I love wired magazine, and their sweet website too. I also saw Up recently, cried within the first 5 minutes, and thought the rest of the film was great too. This month’s Wired has a super interesting article on Pixar that explains how the company is run, how movies are made, and how to go from a storyboard drawing of a pink bear to 24 academy awards. Here’s part of the online portion of the article.
Creating Toy Story 3
A step-by-step process.
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The first challenge: coming up with a great story. For inspiration, the creative team leaves the Pixar campus and heads to the Poetâ€™s Loft, a cabin 50 miles north of San Francisco. They thought they already had a great start on the plot for Toy Story 3, but after 20 minutes, the whole thing is scrapped. By day two, a new idea emergesâ€”how would the toys feel if Andy, their owner, left for college?
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Working from a series of plot points, screenwriter Michael Arndt begins drafting the script. At the same time, director Lee Unkrich and the story artists start sketching storyboards for each scene. There is no animation yet, just drawn poses like in a comic book. But the storyboards allow the filmmakers to begin imagining the look and feel of each scene.
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So far, the characters exist only as digital illustrations. Character design has begun. Some are sculpted in clay and scanned. Others are drawn by hand. Later, visual texturesâ€”fur, fabric, hairâ€”will be added to the form, a step known as simulation. â€œItâ€™s a constant negotiation with the technical side,â€ says supervising animator Bobby Podesta. â€œNot everything we want is possible.â€
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The storyboards are turned into whatâ€™s called a story reelâ€”a series of images that can be projected for an in-house audience like an elaborate flip book. The lines are prerecorded by Pixar employees. â€œThis is a crucial moment for the film,â€ says Pixar president and cofounder Ed Catmull. â€œWatching along with an audience allows us to see what works and what doesnâ€™t.â€
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Actors start coming in to voice the script. Tom Hanks takes his turn at the Pixar recording studio to lay down his vocal tracks. Hanks reads every line dozens of times, varying his interpretations and emphasis. The sessions are also filmed, so animators can watch the actorâ€™s expressions and use those as reference when they start animating the charactersâ€™ faces.
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The shaders are responsible for adding color and texture to charactersâ€™ bodies and other surfaces. One issue is the fact that Woody and Buzz are made of plastic: Some plastics are slightly translucent, and they absorb light. So the shaders used a subsurface scattering algorithm to simulate this effect and make the toys look more believable.
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The pictures are moving. Each character is defined by up to 1,000 avarsâ€”points of possible movementâ€”that the animators can manipulate like strings on a puppet. Each morning, the team gathers to review the second or two of film from the day before. The frames are ripped apart as the team searches for ways to make the sequences more expressive.
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The technical challenges start to pile up. (Simulating a wet bear is especially complex.) Good thing Steve Jobs insisted that the buildingâ€™s essential facilities be centrally located. â€œWalking to the bathroom or getting a cup of coffee is often the most productive part of my day,â€ says producer Darla Anderson. â€œYou bump into somebody by accident and then have a conversation that leads to a fix.â€
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The animators are working flat out. They stay late into the night in their highly personalized offices, which have been decorated in a variety of themes, from Polynesian tiki to â€™70s-era love lounge. (â€œWe let them do whatever they want,â€ Catmull says.) The animators even have their own working bars, complete with beer on tap and a collection of single-malt whiskeys.
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Renderingâ€”using computer algorithms to generate a final frameâ€”is well under way. The average frame (a movie has 24 frames per second) takes about seven hours to render, although some can take nearly 39 hours of computing time. The Pixar building houses two massive render farms, each of which contains hundreds of servers running 24 hours a day.
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The movie is mostly done. The team has completed 25 of the filmâ€™s sequences and is just finishing an action scene that involves a runaway model train, smoke, dust clouds, force fields, lasers, mountainous terrain, and a massive bridge explosion. It has taken 27 technical artists four months to perfect the scene.
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With only weeks to go before the film is released, the audio mixers at Skywalker Sound combine dialog, music, and sound effects. Every nuance is adjusted and re-adjusted. After a four-year production process, it can be hard to let go of Woody, Lotso, Buzz, and the rest of the characters. â€œWe donâ€™t ever finish a film,â€ Unkrich says. â€œI could keep on making it better. Weâ€™re just forced to release it.â€