20 Years of Toy Story

Animation Magazine - - Features -

The first all-dig­i­tal an­i­mated fea­ture — and the peo­ple who worked on it — still shapes the fu­ture of an­i­ma­tion.

By Karen Idel­son.

Twenty years down the road from its Nov. 22, 1995, release, the in­flu­ence of Toy Story is still felt through­out the film and an­i­ma­tion in­dus­tries. As a unique piece of art – the first fea­ture-length com­puter an­i­mated film and the first fea­ture from a then-fledg­ling com­pany named Pixar – the movie set the tone for the next two decades of work that was to come from the house that John Las­seter built with the help of some bril­liant, hard-work­ing friends.

While many stayed with the Emeryville, Calif.-based com­pany, oth­ers de­parted for their own projects and have since come to in­flu­ence and de­fine what an­i­mated films can be on the sets of their own projects. But ev­ery­one has a tale to tell about what they learned at Pixar – about learn­ing to let the best idea win no mat­ter who has it, about col­lab­o­rat­ing in a way that brings a project to its best end and, most im­por­tantly, hav­ing fun on a film while you’re work­ing as hard as you’ve ever worked on any­thing.

As they go for­ward with their own work in the com­ing years, which will mean ev­ery­thing from the next Smurfs film to new an­i­mated fea­tures like Stork, it’s clear they’ll be us­ing what they learned while work­ing on Toy Story. John Las­seter’s in­flu­ence is not just about sto­ry­telling tech­niques. It’s also about set­ting up an en­vi­ron­ment where ev­ery­one comes to play and plays at the peak of his or her skills. And it’s a les­son that those who are now di­rect­ing their own projects hope to emu­late and ap­ply.

Here some of the orig­i­nal mem­bers of the Toy Story crew talk­ing about what work­ing on the film mean to them and how it has in­flu­enced their ca­reers in the decades since the film was re­leased.

Bon­nie Arnold, now co-pres­i­dent of fea­ture an­i­ma­tion at DreamWorks An­i­ma­tion: “Up un­til that point, be­fore I met with John Las­seter, I hadn’t been in an­i­ma­tion or fam­ily films. It was a big move but I knew that Toy Story was go­ing to be spe­cial be­cause it was the first of its kind. We were all young and in­ex­pe­ri­enced then but John had such a clear fo­cus and we all knew we wanted to be part of it. It’s a film that changed the way movies are made and changed all of our ca­reers be­cause of his unique vi­sion.

“I think we knew it was go­ing to be great but we really had no idea it was go­ing to be that big and it felt won­der­ful to be part of some­thing so many young chil­dren loved. My daugh­ter is now 21 and Toy Story is 20 years old, so when she was fi­nally old enough to enjoy it, I was so happy to have worked on some­thing that would bring joy to chil­dren the way that this movie does.”

Kelly As­bury, now di­rect­ing a Smurfs fea­ture at Sony Pic­tures An­i­ma­tion: “I’ve never seen sto­ry­telling prin­ci­ples ap­plied more ef­fec­tively than they were at Pixar. They were fo­cused on the clas­sic sto­ry­telling tech­niques that Walt Dis­ney used and us­ing them to cre­ate mem­o­rable char­ac­ters the au­di­ence would love and re­mem­ber. They were also al­ways will­ing to break things down and ex­am­ine them and ask hon­estly if they were work­ing. If there was some­thing that needed to be re­worked for the sake of the story, they put the work into it and kept go­ing un­til it worked with the rest of the film.

“There was also this pas­sion for sto­ry­telling and for this de­sire to make the kind of movie they

all wanted to see. I was in­spired there by see­ing that. I take th­ese ideas with me as I work now.”

Robert Lence, now teach­ing writ­ing work­shops all over the world: “I can’t say enough how much work­ing on this film changed my life and ca­reer. It took me in a com­pletely new di­rec­tion. There I really learned about how a story gets told. They were all col­lab­o­rat­ing in a way that brought out the best in one an­other and John (Las­seter) cre­ated a place where ev­ery­one felt like they had some­thing to con­trib­ute, where that con­tri­bu­tion was val­ued, so peo­ple worked even harder, I think, be­cause of that. They all wanted to feel part of this thing we thought was go­ing to change how films were made and sto­ries were told.

“Even when they’d gone down a cer­tain road with the story and in­vested a lot of time think­ing they were go­ing to tell it one way, if it didn’t feel sat­is­fy­ing or didn’t seem like it was work­ing, they just started over when they felt like it was the best thing for the story. They took the ex­tra time to get it right, rather than just rush­ing to get it through pro­duc­tion and out into the the­aters.

“The clas­sic sto­ry­telling tech­niques they used are some­thing I use ev­ery­day now in my writ­ing and the classes I teach. What they used was not new but the way they used the tech­niques and the en­thu­si­asm they had for them were re­mark­able and it’s why I think we’re still talk­ing about Toy Story af­ter 20 years.”

Doug Sweet­land, cur­rently di­rect­ing Storks at Warner Bros.: “There al­most wasn’t a big enough an­i­ma­tion crew to make Toy Story on staff but there were so many peo­ple there with an eclec­tic set of skills that ev­ery­one just pitched in un­til things got done. And I think what set it apart was that John val­ued ev­ery­one so much. Now that I’m making Storks, I much pre­fer in-per­son meet­ings, which is why I’m fly­ing up to Van­cou­ver so much. You want to have that kind of con­nec­tion and con­tact with the peo­ple on the movie. John was al­ways talk­ing and con­nect­ing. You want peo­ple to feel heard and you want to be open to a great idea, no mat­ter where it comes from. That’s one of the most im­por­tant things I learned there.

“You had a sense at Pixar that they were hav­ing so much fun while they were work­ing so hard on ev­ery­thing and you don’t forget that kind of feel­ing.”

Wil­liam Joyce, started his own com­pany, Moon­bot Stu­dios, and now takes on ev­ery­thing from apps to short film projects: “I re­mem­ber driv­ing to the cast and crew screen­ing of Toy Story with John in his Toy­ota that had some­thing like 250,000 miles on it and stop­ping at FAO Schwartz to see if they had any toys from the movie yet. They had this one tiny, sad lit­tle end­cap and we bought a bunch of stuff. John bought all th­ese Woody toys. I bought Mar­tians and other things. And there was that feel­ing at the screen­ing that you can only have once, when you’re green and don’t know any­thing. We knew it was about to be huge and noth­ing would ever be the same again.

“Years later, we were back­stage at the Os­cars (af­ter hav­ing won for best an­i­mated short for The Fan­tas­tic Fly­ing Books of Mr. Mor­ris Less­more) and they were do­ing their ‘In Memoriam’ seg­ment and a pic­ture of Steve Jobs came up and I re­al­ized none of what I do would be pos­si­ble with­out Steve and the tech­nol­ogy he imag­ined. It really put it all in per­spec­tive.” [

Amovie that com­bines the tal­ents of hor­ror icons past and present such as Edgar Al­lan Poe, Bela Lu­gosi, Christopher Lee and Guillermo del Toro is a genre fan’s dream. That it also was done us­ing unique styles of an­i­ma­tion and re­leased as a the­atri­cal fea­ture is even more re­mark­able.

“No pro­ducer will bankroll an op­er­a­tion like this, where not only are you do­ing an an­i­mated film that is not for a fam­ily au­di­ence, but you’re do­ing an an­i­mated film that is a hor­ror film — and on top of that you’re do­ing it in a non­con­ven­tional style that no one has tried be­fore,” says Raul Gar­cia, di­rec­tor of Ex­tra­or­di­nary Tales, an an­i­mated fea­ture adapt­ing five Poe tales in dif­fer­ent an­i­ma­tion styles and re­leased Oct. 23 in a hand­ful of the­aters as well as on iTunes and VOD plat­forms.

Gar­cia, who has nearly 40 years ex­pe­ri­ence in the an­i­ma­tion busi­ness from cam­era op­er­a­tor to Dis­ney fea­ture an­i­ma­tor to di­rec­tor of the 2008 fea­ture The Miss­ing Lynx, says the movie is a pure pas­sion project he con­ceived as far back as the 1980s to pay trib­ute to all his child­hood artis­tic in­flu­ences.

Among those in­flu­ences were Ar­gen­tinian comics artist Al­berto Brec­cia, a friend of Gar­cia’s who died in 1993, whose work the an­i­ma­tor had al­ways wanted to adapt. Gar­cia’s ear­li­est tests — in­clud­ing an early at­tempt at com­puter an­i­ma­tion on an Amiga — were un­sat­is­fac­tory and shelved un­til the early 2000s, when the el­e­ments be­gan to fall into place with a short adap­ta­tion of The Tell-Tale Heart.

Per­haps the high­light of that short is the nar­ra­tion by iconic hor­ror ac­tor Bela Lu­gosi, which came from a cas­sette record­ing Gar­cia found on eBay. “When I put it with my an­i­matic, it matched the style and sud­denly ev­ery­thing came to­gether as a whole,” he says.

Af­ter restor­ing the record­ing, he con­tacted Lu­gosi’s son, Bela G. Lu­gosi, who said the record­ing was thought lost and made a deal with Gar­cia to al­low its use in the film.

Fol­low­ing up The Tell-Tale Heart — which earned ac­claim at fes­ti­vals such as An­necy and the New York City Short Fes­ti­val — was The Fall of the House of Usher, for which Gar­cia de­cided to shoot for the stars again and ap­proached ac­tor Christopher Lee to nar­rate. “I bless him for the film, be­cause he took the whole ad­ven­ture of making an an­i­mated film to an­other level,” says Gar­cia.

Vis­ually, Gar­cia went in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion from Brec­cia’s style to that of Pol­ish pup­peteer and an­i­ma­tor Jiri Trnka. “(I thought) it would be fun to try to do that but in CGI and try to get away from the pho­to­re­al­is­tic ren­der­ing that all the CGI fea­tures have.”

With Usher be­ing short-listed for the Os­cars, that gave the back­ers at the Lux­em­bourg Film Fund con­fi­dence to move for­ward with a fea­ture project.

The film was com­pleted with three more Poe adap­ta­tions — The Pit and the Pendulum, The Facts in the Case of M. Valde­mar and The Masque of the Red Death — as well as a fram­ing se­quence to tie to­gether all the seg­ments.

Among the tal­ent Gar­cia re­cruited for th­ese seg­ments are ac­tor Ju­lian Sands, movie icon Roger Cor­man and film­maker Guillermo del Toro, whose voice nar­rated The Pit and the Pendulum over vi­su­als in­spired by clas­sic EC Comics.

Pro­ducer Stephan Roe­lants of Melu­sine Pro­duc­tions set up the film with fund­ing from the Lux­em­bourg Film Fund. Co-pro­duc­ing the film were Bel­gium-based The Big Farm, R&R Com­mu­ni­ca­tions and Melon Dig­i­tal. Gar­cia did most of the pre­pro­duc­tion in Los An­ge­les, and called on his as­so­ciates at Ti­juana-based Boxel Stu­dio to com­plete the fram­ing se­quence.

The movie owes at least part of its com­ple­tion to the Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val, which con­sid­ered show­ing Ex­tra­or­di­nary Tales. “It wasn’t se­lected, but it got the film fin­ished,” says Gar­cia.

The movie be­gan play­ing at fes­ti­vals and gar­nered in­ter­est from GKIDS, which picked it up for U.S. dis­tri­bu­tion, and BAC Films in France which is act­ing as a sales agent and or­ches­trat­ing the fes­ti­val out­ings for the movie.

“That was per­fect for the film be­cause they are really good at mar­ket­ing th­ese lit­tle jewels that they are find­ing all over the world and they are good at open­ing up that niche mar­ket,” says Gar­cia. [

In an in­dus­try where big bud­gets, ad­vanced tech­nol­ogy and sleekly mod­ern vi­su­als earn the most at­ten­tion, the suc­cess of LAIKA Stu­dios demon­strates the ver­sa­til­ity of an­i­ma­tion to tell new sto­ries and the en­dur­ing ap­peal of an artis­tic vi­sion.

LAIKA is cel­e­brat­ing its tenth an­niver­sary hav­ing achieved much once thought un­likely, if not im­pos­si­ble. Its de­but fea­ture, 2009’s Co­ra­line, was the first stop-mo­tion an­i­mated fea­ture in years to find suc­cess at the box of­fice and with au­di­ences, and was nom­i­nated for the Best An­i­mated Fea­ture Os­car — as have the stu­dio’s fol­low up films, ParaNor­man and The Box­trolls. Its films have grossed a to­tal of $340 mil­lion world­wide — each earned more than $100 mil­lion — offering solid proof that stop-mo­tion can find an au­di­ence.

Op­er­at­ing in an un­likely look­ing ware­house-style com­plex on the out­skirts of Port­land, Ore., LAIKA is run by Travis Knight, who is one of the com­pany’s most ac­com­plished an­i­ma­tors as well as pres­i­dent and CEO.

“We want to make films that are bold, dis­tinc­tive, chal­leng­ing — even a wee bit sub­ver­sive,” Knight says.

Knight also is di­rect­ing the stu­dio’s next movie, Kubo and the Two Strings, a sa­mu­rai-type road trip movie due in the­aters Aug. 19 and built on the look of origami and look­ing to cre­ate an ex­pan­sive world stop-mo­tion has rarely been able to cap­ture.

“It’s been an am­bi­tion of mine (to direct), but I waited un­til I was ready,” Knight says. “It’s been the most sat­is­fy­ing cre­ative ex­pe­ri­ence of my life.”

Ari­anne Sut­ner, pro­ducer on Kubo, says the story lets the stu­dio tackle such dif­fi­cult tasks. “New things (on Kubo) were cre­at­ing really con­vinc­ing wa­ter — both above and be­low — and we have a lot of ac­tion and ad­ven­ture,” she says.

Like a Phoenix LAIKA rose from the ashes of the Will Vin­ton Stu­dios, where a freshly grad­u­ated Knight landed an en­try-level job in the 1990s and worked his way up to an­i­ma­tor. “It was a place that had a lot of history; it had clay pump­ing through its veins,” says Knight. “For a stop-mo­tion geek like me, it was cool to be a part of.”

But bad luck, poor man­age­ment and a re­ces­sion in the ad­ver­tis­ing mar­ket dragged down the com­pany and made it in­sol­vent and un­able to make pay­roll, Knight says.

“The com­pany was done un­less some­body came in to sal­vage what was left,” he says. “I was con­vinced there was some­thing spe­cial there that was worth saving.”

Work­ing with his fa­ther, multi­bil­lion­aire Nike co-founder Phil Knight, the core of Will Vin­ton Stu­dios was re­made in 2005 as LAIKA, named for the first dog launched into Earth or­bit by the Soviet Union in 1957.

“I think when we be­came LAIKA and Travis started head­ing the ship, all this po­ten­tial be­came re­al­ized, like when Henry (Selick) came in to do Co­ra­line,” says Brad Schiff, an­i­ma­tion su­per­vi­sor on The Box­trolls and Kubo.

Selick di­rected the stop-mo­tion fea­tures The Night­mare Be­fore Christ­mas and James and the Gi­ant Peach and brought a lot of prac­ti­cal ex­pe­ri­ence to LAIKA. Adapted from a young-read­ers novel by Neil Gaiman, Co­ra­line had a lot of qual­i­ties that were well suited to stop-mo­tion, in­spir­ing a look that stood in stark con­trast to the slick­ness of CG fea­tures.

Still, the film posed real chal­lenges that Knight says the crew at LAIKA rose to meet in un­prece­dented ways. “We didn’t know what we couldn’t do,” he says. “We just pushed past it and that spirit of in­no­va­tion has per­sisted in the 10 years we’ve been around.”

Pe­cu­liar in Port­land With stop-mo­tion tal­ent dif­fi­cult to find, LAIKA’s home base of Port­land, Ore., be­came a sell­ing point of its own. LAIKA has at­tracted tal­ent from all over the world and been suc­cess­ful in keep­ing them to­gether through the stu­dio’s many projects.

“There’s just some­thing a lit­tle down-homey and kind of gra­nola about be­ing here in Ore­gon,” says Schiff. “You don’t feel pres­sure from other stu­dios or fight­ing for tal­ent.”

An­thony Stac­chi, co-di­rec­tor of The Box­trolls, says work­ing at LAIKA re­minds him of the early days of his ca­reer, when phys­i­cal mod­els were used for vis­ual ef­fects. “It’s like walk­ing into an old film stu­dio in the ’30s and ’40s. They’re build­ing sets, there’s a cos­tume depart­ment — it’s all tan­gi­ble,” he says.

It’s also one where tech­ni­cal and cre­ative in­no­va­tions have ad­vanced the idea of what can be done with stop mo­tion, start­ing with im­ple­ment­ing a dig­i­tal-cap­ture sys­tem and shoot­ing in stereo­scopic 3D on Co­ra­line, to us­ing 3D prin­ters on ParaNor­man for el­e­ments like pup­pets’ fa­cial ex­pres­sions, to the more dy­namic cin­e­matic sto­ry­telling of The Box­trolls. “It’s a cu­mu­la­tive thing; we build on ev­ery­thing,” says Knight.

An­other goal for LAIKA is to ex­pand its band­width to make it pos­si­ble for the com­pany to pro­duce a film a year in­stead of ev­ery other year. Con­struc­tion is un­der­way on LAIKA’s fa­cil­ity to cre­ate ad­e­quate space for the ex­tra stages and shops re­quired for such over­lap­ping pro­duc­tions.

All of which will work, Knight says, as long as LAIKA holds on to the sto­ry­telling prin­ci­ples that make each story spe­cial.

“As proud as I am, the films we have com­ing down the pike are more ex­cit­ing,” Knight says. “It’s really go­ing to re­de­fine what we can do in an­i­ma­tion.” [

Toy Story

Kelly As­bury

Robert Lence

Wil­liam Joyce

Doug Sweet­land

Bon­nie Arnold

Tales’ takes on Fall of the House of Usher, top, and Masque of the Red Death.

Kubo and the Two Strings ParaNor­man Co­ra­line

The Box­trolls

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