Pixar's Roger Gould and Walt Disney Imagineering's Sue Bryan unveil Toy Story Mania!
When Pixar co-founder and Disney creative chief John Lasseter was growing up in Southern California, one of his early jobs was on the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland. Decades later, the medium of 3D computer animation that Lasseter pioneered by directing the 1995 movie Toy Story has evolved into a "4D" ride experience called Toy Story Mania! Opening at both Disney's Hollywood Studios (at Florida's Disney World) and at California Adventure in Disneyland, the new ride represents yet another platform for the film franchise's animated characters, including Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Mr. Potato Head and Little Bo Peep.
In this attraction, the characters host an array of game booths in a "carnival midway," inviting guests to play virtual versions of classic games like ring toss and darts. Visitors spin through the midway in vehicles that take them from booth to booth, and they use spring-loaded shooters to launch virtual projectiles that interact with animated game play on screen. Because visitors wear 3D glasses that let them view the animation stereoscopically, these familiar characters appear more dimensional than ever before. Bursts of wind and water spray triggered by the game play complete the experience that Disney calls 4D.
It's the first time that the Toy Story characters have been presented in 3D stereo, according to Roger Gould, Pixar Animation Studios' Creative Director for Theme Parks. "The great thing about these characters is that they were built in three dimensions, so bringing them into stereo made them look phenomenal. When John Lasseter started seeing them, he flipped out. But there were a lot of things to tweak. At Pixar we pay a lot of attention to the eyes of our characters. People instantly look at the eyes. It's where we expect to see expression and life. The focus of where a character is looking lets you know what they're thinking about. Stereo has some strange properties about the way you track eye lines, and of course we wanted our guests to sense that these characters were looking directly at them. So we spent a lot of time running across our theater with our stereo glasses on, looking at our test animation and asking 'Did it feel like they're looking at you?'"
From the minute guests arrive at Toy Story Mania!, the focus is on interacting with the characters. Walt Disney Imagineering developed a five-foot-tall audio-animatronic version of Mr. Potato Head to be the carnival barker that welcomes visitors to the midway. "Mr. Potato Head is the size of an adult human," notes Gould. "So everything around you tells you you're toy sized." Inside, the attraction looks like a recreation of the bedroom in Toy Story, where the toys owned by the boy Andy come alive when nobody is watching. Gould adds, "When you're in Andy's room everything is giant scale. It's that simple -- the toys are big, so you are therefore small. That was our conceit. There is no announcement of 'Let the shrink-down procedure begin… '"
Once people board the ride vehicles, things move quickly. The vehicles spin to face the game booths, and just as at traditional carnival midways, people are aware of the action happening around them at different booths. They aim the onboard shooters at various 3D animated targets and compete with other riders. They can see whether the virtual projectiles they've launched have hit the target -- or not. When a virtual projectile leaves the shooter, a player gets a sense of it moving through 3D space. The wind and special effects technology add to the sense that things are whirring past.
Sue Bryan, Walt Disney Imagineering's senior show producer/director, explains the origin of the engine used in Toy Story Mania! "It was developed by Disney originally and has the seeds of some of the 'Disney Quest' attractions like the Aladdin ride." (The company began experimenting with Disney Quest attractions a decade ago in an effort to develop "indoor interactive parks.") The technology, notes Bryan, "really became a production tool when they started to use it for the Toon Town online massively multiplayer environment. We took that basic structure and added the functionality to have the carnival game play and the character animation possibilities."
Toy Story Mania! features five carnival games, plus an introductory "Pie Throw Practice" where visitors try to splatter targets with virtual pies. Gould explains, "When you play the practice game, you see the characters standing there holding targets. You can end up spattering the characters as well, so we wanted the characters to be truly interactive. It's Woody and Buzz and Jessie the cowgirl and Rex the dinosaur. That's where we crossed boundaries between simply rebuilding animation and having animation that was 'live' in the game. It was not enough to build animation as we would for a film. We had to create an enormous library of animation for many different target positions and for all the transitions between those -- as well as for the characters' reactions to getting hit with pies. You're playing about 12 seconds, but for every character we produced several minutes of animation that are used within the game engine to make it a completely interactive experience."
Visitors next encounter Hamm the pig hosting a "Hamm & Eggs" booth in which players launch virtual eggs at barnyard targets. Then they move on to "Bo Peep's Baaa-loon Pop," and take aim at a landscape of balloon sheep. A popped virtual water balloon can trigger a water effect, notes Bryan. "We wanted to have physical manifestations of the game play. You feel effects going by you. The vehicle moves quickly around corners and it has turrets that are spinning at the same time. It is definitely not your mother's 'Small World' boat."
Further down the carnival midway, guests try to break plates with virtual baseballs at a "Green Army Men Shoot Camp," and then it's on to "Buzz Lightyear's Flying Tossers," where the Little Green Aliens (of Pizza Planet fame) are the targets in a ring-toss game. "We thought it would be fun if we 'ringed' the characters," says Gould. "In the movie they loved 'the claw' and now they love 'the ring.' We didn't want visitors throwing things like darts at a character and hurting them. But a ring toss is a little more benign."
In the final game, the vehicles take players the through Wild West scenes of "Woody's Rootin' Tootin' Shootin' Gallery." There they launch virtual suction-cup darts at targets. Then "Woody's Bonus Roundup" prompts guests to fire their spring-action shooters as rapidly as possible to get extra points. Final scores are tallied onscreen.
Gould notes that this last game continues the aesthetic from the "Woody's Round-Up" TV show that was featured in the Toy Story films. "It's got Woody and Jessie and Prospector. It's as if Prospector got a reprieve from the governor because at the end of Toy Story 2 he was banished. He went off in a backpack to live his hideous no-longer-mint-in-the-box life. But we wanted to have the friendly Prospector as part of the Round-Up gang, so we brought him back."
The idea of having these characters host carnival games actually began with Imagineering artists Kevin Rafferty and Robert Coltrin. Bryan recalls, "They were very interested in the Pirates of the Caribbean game from Disney Quest, where guests could interact in a really intuitive way. So we started from the beginning believing that was a platform that could help us a lot. We played lots of carnival games and paid attention to what the dynamics were, and we noticed that it's a very physical thing. You're throwing baseballs and hitting milk bottles and popping balloons -- it's very much about the physics of the interactions with objects.
"That was one of the things we focused on early on, to try and make the games as realistic as possible. We wanted to base them on carnival game paradigms that would feel familiar and be really intuitive to pick up. We didn't want it to feel like a video game. We wanted it to feel like it's really the Toy Story play set brought to life. When you pull the string on your spring-action shooter, the projectiles go into that virtual world. Everything interacts, as if that projectile had all of the physical properties like mass and acceleration. Hopefully, the transition from real world to virtual world feels seamless."
"As we started getting into it," adds Gould, "we thought about the two basic rules in the Toy Story movie. One is that, when people aren't around, the toys come to life and we see the world from their point of view. The other is that, when humans are around, they flop over and pretend to be lifeless. So we thought, 'What if we shrink the guests down to toy size and treat them as honorary toys?' The conceptual framework is that we get to be part of the toy gang.
"We spent a lot of time asking 'How big are the toys?' Should Woody be five feet or eight feet tall? We made scale tests to see which ones felt right. There was no technically correct answer. The way that the Theme Park Group at Pixar works is that we have a small core staff, but it's not really an animation production staff. As projects arise that need original animation, we just work with the entire talent pool here. People who typically work on features are cast to work on theme park projects. Bob Russ -- who worked on Ratatouille -- came on as our animation supervisor and we had a team of eight or nine experienced Pixar animators. It was analogous to working on a short film, and the feature animators really enjoyed it. It was a break from the norm. The animation portion of this attraction took less than a year, which -- relative to features -- was quick."
The next phase required Bryan's team to figure out how each of the games would actually work. "In the Pirates game at Disney Quest, the cannonballs had a trajectory," she explains. "We rendered the projectiles with many frames as it went into that virtual world. Different projectiles have different arcs. Some go much faster and have a much flatter trajectory; some of them have a little more loft. As you watch your projectiles go into the Toy Story Mania! world, you just keep shooting steadily. Then you can move the spring-action shooter when you see where the projectiles hit. You use that to help you aim."
"The concept is the same as Pirates in the sense that there's a physical interface in front of you and stereo 3D that's drawing the depth of the world. That world is being rendered in real time on a computer. But because Disney Quest was so many years ago, the implementation of the technology had changed significantly. It's much more powerful now. We have higher resolution and faster frame rates so everything looks much better. The spring-action shooter itself is based on the same hardware idea but it all needed to be developed anew, particularly because we went from being on a static platform to one where all of this needed to happen on a moving ride vehicle. All of the game interaction is very aware of where the vehicle is. It's not just a question of where your shooter is relative to this world, but where your vehicle is. As you drive into the 'booth,' you see the Toy Story characters there welcoming you, giving you hints and talking to you as you play. Everything is based on where the vehicle is in space."
The Stereoscopic Challenges
Maintaining the stereoscopic illusion for viewers riding in moving vehicles is hardly a trivial challenge. Gould observes, "Stereo really is different than animating for a flat, one-eye screen. At Pixar we didn't have a ride vehicle or a motion system where we could sit and be moving. So we had the image that the guests were going to see, and then we had 'ghosts' -- basically little pale outlines of the ride vehicles moving across the screen at the actual speed that we knew they would move one day.
"We spent a lot of time in our theater literally with tape measures to make sure that we were projecting the image exactly at life size. That's not an issue when we're making things to be projected on movie theater screens, but an attraction is a physical space with a precise size. So as the 'ghost' image of the ride vehicle moved across the screen, we'd literally run across the theater trying to pace that. We'd wear our 3D glasses so that we could simulate what it was going to be like for the guest."
It seems ironic that tape measures played a role in the production of Toy Story Mania! since John Lasseter had used a ruler to model the desk lamps that starred in his famous short Luxo, Jr. Gould admits with a laugh, "The tape measure is still a critical tool here at Pixar!"
"That was our very high-tech debugging, but we were able to get pretty far that way," he continues. "We came up with a series of rules that were very, very different rules than we use when we're making our films. It wasn't until we actually got to experience the ride vehicle that we could see how close we were. When we're making a movie, as soon as we take a shot all the way through our pipeline -- staging, animating, lighting and compositing -- it is exactly the same as it will be when the whole movie is done. A ride is more like putting on a theatrical show. You create all these elements, but they only come together at the end."
Updating the classic Toy Story characters for a stereoscopic presentation was actually fun, according to Gould. "For that first movie we were just making it up as we went along, so when we went to remake Buzz and Woody, we discovered that Buzz's face is asymmetrical. Asymmetry is important in a character's face, but we model them symmetrically and then we put in the asymmetry through controls. We were surprised, so we talked to Eben Ostby and Bill Reeves, who built them, and asked what happened.
"They had been digitized from clay sculpts, but clay sculpts are never symmetrical. So the Buzz from Toy Story 2 has this inherently asymmetrical face. We got into these almost religious debates about 'Do we match the old asymmetry? Or do we use our current approach -- which is to build them symmetrically and then tweak them to get the asymmetry.' We all agreed that we would build them symmetrically. Then it was: 'OK, do you favor the left brow or the right brow?' We spent serious quality time arguing about the squareness of Woody's ear. We wanted them to be precisely who they're expected to be.
"Yet, once they were built, what was so cool is that we were able to put in a modern rig. We've learned so much about animating humanoid characters, particularly through The Incredibles and Ratatouille. The first thing we did was to pull up the old characters to see how bad they were. Then we put in these rigs we had from Ratatouille, called 'calisthenics,' which is basically the rig going through different motions. When we put the Ratatouille calisthenics on Woody, it was kinda creepy because suddenly he had shoulders! But he's a rag doll with sewn seams, and he shouldn't have shoulders. So we said 'Never, ever use those controls on Woody!' For the animators who worked on the movie and then on Toy Story Mania! it was like revisiting old friends. For those who'd never worked with animating Woody or Buzz, it was like animating celebrities!"
Mining Pixar's "Digital Backlot"
Throughout the evolution of 3D computer animation, much has been made about the possibilities of having a digital backlot, where existing characters can be updated as needed. Gould has firsthand experience with what that means in real-world terms. "As the creative director of Pixar's Theme Parks Group, I'm always dealing with our past films. So I spend a lot of time in that digital backlot. I call it the digital tar pit! Our movies are like complex machinery, since we build all the tools and characters. Imagine taking a really complex piece of machinery, like a tractor or a Maserati, and plopping it on top of a tar pit. If the next day you decided 'Oh, I need to drive that,' you could pull it out and wipe the tar off the wheels. But if you left it there for a year and then tried to pull it out, you'd find it sunk deep into the muck. You'd not only have to yank it out, but you'd find that there are parts that are just gone. Now consider that Toy Story 2 came out in 1999!"
Luckily, says Gould, they were aided by the coincidence that Toy Story 3 was beginning preproduction. "We knew that the characters would be rebuilt for that, but of course they wanted to rebuild Buzz and Woody last. But they were fantastic, and rebuilt Buzz and Woody for us, so the characters you see in Toy Story Mania! are freshly minted versions."
Pixar's experience with creating stereoscopic Toy Story characters will benefit Disney's future theatrical releases as well as the current theme park attraction. "When Toy Story 3 is released in 2010 it will have a simultaneous stereo release," explains Gould. "We're also re-releasing Toy Story as a stereo film in the fall of 2009 and Toy Story 2 in early 2010. No one who worked on Toy Story in their wildest dreams ever thought we would ever re-render -- they are truly the archeologists of the company now!"
While Pixar was grappling with CG character issues, Sue Bryan's team was busy engineering the physical space. "We started out early on with mockups made of PVC pipes and duct tape at our facility in Glendale. We started making a prototype within weeks of when we knew we were going to be working on this, and brought in a company to build the software so we could start developing and testing the games." (Disney declines to identify suppliers by name.)
"We had a wood version of our vehicle on wheels that we thought we were going to be pushing to try and simulate the motion, although that turned out to be quite hard," admits Bryan. "As time went on, we started layering more and more computers for all the different systems. The mockup grew for over two years and it got closer and closer to the real technology. Every time we identified what was going to be a production technology, we would swap that into the mockup and test it."
Back at Pixar, says Gould, "as soon as we had a mockup of the games, we had to mock up how the characters would host the game. First there were drawings and then we started using stand-ins for the 3D characters, to get a sense of how things would work in terms of timing. Your vehicle moves into the game booth and the characters welcome you and then they bow out off-screen and then they come back at the end of the game. We were very concerned about eyelines because the vehicles are moving. Where would you be? Which characters would you see? So we built a 3D CG simulation of the entire physical space. We actually put the game inside that virtual version of the entire ride so that we could 'ride' it from different seats. Because every ride vehicle has a different profile for how it moves and spins."
"It helped a lot with our sightlines to put a virtual camera on it," says Bryan."Imagine that the building housing the attraction is a box, and we took the lid off of it and looked inside. We then took the virtual camera and put it on the vehicle so we could see what that space looked like from a guest's point of view. It's a very open space. You can see one game from another game. As you drive around you can see four or five games at once. We needed to understand what that was going to be like. With all the different games and screens there, it's a space that we've never built before."
When Roger Gould actually got to experience Toy Story Mania!, he says, "the biggest surprise was what it felt like. One of the questions was, would it feel attractive or unattractive that you could see all the games at the same time? We told ourselves that at a carnival you can see other people playing other games. But you can only hope that will be fun. When we finally could ride it, it WAS fun."
Disney's Imagineering team, says Bryan, "learned a lot in terms of the seeming simplicity of the idea and the incredible numbers of layers of technology. We've developed a platform that we'll be able to use in other places."
Finally, when the public got to experience Toy Story Mania!, did they get the conceit that if the toys are big, the people are therefore small? Gould admits, "You hope that's what people will get, but you don't know until they experience it. When guests went through the attraction in Florida, the greatest quote came from a little girl. As she came off the ride, she said: 'We were the size of toys!'" Gould recalls feeling relieved. "OK, thank you very much. Cut, print. We're done!"
Ellen Wolff is a Southern California-based writer whose articles have appeared in other publications, including Daily Variety, Millimeter, Animation Magazine, Video Systems and the website CreativePlanet.com. Her areas of special interest are computer animation and digital visual effects.
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