By David J. Glenn
The computer-animated feature films of late — “Toy Story,” the just released “Monsters Inc.” — may seem at first blush like whimsical kids’ movies not be taken very seriously as cinematic art.
But these Disney-Pixar productions should be and are taken seriously — not only by critics, but also by computer experts as well as chroniclers of modern culture.
At the American Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria last week, Peter Docter, the 33-year-old director of “Monsters, Inc.” — and part of the team that created both “Toy Story” features — gave high schoolers from Queens, Manhattan, and Scarsdale an inside look at the kind of planning, creative energy, and technology that went into “Monsters.”
“Our film is a giant special effect,” Docter told kids from Robert F. Wagner Institute for the arts and Technology in Long Island City, the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan, and Scarsdale High School in Westchester. He said the movie which depicts a corporation of weird monsters who need the emotional energy of children’s fears to keep going — took five years from conception to final print.
Docter showed how the characters — including the green, one-eyed monster and the purple, furry monster — were meticulously developed from sketches on paper into life-like computer animation. Each frame took animators at least 11 hours to create; the movie screens at 24 frames a second, the filmmaking standard.
The director told the youngsters — many of whom were thinking about careers in filmmaking and animation — that In the making of “Toy Story,” he at one point used himself to demonstrate the movements that Woody the sheriff, Andy’s favorite toy, would use to crawl out from under Andy’s bed. The video of Docter was then a model for animators to make the movements of Woody realistic.
When one student asked Docter what tools a prospective animator should use to demonstrate his or her ability, Docter said, “A pen and paper. When we hire people, we’re not looking for how well they can use a computer. They need to create a character that’s believable, that’s alive. You need to do your own stuff.”
In fact, a little bit of “Monsters” is autobiographical for Docter, he told Qguide. “I did think there were monsters in the closet,” he said. One time in his boyhood he was convinced that the sleeve of a shirt on his bed, in the dark, was a tentacle of a monster; an early scene of “Monsters, Inc. ” depicts this.
The true magic of “Toy Story,” “Monsters, Inc.,” as well as all the legendary Disney animated films from “Snow White” to “Pocohantas,” lies not in the technology, Docter said. “We create a character, who goes on a journey [of self]. He learns, changes, and grows.” Woody does this in “Toy Story” — developing from a self-centered, insecure Favorite Toy to someone understanding the feelings of others — as do the leade characters in “Monsters,” who change their attitude about the children whom they always wanted to frighten.
“We’re telling a story,” Docter said, “just as humans always have.”
Reach Qguide Editor David Glenn by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 139.