Book Review: The Toy Story Films – An Animated Journey, by Charles Solomon
It’s hard to believe that recently, I realized that author Charles Solomon had been keeping me in the loop on behind-the-scenes animation since I was a teenager. His hardcover book The Disney That Never Was (released back in 1995) was at the time, one of the few ways that many of us could see unused concept art and story material from The Walt Disney Archives.
In 2010, Charles also authored The Art of Toy Story 3, which not only showcased much of the film’s concept art, but provided a verbally entertaining story in regards to the film’s journey that spanned almost a decade, making it one of the most satisfying ‘Art Of’ books for a PIXAR production I had come across.
Which brings us to today, with Solomon’s recently-released The Toy Story Films – An Animated Journey. Book-ended with a foreword by Hayao Miyazaki and an afterword by John Lasseter, this 192-page book summarizes the trilogy’s history and work processes.
The book starts at the beginning, before the name PIXAR was on anyone’s lips. We go back to the early 1980’s at the Walt Disney Studios, where John Lasseter’s early experimentation of putting hand-drawn characters within moving 3-dimensional backgrounds was pooh-poohed, and his plans to use computers to create a film around the book The Brave Little Toaster was canned. John then joined Lucasfilm at the behest of Ed Catmull, where he became one of the first to help show that computer imagery could have a life beyond flying logos, with his work on The Adventures of Wally B, Luxo, Jr, and many other short films in which computer animation was given ‘character.’
We are then led into the early stages of development that would become Toy Story. From this point on, each of the Toy Story films is given its own chapter, which contain plenty of information on story development, along with concept and final art .
Toy Story’s production is chronicled quite well, telling of its original incarnation where studio notes made Woody into an edgy, mean-spirited ‘tyrant,’ and also hearing from various people about items such as the design of Sid’s home, or even the thrill and trepidation of working on the world’s first computer-animated film. Reading over it, I felt like John Lasseter and I were kindred spirits when I read about how he handled his toys as a child:
“I always felt John was a freak and Andy was a freak. No kid treats their toys that well,” counters Andrew Stanton. “I think most boys treated their toys like Joe Ranft and I did, which was play with them until they broke.”
The one area of the book I was most interested in, had to do with my favorite PIXAR film, Toy Story 2. Originally pitched as a direct-to-video feature, it soon was considered for a theatrical release, but was halted when the story being considered was not living up to the expectations of the senior leadership (who had been busy working on A Bug’s Life at the time, leaving a ‘B-Team’ to work on the Toy Story sequel). Due to the 11th hour production schedule to complete the picture to its final form (the final film we know and love was completed in 9 months, which is unheard of!), there was no time even for a ‘Making of’ book to be created in 1999. The breakneck experience is summarized very well, though like most rubber-neckers, I was hoping for more stories of what the artists went through trying to make that film. We get a few examples, but nothing quite as harrowing as some stories I’ve heard out there.
One section in the Toy Story 2 chapter chronicles an experience that makes John Lasseter seem eerily similar to Walt Disney. After a retreat in Sonoma and a frenzied few weeks in their Writer’s Room, John Lasseter called together the studio’s artists, and pitched to them the version of Toy Story 2 they were now going to make. The experience lasted over an hour with John referencing no notes , and the passion of his convictions made everyone in that room fired up to complete the herculean task of turning out a quality product. The experience is reminiscent of Walt Disney collecting his guys after dinner one evening in the mid-30’s, and pitching them the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, before announcing that they would then be making it into a film.
In the closing pages of the Toy Story 2 chapter, there are a few storyboards and a clip based on the Toy Story gang’s appearance at the Academy Awards that year, where Woody, Buzz, Jessie, & Bullseye were the presenters for Best Animated Short-Subject. Mr and Mrs Potatohead also were in attendance, but just as members of the audiences. Prior to this appearance, an animated segment had been made by PIXAR for the 1996 Academy Awards presentation, where Woody and Buzz analyzed John Lasseter’s Special Achievement Oscar for Toy Story.
Solomon even manages to shoehorn in a few pages that discuss the non-PIXAR-involved Toy Story 3 that was being worked on by Circle 7 Animation. There are several pieces of concept art, and one showing a rather shocking sight: an old human character seeming to talk to the toys! (note: Woody broke the no talking rule in Toy Story to save Buzz, so that gets a pass in my book).
For those who have followed much of Pixar’s history, the book just gives a few new bits here and there to the work done on the trilogy, but for newcomers, it’ll serve as a wealth of eye-opening material. One item that surprised me, were a few words regarding John Lasseter and storyman Joe Ranft’s original idea for a Toy Story 3 after the second film had been released in 1999. In my opinion, I’m glad that Andrew Stanton spoke up about how it sounded when they started work on Toy Story 3 in the last few years.
The book is also filled with plenty of little candid moments that explain how some ideas, are often the result of just a few words. Michael Arndt (screenwriter on Toy Story 3) recalled how they wanted Buzz to be ‘deluded’ in the third film, but in a completely new way:
“People started throwing out ideas like fast-motion Buzz or slow-motion Buzz. I was sitting next to Andrew [Stanton] and as an aside I whispered, ‘Spanish Buzz.’ Andrew immediately slammed his hand on the table; said, ‘Spanish Buzz!’; and it was off to the races.”
One downside to the book has to do if you have oily, sweaty fingers (like myself). The pages have a tendency to ‘collect’ fingerprints, so you might want to give your hands a real good scrubbing, or turn the page and put your hands to the sides.
Sweaty palms aside, Solomon has crafted a wonderful book that summarizes the creativity, determination, and enthusiasm that PIXAR Animation Studios provided to create these films that have been embraced by the world. There is even an epilogue in which several of the crew discuss how they didn’t set out to make characters that would assimilate into popular culture…but it is still a nice thing to have happen to something you pour a lot of time, effort, and heart into.
“People began to realize that this was a big deal. That we had in fact hit our stride, and this was what we were destined to do” – Ed Catmull, discussing the creation of Toy Story (from the documentary, The PIXAR Story)