite toy. While that is still very important to him, he now has the additional and seemingly contradictory goal of getting Buzz back to Andy’s house. It’s not because Woody really cares about Buzz or that he realizes how important Buzz has become to Andy. That will come later. At this point, Woody needs Buzz to prove to the other toys that Buzz is still OK and that Woody wasn’t trying to get rid of him. Getting Buzz home is entirely about Woody saving his own skin.

To be continued.....

All images in this article are copyright Disney/Pixar.

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