How Pixar’s Movement Animation Became So Realistic: The Technological Breakthroughs Behind the Animation

More than a quar­ter-cen­tu­ry ago, Toy Sto­ry made Pixar Ani­ma­tion Stu­dios into a house­hold name. Nobody had ever seen a com­put­er-ani­mat­ed fea­ture of such high qual­i­ty before — indeed, nobody had ever seen a com­put­er-ani­mat­ed fea­ture at all. Though the movie suc­ceed­ed on many more lev­els than as a proof of tech­no­log­i­cal con­cept, it also showed great inge­nu­ity in find­ing nar­ra­tive mate­ri­als suit­ed to the capa­bil­i­ties of CGI at the time, which could ren­der fig­ures of plas­tic and cloth (or, as oth­er stu­dios had demon­strat­ed slight­ly ear­li­er, dinosaurs and liq­uid-met­al cyborgs) much more real­is­ti­cal­ly than human beings. Ever since, Pixar has been a byword for the state of the art in com­put­er-ani­mat­ed cin­e­ma.

An enor­mous and ever-grow­ing fan base around the world shows up for each of Pixar’s movies, one of two of which now appear per year, with great expec­ta­tions. They want to see not just a sto­ry solid­ly told, but the lim­its of the under­ly­ing tech­nol­o­gy pushed as well.

“How Pixar’s Move­ment Ani­ma­tion Became So Real­is­tic,” the Movies Insid­er video above, works its way through the stu­dio’s films, com­par­ing the then-ground­break­ing visu­al intri­ca­cy of its ear­li­er releas­es like Toy Sto­ry and Find­ing Nemo to much more com­plex pic­tures like Coco and Soul. Not only do these recent projects fea­ture human char­ac­ters — not action fig­ures or mon­sters or fish or cars, but human beings — they fea­ture human char­ac­ters engag­ing in such quin­tes­sen­tial­ly human actions as play­ing music.

What’s more, they por­tray it with a lev­el of real­ism that will shock any­one who has­n’t made it out to a Pixar film since the 1990s. Achiev­ing this has neces­si­tat­ed such efforts as equip­ping Soul’s piano-play­ing main char­ac­ter with 584 sep­a­rate con­trol para­me­ters in his hands alone, about as many as Toy Sto­ry’s cow­boy-doll star had in his entire body. But though ever-more-real­is­tic visu­als will pre­sum­ably always remain a goal at Pixar, the mag­ic lies in the accom­pa­ny­ing dose of unre­al­ism: mytho­log­i­cal visions, trips to the spir­it world, and super­hu­man acts (or attempts at them) also count among Pixar fans’ demands. Ambi­tious ani­ma­tors push their tools to the lim­it in pur­suit of real­i­ty, but tru­ly ambi­tious ani­ma­tors push them past the lim­it in pur­suit of imag­i­na­tion.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Take a Free Online Course on Mak­ing Ani­ma­tions from Pixar & Khan Acad­e­my

Pixar & Khan Acad­e­my Offer a Free Online Course on Sto­ry­telling

A Free Short Course on How Pixar Uses Physics to Make Its Effects

Pixar’s 22 Rules of Sto­ry­telling

A Rare Look Inside Pixar Stu­dios

The Beau­ty of Pixar

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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