How Pixar's 'Toy Story 4' was animated

  • The fourth instalment in the “Toy Story” franchise achieves a level of detail and realism unseen in any Disney-Pixar film.
  • See how it all came together at the Pixar studios and how the geniuses at Pixar brought beloved toys like Woody, Bo Peep, and Buzz Lightyear to life in their most naturalistic forms yet.
  • We explain Pixar’s production pipeline, start to finish – from the story and artwork stage; moving onto 3D computer modelling, shading and surfacing, layout, voice acting, character animation, simulation; and ending with lighting, effects, scoring, sound mixing, and final render.
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Following is the transcript of the video.

Narrator: If you’ve seen “Toy Story 4,” you’ve probably noticed that Pixar’s animation doesn’t neglect any detail, no matter how small. From dust particles in the antique shop to subtle signs of ageing on the toys, it’s all there, rendered incredibly realistically on the big screen. So how exactly did Pixar bring this intricate world to life? Let’s take a look at the fascinating process that created “Toy Story 4,” from start to finish.

For “Toy Story 4,” as for all Pixar films, story comes first. While the writers draft the script, story artists work alongside them, making preliminary sketches for each scene in the film. These sketches, called storyboards, give the Pixar team an idea of how each scene will go down. Editors then cut the storyboards together into an animatic, or story reel, basically a long, detailed flipbook that reflects the pace of each sequence. The story reel is edited with rudimentary sound effects, a scratch soundtrack, and temporary dialogue that’s been prerecorded by Pixar employees. It serves as a rough draft for the movie, allowing the filmmakers to get an idea of how the story will unfold and hone the sequences before having them animated.

Once the storyline is set, the art department and production designers get together to create concept art for the characters and their environments. Meanwhile, character artists lay out how each toy will look in the film. For “Toy Story 4,” character design involved a lot of research into the toys themselves: how they’re made, how they age, and everything in between. The character team found their perfect villain on field trips to antique shops, where they’d often spot vintage dolls lurking in corners. There, the idea for Gabby Gabby was born. This newcomer is a talking doll from the 1950s, and she’s designed to come off as very toylike in a way that might even give you the creeps at first. On the other hand, it’s all warm fuzzies when we meet Ducky and Bunny, a pair of carnival-prize toys voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. Their loud, bright colours, cheap-looking plush, and sheen finish were designed to look authentic for the kind of toy you’d win at a carnival game: not the highest in quality, but loveable nonetheless.

The character artists also decide on wardrobe. They steered clear from any major changes to most of the toys’ signature costumes. But they wanted to update Bo Peep’s look to reflect her resourcefulness and sense of adventure, aspects of her character that weren’t fully explored in the earlier “Toy Story”s. So they came up with a convertible costume that allowed Bo to repurpose elements of her outfit on the fly, even turning her dress into a bag or a cape when it suits her.

Another key step in the visual development of the film is the creation of colour scripts, these digital illustrations that kind of look like impressionist paintings from the 19th century. Each picture depicts a single frame in the movie, helping filmmakers start to define the style, lighting scheme, and general mood of each shot and figure out how the colours in each scene will relate to the overall storyline.

All of these illustrations provide reference material for the next stage of computer modelling. This is when the toys and their environments begin to take form in three-dimensional space. Modelling artists take the basic shapes of the characters, sets, and props and mould them into a 3D mesh, then sculpt and refine these builds until they’re satisfied. In constructing the sets, scale was a chief concern, as the artists wanted to accurately represent the diminutive size of the toys relative to their surroundings. To nail down that contrast, they photographed models of the toys interacting with objects out in the real world, then used those photos for reference. The character models require an extra step.

Al: So how long is this gonna take?

Geri: You can’t rush art.

Narrator: They get rigged with a movable skeleton, which has controls placed around its face, its joints, and the rest of its body, like a really advanced digital puppet. Animators will then be able to manipulate the character’s movement using its unique set of controls, making it act and emote in precise ways as the story requires. So the characters can now move, and they have sets to move around in, but something’s missing. Neither the characters nor their sets have any surface characteristics, making everything kind of fall flat. That’s where shading, or surfacing, comes in.

Shading artists’ job is to furnish the 3D models with the kind of textures, finishes, and tints they’d have in real life, lending them visual complexity and charm. Some of this work is done using shaders, computer programs that know how to simulate a range of materials like plastic, fabric, metal, wood, glass, hair, or skin. Clever software proved useful for the 10,000 items that filled the antique shop. Shading-art director Laura Phillips said her team saved time by developing a language of three different ages for the many items in the store: fairly new, moderately aged, and extremely aged. They applied varying degrees of texture to the objects according to that visual language. But a lot of the shading was done by hand, especially for the most central and visible items, like the carnival game where Buzz accidentally lands himself. The sets team reasoned that in a travelling carnival, games like this one would have to be quickly assembled, torn down, and stowed away, so they’d probably look a little beaten up. To capture that, artists painted welding marks on the grid backdrop of the booth. This fit the game’s shabby look, with its slightly warped metal bars and visible rusting.

Of course, special attention was also lavished on the shading of the characters. For plastic toys like Woody and Buzz, the shading artists created an algorithm to simulate the effect of light penetrating a slightly translucent surface, such as plastic. Meanwhile, they added subtle signs of wear and tear to the toys to reflect their histories. The threads on Woody’s clothes have started fraying. There are dirt smudges on his hand and chin. And the seam on his vest has worn thin. Buzz has plenty of scratches of his own, especially near his joints, and his stickers have begun to bubble, pucker, and peel. You can also see felt poking out of certain spots on Jessie’s hat. These specific scuffs towards the front of Gabby’s shoes could only result from the distinct walking style of an older doll like her. The scratch effect on Forky’s cheeks indicates his past life as an eating utensil. And Bo’s porcelain shows signs of crazing, the type of micro-cracks that appear in the glaze of ceramics.

Now that the characters have started looking more tangible and real, the cast members visit the studio to record their voice performances. The sessions are filmed so that the actors’ expressions can guide their characters’ facial animations later on. Before that, though, is layout, when the characters are set up in front of a virtual camera. Layout artists in an animated movie function similarly as a camera team would in any live-action movie. Guided by the storyboards, they place the characters appearing in a scene into the appropriate set, arrange the characters in front of the camera, and block out their basic movements within the right camera angles. At this point, the sets may not be completely dressed yet, meaning more props might be added later on. But layout helps the set dressers determine the best placement of every object within the composition of each shot. Once the scenes have been staged, the animation team gets them moving, bringing all the primary and secondary characters to life.

Sid: The toys are alive! Nice dolly…

Narrator: Each character is defined by up to 1,000 avars, or hinges that are built into their skeleton. If the animators are like puppeteers and the characters are their puppets, the avars represent the strings on a puppet, points of possible movement that the animators manipulate to make their characters act and emote. Every day, the animation department comes together to analyse the one or two seconds of film they have just put into motion and talk about ways they can make those few seconds even more expressive.

Since the shots in Pixar films are so complex, it can take eight weeks or more to animate a single shot. The character animation is also highly specific. The way each character moves in “Toy Story 4” was informed by what type of toy they were and what personality traits they gave off. The story and character artists imagined the Bo Peep of “Toy Story 4” as a kind of graceful, agile road warrior, so the animators looked to reference footage of ballroom dancer Sharna Burgess, gymnast Aly Raisman, and “The Bride” from “Kill Bill.” The way Bo wields her shepherd’s hook was informed by footage of javelin throwers, martial-arts pros, and, of course, Rey from “Star Wars.” In contrast, animators gave Gabby Gabby more doll-like movement that would be consistent with an old-fashioned pull-string doll of her variety. Her weighted eyes blink slowly, closing when she’s horizontal, and she mostly moves from joints in her hips, shoulders, and neck.

While the animation team choreographs characters’ movements and facial expressions by hand, the simulation team uses computer programs to lay down the movement of other elements like fur, weather, or clothing. These phenomena interact with other components of a shot in ways that are largely defined by science. How much does a cat’s hair move? How fast do raindrops fall? How much does a specific garment shrink or stretch? Pixar builds physics-based simulators that govern how these textures should behave onscreen. This saves the animators from doing impossible tasks by hand, like, for instance, animating each strand of hair on Gabby’s head individually. Of course, simulation isn’t solely dictated by science. The sim team balances maths and physics against artistic considerations. One example is the fur on Ducky and Bunny. Its behaviour is largely based on ostrich feathers and the fake feathers used on the Muppets. But according to simulation supervisor Henry Garcia, they found that Ducky’s tuft was 10% funnier if they let it stay alive a little bit longer after he stops moving. The result is adorable.

Once the motion feels alive and believable, the lighting team comes in to illuminate the characters and sets. Using software that mimics the physics of light, Pixar adds hundreds of virtual light sources to each scene. The lights are strategically placed to draw attention to story points or to cultivate a certain mood. The antique shop, for example, appears bright towards the front but grows dark as you move deeper into the store, heightening the drama. Tonal variation is important. Bonnie’s school appears cool and intimidating at first, but that changes once she gets to her classroom. There’s warm light streaming through the window where she creates Forky, emphasising the birth of new life. The carnival lighting establishes a very different energy, with multicolored marquee lights and Ferris wheel lights creating a sense of chaos and excitement. And inside the pinball machine, low-level lighting and fog create a cool aura, making it feel like an ideal hangout spot for the toys. After all the images are lit, rendering gets underway. This is when all of the digital data that makes up the motion picture gets translated into actual frames of film, 24 of them for each second of the movie.

At last, it’s time for the final touches on shading, lighting, and effects. It’s up to the effects artists to perfect the amount of dust and atmosphere in each image, varying the levels until they get their ideal look. That, of course, depends on setting. They wanted a lot of dust particulates in the antique shop, while at the carnival they emphasised the dirt kicked up from the ground. They also gave the air around the toys a richer texture than the air around the human characters to highlight just how tiny these toys really were. After the final frames are rendered, the film gets scored and sound-mixed. Five years and many, many late nights later, the fourth “Toy Story” is finally ready for viewing. Pixar’s painstaking attention to detail draws the audience into the unique world perspective of the toys and makes watching “Toy Story 4” a totally immersive experience.

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