Jonathan Crocker

Editorial Director | Journalist

The (Toy) Story Of Pixar

Posted by Jonathan On July - 18 - 2010

Bobbing helplessly like a tiny cork, a 12-year-old boy drifts alone in the middle of the freezing Atlantic Ocean. With every minute, he’s dragged further and further away from his father, who’s also been caught in the rip current that’s left them treading water far out to sea.

Darkness falls. By now, the father can barely see the boy. He’s scared. His son has autism. Jellyfish begin to sting them both.

The man calls into the night: “To infinity…”

“And beyond!” cries out the boy, laughing faintly, now nearly three miles away from his father. The man can’t see it, but the boy is pumping his fist in the air like Toy Story’s Buzz Lightyear.

It carries on like this, until, more than 12 hours later, a Coast Guard crew picks them up, cold but alive. After that, no one could say that watching cartoons was bad for you.

That true story, reported by newspapers in 2008, was just one more incredible triumph for Pixar. Since Toy Story, the animation geniuses have become the one of most critically acclaimed film studios in the history of cinema. They’ve earned 24 Oscars and more than $5 billion in worldwide box-office. Just as much as James Cameron and Avatar, John Lasseter and Toy Story invented a revolutionary new way of making movies.

Thank Lasseter’s mother. As an art teacher, she actually encouraged him to get up early on Saturdays to watch cartoons. “Even back when I was a kid I remember thinking, ‘Cartoons, that’s the job for me!’” he says. In high school, Lasseter wrote to the Disney studios and they quickly snapped him up – as a sweeper in Disneyland. After graduating in 1979, Lasseter went to work in the Mouse House for real. But Walt’s kingdom wasn’t the magical place he’d dreamed of.

“Disney was really sort of dead when I got there,” recalls Lasseter. “You got the feeling after a while that Disney animation had reached a certain plateau technically with 101 Dalmatians. People like me and Tim Burton were looked at as rabble-rousers.” Apart from the loud Hawaiian shirts that matched his pink, eager young face, Lasseter was just another Disney animator. Until two of his friends showed him a sequence from an experimental movie called Tron.

As he sat in a darkened screening room watching neon bikes streak and shatter across a 3D grid, Lasseter realised he was looking at the future. “The minute I saw the light-cycle sequence, which had such dimensionality and solidity, it was like a little door in my head opening to a whole new world,” he says.

Lasseter tried to enthuse Disney about CG by animating 30 seconds of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are using computer-generated backdrops. In an amusing case of myopia, Disney was too busy trying to figure out how to battle years of slumping box-office to worry about experimenting with untested technology.

It was 1981 and there was no such thing as a CG animated feature. Even the most spectacular examples of CGI made up just a few minutes of the running time. Three years later, Lasseter pitched The Brave Little Toaster, based on a children’s book told from the point of view of toys. Disney passed. Lasseter moved on.

He took a job at the computer-graphics unit of Lucasfilm, where he immediately helped conjure CG milestones including the ‘Genesis Effect’ in Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan and the Stained-Glass Knight in Spielberg’s Young Sherlock Holmes.

EXODUS

George Lucas wasn’t having anywhere near as much fun. His divorce, a drop-off from Star Wars revenues following the release of Return Of The Jedi and the catastrophic performance of Howard The Duck had left the beardy Hollywood mogul unusually strapped for cash.

Lasseter had been working for Lucasfilm for three years when Lucas decided to sell off his computer division to focus on filmmaking. Enter Apple Computer co-founder Steve Jobs, who handed $5 million to George and pumped another $5 million into his new company. They renamed it Pixar, a made-up Spanish verb taken from the word “picture”. 

Jobs’ core group of about 45 Lucasfilm hotshots, including Lasseter, was initially used by Disney to figure out a faster, slicker process for laborious 2D animation. They designed a revolutionary 3D graphics program called RenderMan, capable of creating a 3D animated scene packed with colour and detail. It was expensive and time-consuming, but the results were amazing: it allowed Pixar’s animators to achieve a realistic CG never before seen on the big screen. James Cameron became one of its biggest fans, using it for The Abyss and Terminator 2.

Lasseter had been busy, too. His witty, wonderful short Luxo Jr – about anthropomorphic desk lamps, one an exasperated parent, the other a playful child – was the first massive step forward for Pixar, becoming the first 3D computer-animated movie to be Oscar nommed.

Then he went one better: 1988’s Tin Toy won the Oscar for Best Animated Short. A series of hit TV ads confirmed Lasseter as Pixar’s golden boy. Disney’s new honchos Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg realised they’d let a serious talent slip through their fingers and tried to woo the director back. No chance. “I was having too much fun,” says Lasseter. “I felt I was on to something new – we were pioneers.”

But Pixar’s future looked black. The company had already lost $60 million of Jobs’ money. He was depressed and thinking of selling. So when Katzenberg, hugely impressed by Pixar’s shorts and software, offered them a contract to produce three feature films, Pixar’s staff were stunned. Not least because they were pretty sure CG feature films wouldn’t be possible for another five years.

To make it happen, Pixar needed money for more staff and more equipment. Katzenberg told Jobs that he never paid more than $15 million for an animated film and Jobs finally accepted. Katzenberg had outfoxed him – Beauty And The Beast had cost more than $32 million to produce. Pixar’s first film had to be a hit or the company was doomed. They turned to Lasseter.

STORY TIME

It was a slow start. Lasseter was an animator, he’d never written a feature-length script. But his team hit on an image that ended up in the middle of their film: a car driving off and abandoning a toy in the middle of nowhere. “We all had that lost toy that we felt was looking for us as much as we were looking for it,” says co-scripter Andrew Stanton. Based on Lasseter’s Oscar-winning Tin Toy, their treatment followed a tin soldier called Tinny trying to make its way home after being lost by a child at a highway rest stop.

Leaning on the ideas of screenwriting theorist Robert McKee, Toy Story quickly evolved into a buddy movie like 48 Hrs or The Defiant Ones. Tinny became a spaceman whose named changed from Lunar Larry to Morph to Tempus and finally Buzz Lightyear (after Buzz Aldrin). Named after Western actor Woody Strode, Buzz’s partner began life as a ventriloquist’s dummy. But when Disney execs decided his flapping jaw looked “creepy”, Woody became a stuffed cowboy doll with a pull-string, based on Lasseter’s favourite childhood toy, a Caspar The Friendly Ghost. “My parents knew I’d fallen asleep when Casper stopped talking,” he says. “It still talks today, only it’s so worn out that I’m the only one who understands what it’s saying.”

They were the perfect odd-couple. The old and the new. Roy Rogers and Buck Rogers. When Lasseter eventually put together a 30-second trailer to show off the characters and the animation technique, Disney executives were blown away. They appointed Joel Cohen, Alec Sokolow and later Joss Whedon to help develop the script. Toy Story was a go.

The Toy box filled up quickly. Hasbro approved Mr Potato Head but not GI Joe. Pixar renamed him Combat Carl and used him anyway. Whedon thought Barbie was perfect to save Woody and Buzz from their destructive next-door-neighbour Sid. “She’s T2’s Sarah Connor in a pink convertible, all business and very cool,” he said. Mattel execs refused to let their girl play and the team went with the docile Bo Peep instead. Interestingly, Pixar has been criticised for its lack of female protagonists ever since. The upcoming Brave, with Reese Witherspoon, will be their first movie with a female lead. (Look closely at one of the Sid’s mutant toy experiments, though, and you’ll see legs that look suspiciously like Barbie’s.)

Right from the start, Lasseter wanted Tom Hanks to voice Woody. Still gaunt and goateed after Philadelphia, the actor agreed to watched 30 seconds of test footage that Lasseter had soundtracked with his voice from Turner And Hooch. Hanks roared with laughter: “When do we start?” Billy Crystal turned down Buzz – he regretted it later – and Katzenberg took the role to Home Improvement star Tim Allen.

Neither man had done an animated movie before. Neither were paid superstar salaries. Neither knew what they’d sign up for: more than two years spent standing alone at a microphone on a soundstage reading from sheets of paper stapled onto cardboard to stop them rustling. Hanks began dreading his recording sessions 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.”

Still, things were going well, until Disney’s executive vice president of animation turned to Lasseter and said, “Gee, John, when are the characters going to sing?” Never, Lasseter curtly informed him. Understandably, Disney weren’t happy. They’d won four Best Song Oscars and four Best Score Oscars in the last six years. But they finally allowed Lasseter to hire Randy Newman to score the movie instead. The director’s victory would be short-lived.

BLACK FRIDAY

Ten months after production began, Pixar presented an early draft of the film. Disney took one look at it and immediately shut down production. Why? “The original Woody was a thundering asshole,” admits screenwriter Whedon.

Attempting to avoid cutesiness and layer the film with adult wit, Pixar had gone too far. The movie wasn’t fun. Buzz was a do-gooder. Woody was sarcastic. “Guys, no matter how much you try to fix it,” Disney animation chief Peter Schneider told them, “t just isn’t working.” That day, 19 November 1993, would dubbed “Black Friday” by Pixar staff.

Given three months to save the movie, Lasseter was enrolled in a screenwriting class. He reemerged with a new script, a more likeable Woody and a theme of that would run through every Pixar movie to come: a character ventures out into the real world and learns to appreciate his friends and family. Good news for Toy Story, bad for Hanks and Allen. “We had to go back and rerecord every single line of dialogue,” remembers Hanks, with a wince.

MAKING IT

If Hanks thought he had it tough, he should have spoken to the animation team. Lasseter’s 27 animators were digital puppeteers who had to coax winning performances out of the programmers’ 400 computer models. Woody was most complex of all, with more than 723 motion controls to animate his actions. His mouth alone was operated by 58 controls. “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.”

It was in these tiny emotional details that Lasseter discover the secret to what made Pixar’s films connect with audiences –from Slinky Dog’s foot twitching in his sleep to the softness in the eyes of Woody and Buzz. “John was able to take animation that was limited to special effects,” says Disney exec Thomas Schumacher, “that was perceived as cold, unappealing and slick, and project into it his warmth and charm and dimensionality.”

When a difficult phase of the production was achieved, a calypso band would appear unannounced in the Pixar hallways and the team would form a spontaneous conga line and go dancing through the offices. That was Pixar’s creative culture. Employees skateboarded through mazelike hallways filled with sweetie jars, arriving at offices packed with toys. Lasseter’s production team even created a special director’s chair for him: a wheelchair fitted with a drink holder, a horn and multi-coloured bike-streamers. Even Uncle Walt never had one of those.

HAPPILY EVER AFTER

After four years and 800,000 machine-hours, Pixar had a 77-minute final cut. Each one of the movie’s 1,560 shots had been created on computers – Toy Story had unlocked a new doorway to making fully CG cinema. Disney’s tradition cel-based animation looked like watching paint dry by comparison. “In 2D cel animation, if you want to slow down an arm movement 15 percent, you have to go back and erase all the animation and redraw it,” explains Lasseter. “Here we just move a key frame, and it’s done quickly.” Where The Lion King cost $45 million and employed 800 animators, Toy Story had a $30 million budget and staff of 110. Still, Disney spent $100 million promoting the film. If it flopped, it would flop big.

On opening weekend, Toy Story recouped its production costs by earning $39.1 million. One week after opening day, Pixar went public on the stock exchange and more than doubled its value instantly, turning Jobs into a billionaire. By the end of Toy Story’s theatrical release, the film had earned more than $200 million. Pixar was now a buzzword for brilliance. CG animation had arrived.

Along with Toy Story’s gratifying Oscar nomination for Best Writing, Lasseter received an Academy Special Achievement Award in 1996 “for the development and inspired application of techniques that have made possible the first feature-length computer-animated film.”

Today, with Disney having bought back Pixar for a staggering $7.4 billion, the company is still building on the revolution that Toy Story ignited. After Up became their first movie in 3D and their first to be nominated for Best Picture, now Toy Story 3 is going stereoscopic too.  You know where the rest of the story goes. To infinity…

Publication: Total Film

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Jonathan is a London-based journalist, critic and editor. He currently works for data visualisation agency Beyond Words.

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