Pixar Used Moore's Law to Know When It Could Make Toy Story

By Wesley Fenlon

Pixar's founders wanted to make CG movies for decades, but they had to wait, and watch, as computers caught up to their vision.

What would Toy Story have looked like if it was made in 1980? A vision of Buzz and Woody generated in 1980s-caliber 3D graphics may come to mind as you read Pixar co-founder Alvy Ray Smith's new Wired column How Pixar Used Moore's Law to Predict the Future. Smith writes about how human progress is tied to the concept of Moore's Law, and how Pixar's founders knew they wanted to make computer-generated movies as far back at the 1970s. The technology simply wasn't ready, at the time. So they waited.

"As early as the late 1970s, one of our colleagues Lance Williams proposed a computer-animated story starring a robot named ipso facto," he writes. "But Ed [Catmull, now president of Walt Disney Animation Studios] and I whipped out the proverbial envelope and did some calculations: given the computation rates of the time, we figured it would take billions of dollars and years of time to make the movie." Billions of dollars.

Pixar won a Best Animated Short Oscar for the computer-animated Tin Toy in 1988.

Smith writes that they weren't able to extrapolate how long it would take to make their movies, despite knowing Moore's Law would see transistor density double every 18 months. They didn't know enough about about making movies or about the technology they'd need--only that it wouldn't exist for a long time.

They tried again in the 1980s, but again, computers weren't ready for what Pixar had in mind.

"When the group moved to California to become part of Lucasfilm, we got close to making a computer-animated movie again in the mid-1980s — this time about a monkey with godlike powers but a missing prefrontal cortex. We had a sponsor, a story treatment, and a marketing survey. We were prepared to make a screen test: Our hot young animator John Lasseter had sketched numerous studies of the hero monkey and had the sponsor salivating over a glass-dragon protagonist.

But when it came time to harden the deal and run the numbers for the contracts, I discovered to my dismay that computers were still too slow: The projected production cost was too high and the computation time way too long. We had to back out of the deal. This time, we did know enough detail to correctly apply Moore’s Law — and it told us that we had to wait another five years to start making the first movie."

That movie would eventually become Toy Story, and the rest is successful Pixar history. Smith's post goes on to talk about the philosophy behind Moore's Law; he argues that it's a limitation of imagination, rather than a physical barrier, that stands between inventors and each new generation of technology.