June 22, 2010

"Toy Story 3"

From my movie review in Taki's Magazine:
In 1965, Gordon Moore of Intel noted that silicon chips had been quickly doubling in transistor density, and forecasted that computers would continue to get twice as powerful every 18 months to infinity and beyond! (Or words to roughly that effect—”Moore’s Law” soon entered the realm of urban legend.)

Pixar’s computer animated Toy Story 3, released 15 years after the first mature computer animation movie, 1995’s landmark Toy Story about a little boy’s playthings who come to life when he’s not looking, has thus benefited from about ten subsequent doublings in computer firepower. So, is the latest sequel 1024 times better than the original?

Advances in technology eventually call forth artistic geniuses, but the lag time is unpredictable. The first commercial electric guitar, for example, went on sale in 1932, but it was initially used mostly to just make louder plinking sounds. It was 35 years until Jimi Hendrix’s performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967.

Arts apparently progress in S-shaped curves. At first, nothing publicly notable happens (for instance, the electric guitar’s 1930-1940s). Then there’s a rapid takeoff (rock music in the 1950s-1970s). And finally a period of diminishing marginal returns (the 1980s-2000s).

Unlike the surprising ascent of the electric guitar, the potential of computer animated movies was relentlessly foretold.

Read the whole thing there and comment upon it here.


Anonymous said...

I know you don't like newer music, but c'mon.

Anonymous said...

As much as I'd love to cheer on the home team in Emeryville, I gotta say phooey to all computer animation.

CGI precisely models mechanical reality and uses ray tracing to figure out light and shade. The effect is sterile. I prefer hand painted backgrounds and cells, which have an expressive quality completely missing from films like Toy Story 3 and Finding Nemo.

OneSTDV said...

I still don't understand why grown adults like these movies. The last one I saw was Finding Nemo and I fell asleep after 30 minutes.

I still have some nosstaglia for the old hand-drawn stuff like Alladin.

Anonymous said...

"is it necessary for every Pixar film to strive to be a poignant masterpiece of mature wisdom"

Seems baked in the cake. After all,

"Pixar movies are made by men who have managed to extend their childhoods into fatherhood."

Anonymous said...

That's probably the most intelligent review I have read at least, regarding Toy Story 3. You are one good writer, Steve.

Peter A said...

"I know you don't like newer music, but c'mon."

I like newer music fine but Steve's right - there haven't been any major stylistic or artistic breakthroughs in rock in the last 30 years. People still write great pop songs but it's generally more or less the same 4/4 time, I-IV-V chord progression, verse-chorus-verse, electric guitars and drums. The basic rock concert - warmup ban plays, main band plays for 2 hours, goes off stage, comes back for the "encore" - is unchanged from my youth in the 1980s. Rock music is definitely "mature."

Anonymous said...

The corporate culture at Pixar is really interesting, too. It's one of the few places out there that combines hard work and generalized Bay Area liberalism with pro-natalism. Look at the list of production babies at the end of each film. The place is a baby factory, probably because it's one of the few places to work in the Bay Area where being a parent is celebrated rather than sneered at and the people are paid enough to actually live in the Bay Area.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Steve but your invocation of Moore's law is inappropriate.

Before Toy Story (1995) I decided on the basis of seeing The Last Starfighter
(1984) that computer based animation was the next big thing.

So I took an early retirement and started to learn how to do photo realistic 3D animation. This was 1991-92. I predicted that there would be a market for computer driven dinosaurs. I had read Crichton's book Jurassic Park. I made a pretty good demo Parasaurolophus which walked around in a circle. Alas Spielberg with rather more resources made his own dinosaur movie the next year.

I was creating my dinosaurs on an Intel 486 using Animation:Master an inexpensive and quirky but powerful software product. It took a full day to render just a few seconds of my dinosaur. I learned later that the studios used "render farms" much the way that Google today masses together thousands of servers for searches. At that time the studios were using or hiring animators who used Alias and SoftImage. The animator workstations were typically expensive Silicon Graphics machines. I couldn't afford all that. By the time I had a "demo reel" of a dinosaur with which to impress potential investors everyone had been dazzled by Jurassic Park up on the big screen.

Today computers are faster just like Moore predicted. The machine on which I'm typing this is an Intel i5 with a solid state hard drive. It cost less than my 486 even in the money of the day and is at least a hundred times faster.

SoftImage and Alias are now available for Macs and PCs. Animation:Master is still in business and still is capable of creating very impressive images but is also still quirky and still not popular with professionals. Most of the progress in animating has been on the hardware side not the software side. This is rather like computer chess. They gave up on fancy algorithms and just added more CPU power.

In 1990 animators could make excellent rockets and other inanimate objects. The first successful animals to be animated were fish. Feathers and hair were too tough. Toy Story showed that you could animate smooth plastic objects. Before 2000 there were no good animated mammals. Up until last year with Avatar there were no good animated human beings - and of course those weren't really humans.

Reality is damn hard to animate. We live with reality everyday. We know what it looks like. We are quick to spot flaws. That's the challenge that soaks up the MIPS.

Toy Story was a success because of the story not the toys. That is to say it had excellent writing and acting. The 1995 state of the art graphics were really something in 1995. Today they are almost child's play but good writing and acting are still rare.

The next animation challenge will be to make some new movies starring John Wayne. Avatar level graphics are not quite good enough for that but Moore's Law assures us that the Duke will surely once again lumber across the silver screen.


Whiskey said...

There's also the fact that working at Pixar is "cool" and thus a man working there is worthy to have kids by, for women, as opposed to say, Dreamworks which isn't very cool-high status.

Music seems to have collapsed stylistically because of demographics, not technology. Basically (I did a post on this), America ran out of "enough" White 20 year olds to create new music.

New music requires a critical mass of young men to fool around in a garage to create a newer style that will get people excited (and themselves laid). There needs to be enough of this pool to create a minimal scene, fans, musicians who can move from group to group, and early critical acceptance/championing of the new style.

Technology? We have a lot of it. We have woodwinds, brass, electronics hooked to both, cheap computers for sound-tuning, and all the rest. About the only thing "new" has been auto-tune "robot" voices like the Black Eyed Peas (to hid the fact that they can't sing).

Listen to a ska band. Now imagine the same instruments set to a more melodic, power-ballad beat (imagine say Journey with trombones and saxes and trumpets electronically bending notes doing "Don't Stop Believing.")

There's lots of opportunities, but few 16-20 year old White guys to take advantage of them.

Anonymous said...

Just look at old Warner Brother's cartoons. Their comedic brilliance and visual ingenuity endures, even after repeat viewings over decades. Pixar produces stuff to be watched once, maybe twice; then the human brain flat fields the images and dialogue. My kid saw Wall-E once in the theater; she was amused, but she didn't clamor for me to take her to see it again or buy the video.

I doubt today's kids will watch Pixar flicks with nostalgia 20 years from now when they are raising their own children. Also, I doubt Moore's law will advance current animation methods much. There are bandwidth limits to the human senses -- visual and auditory -- and those were probably reached with Toy Story 2. Overly elaborate quickly paced action and 3D imagery just give the audience vertigo -- theaters will need to begin supplying stomach distress bags. More likely, Moore's law will just drive down the cost and decrease the interval between animated sequels. For Hollywood, you know what that means? The usual Poisson statistics for brilliant hit features but a tsunami of totally forgettable crap. Driving up the tempo of production isn't necessarily a good thing.

I suppose one threshold left to cross is the facility to mimic reality so precisely that you no longer need actors. Imagine making a a 10th season of Seinfeld or a 3rd season of the Munsters. But the writing would be crap so I wouldn't recommend this.

Carol said...

Hey, amplifying the guitar so that someone like Charlie Christian could play something besides chunk chunk chunk was a huge deal. He could play blowing lines (like a horn) on an instrument most people could never hear in a big band before, and it was every bit as dramatic a change as Hendrix setting fire to his guitar in 1967.

Carol said...

Oh, and the word for the state of rock music now is "exhausted." It happened to jazz in the 1960s.

Ron Guhname said...

I haven't seen the third movie yet, but the Toy Story world seems very normal to me and therefore outmoded, square, white, nostalgic.

Thursday said...

Even a factory studio like Pixar shows the triumph of the director as auteur. By far the best films from to come out of the studio (Monsters Inc., Up!, and The Incredibles) have been directed by just two guys: Phil Docter and Brad Bird. Phil Docter in particular is a great artist.

The rest of the Pixar oeuvre (the Toy Stories, Finding Nemo, A Bug's Life, Cars, Wall-E) while technically accomplished, simply bores the hell out of me.

Alticor said...

The electric guitar was revolutionary from a few years after its introduction. Charlie Christian was the first jazz guitarist to play legato, hornlike lines in a jazz band context, and he died in 1942 after being noticed only in 1939.

The first electric guitars were simply regular guitars with a pickup and an amplifier like a table radio.

Les Paul and Leo Fender provided equipment with which a guitar player could really pursue the modern concept of loud and out front. Dick Dale, arguably, was the first modern rock guitarist who played a style incomprehensible with an acoustic guitar. His style was well established by 1959, although he was unknown outside of Southern California until the early 60s.

Blacks like Christian, Wes Montgomery, Chuck Berry, Ike Turner, Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix, as well as later players like Wah Wah Watson and Nile Rodgers took the technology that Bob Whitaker argues (correctly) blacks never could have invented and used it in ways whites would not have thought of (but who liked the results.)

Jimi Hendrix would have been impossible without Leo Fender and Dick Dale, who torture tested Fender equipment and made the production of rockworthy amplifiers thinkable (indeed, necessary.) Dick Dale has another unusual distinction: he's the only rocker to ever appear-albeit briefly-in a Marilyn Monroe movie.

Dave said...

"I still have some nosstaglia for the old hand-drawn stuff like Alladin."

I guess you're a gay daddy's-little-princess.

Anonymous said...

I've heard an interview with Jimmy Hendrix and he said that hearing George Harrison's solo on Tax Man was an inspiration for his evolving sound. Also, I think he said that the nascent Texas boogy sound (later to produce acts like ZZ Top and Stevie Ray)was noted by Hendrix in the same interview.

Influences are very circular.

asdfasdfasdfasdf said...

"Advances in technology eventually call forth artistic geniuses, but the lag time is unpredictable. The first commercial electric guitar, for example, went on sale in 1932, but it was initially used mostly to just make louder plinking sounds. It was 35 years until Jimi Hendrix’s performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967."

Hendrix may have been the biggest god of electric guitar but it is too simplistic to say electric guitar was put to great artistic use starting with Hendrix.

Lots of blues guitarists found creative and slick ways of using the electric guitar, without whom Hendrix, Richards, Paige, Townshend, Clapton, Beck, and others would not have been possible. T-Bone Pickens, Muddy Waters, and BB King did great things. And they didn't just pluck or pick but slid and swiped. And though Les Paul's use of guitar became cliched, he did introduce a new grammar.
And who can deny the originality of Bo Diddley. And it's arguable that Chuck Berry was more important than Hendrix. Hendrix took it to the limit, but it was Berry who laid down the fundamentals of rock n rolls riffs that came to be emulated by Eddie Cochran, Beach Boys, Beatles, and many others. The guitar playing on Johnny B. Goode is still amazing.
And let's not forget surf guitar craze of the early 60s. Lots of cool badass stuff there.
So, instead of a 'lag time', there was a rising crescendo that climaxed with Hendrix and other guitar gods of the late 60s and early 70s.

adfadfadfadf said...

Advances in special effects are indeed important to arts & entertainment, but nothing beats originality and vision.
Even now, some scenes from Lang's Metropolis are more amazing than today's high gadget sci-fis. 2001 still beats all the latest sci-fi movies. It wasn't only ahead-of-its-time but outside-of-time as true genius is.
Solaris by Tarkovsky has cruder technology but it has poetry and beauty lacking in much of sci-fi, especially in the boneheaded remake.

Miyazaki's Nausicaa and Laputa may technically be cruder than Disney animation of the 80s and 90s, but they are greater works for their greater vision, scope, and breadth. When the vision is powerful enough, our appreciative imagination fills in the gaps. We sense what the artist is reaching for, and we can easily forgive some of the technical failings or crudities(relatively speaking)because we are enraptured by the spirit of the artist. I feel that way about Blade Runner, which may not as slick as today's sci-fi films. Matrix is technologically 100x more complex but also 1000x more childish.

This is also true of music. Recordings of the 40s, 50s, and even 60s can't match the recording technology of the digital age, from 80s to today, but we can still sense the musical greatness and power of notable artists of the past.

One thing about Pixar and CGI animation... and why I don't like them..
I saw Toy Story, Incredibles, Finding Nemo, and UP. I must say I didn't like any of them. I don't like the way they look, amazing as the technology may be. It's like watching claymation with smoother movement, and that's about it. Or it's like watching lava lamp playdough movie. They lack the grace, beauty, poetry, and subtlety of Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Nausicaa, or Laputa. Even in UP, the most poetic part of the movie was album slideshow of 2D images.
Another thing, CGI animation stories move way too fast. I acknowledge they are full of wit, inventiveness, brilliance, etc, etc, but they have no time for wonderment. Before we can go Ahhhhhhh,they lurch into another series of wham bam action. UP was largely taken from Wizard of OZ and Laputa, and it may be wittier and more brilliant than the Wizard and Laputa put together, but it never stops for a breather(all the more odd since it's about an old man). It's all about speed and attention deficit disorder. Speed of narrative, speed of wit, speed of action, speed of everything.
Well, you cannot run through a museum or garden and appreciate what it's about, even if(or especially if) one's doing flip flops and acrobatically jumping over everything.
Laputa has a lot of action, but it does have moments of reflection, meditation, and even tragedy.
But no emotion is allowed to last more than a few seconds in movies like Finding Nemo or UP.

Toy Story 3 is a failure at the box office, and it's not difficult to understand why. It was once state-of-the-art but now it is old hat. And kids don't wanna play with old stuff.

Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Nausicaa, and Laputa will always seem fresh and beautiful forever, but many CGI movies whose claim-to-fame is 'we got the latest gizmo' are bound to fade as newer ones take their place.
Similarly, 2001 will always be remembered but I dunno know about Transformers.

Lucille said...

Toy Story 3 has already raked in well over $100 billion (gross) in ticket sales on its first weekend(according to Yahoo! movies). So I'm not sure where you got your notion that it's a box office failure.

Anonymous said...

Toy Story 3 has already raked in well over $100 billion (gross) in ticket sales on its first weekend(according to Yahoo! movies).

Are you British?

asdfasdfasdf said...


You're right. My bad. Toy Story 3 is a huge hit. Well, there goes my theory.

Lucille said...

No. But you're right. That was a typo on my part.

hanum said...

great animation movie, like this very much ^^