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:

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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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