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Playing with Toys -- Part III: "So where was the dog ?"

Playing with Toys -- Part III: "So where was the dog ?"

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Picking up from last week ...

As usual, I decided to sit in the rear of the theater at Pixar Animation Studios. It was the day of the John Lasseter screening of "Toy Story 2," and I decided it was best to remain out of sight. This was nothing new for me. I learned this back in the sixties at the Disney studio when attending meetings with the Old Maestro. All the "important" people had to sit up front with John. Much the same way the old guys had to face Walt. On days like this, I figured it's good not to be important.

The movie, still mainly in story reel, was pretty much complete -- except for the wrap up. When the film ended, and the lights came up, everyone in the room waited for Lasseter's reaction to the screening. And, if I recall correctly, it was a long time in coming. There were a fair number of"ahh-hhs." as John pondered the movie's problems -- and then he went right to the issues in the story.

I would probably be correct in saying I was the only person in the room that had attended story meetings with both Walt Disney and John Lasseter. And, I'll have to admit that Lasseter -- like Walt -- was able to pinpoint the problems in the film. Being older, I was never part of the '70's Cal Arts gang. And perhaps this gave me a different perspective. However, it was on this day that I realized John Lasseter was the real deal, and his story instincts were solid. Could Lasseter have been channeling Walt, I wondered? Not one to gush over leaders, I confess I was impressed.

 It's been another long day, and we're beat. That's story manager Renee
co-head of story Dan Jeup and me

Armed with Lasseter's notes, (I still have them, by the way) the writers and board crew went back to work fixing the story problems. New people had come on board as "Toy Story 2" began to pick up momentum. Dan Jeup was our new Head of Story, and David Salter joined Edie Bleiman in Editorial. Over time, more artists and animators would join the crew as they spun off of "A Bug's life."

Co-director Ash Brannon asked me to put together a story reel of Jessie the Cowgirl using the voice track of actress Holly Hunter. I thought this a perfect casting choice. Who better than Holly Hunter to play a rough & tumble cowgirl? I admit I was somewhat taken aback when Ash told me he had cast Joan Cusack instead of Ms. Hunter for the role. Was this a mistake, I wondered? My fears were abated once I heard Joan Cusack's voice tracks. Her performance was wonderful, as she pushed Jessie in a whole new direction. Jessie the Cowgirl is a real nut case, as well as being totally warm and lovable. My office at Pixar was near editorial, so I could hear Joan's tracks throughout the day as I worked. The animators did a terrific job, but it was Joan Cusack who brought Jessie the Cowgirl to life.

I forgot to mention that all this time I was shuttling back and forth between Burbank and Point Richmond on weekends. I still had a life to maintain down south, and I often needed to grab stuff from my office at Disney. One Saturday while in the animation building I saw my old friend, Chris Sanders working on a presentation for a new film. It looked really cool, and I hoped that somebody would be smart enough to let him make it. He called the movie "Lilo & Stitch."

Back up in Richmond the boarding on the movie continued hot and heavy, and we begin to wonder how we would wrap up this exciting story. Somebody suggested a locomotive chase through the toy store. After all, Nick Park had already done a nifty train chase in one of the Wallace & Gromit films, and it was hilarious. Eventually, that idea was scrapped, but we did manage to pull off a "train chase" at the airport with the luggage carts as the "train." Speaking of airports, did you know that we sent a video camera through the luggage system at San Francisco International airport to get a "toy point of view" as the toys searched for Woody and Jessie? I still can't believe the airport authorities allowed us to do that. Such a request today would probably land all of us in jail.

 My sketch of the Prospector. He turned out to be more
"Frasier" than Gabby Hayes, but it seemed to work better.

Since "Toy Story 2" would welcome back the original voice cast, we only had to cast a few new characters. David Ogden Stiers had been cast earlier as the prospector, and I thought he was an excellent choice. However, Kelsey Grammer eventually replaced the very talented Stiers. Known for his role as a pompous snob on television's "Frasier," Grammer seemed a better fit for the scheming, self-important prospector Stinky Pete. At one point, comedian Don Knotts was considered for Bullseye the Horse. But Ash decided Woody's faithful steed would play better as a non-speaking character.

The movie still had a long way to go, but I couldn't help feel a sense of validation when Disney announced in February 1998 that "Toy Story2" was now a theatrical feature. I had been annoying poor Janet Healy for months about our little direct-to-video movie getting an upgrade. Jane was the Disney development executive attached to our film, and I sincerely doubt anything I said changed Disney's mind. However, I continued to make a nuisance of myself each time I saw her. We had screenings on a regular basis at the Burbank studio, and in time, the mouse house executives began to see the movie's potential. One afternoon we showed what we had to the Disney chiefs at the Northside facility near Burbank's Bob Hope Airport. When the lights came up, I overheard one executive remark, "That film is gonna make us a lot of money."

In spite of the good news, things still had a way to go. The second act was still wonky, and not focused. Jessie's back-story was still unclear, and Buzz Lightyear's dealing with his alter ego needed to be addressed. We were working with an excellent premise but the second act of our story still left a lot to be desired.

 The storyboards extend out into the hallway. You can bet there were
  a lot of storyboards on this film.

One evening, local elementary school children were given a tour of Pixar. The kids seemed to like our drawings, and all were fans of the original movie. However, they caught us off guard when they asked a very important question. "Where's the dog?," they inquired. If you recall the first film, it wraps up at holiday time with Woody and Buzz finally the best of buddies. Our two heroes had proven themselves able to deal with anything that might come their way. Then, we hear a dog bark -- they look at each other -- and the movie ends. Perfect, right?

So where was the dog? We suddenly realized that -- in our effort to make a great little film -- we had totally overlooked a very important character in our story. And it took a bunch of kids to bring it to our attention.

By summer of 1998, I was back at Disney in Burbank doing visual development for a new animated film. Co-director Ash Brannon and co-producer Helene Plotkin were in Studio B on the Disney lot. They were recording new dialogue with Tom Hanks, Tim Allen and Jodie Benson. I received a call from my former bosses to get over to Stage B. I arrived in time to watch Jodie Benson record the dialogue for the "Barbie" sequence. Though seven months pregnant, the lovely Ms. Benson was great as she did her ever-so-cute shtick as Barbie. While recording her tour guide spiel (Something we've all experienced at Disneyland), someone had the bright idea that Jodie repeat her dialogue in Spanish. All of a sudden, there were disagreements over how the line should be read from those who spoke Spanish. One guy even stopped the recording session to call his mother because she spoke fluent Spanish. Finally, someone retrieved a recording of the actual Disneyland spiel from Disney artist Scott Tilley.

 Our storyboard sketches were kept simple because we had to do them  quickly.
No need to fuss over "pretty" drawings when doing story. Something the
Disney studio in the '90s must have forgotten.

Now that we had Barbie speaking Spanish correctly, we asked Jodie to give us a series of syrupy sweet "goodbye lines" we could use in the movie. You can hear all the "buh-byes" Ms. Benson recorded for us on the "Toy Story 2" DVD. The session was done, and I looked over to see my exhausted producer with her head down and her dark hair spilling over the desk. It had been a long day. As we headed out of the stage and onto the Disney lot, my former bosses finally told me the reason they had sent for me. The movie -- although making progress -- still had a lot of rough spots. Would I consider coming back to Pixar?

I'll let you know my decision in the final installment of this series.

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 as always :)

  • Nice picture of Renee...

    Sure do remember the boards in the hallways! Lots and lots of boards.

    Jesse as a character really did need a boost to make the audience care about her. The song and sequence did it perfectly.

    I always thought that Ricardo Montalban would have made a better choice for the Prospector. Kelsey Grammer was just a too safe, IMHO.

    Some of the Pixarian's in the link: Ken Mitchroney, Bud Luckey, Jeff Pidgeon and Steve Boyett. One of the train trips to Reno.

  • Great again, Mr. Norman!  Those were some perceptive kids!  Yay for them!  Can't wait for the final installment!

  • Ah, another great installment of this terrific series. Now, I have to say...I read somewhere that it was Tim Allen (voice of Buzz Lightyear), who persuaded Disney to make TS2 a feature. Is that correct? Also, I must add that I LOVE Jessie the Cowgirl. My sister, who grew up watching the Roy Rogers TV series (and who wanted to be a cowgirl herself), loved Jessie too, and says that she has just the right wholesome, rambuctious spunk and fighting spirit she'd expect from a 1950's-type female range rider. IMO, Jessie needs her own spin-off, especially if she got a pony of her own to ride (another dream of my sister's that, alas, never came true.) Anyway, another wonderful article. Kudos and thanks to Floyd and Jim!

  • Joan Cusack as Jessie was genius - as Gigglesock said, she brought a great level of spunk to the character, and I think she was the most endearing character in the film.

    I also think the choice of Kelsey Grammer was a good one because his soothing voice as the Prospector lulled us into thinking of him as a good guy with psychological insight (a la Frasier), which made the double-cross that much more shocking.  Giving him the name "Stinky Pete" was an added contrast to his voice (of course, when we saw the "outtakes" we understood why he was such a stinker!).

    Thanks for another wonderful installment, Floyd.

  • Animation legend Floyd Norman completes his four-part series about the production of "Toy Story 2." In today's installment, Floyd talks about the last year of production on this Ash Brannon / John Lasseter film. As the crew struggled to solve several

  • The inside story on the making of Toy Story....

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