Friday, November 6, 2015

Moving point-of-view shots in TOY STORY

In celebration of the 20th anniversary of the TOY STORY premiere (Nov 19, 1995) I have put together my very first video essay. A lot has been written about how the success of this first fully computer animated feature film was based on the great storytelling and how plastic toys were an ideal subject for computer animation. But the Pixarians also played to the strengths of computer animation in the way they organically incorporated three-dimensional compositions and camera movements hardly possible in hand drawn animation. Thus, in my essay I focus on the crucial functions of the moving point-of-view shot in TOY STORY. Here, the narrative perspective is more restricted than in all of Pixar's subsequent films. 

Since the video essay was done for the Swiss magazine filmbulletin, the commentary is in German only. Therefore, I provide you with an English translation of my running commentary and the German intertitles. filmbulletin is not an animation specific publication so there might be some explanations in the video that are second nature to anyone working in animation.

Please find the video essay here.


In computer animation, the virtual camera is theoretically able to move completely freely. TOY STORY is consistently told through the eyes of toys. In order to communicate this perspective, the filmmakers resort to a popular storytelling device of adventure and horror films that is especially suited for computer animation: the moving point-of-view (POV) shot.

I. An unusual perspective
Many Pixar films show us a well-known setting from an unusual perspective. In TIN TOY for instance, we see a playing baby through the eyes of maltreated toys. In order to visualize this narrative perspective the camera is lowered to the tin toy's eye level. From this angle the baby becomes a monster.

The toys' strong facial expressions suggest that these toys are consciously acting beings.

Compare them with the mechanical doll in CHILD'S PLAY: Here, the mechanical expressions do not hint at any real consciousness. However, the film tells us that Chucky is indeed a living being in a different way: the camera lets us see through his eyes and shows us his subjective view in a so-called point-of-view (=POV) shot, which I will henceforth mark with a yellow frame.

Likewise in TOY STORY the toys do not seem to have a life of their own as long as humans are present. However in the opening scene John Lasseter shows us by means of interspersed POV shots that the cowboy Woody is perceptive and therefore has a consciousness of his own even though his eyes look lifeless from outside.

Without these POV shots the exterior action would still be completely comprehensible. WITH the POV shots the audience gets the additional information that Woody is perceiving these actions consciously.
        Point-of-view     vs     blank reaction shot
Yet, the POV shots do not reveal any of Woody's emotions. Characters are emotionally charged not by POV but by reaction shots of the viewing character's face. In the company of humans Woody's face remains blank, though. Therefore, his reaction to gazing at the birthday garland is only revealed after Andy has left the bedroom.

From then on, we do not need any POV shots any more to be reminded that the toys are alive.

II. Visual rollercoaster
In adventure films moving POV shots are often used to convey a physical experience to the audience. For technical reasons, such forward movement (trucking in) is very rare in hand drawn animation.

Visual depth can be suggested in horizontal und vertical movement by moving several painted (multiplane) layers in relative speed to one another. If the camera is trucking in through these layers, the two-dimensionality of the painted objects becomes visible because they lack perspective distortion. Real trucking POV shots are mostly so short that this is not showing.

If the truck-in-movement is the focus of a shot, the background has to be redrawn for every single frame (24 times per second) in hand drawn animation. In western commercial animation, such a painstaking technique is hardly used for anything else than cartoon settings without too many details.
Since this kind of POV shot is often conveying the experience of a rollercoaster I like to call it the "rollercoaster perspective".

In computer animation the virtual camera is indeed able to move freely within the three-dimensional space. Ever since the late 1980s computer animated POV shots are integrated into hand drawn features as well.
In the completely computer animated TOY STORY the rollercoaster perspective shows us the psychologically distorted perception of Buzz Lightyear.
Buzz does not know that he is a toy. He believes he can really fly. From Buzz's first person perspective it may look like he is flying. In reality, the alleged "flight" is the result of gravity and coincidence.
Buzz also believes that his toy weapons are really working. We see them like in a first-person-shooter (complete with gun in the middle perspective of vintage arcade games). When Buzz realizes he cannot fly after all, we get two POV shots again.

After Buzz has accepted his existence as a toy we learn from Woody's perspective that flying is not a question of capability but of perception.

III. Creating suspense
Since we cannot control the characters' subjective perspective in films the restricted field of vision is creating tension because danger in films is mostly lurking off screen. This can come as a surprise (Woody: "hello?"). It is much more suspenseful when we expect a potential threat.

In SILENCE OF THE LAMBS we know that the heroine is in the house of serial killer. By alternating POV and reaction shots of Jody Foster's face the filmmakers let us read her emotional state.
In TOY STORY Buzz and Woody know that the neighbor Sid is fond of destroying toys. Like the audience, Buzz and Woody cannot control their restricted view because they are trapped in Sid's bag while entering his home.

Only later on the run they are controlling their own perspective again. In addition to Sid, this house (which alludes to the hotel in THE SHINING) holds many more threats.
One of them is a pit bull called Scud. Since Scud is able to see the secret life of toys we can assume his POV as well. However, knowing his emotions and seeing through his eyes does not automatically lead to emotional identification with the gruesome dog (although we may be fascinated by his villainous behavior). Our emotional commitment to a character is much more dependent on his behavior towards other characters. Thus, Scud remains a threat even though we see share his perspective.
POV dog
IV. Insight into the toy world
The moving POV shot is fulfilling three basic functions in TOY STORY:
1. we see that supposedly lifeless toys are conscious beings.
2. it conveys physical experience from the perspective of toys.
3. the restricted field of vision is creating suspense.

Since TOY STORY is consistently told through the perspective of toys (and animals), we share their visual POV exclusively - for the most part that is. Towards the end, however, we surprisingly see through the eyes of Sid (unlike the many overshoulder shots we get before).

Although the restricted narrative perspective only allows for scenes in which toys are present we can - as we have seen with the dog before - share the visual perspective of all those characters who can see the secret life of the toys. After all, the toys reveal their parallel reality to Sid for a short moment (technically, this still does not explain the first Sid POV, but better break a rule than minimize impact).
Andy's baby sister Molly catches a glimpse of the living toys as well. However, she will not be able to tell someone and no one will believe Sid, anyway. That way, Andy will never find out that his toys are really alive.

Note: In subsequent Pixar films, point-of-view shots assume may different, sometimes really original functions like a "second person flash forward" in FINDING NEMO or a view through the mindless eyes of Emperor Zurg in TOY STORY 2.