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Playing With Filmmaking : Disney Gets Ready to Roll Out the First Computer-Animated Feature, With Voices of Tom Hanks and Tim Allen as Toys Competing for Attention


RICHMOND, Calif. — Step into the cyber-studio that is Pixar, and your immediate impression is just how low-tech everything is. Situated in a decidedly unglamorous industrial park just north of Berkeley, the first thing seen in the computer-animation company is one of at least two dogs on the premises distractedly loping down the hall. The second is a production assistant tooling down the same hall on a scooter.

This begs the question: What, if anything, is getting accomplished here?

History in the making is one answer; the odds-on bet for a winter blockbuster is another. Despite the modest surroundings, this is home to the upcoming Disney production "Toy Story," Hollywood's first computer-animated feature, starring the voices of Tom Hanks and Tim Allen.

"Toy Story" is an animated buddy movie--two different people associated with the production evoked it and "The Defiant Ones" in the same sentence--concerning the competition between two toys owned by a young boy. Cowboy Woody (Hanks) is the child's undisputed favorite until sci-fi action figure Buzz Lightyear (Allen) enters the picture. The two bicker until they get lost, then must combine their strengths if they want to escape the sadistic neighborhood bully.

Director John Lasseter, a former Disney animator responsible for the Oscar-winning Pixar short "Tin Toy" as well as "Luxo Jr." and "Knickknack," has been working on "Toy Story," his feature debut, since 1991. Toys take up just about all the shelf space in his office, and not just for research purposes--he collects all manner of quirky and exotic toys.

In the movie, he says, "all the toys are adults, thinking of the kid's room as a workplace. Being a toy is their job, so the room would be their workplace. So you have middle managers, company men, guys questioning authority, incredibly insecure guys who know they're gonna be laid off, climbers seeking that next promotion."

Producing the film are Bonnie Arnold and Ralph Guggenheim. Arnold's credits include associate-producing "Dances With Wolves" and "The Addams Family," but she had never worked in animation before. Guggenheim is vice president of feature production at Pixar and produced the Pixar shorts, but has never worked on a feature film before. So, Guggenheim concludes with a laugh, "Between the two of us, we almost make up one experienced person."

But then, the pool of experience in this particular venture isn't terribly deep. "This has never been done before," he says. "There were no job descriptions. No one's done this before. How do you find people to do it? We grew from a staff of 25 to 110 people involved in the film. People have come from a variety of backgrounds, but have a special skill that is very applicable here."

"People are here who are computer scientists, who are from the theater, from architecture, stop-motion [animation], claymation, but had never used computers," adds Arnold. "We told them, if you're looking for a job with a job description, this is the wrong place. We didn't know how even to manage the process, really."

Nonetheless, they must be doing something right; footage shown to exhibitors on the Disney lot this past winter garnered a reaction at least as positive as that for the summer hit "Pocahontas."

Disney had tried to rehire Lasseter in the past, and Pixar had developed software for Disney. In 1990, the companies discussed collaborating on an animated film. In February, 1991, Pixar executives pitched what became "Toy Story" to Disney ("If you go back and look at it, it's remarkably unchanged from what it is today," says Guggenheim), and within a few months, Pixar had a three-picture deal with the studio.

In January, 1993, Pixar made a presentation of its vision for the film to Disney head Michael Eisner, showing a sequence employing dialogue by Hanks from the movie "Turner and Hooch." Not long after, Hanks and Allen were aboard. It's just a coincidence that two of Hollywood's hottest actors lend their vocal talents to the film, say the producers.

"This was before Tim had done 'The Santa Clause,' and Tom had just shot 'Philadelphia,' but it hadn't come out yet," says Arnold.

Adds Guggenheim, "Animation films work so slowly, careers can be made or broken before they come out."

And animating "Toy Story" is a process perhaps more pain-staking than traditional cel animation. Bluntly put, nothing exists. Sets, characters and props exist only in the ether of Pixar's cyberspace. Thumbnail sketches and storyboards paper Pixar's offices, but nothing hand-drawn will find its way into the film. Even the film's animators agree that it's strange not to have a physical representation of their work.

"In live action, you build the set, then fill it with stuff you buy and find," Lasseter says. "We have these 3-D sets, but everything strewn around them had to be built from scratch [in computers] before we started.

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