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The Pixar TV special you never got to see, "A Tin Toy Christmas"

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The Pixar TV special you never got to see, "A Tin Toy Christmas"

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In response to this week's Toon Tuesday column, CC writes in to say:

"Pixar wanted to produce a holiday special back in the 1980s?! Come on, Jim. You've GOT TO write an article about that."

Ask and ye shall receive.

But please keep in mind that the Pixar that I'll be writing about will not be the great & powerful animation studio that we know today. But -- rather -- the still-struggling hardware company that only made short films like "Luxo, Jr." & "Red's Dream" because it wanted something to show off at SIGGRAPH. Make would-be buyers aware of what was possible with the Pixar Image Computer. Which (it was hoped) might then spur sales of these rather expensive & poorly selling machines.

At least that's what Steve Jobs thought was going on. But the folks who were actually making these award-winning shorts had a very different goal in mind. As Pete Docter recalled in an interview that he did for Allan Neuwirth's "Makin' Toons: Inside the Most Popular TV Shows and Movies" :

"Ed Catmull -- who's the president of Pixar -- had long had dreams of doing a feature film using computers. He had this plan loosely in place that we would start by doing shorts, then we would do commercials ('cause shorts don't actually earn any money) ... and then we were gonna television of some sort, working our way up to features."

And when "Tin Toy" won the Oscar for Best Animated Short in 1988 ... Well, that award finally gave Pixar a high enough profile that it could then approach Madison Avenue and offer its services. Who (as it turns out) were downright eager to hire this CG operation to produce fresh looking & funny commercials for products like Listerine, Tropicana orange juice, Lifesavers and Trident gum.

 Copyright 2007 Disney / Pixar and Chronicle Books

So now the second goal in Ed Catmull's carefully thought-out plan had been achieved, it was now time to aim for Goal No. 3. But if Pixar was going to branch out into television, what should this project be about?

As Karen Paik recounted in "To Infinity and Beyond! The Story of Pixar Animation Studios" :

The inspiration ... can be traced back to the 1988 Holland Animation Film Festival, where (John) Lasseter was screening "Tin Toy," and (Joe) Ranft was scouting talent for Disney. Lasseter remembered, "Joe looked at 'Tin Toy' and said, 'You know, I just love this idea of toys being alive. It's such a big world. There are so many more stories you can tell with it."

Lasseter took Ranft's story suggestion and ran with it. Over 1989, John talked with Joe, Pete and Andrew Stanton about how they might revisit the world of "Tin Toy." Only this time around, with an eye toward developing a longer form story that Pixar might then be able to pitch to the television networks.

And given that this was a story that would prominently feature toys ... Well, it was really a no-brainer that this project should be a holiday special.

Given that they hoped to cash in on the fame associated with "Tin Toy" 's Oscar win, it was decided that this holiday special should be called "A Tin Toy Christmas." And as for the show's proposed storyline, Pete Docter -- again talking with Allan Neuwirth -- remembers it going something like. Tinny (i.e. the title character from "Tin Toy") is ...

Copyright 2007 Disney / Pixar. All Rights Reserved

... a toy that in the 1940s doesn't sell and so is put away in storage. "And it's sort of like Rip Van Winkle. When he wakes up, it's the bustling nineties, and he's in this huge megastore like a Toys 'R' Us."

Now where this gets interesting is that -- at the very start of this holiday special -- it was going to be established that Tinny was one of a set of tin toys that performed music. So when he finds himself alone in today's world, this tiny wind-up toy decides to set off in search of his former band mates.

From what I hear, the story that Lasseter, Ranft, Docter & Stanton crafted for "A Tin Toy Christmas" was a real charmer. With Tinny first encountering a junkman and then befriending a chatty ventriloquist's doll before ultimately reuniting with his friends. And given that television executives had been very enthusiastic about the commercials that Pixar had produced to date, John & Co. thought that this project would then be a slam-dunk with the networks.

Well, the people from Pixar were in for a rude shock. For the network execs that they spoke with absolutely loved the characters and the concept, they still weren't willing to pony up all of the dough necessary to actually produce "A Tin Toy Christmas." As Docter (again talking with Neuwirth) recalled:

"The bare bones budget that we could make this for was still, like, eighteen times more than what the network was gonna give us."

And given that what the television networks was willing to spend on this new holiday special was only a fraction of what Pixar could make from producing television commercials ... Well, this animation studio just couldn't abandon that lucrative business and then go off chasing Part 3 of Ed Catmull's 4-part plan. Particularly not given the $50 million that Steve Jobs had invested in the company to date without receiving any significant return on that investment.

Copyright 2007 Disney / Pixar. All Rights Reserved

So Lasseter & Co. reluctantly shelved their plans for "A Tin Toy Christmas." Little realizing that another holiday-themed story would soon make it possible for Pixar to finally get into the feature animation business.

How so? Well, you all know Tim Burton, right? That visionary director who brought us such weird but wonderful films like "Beetlejuice," "Edwards Scissorhands" and the soon-to-be-opening "Sweeney Todd" (Which is terrific, by the way) ? Well, just like Lasseter, Burton started out his show biz career at Walt Disney Feature Animation. And while he was working for the Mouse in the early 1980s, Tim too came up with a concept for a brand-new holiday special. Something in the vein of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas."

Maybe you've heard of it? "Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas" ?

Tim Burton's original sketch of the Jack Skellington character.
Copyright 1993 Walt Disney Company & Roundtable Press
All Rights Reserved

Anyway ... Because Burton had concocted this Dr. Seuss-influenced project on company time, the Walt Disney Company owned "The Nightmare Before Christmas" outright. But even as Tim left Mickey's employ in 1984, he still hoped to someday tell the tale of Jack Skellington. Which is why in late 1989 -- on the heels of the huge success of the Burton-directed "Batman" -- the quirky filmmaker contacted Mouse House officials and asked politely if he might buy back the rights to "Nightmare."

Disney (Which -- with the November 1989 release of "The Little Mermaid" -- was just getting its second golden age of feature animation underway) made a counter proposal instead. Given that they were looking to diversify the types of films that Walt Disney Feature Animation was producing, they now wanted to make "The Nightmare Before Christmas." But not as a hand-drawn film. But -- rather -- just as Burton had originally envisioned the project, as a stop-motion production.

Of course, given that Disney didn't have all that many artists on staff who were familiar with the stop-motion technique ... To pull off a full-length film that would then make use of this extremely hands-on, labor-intensive animation process was going to involve hiring dozens of new artists and technicians. Not to mention setting up a satellite production facility somewhere ... But the Mouse was willing to do this, if that then allowed the Walt Disney Company to start doing business with a guaranteed hitmaker like Tim Burton.

Now keep in mind that -- every time Pixar had previously released a new short -- Disney officials would then begin calling John Lasseter. As they tried to lure this talented filmmaker back to Burbank so that he could then begin directing animated features for the Mouse. But each time Disney called, Lasseter resisted. Insisting that -- if Mickey really wanted John to start making pictures for Walt Disney Studios -- then they'd have to hire all of Pixar. For John was no longer a solo act. He was a member of a team.

John Lasseter circa 1995 doing publicity for "Toy Story" 's original theatrical release.
Copyright 2007 Disney / Pixar. All Rights Reserved

But because -- up until that Tim Burton deal, anyway -- the Mouse had always produced all of the animated features that the studio had released, the terms & conditions that Lasseter kept trying to set made that deal a no go. But now that Mickey had cut that deal with Tim, a precedent had been set.

Which is why -- in late 1990 -- Peter Schneider, the then-head of Disney Feature Animation, made a call to Ed Catmull and said "Okay. We're now willing to consider the idea of hiring Pixar to come make an animated feature for Walt Disney Studios. So do you guys want to come down here and pitch us some story ideas?"

Of course, Ed was thrilled by Peter's offer. The only problem was ... The folks at Pixar had yet come up with a viable concept for a full-length CG feature. Oh, sure. There was all that development work that had been done on aborted projects like "Monkey" and "James and the Giant Peach." But Schneider was going to want something solid, something that would play to Disney's core audience of kids & families.

So what did they do? Well, once again turning to Allan Neuwirth's interview with Pete Docter for "Makin' Toons" :

"We sat around, and we thought and we thought. I remember John finally saying, 'What if we took this 'Tin Toy Christmas' and and extrapolate it out into a feature?' Well, we didn't know what we were doing, so we just said 'Sure!' " (Docter) laughs. "And that was the beginning of 'Toy Story.' "

Of course, over time and much story development, Tinny would eventually morph into Buzz Lightyear and that ventriloquist dummy that he met in his travels would eventually become Woody. But back in 1991 ... "Toy Story" originally started out life as a super-sized edition of "A Tin Toy Christmas."

 Early character concept art for "Toy Story," back when
Tinny was still supposed to be this CG feature's lead.
Copyright 2007 Disney / Pixar. All Rights Reserved

Looking back on the way things eventually worked out, John Lasseter (in an interview with Karen Paik for "To Infinity and Beyond!") said:

"When I was at the Disney Studios ... Tim Burton had an office literally across the hall from me ... Both of us had this idea to do our short projects and then develop a feature idea that would use the techniques we were interested in. So for me, it's great that it was 'Nightmare Before Christmas' that opened the door for 'Toy Story' -- it kind of brought that old Disney connection full circle."

Mind you, if you look close, it's easy to see that "Toy Story" actually started off life as a holiday special. Particularly in the film's final sequence, which is set on Christmas Day. When Buzz Lightyear is anxiously awaiting word on what Andy's new toys might be.

 Copyright 2007 Disney / Pixar. All Rights Reserved

Anyway, CC, that's all I know about "A Tin Toy Christmas." I have to admit that I've always had a fascination when it comes to this particular project. And given the important part that this never-produced holiday special played in the history of Pixar Animation Studios, I keep hoping that someday more of the preproduction art that was created for those network pitch sessions will eventually see the light of day.

In fact, given that some of the concept drawings that John Lasseter once did for a proposed featurette that was supposed to have been based on Hans Christian Andersen's "The Nightingale"  ...

Copyright 1982 Walt Disney Productions. All Rights Reserved

.... were eventually used by Disney Press to create a beautiful little children's book ... Is it really too much to hope that someday someone digs all that "Tin Toy Christmas" preproduction art out of Pixar's archives and then uses these images to create a new holiday storybook?

Better yet, maybe Disney / Pixar could then use the proceeds from the sales of a "Tin Toy Christmas" storybook to create a scholarship fund in the late Joe Ranft's name? Who -- FYI -- storyboarded on all three of the projects discussed in today's article: "Tin Toy Christmas," "Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "Toy Story."

What do you folks think of that idea?

And speaking of Christmas-related stuff ... If you'd like to show your appreciation for all the great stories that you regularly read on this website, then why not start off your next Amazon shopping spree by clicking on the above banner? That way, JHM gets a tiny little chunk of whatever you spend.

Thanks for thinking of us. And Happy Holidays!

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  • What? No comments yet? Jim, this is the sort of stuff that makes your site unique. I would love to see a future Pixar flick based on Tinny! Keep up the good work.

  • Nice article.  I knew a lot of that already, but it was interesting to learn the connection between 'Nightmare' and 'Toy Story'.

    Of course, you missed the key point that made the Pixar deal viable for Disney and would lead to trouble down the road: Pixar got basically the *same* deal as Burton, which included Disney ownership of the film/characters/etc.  While this was, obviously, the only way Disney would have backed 'Toy Story', it did prove to be the sticking point when the production deal was coming to an end.  Disney refused to sell 'Nightmare' to Tim Burton, and there was no way they were going to allow Pixar to get their hands on 'Toy Story', et. al.  (a key demand from Steve Jobs).  Like the Burton production, the only way Pixar would get control over their Disney films was to "bring them in".  In the case of Burton, it just meant doing the film for Disney/Touchstone.  In the case of Pixar, it meant Disney buying the studio.


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