In 1995, when Pixar released Toy Story, the first feature-length computer animated film, the studio pushed the limits of what was possible when it illustrated rain with smudges on a window rather than individual droplets. Fast forward 24 years to Toy Story 4, and viewers will see a remarkably life-like, detailed storm that shows the impact of raindrops on objects and water gushing in the street.
Pixar's technology has come a long way in two decades.
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Toy Story 4, in theaters now, brings back familiar characters like Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and Jessie (Joan Cusack) alongside new toys like Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), Forky (Tony Hale), Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key) and Bunny (Jordan Peele). Picking up where Toy Story 3 left off, Andy has passed his beloved toys to Bonnie, who's getting ready to start kindergarten. She's nervous about school, and Woody wants to help by tagging along, even though toys aren't allowed. His decision ultimately leads the gang on a journey far from home as Woody does everything he can to keep Bonnie happy.
Over the last two decades, advancements in Pixar's animation tools have allowed it to create scenes and characters that wouldn't have been possible in earlier films, such as Hank the octopus' intricate movements in 2016's Finding Dory and that opening rain scene in Toy Story 4. Still, Pixar has made sure to stay true to the look and feel of characters in each sequel.
That's no simple task. Because software evolves from movie to movie, filmmakers have to rebuild the characters every time.
"If we try to use Toy Story 2 Woody, it's like putting a CD-ROM into a Blu-ray player," director Josh Cooley says. "It just wouldn't work."
After re-creating the characters, animators enhance them and add far more detail. In Toy Story 4, for example, they added fibers and weave to Woody's clothing, and characters like Andy have a more smooth, realistic appearance. Filmmakers reference previous films to ensure visual consistency and check that characters animate the same way they always have.
"We've created this world," says production designer Bob Pauley. "We don't want to mess with it."
Raising the bar
Toy Story 4, which lands in US theaters June 21, opens with a flashback scene from nine years ago showing pouring rain outside Andy's house. The incredibly realistic storm scene wouldn't have been possible in earlier films, Pauley says. In fact, in the first Toy Story movie, filmmakers wanted to create a rainstorm in the scene where Woody and Buzz are trapped in Sid's room. But they were limited by both the technology and experience on the team.
So they came up with a compromise. Instead of showing pouring rain outside, they created shots showing rain dripping on the window from inside the bedroom. That way, they could more vaguely illustrate that it was raining outside without having to create the droplets.
"It was every bit as emotional and important to the storytelling, but we just used a creative way to not have to do rain," Pauley says.
More advanced effects tools available today allowed Pixar to create realistic rain droplets in Toy Story 4's opening sequence. Dust can also be added for atmosphere on floors, cabinets and rafters, and cobwebs add an ominous touch to darkened nooks and crannies. Shots of an antique mall were also an opportunity for Pixar to push its limits by creating millions of objects such as lamps, dishes and toys to create a realistic image of a crowded shop.