As an exhibition celebrating 20 years of Pixar takes over the National Museum of Scotland, Claire Prentice casts an eye over the studio’s groundbreaking animation.

In Toy Story, which reached our screens an astonishing 12 years ago, the only things on the screen which look animated are the humans. Woody the toy cowboy, despite his name, is human, endearing, attractive. Buzz has the chin and charm of a Hollywood heart-throb and Mr Potato Head, voiced by Cliff from Cheers, is expressive, funny and dignified, despite his stick-on plastic nose and Groucho Marx spectacles.

It’s the humans, with their weird long-limbed movement and disjointed actions, that look as though they came off a designer’s pad. As visual jokes go, it’s very Pixar - all the visual and dramatic interest is focussed on the toys, and we the audience are placed in the position of children, down on the rug, lost in our imagination. We’ve been there ever since.

Very Pixar too is Sully, the loveable monster from Monsters Inc, whose rippling, multi-hued blue fur demanded the invention of a whole new computer process, ‘texture mapping’. A life size model Sully greets visitors to Pixar’s headquarters in California, but the three-dimensional version of the blue monster looks somehow less realistic than the one on the screen. It took Pixar’s massive mainframe 11 hours to create each frame that Sully appeared in. Real life could never compete.

This month, some of Pixar’s most iconic images take over Edinburgh’s National Museum of Scotland as part of an exhibition celebrating 20 years of the groundbreaking animation company, which has scooped 20 Academy Awards. The exhibition includes over 250 drawings, collages, sculptures, paintings, pastels and animated sequences. An accompanying series of events includes talks by Pixar’s dean of art Elyse Klaidman and Oscar-winning animator Michael Dudok de Wit.

Here, from sketch to intricately realised final scene, we can trace the development of Buzz Lightyear, Woody, Nemo, The Incredibles, the Cars, and Pixar’s latest creation, a French rat called Ratatouille who will reach the big screen in June. The exhibition allows us to see something we can only imagine when we view the gloriously sophisticated final product - all the effort that went into Sully’s fur, the dents on the fenders of the eponymous Cars and Nemo’s individually drawn scales.

As animation goes, this is an industrial process, demanding the use of cutting edge computer programmes, but an industrial process carried out with the care that normally goes into a work of art. Michelangelo was a cartoonist too and if the ghost of da Vinci was to go to work in the movies, there’s no doubt that he would end up at Pixar.

It all seems a world away from the jerky early days of animation, the squeaky voiced mouse steering the tug boat, or the running horses projected on the walls of French salons. But, for all that Pixar is cutting edge, there is something reassuringly old-fashioned about the artistry involved.

Pixar’s trademark is Luxo, the little anglepoise lamp which began life in the studio’s first ever film, Luxo Jr, in 1986. The lamp is a sign of Pixar’s ability to transfigure the ordinary, to cast magic spells, to animate the contents of the toy box and lead us into a world which makes reality seem something of a disappointment. Who knows where the little anglepoise will point next?

Pixar: 20 Years of Animation, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, Fri 2 Mar - Wed 28 May.

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