Pixar's "Toy Story" debuted in 1995. The animated tale featured Woody the cowboy, Buzz Lightyear the space ranger and groundbreaking computer animation that made for a realistic visual spectacle.
“‘Toy Story' was the perfect movie for computer animation because back then, animation had a natural plastic look to it, and that is the way toys look in real life," animator Kelly Loosli said.
Fast forward 15 years to 2010, when "Toy Story 3" hit theaters, and things had changed.
"In the first 'Toy Story,' the humans had an unrealistic, plastic look to them along with the toys," said Loosli, who has worked in the animation industry for the past 20 years, including time at DreamWorks Feature Animation. "But in 'Toy Story 3,' the humans look more like actual humans and not like the toys. This is all due to the technological advancements that have been created in the animation world."
According to Loosli, now co-creator of the animation program at BYU, there's a lot more possible today than there was just 10 years ago. With the latest animated release, "The Croods," set to open March 22, Loosli shared examples of how animated films have evolved with technology over the past several years.
Because animation has become more sophisticated, the product has become more sophisticated, as well. Loosli said directors are not so limited and are able "to take us to places we have never been."
"This development has really freed up filmmaking," Loosli said. "Animation movies are a lot more like live action films nowadays. Cameras can move around and there can be more characters in one scene that all have detail unlike they used to in the past. Movies used to have to be made as simple as possible because it was just so hard to do a lot of things. But today, those limits are gone and allow for directors to create spectacular movie scenes.
"A good story is a good story, but it's all about using today's advances to make a good story great. If 'Brave' was made 10 years ago, it wouldn't have been possible to give (Merida) the lovely flowing hair, one of the most notable features in the movie. Also the detailed skin textures, the realistic movements of the characters, the sophistication in the clothing and use of different clothing fabrics would have not been possible 10 years ago. All these detailed elements make for a strong storyline."
The movie "Rio" is a good example of the type of diversity that has characterized animated features in recent years.
"It is interesting to see the detailed feathers on the birds and the way they move, but I believe what made the film fun was how we are introduced to a new culture, one we don't see or know much about compared to others," Loosli said. "Many of today's animation films have been able to show us inside new cultures, such as 'How to Train Your Dragon' and 'Brave.’ ”
Disney's "Wreck-It Ralph," which debuted November 2012, was innovative in that it featured "multiple design languages," Loosli explained.
"Not only is the movie reminiscent to a lot of video games adults used to play, the video games included are true to the actual games in real life. The characters in the (Fix-It Felix) game have an 8-bit gaming look to them, and continue to have a popping-type movement to them once we are taken inside the actual game," Loosli said. "We haven’t seen a film like this before because most animation films create one design language and try to stay inside that one design language. But that film has multiple design languages from the use of multiple video games, making it really interesting."
"The Croods" will take viewers way back to historic times, when a family whose cave is destroyed sets out to discover a new world.
"DreamWorks thought it would be entertaining to take modern stereotypes and put them back in history during the caveman times," Loosli said. "It's got a lot of relatable elements for today's families to connect with. Animation in 'The Croods' takes us to a new location we wouldn't have been able to see otherwise."
3-D technology has come a long way as well and is a popular option for animated features. ("The Croods" is available in 3-D.)
"When 'Finding Nemo' was made, 3-D software was nowhere as sophisticated as it is today," Loosli said. "What you see with 3-D is a level of detail in movies you didn't see previously in other movies.
"When we first started making movies in 3-D, what we created was limited on what we thought computers could do. But now there are more options available, allowing 3-D to be more compelling."
Loosli pointed to other examples of how technology has improved the process over the years.
"A lot of dynamics were used in the movie 'Cars.' Animators would animate the car and then add computer-controlled data to it. So the way we see the cars bouncing on the road because of its weight, the animator didn't have to animate that. All the animator had to do was move the car from point A to point B and computer software would calculate the way that car is going to react on different surfaces."
It's also becoming a more global process. According to Loosli, Illumination Entertainment's "Despicable Me" was written in Los Angeles, animated in France and distributed by Universal Studios.
"Usually, animation movies are produced in a huge studio," Loosli said. "This process allowed the film to be made so inexpensively compared to if it was produced in one large studio."
Kylie Lewis is an intern for the Deseret News, where she writes for Mormon Times and does other feature articles. She recently graduated from Brigham Young University-Idaho, receiving a bachelor's degree in communications.