The first all-digital animated feature — and the people who worked on it — is still shaping the future of animation.
Twenty years down the road from its Nov. 22, 1995, release, the influence of Toy Story is still felt throughout the film and animation industries. As a unique piece of art – the first feature-length computer animated film and the first film from a then-fledgling company named Pixar – the movie set the tone for the next two decades of work that was to come from the house that John Lasseter built with the help of some brilliant, hard-working friends.
While many stayed with the Emeryville-based company, others departed for their own projects and have since come to influence and define what animated films can be on the sets of their own projects. But everyone has a tale to tell about what they learned at Pixar – about learning to let the best idea win no matter who has it, about collaborating in a way that brings a project to its best end and, most importantly, about having fun on a film while you’re working as hard as you’ve ever worked on anything.
As they go forward with their own work in the coming years – which will mean everything from the next Smurfs film to new animated features like Stork, it’s clear they’ll be using what they learned while working on Toy Story. John Lasseter’s influence is not just about storytelling techniques. It’s also about setting up an environment where everyone comes to play and plays at the peak of his or her skills. And it’s a lesson that those who are now directing their own projects hope to emulate and apply.
Here some of the original members of the Toy Story crew talking about what working on the film mean to them and how it has influenced their careers in the decades since the film was released.
Bonnie Arnold, one of the most successful producers working in animation today: “Up until that point, before I met with John Lasseter, I hadn’t been in animation or family films. It was a big move but I knew that Toy Story was going to be special because it was the first of its kind. We were all young and inexperienced then but John had such a clear focus and we all knew we wanted to be part of it. It’s a film that changed the way movies are made and changed all of our careers because of his unique vision.
“I think we knew it was going to be great but we really had no idea it was going to be that big and it felt wonderful to be part of something so many young children loved. My daughter is now 21 and ‘Toy Story’ is 20 years old, so when she was finally old enough to enjoy it, I was so happy to have worked on something that would bring joy to children the way that this movie does. ”
Kelly Asbury, now directing a Smurfs animated feature: “I’ve never seen storytelling principles applied more effectively than they were at Pixar. They were focused on the classic storytelling techniques that Walt Disney used and using them to create memorable characters the audience would love and remember. They were also always willing to break things down and examine them and ask honestly if they were working. If there was something that needed to be reworked for the sake of the story, they put the work into it and kept going until it worked with the rest of the film.
“There was also this passion for storytelling and for this desire to make the kind of movie they all wanted to see. I was inspired there by seeing that. I take these ideas with me as I work now.”
Robert Lence, now teaching writing workshops all over the world: “I can’t say enough how much working on this film changed my life and career. It took me in a completely new direction. There I really learned about how a story gets told. They were all collaborating in a way that brought out the best in one another and John (Lasseter) created a place where everyone felt like they had something to contribute, where that contribution was valued, so people worked even harder, I think, because of that. They all wanted to feel part of this thing we thought was going to change how films were made and stories were told.
“Even when they’d gone down a certain road with the story and invested a lot of time thinking they were going to tell it one way, if it didn’t feel satisfying or didn’t seem like it was working, they just started over when they felt like it was the best thing for the story. They took the extra time to get it right, rather than just rushing to get it through production and out into the theaters.
“The classic storytelling techniques they used are something I use everyday now in my writing and the classes I teach. What they used was not new but the way they used the techniques and the enthusiasm they had for them were remarkable and it’s why I think we’re still talking about Toy Story after twenty years.”
Doug Sweetland, currently directing Stork: “There almost wasn’t a big enough animation crew to make Toy Story on staff but there were so many people there with an eclectic set of skills that everyone just pitched in until things got done. And I think what set it apart was that John valued everyone so much. Now that I’m making Stork I much prefer in-person meetings, which is why I’m flying up to Vancouver so much. You want to have that kind of connection and contact with the people on the movie. John was always talking and connecting. You want people to feel heard and you want to be open to a great idea, no matter where it comes from. That’s one of the most important things I learned there.
“You had a sense at Pixar that they were having so much fun while they were working so hard on everything and you don’t forget that kind of feeling.”
William Joyce, started his own company, Moonbot Studios, and now takes on everything from apps to short film projects: “I remember driving to the cast and crew screening of Toy Story with John in his Toyota that had something like 250,000 miles on it and stopping at FAO Schwartz to see if they had any toys from the movie yet. They had this one tiny, sad little endcap and we bought a bunch of stuff. John bought all these Woody toys. I bought Martians and other things. And there was that feeling at the screening that you can only have once, when you’re green and don’t know anything. We knew it was about to be huge and nothing would ever be the same again.
“Years later, we were backstage at the Oscars (after having won for best animated short for The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore) and they were doing their ‘In Memoriam’ segment and a picture of Steve Jobs came up and I realized none of what I do would be possible without Steve and the technology he imagined. It really put it all in perspective.”