20 Years of Toy Story
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.” [