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Angus MacLane talks about the little story details that made a big difference with Pixar's latest short, "Small Fry"

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Angus MacLane talks about the little story details that made a big difference with Pixar's latest short, "Small Fry"

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When the development team that was working of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" wanted to get the look of the Beast's castle just right, what did they do? These artists toured the Loire Valley in September of 1989, visiting many of France's famous chateaus.

And when the "Lion King" development team wanted to make sure that they really captured the look & feel of the African savannah, what did they do? They spent a week exploring Hell's Gate National Park in Kenya, sketching the flora and fauna.

Which brings us to Pixar veteran Angus MacLane. When John Lasseter gave Angus the go-ahead to begin development of "Small Fry," Pixar's latest "Toy Story Toon" (which reveals what happens to Buzz Lightyear when Bonnie accidentally leaves this Space Ranger behind when she and her family are visiting a local fast food franchise), what did MacLane do?

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"I went to a lot of fast food restaurants in my old hometown, Portland, Oregon," Angus explained. "15 total, I think. My favorite was this closed-down Burger King that had a carousel in its indoor play area. Which looked like it might be fun to visit during the day but would also seem creepy if you got left behind and locked inside after dark.

And given that MacLane has already directed one short for Pixar (i.e. 2008's "Burn-E," which was included as bonus material on the Blu-ray & DVD releases of "WALL-E."), Angus already knows the value of getting the little story details just right on these 7 minute-long animated films. Take - for example - the discarded Fun Meal Toys that Buzz encounters while he's trapped inside of the Poultry Palace.

"The idea that I quickly wanted to get across here  was that these were toys who had been left behind for a reason. That the kids hadn't found these playthings all that appealing when they first opened that Fun Meal box," MacLane continued. "So my story editor Josh Cooley and I came up with the idea of toys that were based on crossed genres. Two strong ideas that - when they came together - then made for one funny but really awful sounding plaything. So using that as our jumping-off point, Josh and I quickly came up with some really mishmashed, mismatched toys. Things like a ninja clown, a deer that practices tae kwon do, a funky monk, a vampire who drives a train. All beautifully rendered in the authentic Happy Meal style. But you can immediately see why a child wouldn't want to play with or keep a toy who looked like that."

Copyright Disney Pixar. All rights reserved

And for all you Disney trivia buffs out there: Keep a sharp eye out for that American History action figure who makes a quick appearance in "Small Fry" 's support group sequence. Doesn't that bald eagle (who's driving a race car that's shaped like the Declaration of Independence) look an awful lot like Sam, the Audio-Animatronic MC of Disneyland's old "America Sings" show? And while we're discussing projects from Disney's past, please note that one of the discarded Fun Meal toys who makes an appearance at this after-hours AA-type meeting is none other than Condorman, the title character of Walt Disney Productions' 1981 release.

"Josh and I had the same sort of fun coming up with a back story for Poultry Palace. Which we decided was this chain restaurant that initially did make chicken well but then made the mistake of expanding its menu," Angus laughed. "So if you check out the behind-the-counter menu boards, you'll notice that the Poultry Palace sells iffy-sounding products like the Chicken Shake and the Two Buck Cluck. We also tried to keep the medieval theme of this fast food restaurant going with things like the Cauldron of Cola."

Of course, given that "Small Fry" is a "Toy Story Toon" (which is based on Pixar's trio of top-grossing, much-beloved full-length animated features) ... Well, that meant that MacLane faced bigger challenges on this project than coming up with authentic-looking-but-awful-sounding Fun Meal toys as well as designing a funny-but-flawed fast food joint. Angus also had to direct A-listers like Tom Hanks, Tim Allen and Joan Cusack who provide the voices for Woody, Buzz and Jessie respectively on this short.

Copyright Disney Pixar. All rights reserved

"The only vocal directing that I'd done prior to this was Michael Keaton. He and I worked together on those 'Ken's Dating Tips' interstitials that I'd done for the 'Toy Story 3' Blu-ray and DVD. And while Michael was absolutely great to work with - I got to vocal direct Batman! - it's one thing to go from directing a single actor who's playing one character in three 30-second-long pieces to then having to direct a dozen or more famous actors who are all only available to you for a very short amount of time and who you need these very specific line readings from," MacLane said.

But Lee Unkrich (who had obviously worked with this group before) gave Angus some great tips when it came to vocal directing Tom and Tim. More to the point, MacLane was smart enough to know that you don't fix what ain't broke.

"Take - for example - Teddy Newton. He did what was originally supposed to be just a scratch track for the Fun Meal-sized version of Buzz. But Teddy immediately got what Josh and I were trying to do with this character, that this Buzz was totally obsessed with playtime. So he brought this great energy & intensity to his vocal performance," Angus continued. "And as soon as John heard Teddy's scratch track for Fun Meal-sized Buzz, he said that we had to use that vocal performance in 'Small Fry.' "

Copyright Disney Pixar. All rights reserved

Speaking of Mr. Lasseter, what does he think of the latest "Toy Story Toon" ?

"Well, John's always after us to find new ways to expand the 'Toy Story' universe. And up until now, we haven't really done anything with those 3 ½ inch-tall action figure-type toys from the 1980s. But now that we've introduced these Fun Meal-sized toys, we can finally start folding these 3 ½ inch-tall action figure-type toys into the 'Toy Story' universe. And John seemed pretty pleased with that idea," MacLane stated.

And how does Angus feel about "Small Fry" ? As a 14 year veteran of Pixar Animation Studios, MacLane seems very pleased with the way that his latest project ultimately turned out.

Copyright Disney Pixar. All rights reserved

"I feel like my career here at Pixar is on a nice trajectory. With each new production, I've been able to add to my skill set. This time around, for example, I got to learn how to vocal direct A-list actors. Which is a weird but necessary skill in the field that I work in," Angus concluded. "I'm just happy that - with 'Small Fry' - I got to make the film that I wanted to make. I mean, a Happy Meal support group is a very weird story idea. But John supported that idea. Which is why I then got to make what - for me, anyway - is a very personal movie. So I can't complain."

Well, here's hoping that someday soon MacLane gets to swap his multiple-visits-to-fast-food-joints for a leisurely research trip to the Loire Valley. Where - one hopes - you can at least get a better quality beverage to go with your order of "Small Fry.

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  • Fun read.  Shouldn't this article be out tomorrow after most people have seen the short?

  • I honestly hope they make actual Happy Meal toys out of these Fun Meal toys.

  • Great article, I love the mash-up of the toys idea. Only one thing, "Oregon", not "Oregan", just a native's pet peeve :)

  • I don't believe it. I just don't believe it. Pixar has, yet again, milked the cash cow, and all people can do is praise their efforts. If this was Disney, there would be some negativity by now.

  • This short was a yawner.  Not very funny at all.  The one time joke of lame toys didn't get more interesting the more they did it.

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