Toy Story A Movie Made By U of S Grads
By Ken Juba
It lacked the glitter of Hollywood's famous movie theatres, but when the innovative movie Toy Story opened this winter Deborah Fowler and Larry Aupperle wanted to be in Saskatoon.
Fowler, Aupperle and Darwyn Peachey are all graduates of University of Saskatchewan computer science department and were members of the small Pixar team that created the ground breaking movie. So on opening night, Fowler and Aupperle returned home to show their parents what kind of work took them to the computer graphics studio near San Francisco.
"We thought it would be fun and they could actually see that we do have jobs," Aupperle said with a laugh. The finished product looks like so much child's play: a movie with a stuffed hero name Woody, a plastic astronaut called Buzz and an animated Mr. Potatohead with a bad attitude. But the work that went into the creation of Toy Story, the first feature film completely created on computers, was so impressive it earned a special Academy Award for its innovation.
Although you wouldn't have seen them during the awards ceremony, the three graduates of the University of Saskatchewan's computer science department were sharing accolades as key members of the workforce that created the groundbreaking motion picture.
"It was such a special project and a part of our life," said Fowler. Seeing it come together is pretty exciting.
Peachey, who earned his B.Sc. in 1978 and M.Sc. in 1983 from the U of S, was the first of the group to join Pixar. A National Science and Engineering Research Centre grant allowed him to work in the research department at the U of S after graduation. His published work attracted the attention of Pixar, one of the world's top computer graphics companies, and he joined their staff as Chief Architect in the software department.
Peachey knew Fowler from his days at the UofS and as work progressed on Toy Story he knew she would be a solid addition to the Pixar team. Fowler earned her B.Sc. in 1984 and her M.Sc. in 1987 from the U of S, before completing her doctorate at the University of Regina.
Her field of specialization was generating computer images of plants and natural phenoma. Pixar hired her as an animation scientist to work on the creation and lighting of outdoor scenes in Toy Story.
Aupperle, who left the U of S with his B.Sc. in 1986 and M.Sc. in 1987 before earning his doctorate from Princeton in 1993, followed Peachey and Fowler to Pixar in 1994. He is a senior technical director in the company's short films department, but spent much of his time assisting with Toy Story. Although the finished product has all the style of a Hollywood production, the work in creating the characters and capturing their movement, the coloring and lighting was a product of long hours spent on mathematics and computer programming.
"Looking at the film as a whole, I'm amazed at all the people who were involved and the ability to put it all together," said Aupperle. "I'm proud that all this technology and all these people - both technical and creative - were able to work in concert to get this project done. "In many respects, people have been working for 10, 15, 20 years on this. It's been a long-term goal. They always wanted to make a feature film and spent many years working on the hardware and software technology. It's the culmination of a lifetime dream for a lot of people."
All three said the computer science program at the U of S, recently ranked the best in Canada, played a role in preparing them for their climb to the top of the motion picture industry. "It's a strong program and the professors are excellent," said Fowler. "You have a lot of opportunities through NSERC. The people there are top notch and that makes it easier to go on."