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Playing with Toys -- Part II : How Howdy Doody showed us the way

Playing with Toys -- Part II : How Howdy Doody showed us the way

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Picking up where we left off last week ...

In early in 1997, we had been storyboarding on the sequel to "Toy Story" at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank. Occasionally, our small crew would fly north to meet with our Pixar colleagues. Our meetings were always high spirited and energetic because things were wide open at this stage of development. We sat in a circle in the Pixar story room and ideas were thrown back and forth so quickly our director, Ash Brannon struggled to referee what often seemed like a group of maniacs. The creative energy reminded me of my arrival at Disney back in the fifties and sixties when the story development process was controlled by artists and not executives. Coming to Pixar was like going back in time. Working in story was suddenly fun again.

One day, Kirk Hanson brought in a pile of old videotapes of "The Howdy Doody Show." This popular children's television program was a big hit in the 1950s. The show was presided over by Buffalo Bob Smith, but the star was really a cartoonish marionette named Howdy Doody. We hadn't seen this kid show in years, and to be sure it looked pretty primitive and tacky by today's standards. However, it was a jumping off point for a television show that would play an important part in our story. Woody the cowboy would eventually be the star of his own television show called "Woody's Roundup."

In the story development process, characters and ideas come and go. Originally, Woody was being sought after by a group of New York City toy collectors who would make an appearance in the film. However, additional human characters would only be a chore to pull off effectively. The toy kidnapper, Al McWhiggen would be tough enough to animate, since -- at that time -- digital humans were never as engaging as their toy counterparts. Having the buyers reside in Japan, and never seen, was a more effective story-telling device.

 Senorita Cactus
The lovely Latina was replaced by Jessie the  Cowgirl
Sketches by John Ramirez

I'll bet most of you didn't know that included in our cast of toy characters was a cute cactus toy named, Senorita Cactus. This lovely Latina was in cahoots with the Prospector as they connived to convince Woody to come with them to the Tokyo Toy Museum in Japan. I storyboarded a number of scenes with this cactus cutie until director Ash Brannon called to tell us a feisty young cowgirl had replaced the lovely lady cactus. We all thought the addition of this character was a brilliant idea, and we couldn't wait to get started doing drawings of Jessie the Cowgirl.

In spite of all these good times, it soon became clear our little group was breaking up. John Ramirez had accepted a position at Warner Bros., and Don Dougherty would be moving on to do story work on "Tarzan." Kirk Hanson and I were the last two remaining Disney story artists on the sequel. Added to that, the bosses at Pixar requested that the two of us move north to work with the rest of the crew.

A week later, Kirk Hanson and I grabbed a Southwest flight to Oakland. Kirk headed for his hotel, but I drove straight to Pixar Animation Studios in Point Richmond and checked in at the front desk. A nice young man, named A.J. Riebli escorted me across the train tracks to Frogtown, and Pixar's new production facility. As I walked down the hallway, one of our new producers, Karen Robert Jackson spotted me. The attractive young woman walked up to me and ripped the visitor's pass off my shirt. "You're no visitor," she said. "You work for Pixar now!"

And work, I was about to learn, was just beginning. Our new producers were Helene Plotkin and Karen Robert Jackson, who informed us of an upcoming screening of the film. New storyboards were needed, so the story crew would be working late that evening. So, even before I could check into my hotel room, I was on the drawing board preparing for my first all-nighter. My story colleagues couldn't help but laugh and say"Welcome to Pixar."

 Working at Pixar usually meant working late.
What the heck. We were lovin' it.

I lived in a condo in nearby San Rafael. Each morning I would rise early and head down to a nearby coffee shop for a hot latte. As I sat on the patio enjoying my coffee, I could feel the morning sun on my face and the cool breeze blowing in off the bay. Finishing my coffee, I would enjoy a pleasant drive across the San Rafael Bridge to Point Richmond for another day of work. As I drove through the light morning fog, I could see the ferry crossing the San Francisco Bay down below. The air was fresh, the traffic was light, and another exciting day was beginning. I couldn't help but think to myself "Man, it doesn't get much better than this."

Working at Pixar had an aura of coolness and cutting edge. On Friday mornings the Pixar bosses would invite the staff to brunch, and speak of the studio's growth and upcoming plans. Usually, these pep talks were presided over by John Lasseter and Pixar's owner, Steve Jobs. When the session was over and the employees mingled together over sandwiches & coffee, I took the opportunity to hook up with several old friends from the Los Angeles area.

At times, I found myself standing next to the boss, Steve Jobs. And I could overhear him grumble about the way Apple Computer was being run. As early as 1997, I had no doubt Mr. Jobs would soon be leaving his day job at Pixar and returning to Apple. Jobs and partner Steve Wozniak forever changed the way we look at personal computing, and Steve had more work to do. Since Pixar Animation Studios was now considered a successful studio, Steve Jobs could focus on more important matters.

The story artists in the Frogtown facility had individual offices. But we seem to spend a good deal of our time in the main story room hashing out the movie. I remember days when the crew would engage in a "story jam" that would last for hours. During these madcap sessions there would be laughing and yelling as sketches were pinned, ripped down, and redrawn on the spot. When we completed a sequence, the floor was littered with sketches and the storyboard was a haphazard mishmash of sketches done by different guys in different styles. Then the "chaotic mess" would be pitched to our co-director Ash Brannon for his take on the sequence. Once again, this "insane" way of working was in direct contrast to our colleagues down south where the process went according to the "efficient system" the creative executives had put in place.

 "Free at last, free at last !"
I'm working at Pixar and having a ball

Of course, there were also disappointments along the way. I remember the day co-producer, Helene Plotkin told us there was no way we could include the "Barbie" sequence in the movie. The cost was too high, and we simply didn't have the time or the money to pull it off. I confess, many of us were in love with that wacky sequence, and to see it suddenly cut from the film was a major setback. However, this was only a little direct-to-video movie, and we had to deal with reality. But what if this movie was a theatrical feature film? We would have more time and money, and so much more could be done. Could such a change be possible I wondered? Clearly, it was too much to hope for.

On occasion, the Pixar "Brain Trust" from across the tracks would storm into the main story room to see how we were doing. However, these visits from Andrew, Joe and Pete were brief because they were still hard at work trying to wrap story on "A Bug's Life." We also had visits from writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio who would one day give us "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" & "Dead Man's Chest."

However, we would soon have a more important visitor from Pixar's main facility across the tracks. There was someone else who wanted to check on our progress, and this guy's opinion truly mattered. No doubt you can probably guess whom I'm talking about. His name is John Lasseter.

What did Lasseter think of the movie? We were about to find out.

 My sketch of Woody's trusty steed, Bullseye
This was drawn back in 1997

Next time ... "Toy Story 2" gets upgraded to a theatrical feature film, Barbie gets a Spanish lesson, and we learn a lesson from visiting school kids who ask an important question.

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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  • Another great article, Mr. Norman.  But, what a way to leave us hanging!  What could the important question be...???!!!

  • Great, great. Fabulous suspense at the end, hehe. Can't wait for Part III.

  • Dang! Part III can't get here soon enough!

  • ENCORE!! ENCORE!!! Articles like this help make Jim's site the BEST Disney site on the web! Thanks so much, and can't wait for part III!

  • Everyone else has said it already, but yeah!  Great article.  I love hearing all of your interesting insider tales, and am excited for part three.

  • Great article - I love the drawings of Seniorita Cactus, but I think the switch to Jessie was brilliant - she added such a spectacular dimension as a counterpoint to the reserved Woody.  I'm looking forward to Part III - the real part 3, not the silly thing that pops up when we inadvertently put our cursor over the annoying link.

  • That Senorita Cactus is really cute, but I agree with the post above.  TS2 without Jessie is impossible to imagine.

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