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Playing with Toys -- Part I : Funky Filmmaking in Frogtown

Playing with Toys -- Part I : Funky Filmmaking in Frogtown

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It was the early nineties and I decided to stop in Pasadena's Old Town on my way home from the studio. I had just parked on Green Street when I noticed a car pull up directly behind me. A tall young man stepped out of the vehicle and called my name. Though I had not seen him in months I immediately recognized my old friend, Joe Ranft.

"Floyd," Joe shouted. "You've got to come up north. We've got some great things going at our studio." I had just signed a contract with Disney Feature Animation and purchased a town home in Pasadena, so I reluctantly begged off. It was a decision I came to regret, because the project Ranft was excited about was a little film called "Toy Story."

Few of us get second chances in life -- but this time I lucked out. After the success of "Toy Story" in 1995, Pixar Animation Studios moved ahead on their second film. But the Walt Disney Company was anxious to capitalize on the success of their landmark digital film. So production of a direct-to-video sequel quickly moved into development.


 I did some early sketches back in 1997 of Al McWhiggen, the  Prospector, and Jessie the Cowgirl.
I had not yet moved up north to Pixar Animation Studios

"The Sequel" (as "Toy Story 2" was called at the time) began with a meeting in a third floor conference room on a Friday afternoon in December 1996. Present at the meeting was WDFA VP Thomas Schumacher, Toy Story producer Ralph Guggenheim, director Ash Brannon and animator Jimmy Hayward. Disney and Pixar had decided to move ahead on the sequel to the hit film "Toy Story." Since John Lasseter and his crew were still plugging away on "A Bug's Life, it became apparent that an additional production team would be needed to create the film that would be distributed as a direct-to-video motion picture. The film would also have the advantage of the digital assets already created for the first film. However, there was even more good news. The Pixar guys had come up with a dynamite story that opened up all kinds of possibilities. As a matter of fact, I hadn't heard a pitch this good in years. When asked if I wanted to be involved, it was hardly a question worth asking.

When work began on "The Sequel," Pixar's production facility in Richmond, CA had already begun to feel the pinch. At the time, the studio housed nearly three hundred people toiling away on the feature film, "A Bug's Life." Luckily, construction was going on across the street on a former piece of marsh land the Point Richmond locals called Frogtown. One of the new facilities constructed on this site would eventually house the production crew of Pixar Animation Studio's third animated feature film.

Visiting Pixar Animation Studios in 1997 was much different than what you'd experience today. The studio was located in a non-descript industrial park in Point Richmond, California. The little town could easily have been a set for "The Twilight Zone," because the town looked as though it had somehow been stuck in the nineteen fifties, and couldn't find its way out.

I don't think the townspeople had any idea Pixar even existed. Athough some might have wondered what the kids who wandered the streets did for a living. Each day, young people walked the quiet streets and frequented the restaurants and coffee shops at lunch time. Then they made their way back across the railroad tracks and disappeared into a low slung industrial facility where they would not be seen until the next day.


 Our main story room at Pixar's "Frogtown" facility in Point Richmond, CA 

In many ways, Pixar was the anti-Disney. The mouse house employed thousands, while Pixar could count its staff in the hundreds. Legions of executives managed Disney Feature Animation while Pixar's owner, millionaire Steve Jobs worked out of an office no larger than most of his artists. The main facility was a creative patchwork of rooms and cubicles reflecting the artistic proclivities of its inhabitants. Unlike Disney's stylish high tech screening rooms, Pixar's main projection space was filled with cast-off furniture that looked like it had been picked up at a garage sale or flea market. Ideas were incubated in this crazy, haphazard environment, and some employees even brought their dogs to work.

I arrived at Pixar Animation Studios in early spring 1997. Oddly enough, it was the same day the ribbon was cut, champagne was poured, and the sequel crew moved into the new facility. Our producer Ralph Guggenheim raised a glass and gave the toast. "Pixar Animation Studios is now a campus," he proclaimed. Yet, even though we had a brand-new building, we were still the little guys across the tracks in Frogtown.

What was I doing at Pixar Animation Studios that spring? Well, I had already been storyboarding on "The Sequel" for about five months. Actually, story work began on the sequel in January 1997. We began working from a rough script by screenwriter Steve Boyette. The Disney story team of Don Dougherty, John Ramirez, Kirk Hanson and myself began the process of story boarding the first few sequences in the film. Our Disney group video conferenced three times a week with our colleagues up north in Point Richmond. Pixar's story team consisted of Ken Mitchroney, Matthew Luhn, Davey Crockett Feiten, Dave Fulp and Charles Keagle.


 That's me and storyman, Ken Mitchroney working on the "Barbie" sequence in the film

Few of the team at Disney Feature Animation was even aware of the Pixar project. They were all working on the "important films" that were sure to be the upcoming blockbusters. At the time, Pixar was simply the "little brother" up north. Sure, they had come up with a hit film. But that was probably a fluke. Disney was still the undisputed master in the production of animated feature films. Because we had been banished to work on a Pixar direct-to-video movie, we bore the stigma of not being qualified to work on the "good stuff."

One might imagine the story process was pretty much the same at both Disney and Pixar, right? Basically, yes, but there were differences. At Pixar our sketch pads were half the size of the Disney pads, and we pinned our sketches to the storyboard with one pushpin.

This process annoyed one visiting Disney story artist because he insisted that the sketches be pinned to the storyboard with two pins. However, this artist totally missed the point. Our story sketches were soon to be discarded. In fact, that's the whole point of the story development process. Story sketches are not beautiful drawings to be admired. Rather, much like a flow of ideas, story sketches are temporary. They're meant to be ripped off the board and replaced by a better idea. Pinning the story sketches with one pushpin helped us keep that in mind.

A visit to a Disney story room in the nineties would impress you with its organization and neatness. Our Pixar story room was a mess. Sketches littered the floor, a drum set occupied a corner of the room, and toys were strewn everywhere. This organized chaos proved to be the perfect incubator for great ideas while Disney's corporate story development style was already beginning to show signs of stalling.


 Cool Pixar preproduction art from Pixar Animation Studios

Things appeared to be going well, until our producer Ralph Guggenheim cancelled a Friday lunch meeting. In the next few days, we would understand why. It seemed Ralph was not only stepping down from his assignment as producer of the movie, but leaving Pixar Animation Studios altogether. Somewhat taken aback, we were about to be given two new producers, and a new co-director. There was some good news, however. Our movie finally had a name. The sequel would be called "Toy Story 2."

Next time ... Steve Jobs & John Lasseter announce upcoming changes as work on the film continues. Our new bosses would be two lovely young women, and Ash Brannon would gain a co-director. We were making progress, but there were many challenges still ahead.

Did you enjoy today's story about "Toy Story 2" 's origins. Well, that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the many stories that Floyd Norman has to tell. Many of which you'll find in the three books Floyd currently has the market. Each of which take an affectionate look back at Norman's career in animation.

These include Floyd's original collection of cartoons and stories -- "Faster! Cheaper! The Flip Side of the Art of Animation" (which is available for sale over at John Cawley's cataroo.com) as well as two follow-ups to that book, "Son of Faster, Cheaper" & "How the Grinch Stole Disney." Which you can purchase by heading over to Afrokids.com.

So if you want to please any animation fan that are on your holiday shopping list, you might want to consider getting them copies of Floyd Norman's great books.

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  • Great article, Floyd :) Really nice to know more background information about Toy Story 2 ;)

  • Mr. Norman, that's a great article.  I can't WAIT for Part 2!  Interesting stuff.  I love the sketches!

  • (The three F's in the title are nicely done too)

  • I believe that's Billionaire Steve Jobs. :-)

    Great story! Can't wait for Part 2. Amazing when you think of what Pixar produced vs. what Disney produced with their neat offices and two pins.

  • Wow, great article! I've read elsewhere about TS2, and how it happened to become a feature rather than direct-to-video...but I won't spoil it here. I'm sure there are many details to come. Hurry up, Part 2!!!!

  • Love the backstory, Floyd! The "Sequel Stigma" you spoke of reminds me of working on the "B" picture, "Lion King" rather than on the "A" film, "Pocahontas".

  • Real curious about that first draft script by Steve Boyette. Hope Floyd will share some of that with us. Like to learn more about how the story got all the great things.

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  • Buy Children Christmas Gifts presents online from Laser Pegs. Laser Pegs are toy construction sets where the children use their imagination to build just about any shape they desire.  With Laser Peg, your child will connect a piece to a power source.

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