Long before Buzz Lightyear soared to infinity and beyond, Pixar introduced the world to a humble toy named Tinny.

In 1988, when the future animation behemoth was still a small division of a hardware company run by Apple honcho Steve Jobs, Pixar won its first Oscar for Tin Toy. In the five-minute short film, Tinny evades the attacks of an overly affectionate baby. The film laid the narrative and technological groundwork that would eventually enable Pixar to create Toy Story, the first computer-animated motion picture feature in the history of the medium. In doing so, Tin Toy rescued the company from oblivion—and possibly bankruptcy as well.

While Toy Story was years away, the larger significance of the Oscar was obvious. “We’d like to share this with the computer graphics community,” said John Lasseter, the movie’s director, as he accepted the award alongside producer and fellow Pixar employee William Reeves. “But computers didn’t make this film. People did.”

Lasseter had made this point one year earlier at the annual computer graphics conference known as SIGGRAPH with an audacious technical paper called “Principles of Traditional Animation Applied to 3-D Computer Animation.” The paper explained how new software could be used to tell the kinds of rich stories associated with older 2-D methods. “Unfortunately, these systems will also enable people to produce more bad animation,” Lasseter wrote. “Understanding principles of traditional animation is essential to producing good computer animation.”

The animator was already following his own advice. By 1987, Pixar—at first simply called the Computer Division as Lucasfilm—had produced three computer-generated short films; Lasseter had worked on them all, the second of which, Luxo Jr., brought him his first Oscar nomination. But none of the shorts bore the fully developed narrative of Tin Toy.

Hardly a computer scientist, Lasseter could see the creative benefits of computer-generated animation as they pertained to classic animation techniques. “John’s interests were not just about the technology,” confirms Ralph Guggenheim, Pixar’s former vice president of feature animation. “He would just say, ‘I’d like this effect. I’d like to do this or that,’ and these guys would do it.”

Educated by Disney animators at the California Institute of the Arts, Lasseter worked on several productions at the studio in the early ’80s, winding up with Pixar after being laid off at Disney. At Pixar, Lasseter found himself in the unique position of marrying old traditions with new ones, providing a model that the entire animation industry would eventually adopt.

In the wake of the Oscar win for Tin Toy, headlines in the New York Times, American Cinematographer and The Vancouver Sun all proclaimed the “coming of age” for computer animation. But the success of Tin Toy had a more immediate effect. As the short film neared completion, the company buckled under the pressure of serious debt. Jobs was spending more than $10 million a year trying to get potential clients interested in Pixar’s main product, an imaging computer that was expensive and difficult to use. To make things worse, the animation department brought in no revenue for the company, as the shorts merely served to demonstrate what the computers could produce.

“We were under a lot of pressure at the time,” says Guggenheim. “The company needed to be profitable, and here were five or six people not working on the main product.”

Perhaps sensing the looming threat of corporate obliteration, Lasseter held a meeting with Jobs where he pitched Tin Toy. Drawing inspiration from the tin toy museum in Yokohama and a home video of his toddler nephew, Lasseter outlined the plot for his boss. It worked: Jobs gave the green light. “John really knew how to sell the story from just a bunch of storyboards,” says Reeves. “The climate was, ‘We’ll give you guys a chance, but we’re certainly not going to fund this in any big way.’”

The clock was ticking. Lasseter and the rest of the Pixar animation team worked late nights tweaking Tin Toy with the small handful of digital tools they had at their disposal. “It was the most complex film we’d ever made,” recalls Guggenheim. The modeling software Menv (short for “modeling environment,” and later retitled Marionette), served to fill in the character animation between various poses. Pixar’s PhotoRealistic RenderMan software allowed the animators to render every layer of the animation at once, avoiding the lengthy (and costly) task of dealing with each layer separately. RenderMan affected not only the animation community, but Hollywood blockbusters as well, many of which still use the software for digital effects.

Tin Toy was ahead of its time, but there wasn’t much of it to spare. The team threw all their resources into the production and still failed to complete it in time for 1988’s SIGGRAPH, although a partial version screened to an appreciative crowd. Fortunately, Guggenheim had a family connection with the Laemmle Theatre chain in Los Angeles, allowing Tin Toy to slip into theaters by December for its Oscar-qualifying run. The gamble paid off at the Academy Awards in March. “It was the next big step in showing the film studios that we could do this stuff,” says Reeves.

After the Oscar win, Pixar began producing commercials—making real money—and testing out new techniques that would later come into play with the production of the company’s first feature.

In 1991, Pixar signed a distribution deal with Disney and began developing a full-length production. The creative direction came straight from Tin Toy: Initially, Pixar planned a TV special called A Tin Toy Christmas; once Disney pressured its new colleagues into making a feature, Tinny became Buzz Lightyear and a quirky ventriloquist dummy became Woody. Toy Story was born.

To this day, the impact of Tin Toy remains potent. Lasseter, once responsible for saving Pixar, currently oversees production at Disney—a role many perceive to be the company’s saving grace. Meanwhile, with Toy Story 3 in theaters now, Tinny’s influence looms larger than ever. Toy Story 3 director Lee Unkrich even references the short in his upcoming production. When the dinosaur Rex runs wildly across the room in one scene, we catch a glimpse of toys fearfully huddled under a sofa—the same toys that Tinny encountered while fleeing his infant oppressor in Tin Toy. Noticed or not, the legacy lives on. MM