Toy Wonder

December 08, 1995


It almost didn't happen. It almost fell apart on Nov. 19, 1993 -- a date that the makers of Toy Story refer to as Black Friday.

That was the day a creative team from Pixar Animation Studios brought to their bosses at Disney, who had already agreed to back the Toy Story project, a collection of story reels -- filmed storyboards edited into a photoplay over a rough soundtrack. The reels of Toy Story presented on Black Friday were hardly the rollicking light fare that opened to $39 million and critical raves over Thanksgiving weekend. In those reels, the movie was a flat, unexciting endeavor, in which the toy heroes Buzz Lightyear and Woody the cowboy were sarcastic, contrary, unlikable sorts -- not the kind of figures children would embrace, much less pick off the shelves of Toys 'R' Us. And despite the bouncy vocal tracks supplied by Tom Hanks as Woody and Tim Allen as Buzz, the awkward chemistry between the two main characters, who vie for supremacy over a child's roomful of toys, was apparent to everyone in the room.

In short, the movie wasn't fun. And, already nervous about having agreed to the Pixar animators' insistence that Toy Story not be a musical, the financial godfathers at Disney seemed willing to give up on their first experiment in feature-length computer animation.

''Guys, no matter how much you try to fix it,'' Disney animation chief Peter Schneider told them, ''it just isn't working.''

With a collective sigh of resignation, director John Lasseter and producers Ralph Guggenheim and Bonnie Arnold agreed to regroup, rethink, and repair the film's concept in three months. If that didn't work, they feared the plug could be pulled on the project. The creative team itself knew the film needed work. Admits screenwriter Joss Whedon: ''The original Woody was a thundering a -- -- -- .'' Eventually, the making of Toy Story would have a happy ending, but the struggle en route would make the scrabbling among the movie's volatile toys look like, well, child's play. Even Barbie would get in on the action, and it wasn't always pretty.

Just 14 years ago Toy Story -- 77 minutes of eyepopping three-dimensional moving pictures created on computers -- was unimaginable. Except to John Lasseter. In 1981, Lasseter was a 24-year-old journeyman Disney animator, and as he sat in a darkened screening room at the Disney studios, checking out dailies on the movie Tron to see what some fellow animators were doing with computer-graphics imagery, he started to see the possibilities of full-scale computer animation. Tron, a technologically dazzling but silly cyber-adventure, ultimately did little business, but ''the minute I saw the light-cycle sequence, which had such dimensionality and solidity,'' Lasseter recalls, ''it was like a little door in my head opening to a whole new world.''

Lasseter and fellow animator Glen Keane (who went on to make Beauty and the Beast) tried to interest Disney in the medium by animating 30 seconds of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are with standard animation drawings in computer-generated settings. But Disney, which was then trying to right itself after years of box office ineffectuality, was not interested in experimenting with untried computer animation.

In 1984, Lasseter left Disney after the studio passed on his project The Brave Little Toaster, based on a Thomas Disch children's book told from the point of view of toys. (Toaster was produced without Lasseter as a conventionally animated movie in 1987.) Relocating to Marin County, Calif., Lasseter was hired by Pixar, the computer graphics unit of Lucasfilm, which Apple Computer cofounder Steven Jobs bought in 1986. At Pixar, Jobs' computers were too advanced for the market, but the shorts Lasseter created with them grabbed valuable publicity--and 1988's Tin Toy won an Oscar for Best Animated Short. As the company evolved into a successful animation studio producing TV ads for, among others, Listerine, Lasseter became Pixar's big breadwinner.

Disney's Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg tried to woo the director back. He declined. "I was having too much fun," he says. "I felt I was on to something new--we were pioneers." Finally, in July 1991, they signed Lasseter and three others from Pixar for three animated feature films.

For the first of them, Lasseter and his core Pixar team--Guggenheim, supervising animator Peter Docter, and storymen Andrew Stanton and Joe Ranft--decided to make a contemporary buddy story about toys coming to life. Pixar's writers started with a scene that ended up in the middle of the film--an image of a car driving off and abandoning a toy at a rest stop in the middle of nowhere. "We all had that lost toy," says Stanton, "that we felt was looking for us as much as we were looking for it."

Toy Story was originally to star the hero of Lasseter's Tin Toy, a one-man band named Tinny, and a top-hatted ventriloquist's dummy reminiscent of Charlie McCarthy. But both toys were old and worn, and "a buddy picture," explains Stanton, "is about opposites." So Tinny was transformed into a gadget-packed, flashy new toy: a space-superhero action figure. He needed just the right name. "Lunar Larry was too wacky," says Lasseter. "We tried some space words and the term light-year came up. And the coolest astronaut name was Buzz Aldrin. All of a sudden it was Buzz Lightyear. Everybody went, 'That's it!'"

Lightyear's old-toy counterpart was to be Woody, a wooden ventriloquist's dummy, "a Howdy Doody cowboy sidekick," says Lasseter. But Disney execs decided that an animated test made Woody's separated jaw look "creepy," Stanton remembers. So Lasseter, an avid toy collector, went back to his own stuffed Casper the Friendly Ghost doll with a scratchy pull-string voice. It was a toy he remembered fondly. "My parents knew when I'd fallen asleep," recalls Lasseter, "when Casper stopped talking. Every animator is a child at heart." Lasseter's Woody became a flexible cowboy figure with a plastic face and a tinny voice proclaiming, "There's a snake in my boots."

Lasseter wanted the other toy characters to be boomer classics as a nod to parents. Thus they decided to include Barbie, G.I. Joe, a quick-drawing Etch-A-Sketch, a scrabbling barrel of monkeys, an ornery Mr. Potato Head (voiced by Don Rickles), and good old Slinky Dog (Jim Varney); only the latter needed a design improvement upon the 1960s version, says Stanton, "to make him more appealing." And everyone wanted to see an army of tiny green soldiers hopping down the hall on a recon mission. The team debated liberating the soldiers' legs from their dark green platforms, but finally agreed, reports Stanton, that the toys "had to deal with their limitations."

Needless to say, Disney was hip to the possibilities in a movie full of toys. "The Disney folks saw early on," Guggenheim comments wryly, "that with a name like Toy Story, there were toys to be made there." And money. But the filmmakers still had to get permission from the toy manufacturers. Hasbro okayed using Mr. Potato Head but vetoed G.I. Joe. "They weren't too wild about us blowing up their toy with an M-80 strapped to his back," recalls Guggenheim. The filmmakers renamed him Combat Carl and blew him up anyway.

Enter Barbie--who screenwriter Whedon suggested was the perfect candidate to save Woody and Buzz from the destructive next-door neighbor Sid. "She's T2's Sarah Connor in a pink convertible, all business and very cool," he says. "She helps Woody out."

Unfortunately for girls everywhere, Mattel execs would not allow the film to provide a firm identity for their leggy cash cow. "They philosophically felt girls who play with Barbie dolls are projecting their personalities onto the doll," says Guggenheim. "If you give the doll a voice and animate it, you're creating a persona for it that might not be every little girl's dream and desire." ("We carefully watch how we handle Barbie," says Mattel Inc. spokeswoman Karen Stewart, who refused to comment specifically on why Barbie wasn't in Toy Story.) Besides, the Pixar team preferred to make the only female toy a docile Bo Peep (Annie Potts) and let Woody save the day. "We decided we could either be PC and fair about this or bring true toy moments," explains Stanton.

"I hear Barbie's stuck-up," argues Tom Hanks. "Those good-looking women--you can't talk to them, nothing has truly been expected of them. Bo Peep, she works hard out there with those sheep, she lost one of them, so she knows what sacrifice is. She's actually a much better conversationalist."

So the idea of an active Toy Story heroine was scratched. Instead, Woody joins forces with some of the neatest characters in the movie: mutant toys, the results of bad boy Sid's recombinant experiments, most notably Baby Face, a haunting one-eyed plastic doll's head attached to Erector-set spider legs. Some of the designers had ideas for the mutant toys--a snake melded with a train was one--that "were so gross we had to pull them back a little bit," says Guggenheim. "As it is, Sid's room is like one of the inner circles of hell." (Legs that look suspiciously like Barbie's did make it into the film, as half of a mutant toy.)

Once Disney gave the okay to the Roy Rogers--versus--Buck Rogers plot on Jan. 19, 1993, Pixar needed to cast its voices. Lasseter set his sights on Hanks for Woody because he "has the ability to take emotions and make them appealing," he says, "even if the character, like the one in A League of Their Own, is down-and-out and despicable."

Hanks had no trouble relating to his character from the first pitch meeting, where he arrived gaunt and goateed after his Philadelphia shoot. Lasseter showed him 30 seconds of a computer-animated Woody with Hanks' voice from Turner & Hooch. Hanks howled with laughter and asked, "When do we start?"

"Woody's a classic piece of Americana," says Hanks. "He's an old-fashioned, loose-limbed marionette without the strings. His vocabulary is stored in his chest."

Neither Hanks nor Tim Allen (who was cast as macho superhero Buzz Lightyear during the second season of Home Improvement) made Toy Story for the money--they were paid slightly more than voice-over union scale by the day. Nor did they like the drawn-out, two-year-plus labor of recording voice-overs--standing alone at a mike on a soundstage reading from sheets of paper that had been stapled onto cardboard to prevent them from rustling. "It took me a while to realize Lasseter was the director," confesses Allen. "I thought he was a guy delivering scripts to the studio. He'd explain where I was supposed to be. It took so long, you never got a view of what the overall movie looked like."

Hanks came to dread going into the recording studio every six months. "I felt like Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner," he says. "I'm standing there yelling, saying the same things over and over. I was not prepared for how tough it was. I had to get into this almost quasi-hypnotic state of delirium imagining I'm in this other place."

Outside the recording booth, Pixar and Disney had been engaged in a push and pull over music. It started when Tom Schumacher, Disney's executive vice president of animation, turned to Lasseter and queried, "Gee, John, when are the characters going to sing?"

Lasseter was opposed to making Toy Story a standard musical, like Aladdin or The Lion King. "These are real toys in a bedroom," Lasseter explained. "These are not fantasy toys." Most of the creative team agreed. "It would have been a really bad musical," says Whedon, "because it's a buddy movie. It's about people who won't admit what they want, much less sing about it. Woody can't do an 'I want' number--he's cynical and selfish, he doesn't know himself. Buddy movies are about sublimating, punching an arm, 'I hate you.' It's not about open emotion."

The idea of a nonmusical didn't sit well with Disney, a studio that has won four Best Song Oscars and four Best Score Oscars for its cartoons in the last six years and is accustomed to hanging a story (not to mention hit albums, commercials, videos, and kids' sing-along records) on characters revealing their feelings in music. "Musicals are our orientation," explains Schumacher. "Characters breaking into song is a great shorthand. It takes some of the onus off what they're asking for."

Disney ultimately went along with Lasseter and hired Randy Newman to score Toy Story like a live-action movie. "His songs are touching, witty, and satirical," says Lasseter, "and he would deliver the emotional underpinning for every scene."

But Disney had its doubts; Newman had never scored an animated movie before. "Hollywood runs on proven entities," says Guggenheim. "We did a 10-minute test to get our hands around whether his scoring would work."

Finally, Disney agreed to give Newman a shot. None of the characters would sing, but music and songs would provide a thematic background. Newman took just a day to think up the film's signature, "You've Got a Friend in Me," but admits that his first work on a cartoon was difficult. "It's different music for me to have written," he says. "My songs are rougher. I had to tone down. You're not going to say 'Damn it' in a Disney song."

But all was still not well. Disney executives had shrewdly asked the animators to avoid cutesiness, shade the movie with sophisticated adult references, and make it appeal to parents as well as children. "The intention was to make it less juvenile," says Lasseter, "and more edgy, more adult." And Whedon's rewrite of the original script by Joel Cohen and Alec Sokolow was indeed sharp-edged. "We pushed them too far," suggests Schumacher. "They interpreted us wrong and made the film too abrasive. It lost a lot of its charm."

Hanks recognized the problems with Woody and Buzz early on. "At first pass, Woody was a very acerbic kind of guy," he says, "edgy and unpleasant. It was hard to believe him as the most popular toy in the bedroom who's lost his throne, who's more of a pose meister."

Disney chief Katzenberg was not pleased with the movie's direction--and at that bleak November 1993 meeting in Disney's old animation building in Burbank, animation chief Schneider, who usually played the role of bad cop on Toy Story, told Lasseter, Guggenheim, and Arnold that they had to stop animating until they got the tone right. They were flabbergasted. "We had worked hard," says Arnold. "We liked what we had. It was hard to hear we were not on the right track. But we realized we were too close to it."

"We stopped," Lasseter says simply. "We had to change some things."

Lasseter, a raspy-voiced, pink-faced 38-year-old with blond bangs, wire-rimmed glasses and a taste for bright shirts, huddled with producers Guggenheim and Arnold, an animation neophyte from the live-action universe (Dances With Wolves), to figure out what to do. After more than two years of gearing up for production, they had to divert their animators to work on Pixar TV commercials while the writers got the story in order.

The following Monday, the trio broke the news to about 50 appalled Toy Story crew members who were sprawled over the stuffed sofas and armchairs in the Pixar screening room. "We've run into a problem," explained Guggenheim, a lanky fortysomething computer egghead who remembers wondering if "the whole project was in jeopardy."

"We believe it can be fixed, but we need to work on the story," he said. "It would be foolish to hand out any more work for you to animate that isn't in the film. We ask your patience. Keep the faith."

It's easy to look back now and say, as Stanton does, that "we respected Disney for red flagging when something wasn't working." But at the time, it was grim to realize that "it was up to us to figure out what."

So the Pixar team "went back to what everybody wanted from the beginning," says Lasseter. "There was a way to get appealing characters with adult interests into the film without making them unlikable."

The filmmakers found the seeds of their answers in the voices of Hanks and Allen. "We originally thought Buzz was a heroic kind of super-space-hero Dudley Do-Right who always does the big gesture," says Guggenheim. "But that was a setup for a big fall. We listened to Tim's recordings and wound up with a self-confident but modest space cop, a Sgt. Joe Friday who does his job every day."

As for Woody, who had been conceived as a benevolent dictator, lording it over the other toys from the top of the bed, he was too sarcastic and authoritarian. "When we moved him down to the floor with the other toys who looked up to him as Andy's favorite," says Guggenheim, "he became one of the guys, more likable."

By March, the team was back on track. Then, as Hanks remembers too well, "we had to go back and rerecord every single line of dialogue."

From there on, the Pixar crew--a motley Bay Area mix ranging from techno-geek geniuses in their 40s who created the computer tools to raw animation recruits in their early 20s who manipulated them--sat down at their monitors and began the task of making a movie entertaining enough to satisfy Disney. Whenever someone would finish something, Lasseter was able to check it out on the computer network. "You had to have blinders on through the whole thing, frame by frame," says supervising animator Docter. "I'd say, 'What small piece of the puzzle can I finish today?' Toward the end I'd look up and be amazed that we were almost finished."

Computer animation, known for its cold, clear, impersonal crispness, posed a special challenge. "It's easy to make things look perfect," says Lasseter. "We had to make things look more organic. Every leaf and blade of grass had to be created. We had to give the world a sense of history. So the doors are banged up, the floors have scuffs."

Lasseter's 27 animators were high-tech puppeteers who had to coax performances out of the programmers' 400 computer models. (The most complex of them--Woody--was operated by 723 motion controls, including 212 for his face and 58 for his mouth.) "We'd challenge the others to come up with technical innovations," says Docter. "We had to find ways to make the characters more lifelike and fluid. We had to break the angles along Woody's spine so he didn't look like he had a rod up his butt."

While the most time was spent on Woody and Buzz, Toy Story's humans--Andy, the little boy whose room is Buzz and Woody's universe, and Sid, his mean, toy-torturing neighbor--proved the toughest to create, because, says Docter, "everybody's an expert on human motion. They didn't have to act a lot. We weren't going for realism, but they had to work well enough so you believe that they are not toys."

Lasseter believed in the dazzling 3-D storytelling possible in this medium. More than Disney, he knew what the end results would be. Disney helped steer the course, but finally Lasseter and his crew delivered the film's look, style, and performances--from such details as Slinky Dog's foot twitching in his sleep to the emotional moments shared by Woody and Buzz while they face their unhappy future in the clutches of Sid. "When we started," says Schumacher, "we asked, 'Is anybody going to watch this?' John was great. He never said, 'You don't get it, just shut up and wait.'"

So what does all this work on Toy Story add up to? A whopping 114,240 frames, 600 billion bytes (1,000 CD-ROMs hold the film's data), 160 billion pixels, and 800,000 machine hours. And more: Toy Story's success paves the way for endless possibilities in computer animation. "John was able to take animation that was limited to special effects," says Schumacher, "that was perceived as cold, unappealing, and slick, and project into it his warmth and charm and dimensionality."

Tim Allen even wonders if Disney still needs its new animation building. "Disney may have shot themselves in the foot," he says. "You can do this in your basement on a PowerBook."

Disney is officially sanguine about the impact the new medium will have on conventional hand-drawn animation--which requires far more manpower and is costlier to produce (The Lion King ran to $45 million and employed 800 animators, compared with Toy Story's $30 million budget and staff of 110). "Oil painting and watercolor painting have all done fine together," Schumacher says. "We use a lot of computer graphics in our movies. Pixar gave us notes on [next summer's animated]Hunchback of Notre Dame. These groups can coexist and share." But one Disney source admits that the success of Toy Story means "that people don't care what form animation comes in. They'll take it in any form as long as the characters are great. It's not about form, it's about content. It causes ambivalence. Some Disney animators are wigged-out. They don't know whether to love it or hate it." Says cartoonists' union president Tom Sito: "There's a little bit of nervousness that happens with every revolution."

For Pixar, Toy Story's wildly successful feature debut will almost surely mean more creative independence. On the company's next film for Disney, an all-computer-animated insect comedy called Bugs, "we can express ourselves in ways we couldn't the first time," says Guggenheim. "We've only touched the surface of what can be done in this medium. But I'm sure the moment something falls apart, Disney will be all over us like they always are."

In fact, it may already be happening. After giving Pixar its way with the Toy Story music, Disney didn't see fit to use Newman's score in its TV ads, which instead play to the tune of Thin Lizzy's "The Boys Are Back in Town." And the next time out, Disney may not be so quick to give up on a fully sung score. Inside word is, those Bugs may have to learn how to carry a tune before they can carry a 'toon.

Source : Entertainment Weekly