Pixar’s CG dust bunnies in ‘Toy Story 4’ made the filmmakers sick (in a good way)

Dust, rain, cobwebs, and Bo Peep’s porcelain surface are just some of the film’s incredible feats.

So much has happened at Pixar, and in the CG and VFX industry, since 1995’s Toy Story. That film, the first full-length CG animated feature, changed the game, but Pixar has continually changed the game in each of its outing. Recent developments with in RenderMan’s physically-based path tracing abilities, in particular, have given their films a dramatic new look, something you notice immediately with Toy Story 4 when the movie opens with a stunning rain-soaked rescue sequence.

It turns out, though, that that ability to replicate reality in even closer ways than before have brought a new set of challenges to Pixar’s filmmakers. That’s because they still needed to craft a film that felt like it existed in the Toy Story universe, but obviously took in all of the studio’s numerous CG developments over time.


I was able to ask director Josh Cooley and producers Jonas Rivera and Mark Nielsen about that issue recently at Annecy, where they also dived into making the film in widescreen for the first time for a Toy Story film, and specific scenes at which they marvelled at Pixar artists’ artistry (so much so that some dust bunnies were at first almost too revoltingly real to look at).

b&a: In the past couple of years I’ve covered a lot of Star Wars films, and the filmmakers and VFX team often talk about maintaining the style of Star Wars, but updating it. I feel like Toy Story might be similar to some degree, because you want to make sure people know it’s Toy Story from 1995, but of course Pixar has advanced the art so much in 20 plus years. I’m curious what challenges you might’ve had in keeping things in a ‘Toy Story’ world, but then also taking advantage of all the advances that have been made?

Josh Cooley (director): You are exactly right. It’s interesting to see that Star Wars had the same kind of thing. I can see that now. Our technology has advanced so much, but we do have a visual aesthetic of Toy Story that we were very conscious of to hold onto, regardless of how realistic we can get. Things like realistic textures. Because you think back to the first Toy Story, I always think of the army men when they run across the floor. I remember that shot going, ‘Oh my God, it looks so real.’ Because the texture on the floor was so realistic for the time.

So we always have realistic textures, or we have exaggerated shapes, like Andy’s bed. The feet of the bed are so much more exaggerated than it would normally be because we’re down there with theatrical lighting. And so those three things, regardless of the scene, regardless of what we were doing, we made sure we were always capturing those three things. And I think that is just the look of Toy Story. And so we made sure that always I have that in mind.

From right: Mark Nielsen, Josh Cooley and Jonas Rivera at Annecy. Photo credit: Annecy Festival/K. Pauli.

Jonas Rivera (producer): There’s definitely echoes of Star Wars – we’re friends with Roger Guyett from ILM, who, in The Force Awakens, I think, wrestled with probably similar things where he was like, ‘You have to have it grounded in the visual grammar, what these films are.’ But yet it’s not 1995. So we would do things that went maybe a little too far in and we’d push back. And you’ll see in the movie, the movie opens in a rain rainstorm. And the first Toy Story, it rains when they’re in Sid’s room, but I think we could, in those days, do one shot that had to be hand-done of the rain hitting the window, and a matte painting for the lightning and so forth with clouds. And now we can set toys in a rainstorm interacting with water. You’re just amplifying the story. But you can’t have it look all that different from what the audience expects.

Mark Nielsen (producer): And in that rain scene we had Andy, too. Andy was part of the first one, and they were pushing the limits on technology in ’95 when they made that first one. We needed to bring him up to code. I think people probably would have been angry with us if we had the same Andy that looked like 1995 in our film.

Josh Cooley: Scary.

Jonas Rivera: ‘That’s not my Andy…’

Mark Nielsen: Yeah, so he does look different. If you put them side by side, our new Andy looks much better. But I hope audiences thank us for that because technology can help you.

b&a: Did you feel like you had to pull back a little on the final look at all?

Josh Cooley: For the rainstorm, the first versions of it, it did look almost too real. I remember a review where we made the raindrops much bigger. I think they’re blown up 300% or something like that. Because when it was smaller, first of all, it didn’t feel dangerous. We wanted to make it feel dangerous for these toys and so we just made it more of a violent rainstorm.

Jonas Rivera: When you think about Toy Story and look at the army men, people always say, ‘Oh, it looks real.’ I remember people saying that about Finding Nemo, with Dory. ‘Dory looks real.’ But does she? Because she doesn’t look real at all, but she feels physical, so our medium leans into the physical lights and shadows and things.

Josh Cooley: You have to be careful, too, because it’s real easy to get out of balance between the look of the sets and the look of the characters. The sets are so easy these days to make it look so real that when you’ve got these caricature-designed characters that you don’t want to look real, you don’t want to go to Uncanny Valley. You want them to look like they belong in the same world. And I think that’s a struggle on all of our films as the technology improves. And it’s something we all keep an eye on.

b&a: Although you’re keeping it in the Toy Story world, you do have more tools to play with. What did that let you do this time around?

Josh Cooley: Oh man. Well, look at the antique store, just the dust in the air. It was something that, the antique store, I’ve been to a tonne of them growing up. My parents, big collectors and stuff. And there’s just a smell in the air that just smells old, and not necessarily gross, but just that smell of history and stuff. And so I remember saying, ‘I hope we could smell it when you see it. You just know what that smells like.’ And so with dust, they’ve taken it to a whole new level. I thought the dust in Toy Story 2 was incredible. They went too far with the dust bunnies. They were like, ‘Here, we can do a dust bunny.’ And they showed me one and I almost wanted to throw up, it was just so disgusting.

Jonas Rivera: You could see, like, your nail clippings in it.

Josh Cooley: Yeah, and old Band-Aids and stuff.

b&a: Oh man, someone would have worked on that for weeks!

Josh Cooley: They did. And I’m like, ‘That’s beautiful. It’s a beautiful dust bunny. But it’s just, we need to pull back on it.’ It was just such great work generally in the antiques store. They did dust layers on shots were you’re like, ‘That already looks beautiful,’ and then they turn on the dust layer, and everybody goes, ‘Oh my God!’.

Meet…Forky.

b&a: This is a film that was made in widescreen – in 2.39:1 – the first time a Toy Story film has been seen like that. How did that come about?

Jonas Rivera: Well I remember years ago, we did a a CinemaScope test that would eventually lead to doing A Bug’s Life that way. They rendered one shot of Buzz walking down the hall. I think he sees Sid’s room. And it always stood out to me. It made them feel even smaller. Just, there was something about the aspect ratio and the dust and the particulate in the air, I think to me, has helped make the scale – Toy Story is all about scale. So it’s helped to amplify that.

Josh Cooley: We were talking about just how to make this movie feel different. So, still Toy Story, but we didn’t want to repeat anything that we’ve done before. So we talked about widescreen and I had never seen that test, Jonas, until you mentioned it. You saw more of the world, which was really cool. And so we were talking about how we could – because we’re leaving the kid’s bedroom, we’re going out into the world – that it would be cooler to make it feel bigger. And even in the beginning, the way we tried to frame it was framing for 1.85, for when Woody is in the bedroom. And then when he gets out into the world, letting it open up. And also when he sees Bo again, just letting the world open up.

Mark Nielsen: Cars was 2:39 because we have horizontal characters. Pete Docter wanted Up in 1.85 because it was about an ascent. So there’s usually some narrative reason. Ours was scale. We said, ‘They’re not in Andy’s room anymore. We are out into the world.’

Bo Peep observes the carnival area.

Josh Cooley: It just made it feel like this is some place special we’ve never been before. And I remember in the earlier scene in the classroom, they’re saying, ‘Should we put dust in the air, make the light bounce?’ I was like, ‘No, let’s keep that for just the antique store, so it feels like a very special place.’

Jonas Rivera: We’ve paid special attention to the shallow depth of field, just enough so that, ‘Oh, that’s a small toy,’ with the dust and the light and everything. I think they did a great job with making the scale feel right.

Mark Nielsen: The spider webs helped, as well. The technical group, they built a program to create spider-webs in an organic way, the way that spiders do – they would pick the spots in the antiques store where they wanted these things to grow, and the simulation would run and it would put a web back in there. And again, it just made it feel like our research felt. We’d go to these antique stores and shoot these pictures of what it was like behind the cabinets and in these areas where the toys were going to crawl, outside of human sight. And it just made it feel like what it would be if you’re in the places where the cleaning folks can’t get to.

Josh Cooley: Fire hazards, basically…

Director Josh Cooley reviews a scene at Pixar.

b&a: Did going widescreen impact on production, say storyboarding or rendering, or other ways?

Mark Nielsen: Well, we made the call early, four or five years ago, we really wanted to commit to that decision. And so, the storyboarding was done in that format, in that scale, so that when we were in editorial, from the time we were cutting story reels four or five years ago, we’re always looking at it in 2:39. And when Patrick Lin [director of photography: camera] came on board, he did a lot of research on what you can do with 2:39 and the advantages that we can take of that.

Josh Cooley: Especially knowing we were going to be doing a lot of close-ups on these characters, more than we’ve ever done. I don’t know about that for sure, but I would imagine more than we’ve done more here than in the past on these Toy Story films, because there’s relationships between Bo and Woody, we need to get really, really close to him. I think with Bo, I know we only ever did like a mid-shot. That’s the closest we ever got to her in any of the films before.

Comparing Bo Peep in 1995, and now.

b&a: Actually, just on Bo, the close-ups really show her porcelain features so much more than you had been able to do previously.

Josh Cooley: We did a tonne of reference research on what happened with porcelain, how it reacts to the light. When it ages, if you look really closely, you see that it actually cracks underneath the surface, and so it’s called crazing and we incorporated that to show she’s been out there. We haven’t seen her for nine years, so now she’s older and it’s beautiful the way that porcelain does that. We would break porcelain and film it and see how it would react. But we also use that in part of her character as well. So when she would land a jump, and land, she’s not going to land like Thor, crashing with cement because she’d just shatter. But she’s very smart in the way she uses a crook or any other way to land carefully.

Jonas Rivera: Even in sound design. She’d land and there’d be the ‘clink’.

Josh Cooley: You can hear it when she pets her sheep.

Mark Nielsen: Or when her sheep are running, you can hear it along the ground. Their feet are porcelain.

Josh Cooley: But she was always meant to be porcelain and it’s not until now that we can actually make it look like porcelain.

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