by Karl Cohen
To celebrate Toy Story turning 20, John Lasseter and three of his associates recently talked about the early days of Pixar for almost two hours at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre. Judging from the large audience’s enthusiastic responses, hearing Lasseter, Ed Catmull, Pete Docter and Andrew Stanton discussing how the company grew from being a tiny experimental division of George Lucas’ ILM into a world famous studio was a highly successful and fascinating look behind the scenes. The benefit for the San Francisco Film Society included lots of recollections of what it was like to be pioneers in computer imaging. The guests of honor saw computer art grow from being a medium that could barely create crude simple forms to one capable of producing Toy Story, the world’s first completely computer-generated feature.
Ed Catmull first discussed his graduate student work at the University of Utah (1970-74). His PhD project was the creation of a crude image of a hand that could bend its fingers. Ed figured out how to refine the motion so it seemed natural. A further challenge was how to create curved lines and to cover his wireframe with a smooth surface. It didn’t look like human skin; that technology hadn’t been invented yet.
Ed Catmull’s college project
After college Dr. Catmull continued his research at the NY Institute of Technology and elsewhere. Then in 1979 George Lucas, fresh from his success with Star Wars, decided to see if he could somehow turn the computer into a useful tool for creating special effects. Perhaps it might also prove to have other useful applications so he hired Catmull to head his research division.
An early project was creating a digital model of an X-wing fighter. Other projects involved 3D animation research and developing a digital editing system. Later in the evening Ed acknowledged that he was a scientist first and although he loved animation and wanted to be an animator, he knew he lacked the necessary skills so he needed others to be his artists.
John Lasseter talked about being a student at Cal Arts and then being hired and eventually fired by Disney (1979-83). John was imagining new ways to use the computer as an animation tool, but Disney executives didn’t show much interest in paying him to explore the machine’s potentials. When Catmull asked John to be a member of his team in 1983 he wasn’t hired as an animator but as a digital designer. There were no staff animators at that point. Among the historic photos shown was a young, well-dressed John sitting at a Pixar sales desk at a trade show.
In 1986 Steve Jobs bought Lucas’ computer division and named it Pixar. At the time there was no off-the-shelf hardware or software available so they had to build or create everything. This was the only hint that evening that Pixar also became a major software developer.
John, realizing the limitations of computer imaging in the 1980s, figured out that they could create an interesting demo reel and even tell a story using characters that looked like they were made of metal or plastic. They could render shiny surfaces at that point, but not textures like soft fabrics, hair or human skin.
Steve Jobs’ small staff worked hard to complete their demo-reel in time for SIGGRAPH 1986 in Dallas Texas. The subject would be a simple story about two metal lamps, inspired by one of John’s two Student Oscar winners, The Lady and the Lamp. In that hand-drawn film the lamps come to life when no humans are present.
One of 7 Student Films on Pixar Short Films Collection 2.
John worked long hours on the demo reel including pulling all-nighters where he ended up sleeping on the studio’s floor in a sleeping bag (a photo of John in a bag was shown to prove that story was true). The demo reel was called Luxo Jr. (1986) and when it was shown at SIGGRAPH ’86 John said the audience “went nuts,” they were “blown away.” Luxo Jr. went on to win an Academy Award nomination and other honors.
Luxo was followed by other shorts: Red’s Dream (1987) featured a unicycle, Tin Toy (1988) won an Oscar and finally Knickknack (1989) was made in stereoscopic 3D. Each film was more complex while becoming artistic and audience successes.
Both John and Ed praised Jobs for risking his own money on Pixar. He believed in what they were doing and was willing to finance their animated fantasies even though Pixar lost enormous sums of money each year until the release of Toy Story in 1995.
Catmull, Jobs and Lasseter knew they wanted to try to create a feature, but first they needed experience working with deadlines and a larger staff. They also needed to develop other skills plus improve their software and hardware.
The next step in the development of Pixar was working with Colossal Pictures to produce a series of cutting–edge TV commercials. The first animators hired were two recent graduates from CalArts, Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter. They also hired Joe Ranft, who had been teaching at CalArts and Bud Luckey from Colossal Pictures.
While they were producing TV commercials they also began to plan their next step forward, a half-hour TV special using characters from Tin Toy. They prepared a pitch for it and took it to every studio in LA except the company that had once fired John. (They showed us a clip from it.) All rejected it, so in desperation they took it to Disney. Disney didn’t like the idea either, but they suggested that they come back and pitch a feature project!
John, Joe, Bud, Andrew and Pete got to work trying to create that feature. They thought it would be a buddy film as that approach hadn’t been tried yet in animation. (Live action buddy films were successful.)
John was now a father so he was a firm believer in using toys as his stars. He knew kids really love them. He thought creating a space cop would be cool toy for the film as America had recently landed men on the moon. The crew decided that his buddy would be a complete opposite. Bud suggested that a cowboy would fill that role and that he could resent the space cop who was replacing him as the top toy in the house.
Unfortunately, when they took their brilliant script ideas to Disney, the pitch session didn’t go well. Disney executives thought the cowboy was a nasty jerk, especially in the scene where Woody pushes Buzz out a window. (The pitch included an “animatic,” rough sketches that illustrate the action, set to a basic voice track. That clip was shown and Woody was indeed nasty.)
John also admitted that Woody as the top toy in the house was ruling the other toys with fear. Disney executives decided that parents and teens were not going to buy tickets to a film about toys. Now they wanted Pixar to create a film that would also appeal to teens and adults. They were ready to terminate first the project.
It was Pixar’s “Black Friday,” but Ed suggested to Disney that his team could do a rewrite and they would come back in two weeks. In two weeks? That was an impossible challenge. A typical studio couldn’t do that, but the guys from Pixar insisted they could pull it off, and they did.
Toy Story Black Friday Reel
The Pixar team felt sure they were on the right track so they improved the existing script rather than starting over with a plot that was more adult. They believed their vision, if presented properly, would appeal to all ages. What they showed Disney was a script much closer to the one we are now familiar with. And the project got approved!
A lot of delightful stories were told about making the feature. I loved seeing the long video clip of Joe Ranft doing a storyboard presentation.
(I got to know Joe when he was working on Nightmare Before Christmas. I was also delighted to see several photos of Bud Luckey. I first met him at Imagination Inc. in the 1970s when he jammed with musicians from Turk Murphy’s Dixieland Band at company parties. They would stop by the studio before going to work nearby at Earthquake McGoon’s. I talked with him again a few years later when I visited friends at Colossal Pictures. I knew people admired Bud at Pixar, but I didn’t know that he had played a major role in the development of Toy Story.)
There were a few final surprises for us. I was amused at the Toy Story “out-takes” shown. They included an off color gag of Buzz and Woody in a heavy kissing scene.
The live presentation ended with our being told that when the film was in production Pixar tried to interest toy manufactures with the idea of creating full sized Buzz and Woody dolls (12” and 15” high). Every major toy manufacturer in the US rejected the idea. Finally a Canadian firm decided to manufacture smaller versions. Reluctantly they were talked into making full size copies using the computer data that was being used to create the film. They were skeptical that they would sell, so the first edition was only a few thousand copies. They sold out in one week and today over 35 million 15” high Buzz Lightyear toys have been made.
John is particularly pleased that one of those dolls holds the record of being the astronaut with the longest stay in space. He showed video clips of Buzz floating in space inside the space station. That Buzz doll now belongs to the Smithsonian Institution.
Trivia fans take note: Buzz was named after astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second person to walk on the moon. John also acknowledged from the stage that the words “buzz” and “woody” are used as sexual and drug slang terms, but he maintains they were not thinking of that when they named their characters.
After the intermission Toy Story was screened on the Castro’s giant screen along with two clips from The Good Dinosaur, Pixar’s next feature, with director Peter Sohn introducing it.
One was a charming scene of a boy, Spot, and his buddy, the small Apatosaurus dinosaur Arlo chasing fireflies at night. It was full of glowing colors set against a dark blue sky. That was followed by a sentimental moment with both the boy and dinosaur remembering their lost parents. The dinosaur looks like it was designed as a plush toy so I suspect copies will be available in stores just in time for Christmas.
Special video editions of Toy Story are available at Amazon.
Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur opens in theaters everywhere Wednesday, November 25.
Karl Cohen has been teaching animation history at San Francisco State University since 1993, and has been writing about it since the late 1970s. A notable collector of animated films, he is the author of Forbidden Animation: Censored Cartoons and Blacklisted Animators in America. As the president of ASIFA/San Francisco, he edits and writes for the ASIFA/San Francisco newsletter, read by animation fans around the world. He is currently writing a book on animated propaganda and has written for EatDrinkFilms.com about Pixar, classic Disney animators Marc Davis and Charley Bowers.
San Francisco Film Society is among the lucky organizations to have Pamela Gentile taking photographs at their events. She started at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 1985 where she has photographed directors, actors and other film artists ranging from Akira Kurosawa, Angelica Huston, Clint Eastwood, Francis Ford Coppola, Agnes Varda, Robert Altman, Miranda July, and Spike Lee to Zooey Deschanel, Elijah Wood, Matthew Barney, Greta Gerwig, Guillermo Del Toro and Lily Tomlin.
For a selection of her work visit: PamelaGentile.com