Buzz Lightyear has made multiple metatextual leaps since his groundbreaking debut in 1995, from fictional toy to actual toy to cultural icon, and now, to honest-to-God action hero.
With Lightyear adding yet another layer of existential complexity to the character, it’s time to take a look at what makes that little laser light of his blink. Where did Buzz come from? How did he change as Pixar’s genre-defining technology progressed? And how does Lightyear pull off a Pinocchio to turn this toy into a human being?
Let’s dive into the infinite evolution of Buzz Lightyear!
The Origins of Pixar
The origins of Pixar can be traced back to none other than George Lucas, who hired members of the New York Institute of Technology’s Computer Graphics Lab to explore the new field of computer animation for Lucasfilm’s Graphics Group. In 1983, Lucas decided to spin off the Graphics Group as a separate company, catching the eye of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who funded Pixar’s independence in 1986 for the cool sum of $10 million.
As Pixar iterated on its revolutionary RenderMan software, they tested it out with a variety of short animated films, like “Luxo Jr.,” from which the famous hopping lamp logo was born. Each short was an improvement on the last as Pixar refined their process and found clever ways to reuse sets, props, and characters. This philosophy would serve them well in years to come, allowing them to make feature-length films like Toy Story with only a sixth of the people power required on a traditionally animated movie.
Speaking of Toy Story, the first seeds of the film were planted in 1988 with the short “Tin Toy,” featuring a self-aware tin soldier being terrorized by a truly horrific-looking baby. The success of the short attracted Disney’s attention, and they approached Pixar about the possibility of making movies entirely out of computer animation. After toying with the idea of a TV Christmas special, they decided to go full steam ahead on a feature film instead.
Toy Story: From Tinny to Buzz
The original drafts involved “Tinny” as a beloved new toy who bickers with the bitter former favorite, a ventriloquist’s dummy named Woody. But even way back in 1995, it was hard to imagine a little kid getting super excited about a windup tin soldier, so they transformed Tinny into a spaceman named “Lunar Larry,” bearing little resemblance to the Lightyear we know. Instead, he was a dark-red Raygun Gothic retro 1930s throwback, more Flash Gordon than G.I. Joe.
After a few more iterations, they came to the obvious conclusion: Andy needed the most awesome action figure imaginable. Throw in a spacesuit straight out of NASA with some neon accents and a name inspired by the second man on the moon, and boom: Buzz Lightyear was born.
CGI technology was still in its infancy in 1995; it took 800,000 machine hours to render the 114,240 frames of animation that made up the breezy 81-minute runtime of Toy Story 1, and all that info only took up 600 GB of storage. To put that in perspective, at the time the average consumer PC had a 250 MB hard drive, and the most portable storage available were 100 MB Zip disks. Today, you could fit the entire raw renders of Toy Story on a microSD card the size of the nail on your pinkie, but back then it was mind-blowing.
Similarly, the movie looked incredible in 1995, but today the film definitely shows its age. RenderMan certainly had a hard time rendering… erm… man, but it was perfect for the plasticine sheen of toys. And while modern transfers of the original Toy Story don’t do any favors for the vintage CGI from the first Clinton administration, Buzz himself still looks like a million bucks.
And he’d look even better four years later.
Toy Story 2: Building Buzz’s Universe
Now, the leap between Toy Story 1 and 2 isn’t super dramatic. There are no more weird glitches, and characters actually have somewhat normal hair now, though we’re still a couple of years out from Sulley setting the hair-bar in Monsters, Inc.
Still, the technology was clearly maturing, and given the turmoil behind the scenes of the film, it’s a miracle the movie even came out at all. Toy Story 2 was originally going to be a cheap straight-to-video sequel until Disney decided to release it theatrically at the last minute, which meant Pixar had only nine months to scrap the whole thing and start over. On top of that, at one point the entire movie was deleted from Pixar’s production servers, but luckily an employee on maternity leave had it all backed up at home.
As for our stalwart space ranger, Toy Story 2 offers us our first real glimpse at the fictional character that inspired the toyline in the awesome opening fake-out that is revealed to be a video game that Rex is somehow playing on a Super Nintendo.
Every Major Toy Character in the Toy Story Series
On top of that, we get more insight into Buzz’s in-universe popularity, with shelves full of doppelgangers lining the aisles of Al’s Toy Barn, including a deluxe model with a new utility belt. Pixar never shies away from an opportunity to make some clever commentary, including poking fun at the real-life demand for Buzz Lightyear toys that took the market by surprise back in ’95. In fact, the tie-in toys sold out before the first movie even opened. The week after the premiere, they sold 1.6 million Buzz Lightyears. Today, they’ve moved over 35 million Buzzes.
From day one, Buzz Lightyears’s appeal has transcended the movies. During the long gap between feature films, you could find him on toy shelves, in Pixar-produced shorts, and, beginning in the year 2000, on broadcast television along with other Disney stars like Aladdin and Hercules, slumming it on One Saturday Morning.
Buzz Lightyear of Star Command was a traditional 2D-animated series that expanded on the tidbits of lore offered in the Toy Story films – allegedly the show that inspired the in-universe toy.
Sound familiar? It’s more or less the same idea as Lightyear. Although according to director Angus MacLane, in the universe of Toy Story, Star Command is an animated spinoff of Lightyear, despite debuting in the real world over two decades earlier. So if you’re wondering why characters like Commander Nebula and Warp Darkmatter are nowhere to be found in Lightyear, it’s because they were simply made up by the cynical studio execs who greenlit Star Command to cash in on the smash success of Lightyear in Andy’s world.
Sadly, the series ended at the hands of Disney’s dreaded 65-episode rule, which automatically canceled any show once it hit the amount of episodes that allowed it to be sold for syndication, and it’s been missing in action ever since. You certainly won’t find it on Disney+ at the moment. But you know what’s definitely there…?
Toy Story 3: An All-New Buzz
The 11-year gap between Toy Story 2 and 3 saw some massive improvements in the realm of CGI. Just think of all the amazing stuff from Pixar movies alone: the aforementioned fur from Monsters Inc., the dynamic action of The Incredibles, the mouthwatering food in Ratatouille, and so on.
Each of these films required new leaps in technology and artistry that led Pixar to the gorgeous Toy Story 3. (Just compare the uncanny abomination that is original Andy to the adorable kid in the third film’s VHS montage!) Originally, they hoped to reuse the old models of Buzz, Woody and the gang from Toy Story 2, but so much time had passed that the file formats were utterly incompatible with their new software, so they built fresh new versions from scratch and packed them with far more polygons.
The all-new Buzz had 215 animation points of movement, or “avars,” in his face alone, but we can see that it’s still very much the same toy from the first film through small details like his still-missing wrist communicator sticker.
Toy Story 3 seemed like a definitive ending to the series. Andy, representing the aging millennials who grew up with the first film, passed on his treasured childhood playthings to a new generation. But, as reality would show us, we millennials have a really hard time giving up our toys. And lo and behold, nine years later the gang was back again.
Toy Story 4: A 4K Upgrade, Complete With Battle Scars
Pixar pulled out all the stops here. For the first time, Toy Story would be produced in glorious 4K, adding thousands of pixels to their rendering resolution. On top of that, this is the only Toy Story film to be presented in the wider aspect ratio of 2.35:1, which means even more room to pack in characters and background details, and the opportunity to use simulated anamorphic lenses.
The virtual camera in the film was designed to mimic a real-world lens as closely as possible – specifically the lenses produced by Cooke Anamorphic, which turned out to be so accurate that Cooke employees recognized the homage when they saw the film in theaters.
Pixar’s virtual camera gives the director of photography tons of interesting tools, like subtle distortions and depth of field changes, rack focusing and bokeh shifts, different-shaped lenses to convey the characters’ internal feelings, and, most importantly, a luxurious cinematic feel that’s typically unheard of in an animated feature.
If that’s too subtle for you, there’s still plenty to be impressed with. The opening thunderstorm sequence, with its thousands of raindrops crashing into our characters, is a huge flex of fluid simulations. The massive antique shop that makes up most of the film was also a huge challenge to depict, with tons and tons of details that had to show up in ray-traced reflections on all of the store’s myriad shiny surfaces. And Dragon the cat certainly puts ol’ Scud from the first movie to shame.
When it comes to Buzz, he kind of takes a backseat in this film. It’s more Woody’s story, after all, but he still managed to get some minor tweaks. Thanks to advances in shaders and materials rendering, an algorithm was able to more accurately simulate how light looks when it passes through a surface like plastic.
Additionally, this old toy is starting to show some extremely subtle battle scars. If you look closely, Buzz is sporting some very subtle scratches near his points of articulation, and his aging stickers have started to bubble and peel away. It’s not the most exhilarating upgrade, but they could only do so much with a character we’ve grown to know and love for nearly three decades.
Luckily, there’s no such baggage in the character’s next outing… which technically is his first outing, depending on how you look at it.
Pixar’s Movies: Worst to Best
Lightyear: A Whole New (Old) Buzz
To quote star Chris Evans, this isn’t Buzz Lightyear the toy. This is the origin story of the human Buzz Lightyear that the toy is based on.
Just to be clear, Lightyear is actually the in-universe movie Andy saw that served as the basis for his favorite action figure. What does that mean? Well, Buzz gets a whole new look in the film, an organic redesign that has to plausibly be the basis for a badass toy while adding vulnerability and humanity. It’s your classic Pinocchio situation. How do you make Buzz a real boy?
The giant jaw and big round eyes? Gone. That weird swirly thing on his chin? Now a very pronounced but still somewhat plausible dimple. His absurd body proportions that made for a toy that could barely stand on its own? Still a beefcake but definitely a lot more natty.
Most importantly, the makers of Lightyear were forced to finally answer the age-old question: Does Buzz Lightyear have hair? And the answer is yes!
But it took a lot of iterations to determine just what lay beneath that iconic purple snood (yes snood; his little astronaut hood has a technical name).
His costume attempts to incorporate all aspects of Buzz. His trademark buttons, gadgets and communicator are all intact, there’s a throwback to Lunar Larry’s crimson red color, plus he’s got all-new accessories that make him more toyetic than ever.
Will Lightyear replace the original Buzz the same way he nearly replaced Woody? It’s doubtful, so don’t knock the new movie behind the desk just yet. It’s simply another iteration of one of the most versatile characters of the modern age who will continue to endure to infinity… and beyond.
What do you think of Buzz’s evolution over the years? Did Pixar nail his “Lightyear” incarnation? Let’s discuss in the comments!