How Pixar Built Toy Story 3 REVISITED

After reading the eye-opening WIRED article about the creative process Pixar Animation Studios applies to their films I’m still shaking my head considering the jaw-dropping scale of computing power required these days to pull together their animation films, namely:

  • Day 533 – “the pictures are moving. Each character is defined by up to 1,000 avars—points of possible movement—that the animators can manipulate like strings on a puppet. Each morning, the team gathers to review the second or two of film from the day before. The frames are ripped apart as the team searches for ways to make the sequences more expressive.”
  • Day 907 -” Rendering—using computer algorithms to generate a final frame—is well under way. The average frame (a movie has 24 frames per second) takes about seven hours to render, although some can take nearly 39 hours of computing time. The Pixar building houses two massive render farms, each of which contains hundreds of servers running 24 hours a day.”
  • Day 1070 – “The movie is mostly done. The team has completed 25 of the film’s sequences and is just finishing an action scene that involves a runaway model train, smoke, dust clouds, force fields, lasers, mountainous terrain, and a massive bridge explosion. It has taken 27 technical artists four months to perfect the scene.”

I don’t think Walt Disney himself would have envisioned the day when server “slaves” would take over the task of rendering an animation film. And yet, I couldn’t asking myself what was more astonishing – the constant revision and no-detail-too-small perfection of a Pixar film described by Toy Story Director Lee Unkrich as, “We don’t ever finish a film. I could keep on making it better. We’re just forced to release it.” Or to consider the frame-by-frame animator built (that’s a human being) 2-hour feature film “Fantasia” released in 1940 following the all-bets-off “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937).

While today’s animators push the limits of cinematic realism they all owe a tip-of-the-hat to the groundbreaking work of shaman Disney. Both Fantasia and Snow White are the only two traditionally animated films to rank on the American Film Institute’s 100 greatest American films of all time.

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