Toy Story

In 1995, Disney/Pixar released the film ‘Toy Story’. It was the first feature-length film consisting entirely of computer-generated – as opposed to hand-drawn – animation. As with many films that become ‘classics’ of their genre (as this one indubitably has), the deceptively simple narrative of what is ostensibly a children’s movie conceals a number of less obvious, and potentially more interesting, agendas. A cursory delve into any search engine will expound a myriad of theories concerning hidden meanings contained within director John Lasseter’s masterpiece – holocaust parallels, illuminati references and Marxist undertones all make an appearance.

However, another feature that can transform an ordinary film – or novel, photograph, work of art etc. – into a paradigm is its flexibility and malleability in terms of its manifold interpretations. Works that, on one hand, make a central theme and one or more sub-plots explicit to the viewer, whilst simultaneously allowing the audience to bring their own meanings and preferences to bear on its existence will undoubtedly be remembered long after more mediocre and less imaginative works have faded into relative obscurity.

An outline synopsis of the film is as follows:

Andy is a young boy who has a favourite among a plethora of toys – Woody, a traditional, pull-string cowboy; dependable, rugged, ‘old-school’ and ‘no-nonsense’. When Andy pulls his string, Woody’s recorded voice recites phrases such as ‘reach for the sky’. Unbeknownst to Andy, or indeed any other human, when the toys are left alone, they come to life and create a narrative all their own. We join the film just before Andy’s birthday, and there is concern, primarily from Woody, that Andy’s primary affections are soon to be transferred to a new, more modern and perhaps more fun toy. On the day of his birthday party, these fears are confirmed by the arrival of Buzz Lightyear, a ‘space ranger’ toy with so-called laser beams, ray-gun sound effects and retractable wings that he truly believes enable him to fly. His catchphrase is ‘To infinity and beyond’! The story then centres on Woody and Buzz’s struggle for dominance and to be first in Andy’s hierarchy of playthings.

Prior to the making of Toy Story, Lasseter struggled to persuade Disney to back a fully computer-generated feature film, and there exists a theory that this battle between the two central characters in some way reflects this – that Woody and Buzz act as metaphors for these two technologies and that their eventual compromise represents the truce that Pixar studios and Disney struck, leading to the film being made. I feel that it can be argued that this suggestion is a little more complicated and important than this. I assert that the central thrust of the film is a comment on the technology that begat it, a warning waymarker to the future of this technology and a nostalgic nod to the technology it replaces. It is my belief that Woody represents analogue image-making technology (photography, film-making etc.) and that Buzz is an avatar for digital image making technology. It is perhaps no co-incidence that Woody is a cowboy – an American icon whose legend dates back to the early-mid nineteenth century (as does the invention of photography).

Woody’s previously stated characteristics (dependable, rugged, old-school, no-nonsense) could equally be applied to pre-digital photographic equipment. Even his favourite catchphrase (‘Reach for the sky’) is realistic, pragmatic, predictable, achievable. In contrast, Buzz is arrogant, self-deluded, and elitist – not only does he believe himself to have an ability that none of the other toys possess (that of flight) but also he has no awareness that he is, in fact, a toy; he begins the film truly believing himself to be a ‘space ranger’ (and his card and plastic packaging to be his ship). This pretence and delusion is, I feel, directly analogous to the belief and faith being shown in digital technology at the time (and indeed now). Even his catchphrase (‘to infinity and beyond’), whilst sounding speciously impressive, does not bear scrutiny – if it were indeed possible to travel to ‘infinity’ (which by definition it is not), then surely to go ‘beyond’ it is even more preposterous.

Having first picked up a camera at the age of 8 or so in the late seventies, the overwhelming majority of my photography has involved the use of film, and continues to do so. Initially, photography to me was simply something that I had an interest in partly because my father had and partly because it provided a small boy with the chance to not only observe and make sense of the world (as it does this slightly larger boy today), but also the opportunity to collate a wide array of kit with which to observe it (another trait hardly allayed by the passing of time). As I grew older, a camera of one type or another was never far from my side, for documenting my life, the people and the places it contained. A way of framing the chaos.

Some time in 2001, having spent some time with a 35mm compact camera and my interest in photography as a means of expression in its own right (as opposed to a means of documentation), I spotted a Contax SLR gathering dust at a friend’s house. My last experience of an SLR had been that of my father’s Canon A1 and a variety of concomitant lenses in a faux leather bag that I used to ogle and covet when I was a teenager and which was subsequently whisked away by my brother soon after my father’s untimely death. I asked my friend if he would mind me borrowing his Contax – when he agreed, I think I became a photographer. I had always wanted an SLR, and having one in my hands made me feel as if I had somehow graduated in an unofficial degree of photographic competence.

Naturally, this called for the purchase of a good amount of literature – second-hand books and new copies of Amateur Photographer (I somehow felt that purchasing ‘Professional Photography’, or ‘The British Journal of Photography’ was a kind of fraud and pretension at the time. I needed a tripod before I could buy these), and in these fortnightly periodicals there was, at the time, an almighty battle raging – ‘FILM OR DIGITAL – WHICH IS BEST?!’ The latter technology was, for the consumer market at least, in its infancy and therefore in terms of quality of output, convenience and cost, this was still a valid question, and I felt myself stuck in a kind of no-mans-land between the technological trenches – I loved the dependability, the ruggedness and the realism of my film equipment – I loved the nostalgia, the memory of my father (another of the Toy Story theories is that Woody was the last toy given to Andy by his father before he either died or left the family home) – hell, film was, in no small part, a central pillar of my childhood and visual education. But a digital camera….! All those flashing lights, And sound effects. And – bloody hell, a digital camera can – as near as damn it is to swearing – fly, can’t it?

The ‘film or digital’ question seems, only 15 years or so later, as quaint now as a Victorian watercolour. In terms of convenience, cost, flexibility, ease of use, democracy of purpose, environmental concerns and (arguably, in some contexts) quality, digital image making has all but obscured its traditional counterpart. But this is missing a crucial and key point. Veracity. Reliability. Faithfulness. Truth. Integrity. Not qualities often used in the same sentence as the word ‘cowboy’ but traits that are generally accepted to be positive and not ones that can easily be ascribed to digital image making.

The end of Toy Story sees Woody and Buzz, after many misunderstandings, mishaps and misadventures becoming firm friends (The closing song by Randy Newman is ‘You’ve Got a Friend in Me’) and looking for all the world like the happy-ever-after couple and with Andy embracing them both as his equal favourite toys. It is perhaps too early for a similar rapprochement between photography and digital image making to be possible or even desirable, but it is creatively essential that the qualities – the uses and limitations – of each technology is understood and utilised to their best respective advantages. It is my intention, over the course of the next two years studying for my MA in visual communication, to investigate and exploit the best qualities of each technology and how each can be utilised to their best advantage.

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