Toy Stories and Other Tales

by David Hutton and Nicole Baute

The precise texture of individual rat hairs. The subtle movement of a martian's third eye. The fine-tuned flicker of a background fireplace. These are the elements that bring computer-animated features like Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles to life.

But such meticulous detail requires years of computer expertise to master.

U of S graduates Darwyn Peachey (BSc'78, MSc'83), Sanjay Bakshi (BSc'92, MSc'94), and Byron Bashforth (MSc'99) have done just that. A long way from computer labs at the U of S, they now spend their days at Pixar Studios, the world's leading computer animation company in Emeryville, California.

Darwyn Peachey, Byron Bashforth, and Sanjay Bakshi
Darwyn Peachey, Byron Bashforth, and Sanjay Bakshi

Pixar is a massive commercial success story. Started as a research and development division of Lucasfilm in 1979, it slowly grew into a high-end hardware company, selling the Pixar Image Computer.

With low sales threatening to put the company out of business in the mid 1980s, their animation department began producing popular computer-animated commercials for Tropicana, Listerine, and LifeSavers.

The company made the jump to films in the late 1980s, producing academy award winning animated short films Red's Dream and Tin Toy.

The sleek computer animation caught the attention of Disney and the companies struck a deal to produce five computer-animated feature films, the first of which garnered massive critical acclaim. Toy Story was a runaway hit, starring Tim Allen and Tom Hanks as the voices for the memorable duo of action figure Buzz Lightyear and Sheriff Woody, a cowboy doll.

A still from the wildly successful, 2006 animated feature Cars.

The company's first five feature films have collectively grossed more than $2.5 billion, the highest average box office total in the industry. In early 2006, Disney announced it had bought Pixar for approximately $7.4 billion.

"The most challenging thing about working at Pixar is explaining what I actually do to my family and friends," says Bakshi.

With changing technology, animation is no longer about a pencil, a sketchbook and Mickey Mouse. Huge teams of computer animators collaborate on the individual elements of each scene for years as they prepare for the big screen.

Bakshi, who has been animating for Pixar since 2002, spent the last three-and-a-half years working exclusively on rat hair for characters in the upcoming feature film Ratatouille, the story of Remy, a rat who dreams big and turns the culinary world of Paris upside down. Using artists' sketches as a model, Bakshi uses high-tech software to create the style and texture of hair appropriate for each character. Then Bashforth takes over and develops the hair's colour and response to light - those little details that make the images pop off the screen.

The work may be tedious but it's rewarding in the end.

"People at Pixar are very passionate about what they do," says Bashforth, who moved to California to join the Pixar team in 1999, fresh out of the computer science master's program at U of S. "Everyone tries to push the boundaries of what can be done in their respective area of expertise," he says. "W hen it's all put together, the whole is much more impressive than the sum of the parts."

Bakshi agrees. "I was getting sick of working on rat hair," he says. "But when I started to see the movie coming together, I got excited again."

Peachey, the elder statesman of the three grads, has worked at Pixar since 1988. He remembers working so closely on minute details of Toy Story that he wasn't sure what the outcome was going to be. It was Pixar's first partnership with Disney and the first time their cutting-edge animation technology was used to create a feature film.

The animation software is called RenderMan. It generates realistic, photo-quality animated scenes from the simple models animators design. Peachey was part of the Pixar team that developed the software in 1988 and continues to work to keep it cutting edge. The program has been used in creating digital visual effects for movies like Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings.

Peachey won an Academy Award for his part in the development of RenderMan in 1992. But until Toy Story, the tool had only been tested on short films and commercials.

"Toy Story was unlike any other film we made," he says. "It hadn't been done before and the expectations were quite low. But it was an adventure. We didn't even know if it was even possible. But as the film went on, the excitement mounted. "The energy level at the staff screening was amazing. Everybody had worked so hard on the film and it was something we were all so incredibly proud of. You just can't repeat that."

The film was a runaway hit, grossing $362 million worldwide and drastically changing the landscape of the animation industry. The days of cartoon flip books and hand-drawn characters quickly became a thing of the past.

Although the three U of S grads didn't know each other before arriving at Pixar, they've come to work closely together. Peachey stepped down from his post as vice-president of the company earlier this year to get back into working at the ground-level and is now detailing scenes for Ratatouille with Bakshi and Bashforth.

"I'd done the management role for about eight years," Peachey says. "But my level of awareness and involvement was decreasing and I began to lose touch with exactly what people are doing in the trenches. "I began to feel that the time was right to get back to hands on technical work."

The unique collaboration of art and technology at Pixar was what Peachey missed most.

"We could all be working at Microsoft and that would be fun doing more technical work," Peachey says. "But the wonderful thing about working with so many creative people is that it's just really fun. What kind of job can you get where you spend an afternoon watching a movie?"

Other perks of the job include meeting stars like Billy Crystal or Owen Wilson, who did voices for Monsters Inc. and Cars, or Bono and Dave Chappelle, who just stopped by to see how Pixar makes its magic.

"There are a lot of things you can do with computer technology," Peachey says. "School in Saskatoon is a long way from places where things like this are going on. But it's possible. It might take awhile, but it's possible."

David Hutton (BA'04) and Nicole Baute are freelance writers currently completing Journalism degrees at Carleton University.