On this day in 1993, production begins on Toy Story, the first full-length feature film created by the pioneering Pixar Animation Studios. Originally a branch of the filmmaker George Lucas’s visual effects company, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), Pixar first put itself on the map with special effects produced for films such as Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), which featured the first fully three-dimensional digital or computer-generated image (CGI). In 1986, Pixar became an independent company after it was purchased by Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple Computer.
The fledgling company’s inaugural product was the Pixar Image Computer, which the former Disney animator John Lasseter soon used to produce an animated short film, Luxo Jr. The film won Best Animated Short at the 1986 Academy Awards, raising Pixar’s profile considerably. Lasseter won another Oscar in 1989 for Tin Toy, an animated short featuring a mechanical drummer named Tinny maneuvering around in a baby’s playroom. (Tinny later became the basis for Buzz Lightyear, the spaceman toy who was one of Toy Story’s main characters.)
In 1991, based on the success of Pixar’s short films, the company signed a $26 million deal with the Walt Disney Company to develop, produce and distribute up to three animated feature films. The Little Mermaid (1989) had become Disney’s most successful film to date, and the company was ready to take more chances on innovative animation techniques. Approached by Lasseter about a possible Christmas program, Disney’s chief of film production, Jeffrey Katzenberg, instead responded with the three-picture deal.
Toy Story was the first Pixar-Disney collaboration, and the first feature-length animated film that was completely computer generated. Its plot revolved around the rivalry between the cowboy Woody, previously the favorite toy of a little boy named Andy, and Buzz Lightyear, a shiny new astronaut toy that Andy receives for a birthday present. Multiple Oscar-winner Tom Hanks lent his famous voice to Woody, while Tim Allen of TV’s Home Improvement was Buzz. Though Pixar’s long development process included drawings, paintings, sculptures and photographs, the final work for the film was all done on computers. The sophisticated animation created a vivid three-dimensional world full of color and movement, where toys–including such childhood classics as toy soldiers, Mr. Potato Head and Etch-a-Sketch–come to life.
Released in November 1995, Toy Story received universally positive reviews, and would eventually gross more than $192 million at the domestic box office and $358 million worldwide. Lasseter received a special Academy Award for leading the Pixar team, and the movie became the first animated feature ever to score an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Toy Story’s tremendous success, and that of later films such as Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, earned Pixar the reputation of Hollywood’s preeminent animation studio. In 2006, in an effort to continue (and strengthen) the bond between the two companies, Disney bought Pixar–for which Jobs had paid $10 million in 1986–for a staggering $7.4 billion.
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