How the Five Most Important Seconds in Toy Story Changed Animation Forever

It is not hard to hate Sid Phillips, the enfant terrible of Pixar’s groundbreaking 1995 CG animated film, Toy Story. From the toys’ point of view, he is the devil incarnate, an 11-year-old anarchist who never met a plaything he couldn’t burn, explode, or Frankenstein into a bizarre, mutant lifeform. With his braces-clad sneer, his skull-emblazoned T-shirt and his bedroom stocked with ominous Army handbooks, Sid is the polar opposite of childhood innocence, an unholy force of nature who revels in destruction for destruction’s sake.

Or is he? Granted, Sid would not be anyone’s first choice for Most Huggable Child, but is he really an unambiguous personification of evil? Consider: What comes out of Sid’s desktop workshop—the likes of a dinosaur/Raggedy Ann hybrid or a shaven, one-eyed doll’s head affixed to an arachnid-esque assemblage of Erector set girders—may look horrific. But viewed from a loftier perspective, these creations might just as well suggest the work of a restless and inventive soul, a child who takes everyday playthings and deconstructs their assembly-line whimsy into new, more primal, more imaginative forms. Sid may be a monster to the toys that land in his grubby little clutches, but he can also be seen as a revolutionary, an alchemist not satisfied with the status quo, who seeks to transcend the ordinary and make the world just a little weirder, and just a little more intriguing.

(…Be sure to keep an eye out for my upcoming TED Talk: Sid Phillips: Sadistic Brat or Budding Iconoclast?)

You have to wonder, though, if the creators of Toy Story—director John Lasseter and collaborators that included Joss Whedon, Pete Docter and Andrew Stantondidn’t harbor more than a little empathy for the vicious Sid themselves. After all, they were daring to venture into their own, unexplored territory. The bulk of Pixar’s output up to the point of Toy Story’s release had largely functioned more as proof-of-concepts—a handful of commercials, some abbreviated snippets to demonstrate how an animated lamp could cast shadows on itself, or how a paper price tag could dangle and spin realistically on its string. Their sole forays into full-fledged storytelling—the snow globe-based Knick Knack and the Oscar-winning Toy Story progenitor Tin Toy—were shorts that together clock in at under ten minutes, and by 1995 were over five years in the past. While Lasseter had always insisted that the rules of cartooning and storytelling applied whatever the subject matter, the fact was that Pixar was bringing a new tool to the party, and making up the rules as they went along.

And this is where the moment in Toy Story in which Sid gets his comeuppance comes into play…

The sequence is the first of the film’s many climaxes. As you probably remember, Sid—voiced by Erik von Detten—has taped spaceman toy Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) to a fireworks rocket, with the intent of witnessing the plaything’s glorious, mid-air immolation. Cowboy doll Woody (Tom Hanks), having discovered that Sid’s home-built reconstructions are not so much terrifying as terrified, conspires with his new allies to escape Sid’s bedroom, rescue Buzz from his backyard launchpad, and teach the aspiring mad scientist a stern lesson. Just as Sid is about to light the rocket’s fuse, Woody distracts the boy by first spouting random phrases from his pull-string voice box, then addressing Sid by name while scolding him for his depredations. As the boy is ringed by his mutilated creations, Woody’s blankly grinning head rotates a full, Exorcist-worthy 360 degrees. “We toys can see everything,” the cowboy’s scratchy recording squawks, upon which his face becomes fully mobile, and the tinny, mechanical tone is dropped so Hanks’ full, warm voice can impart a final warning, “So play nice!”

That one beat—from Woody spinning his head before Sid’s horrified gaze to the toy dropping the pretense that he’s just an inanimate plaything—lasts all of five seconds. Yet these may be the five most crucial seconds not just for Toy Story, but for the nascent art of CG storytelling overall.

Understand this: Every medium can tell a story in its own, unique way—be it books, theater, or film. And how a medium tells a story can vary by the tools employed—in film, that would include things like color, sound, even animation. Sergei Eisenstein used dynamic editing to convey the horror of civilians assaulted by a relentless phalanx of soldiers in The Battleship Potemkin; Alfonso Cuarón conveyed the vastness of space and the disorientation of a marooned astronaut through Gravity’s deployment of 3D and the large-scale IMAX format.

The bulk of Toy Story doesn’t veer far from established animation techniques, most specifically stop-motion animation and so-called Claymation. The characters may not bear the visible thumbprints of their animators, but the way sequences are staged and framed wouldn’t feel out of place in something from Wallace and Gromit’s British producer, Aardman. That’s not all that surprising for the early days of CG animation, when it still felt miraculous that creators could orchestrate convincing camera moves and get evocative lighting into a scene. It was, in fact, the medium’s limitations at the time—particularly the difficulties in rendering convincing humans and the constraints in conveying complex textures—that led to Toy Story’s creators choosing playthings, and their restricted perspective, as the protagonists for their first feature.

But limitations—as many a budget-strapped director will tell you—can lead to breakthroughs. In the moment when Woody’s fixed grin and plastic flesh—rendered as much by necessity as style—snaps suddenly, disturbingly to life, CG animation unveiled a prowess only it possessed.

Think about it: Could any other form of filmmaking have conveyed that moment as effectively? Live action would have had to rely on practical effects, losing the impact of the inanimate suddenly springing into action; 2D animation would have lacked the sense of a tactile reality; stop-motion couldn’t have conveyed a smooth mobility. Only CG could make that moment land so perfectly, cementing the sequence as one of Toy Story’s high points.

Toy Story’s creators bore a great weight on their shoulders: To prove that their new medium was more than just a cheaper, faster way to get a cartoon to the screen (though of course, too many studios have subsequently used it exactly that way). A brilliant story, great voice cast, and talented animators carried a lot of that burden, but in five, fleeting seconds, a toy scaring the crap out of his tormentor proved that CG animation possessed abilities that could be achieved through no other form of filmmaking.

The moment when a creepy little kid was confronted for his misdeeds was the moment when a technology transformed from a mere novelty into a legitimate art.

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But maybe that moment wasn’t the one that convinced you of CG animation’s unique properties. Or maybe you know of other sequences in other films that established or transformed a genre? Well, that’s why the Giant Space Wombat that Watches Over Us All made the comments section. The floor’s open for a friendly exchange. (And all you 2001: A Space Odyssey partisans, please try not to talk over each other!!!)

Dan Persons has been knocking about the genre media beat for, oh, a good handful of years, now. He’s presently house critic for the radio show Hour of the Wolf on WBAI 99.5FM in New York, and previously was editor of Cinefantastiqueand Animefantastique, as well as producer of news updates for The Monster Channel. He is also founder of Anime Philadelphia, a program to encourage theatrical screenings of Japanese animation. And you should taste his One Alarm Chili! Wow!

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