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Last Updated: Friday, 31 March 2006, 11:11 GMT 12:11 UK
Quick-draw artists
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine

Pixar - the iconic animation company that produced Toy Story, Monsters Inc and Finding Nemo - is marking its 20th anniversary. But can digital cartoons ever have the same charm as hand-drawn characters?

Let there be light. Well, an anglepoise lamp to be precise. It's 20 years since Pixar, the mega-billion animation company, launched its first movie - a short film about a lamp with a life of its own, called Luxo Jr.

Along with iconic brands such as Google and the iPod, Pixar's computer-generated movies have become part of the digital era - with the animation firm becoming one of Hollywood's biggest players.

Marking its 20th anniversary is an exhibition at the Science Museum in London, which displays the art and the craft behind Toy Story, Bug's Life, Monsters Inc, The Incredibles and the soon-to-be released, Cars.

This is a world of movies where the images are instantly-recognisable, but there are no stars. If anyone was going to walk down a red carpet, it would have to be an anonymous army of artists, directors and software designers.

Or maybe it would be the industrial-scale "renderfarms" that provide the processing power for the computer-generated animations.

Digital Disney

Pixar's big success wasn't instant. For the first decade the company had made its living from advertising, producing animations for products such as Listerine and Kellogg's All Bran.

Finding Nemo
Finding Nemo: Pixar has grown from small fry to movie monster

But the big breakthrough came in 1995 with its first full-length movie - Toy Story. This first ever fully computer-animated feature film was the biggest grossing movie of the year - earning $362m (208m) worldwide.

Appropriately for an animation company, Pixar had impeccable timing.

Toy Story was launched when new computer power was convincing audiences that they should become more techno-friendly.

Just as Disney created the animations for the great age of cinema, Pixar has produced some of the iconic animations of the digital age.

The movies that followed were all runaway successes. Monsters Inc reached the $100m box office benchmark quicker than any animated film in history.

But Pixar also discovered a goldmine in another side of the digital market - the arrival of DVDs - a format which showed off its crystal-clear animation to full effect. Finding Nemo shifted eight million copies on its first day of release.

Artists not anoraks

The exhibition shows how much work is involved - with a single movie requiring the efforts of 230 people and a whole load of supercomputers for four years.

Pixar movies have turned DVDs into a digital goldmine

But not everyone is convinced that the quality of computer-generated animation matches hand-drawn films.

Richard Taylor, former head of animation at the Royal College of Art, says such films might be lucrative, but "something is filtered out" in the process.

"Computer animation has less direct appeal, less charm, it's less humane - it lacks the roughness that nature gives."

But Pixar's creative boss, John Lasseter, says: "Computers don't create computer animation any more than a pencil creates pencil animation. What creates computer animation is the artist."

And the exhibition shows the creative perspiration involved. Before the computer animation process, artists will draw and paint up to 50,000 storyboards - and the exhibition includes examples of the so-called "colourscripts" which set the visual style and tone of the story.

Discarded toys

These are works of art in their own right - and reveal the attention to detail. How would fur look in the snow? How do you re-create the precise texture of clothing?

The exhibition has a zoetrope based on Toy Story characters (Courtesy Science Museum)

There's a cover of Good Fishkeeping magazine from Finding Nemo, with the cover-strap "Learn to say 'no' to your fish."

Would anyone have seen that as a micro-size glimpse in the movie? Probably not, but part of the success of Pixar has been its ability to work on different levels, showing something extra that you might glimpse in the corner of the screen.

For children, Monsters Inc is a story about getting scared at night and big blue furry monsters. But for the adults, there's another story about dead-end jobs, dodgy bosses and mistrusting strangers.

And Toy Story works for children as an adventure story about toys that come to life - while the grown-ups will be remembering the poignant stuff about the favourite toy that gets discarded and forgotten.

Osnat Shurer, in charge of Pixar's short films, says the company's strength has been based on retaining a creative rather than a corporate culture, and that in the long term "it pays off to over-deliver".

And she says that rather than being driven by technology, the most important factor is the storytelling - and in that respect, Pixar has taken up the baton from Disney.

And it's not about developing technology to be more "realistic", she says. "It's about believability, not realism - about creating a universal story, with characters you can feel with, whether it's a car, a child or a toy."

Finding pay day

As an example of this playfulness, the star attraction of the show is a "zoetrope", which uses figures from Toy Story to show how static figures can be made to appear to move.

Incredibles: Science Museum Pixar exhibition
The Incredibles: characters evolve in drawings, sculpture and collages

It's a really impressive exhibit, built for no purpose other than to entertain - and perhaps that's what you do when you've got billions in the bank and plenty of spare time.

But Pixar's accountants must be enjoying the ride, because the company's business relationships have given it a highly-influential strategic position for the next phase of the digital entertainment era.

Disney and Pixar are being spliced together in a 4bn deal. And adding to this formidable media alliance is the presence of Pixar's Steve Jobs - also the head of Apple computers, who is now the biggest single shareholder in Disney.

And Pixar short movies are now appearing for downloading on Apple's iTunes - with every likelihood that full-length movies will eventually be sold through the same route.

Pixar movies straight to the iPod? Will that mean Pixar will be in our pockets, or will we be in theirs?

Pixar: 20 Years of Animation. Exhibition 1 April to 10 June, the Science Museum, Exhibition Road, London SW7 2DD.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

My youngest son who is 18 months loves Toy Story and Toy Story 2, it's the only way we can get him to eat, he's so entranced by the film, he doesn't notice us putting food in his mouth. My eldest son who is 11 now also loved the film when he was a younger. It's timeless.
Meg Hardy, Cardiff

I'm sure that computer generated cartoons have just as much charm because my kids just love them. I thought they would not be interested in seeing older hand drawn ones but they love them too. I really notice the detail and very bright colours, I also like the fact elements for adults are always included in these pictures. I think sometimes it's not appreciated how much is put into these computer animations - just as much as hand drawn, but in a different way.
Jackie, Maidstone

More so - look at the likes of Buzz and Woody, Nemo, Mike and Sully - the ability of the animators to make them appear so real brings them to life much more than before the technology was available. The "old" characters are 2D by comparison - not that that's the animotars' fault - they work with what is available. Had CGI been around then, rest assured they'd be using it.
GDW, London

I agree, I think computer generated images are awful. They look so cold. Compare a modern computerised film with a classic 1950s Tom & Jerry....the computer film doesn't come anywhere near its forebear.
John Luty, Harrogate

Buzz and Woody are as iconic to today's generation as Laurel and Hardy and Tom and Jerry were to my parents' and grandparents' generations. Like the former, they will still be giving inspiration to future film makers in 100 years time because they have warmth, depth and fallibilty.
Leigh, Reading

I'm an animation student working with CG. You absolutely can get all the feeling of hand-drawn in a computer-generated film, but they are different styles. It's like debating whether a painting or sculpture is more artistic. People think computers do all the work and it's completely false! The computer is just a tool, like a pencil or blob of clay; if the computer did the work, Pixar animators would produce more than two minutes of work a year!
Rikki, UK

Anyone who's involved in the creative arts will tell you that working digitally is just as organic a process as working with 'traditional' tools. The output may look more clinical in some cases, but most of the charm is in the design itself and in the story/characterisation, not in the method of production.
Craig Grannell, Fleet

I'm a huge fan of animation, but for me its all about hand drawn/painted and stop motion animation. I thoroughly enjoy Pixar's films, to me they are the exception for computer animation, as opposed to soulless offerings in the form of Madagascar and Shark Tail. There is still a mindset in the public that 3D computer animated films mean a high quality piece of work, and I think that is being exploited by companies who rush out two or three films a year regardless of quality.
Jonny Horne, Farnborough

Pixar cartoons would work just as well, I feel, if they were drawn using nothing but stick-drawn characters. Why? They have remembered something that Disney seems to have forgotten lately: get a good script. I only hope that even though Disney now owns Pixar, they will not interfere with the creativity of the staff.
Stephen Buxton, Coventry

These types of CGI animated movies have rejuvenated a media which was slowly dying during the 1990s. The new technique, along with a more multi-level style of storytelling, has given new life to the format.
Phil Saunders, Oxford

Exactly, it's not the quality of the animation it's the story and character development, which is true of all media, not just animation.
Michael Pearce, UK

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