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.
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.
|Point-of-view vs blank reaction shot|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.