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How one U of T alum changed the face of animation

In conversation with William Reeves: past at U of T, Toy Story 4, and entering animation
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Oscar-winning animator of Toy Story 4 advises computer science students to get a diverse education and good “breadth of life.”JD HANCOCK/CC FLICKR
Oscar-winning animator of Toy Story 4 advises computer science students to get a diverse education and good “breadth of life.”JD HANCOCK/CC FLICKR

William Reeves is the very definition of success.

Since earning his PhD from U of T 40 years ago, Reeves has gone on to work with Lucasfilm and Pixar Animation Studios, where he is now a supervising technical director. He has worked on numerous award-winning movies, including Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, A Bug’s Life, Up, and Toy Story 4, and won the 1989 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film for his work on the short “Tin Toy.”

As a U of T alum, Reeves has a career that many students dream of, which begs the question: how does a U of T student go about becoming one of the top members of their field?

In an interview with The Varsity, Reeves spoke about his time at U of T, his career, and the work he’s been doing at Pixar.

Graduate studies at U of T

Reeves graduated with his PhD at U of T in 1980. He partially credits the Dynamic Graphics Project (DGP) lab associated with the Department of Computer Science for his education in the preceding year.

The lab is an interdisciplinary group consisting of faculty, graduate students, undergraduate research assistants, and more, with the goal of conducting research within the fields of computer graphics and human computer interaction, among others. The group dates back to 1967, and Reeves reminisced of being thrown into “a room where there were some eight — you know, at this point — ancient computers, and some very early computer graphics terminals and workstations.”

One of the key takeaways that Reeves learned from the DGP was how to be part of a team. “[The professors] said, ‘Each of you has your own little project, but they all interconnect,’ or ‘make them all interconnect,’ or ‘we encourage you to make them all interconnected.’”

Reeves remarked that, with this idea in mind, he and his fellow graduate students “learned from each other, experimented, tried different things, spent long nights hacking away at this and that and the other thing, working on projects that we shouldn’t have been working on because [they were] fun.”

However, as much as the group taught him to be part of a team, it also taught him about working independently.

The professors fostered an environment that allowed the students to branch off and complete their own work — with guidance, but only that which was needed. “Rather than having someone spoon-feed you, it’s like, ‘This is what we expect… but you’ve got to figure some stuff out yourself,” Reeves remarked.

“As an undergraduate, you don’t really learn that.”

Reeves also attributes his interest in animation back to his time at DGP. He recalled a line-drawing animation assistant that a peer was working on, and reflected fondly on a project he worked on around the same time, dealing with queuing theory — how people line up, board trains, and the like — and animating simulations to more clearly demonstrate their ideas.   

He also recognized that he was really lucky, as he graduated in a time when this was still a rising industry. “If it was five years earlier, wouldn’t have been possible, and if it was five years later, somebody else would have done it.”

Out in the real world — and killing it

Following his graduation, Reeves strived at his first industry-job at Lucasfilm, and now works as a supervising technical director at Pixar.

While working on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, he developed a technology known as ‘particle systems,’ which is used to model objects like fire, grass, and smoke. In his 1983 paper, Reeves defines a particle system as a “collection of many minute particles that together represent a fuzzy object. Over a period of time, particles are generated into a system, move and change from within the system, and die from the system.”

In addition to working on numerous movies like Finding Nemo and Ratatouille, he’s also worked as a producer — in addition to many other roles — on shorts like “Luxo Jr.” and “Tin Toy,” the latter winning him an Oscar alongside John Lasseter.

Creating Toy Story 4

Reeves elaborated further on the various projects that he undertook while working on Toy Story 4.

One of the key areas that Reeves highlighted was the work of adapting the Toy Story world to new technology. With nine years between the release of Toy Story 3 and that of Toy Story 4, technology in the studio had changed, and the pre-existing Toy Story world had to adapt in order to reflect that.

One key thing that Reeves highlighted was the process of automating practical lighting, such as lamps and traditional lights that would behave similar to real lights. He remarked that rather than manually adjusting each light, as had previously been done, “We rethought the whole process about how to do practical lighting and build the actual physics of the light into the light.”

Now, with the help of their project, practical lights in the film are “all set up for the lighting department in the end and then they can go and tweak them when they need to for dramatic effect.”

“They don’t have to worry about setting everything up.”

Another large project that Reeves worked on during production was the introduction of a process that he calls “dailies.” This process consisted of “[rendering] every shot that’s in production every night and [showing] it to people.”

Reeves explained that by getting everyone in the same room, they were able to open up all stages of the process and problem-solve together. Rather than every department working independently, “everybody could see what they were doing, what each other was doing, and then feed off each other.”

So you want to get into animation?

For those interested in the industry, Reeves stressed the importance of getting a diverse education — both inside and outside of computer science.

He encouraged students to resist “just studying hardcore computer graphics and focussing on grey tracing,” and instead to “learn all different aspects of computer graphics, compositing, bottling, shading, and then rendering as well.” He also stressed the importance of getting a good “breadth of life.”

However, Reeves also emphasized that when it comes to education in storytelling and filmmaking, “You specialize in the technical side of things and we’ll teach you film here.”

“You learn by doing and coming here and experiencing lots of different things. That’s what’s really important.”

Toy Story 4 was released on Blu Ray on October 8.

—With files from Adam A. Lam