[See also Toy Story 3: All Things Must Pass]
The most startling thing about the new 3D version of Toy Story is that it seems perfectly designed for the format. Objects poke out at the camera and there are point-of-view shots: check out the scene where Woody and Buzz are carried into Sid’s house, peering out through a gap in zip of the bag they’re trapped in. The teeth of the zip frame a deep view into the house, while Sid’s dog Scud snarls and jumps at the camera. The tension between foreground and deep space seems to have been designed for 3D, as does the thrilling climactic chase, but no shots have been changed for the re-release. And because Pixar didn’t go for any gimmicky in-your-face 3D tactics in the first place, the story is still allowed to breathe without the distractions of peekaboo spectacle. Some of Randy Newman’s songs (“Strange Things” and “I Will go Sailing No More”) are still distractingly literal in describing (or dictating?) the onscreen montages (though all will be forgiven by the time he gets round to the emotional whallop of “When She Loved Me” in Toy Story 2 – I’m welling up just thinking about it…), and the Svankmajer-for-kids grotesqueries of Sid’s room are still an imaginative highpoint even for Pixar. The animation, groundbreaking though it was fifteen years ago, has dated slightly, particularly in the animation of human figures, and most tellingly in the character of Scud: they simply didn’t have procedural modelling programs in place to generate realistic fur, so poor Scud looks a little plastic. (Take a look at this feature about Pixar’s RenderMan system for a glimpse of how much the company innovated in the development of animation.)
Some things haven’t changed at all, though, and Toy Story still impresses by the sheer elegance of its plot: every scene blends imperceptibly into the next step in its development without revealing the mechanics of how it will manouevre all of its characters along the formulaic steps of its life-lesson journeys. The film flies by not just thanks to its breezy, witty script (and peerless voice cast), but because there’s not a moment of slack or digression from its simple tale succinctly told.
So, what’s with the 3D and how on Earth did they do it? You can hear director John Lasseter talking about it here, and read more about the conversion to 3D at the New York Times. Of course, its not an automatic process, even when dealing with digital elements (which are surely easier to convert than live action footage); a second camera has to be placed in the virtual space of the film to create the illusion of depth, and a team of “stereographers” had to select which parts of the frame to pull out and which to push back, and how far to push or pull them (by varying the distance between the two “cameras”. Often, that must be a fairly logical choice, bringing foreground elements out and pushing the backgrounds into the distance, but it’s interesting to hear how lead stereographer Bob Whitehill made some of those choices:
When I would look at the films as a whole, I would search for story reasons to use 3-D in different ways. In Toy Story, for instance, when the toys were alone in their world, I wanted it to feel consistent to a safer world. And when they went out to the human world, that’s when I really blew out the 3-D to make it feel dangerous and deep and overwhelming.
Thankfully, the effect is not distracting, and never used to excess: Pixar have not cheapened their work with a gimmicky makeover, and judging by hushed Saturday matinee crowd with whom I watched it, Toy Story still has the ability to enthrall. Being armed with the foreknowledge that its sequel will be even better doesn’t hurt, either…