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The Tricks of Taking 'Toy Story' Onto Ice

March 21, 2000|JON MATSUMOTO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As ice skaters go, Eddie Gornik and Alexandr Klimkin aren't nearly as recognizable as former Olympic champions Scott Hamilton and Brian Boitano.

Nevertheless, what these two talented athletes and performers deliver as the principal performers in "Disney on Ice Presents Toy Story" is something special to behold, says Jerry Bilik, the ice show's vice president of creative development.

In its third year of touring the globe, the ice show, which comes to the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim tonight through Saturday, is a faithful interpretation of the popular 1995 computer-animated movie, "Toy Story."

Klimkin plays Buzz Lightyear, an elaborately costumed toy space ranger. Not only does the Russian-born skater flash his share of fancy on-ice moves, but he does so while dressed head-to-toe in a space suit adorned with a backpack and retractable wings. Easier said than done.

"Buzz Lightyear's costume is probably on par with something that NASA would make," explains Bilik. "The difference is that a NASA astronaut doesn't have to do double axles in it. The Buzz Lightyear character is a plastic doll, so the costume has plastic on it and other stuff that looks like plastic."

Costume-wise, Gornik has an easier task playing the role of the toy cowboy, Woody. But preparing the Salt Lake City native for a show isn't quite as simple as slapping a pair of jeans and a plaid shirt on the slender skater. His costume includes some of the most intricate padding to make it look like he's a doll and not a human, explains Bilik.

"Alexandr has a much harder time skating because the Buzz Lightyear costume is much bulkier," observes the 23-year-old Gornik, who skated competitively for 12 years before joining the "Toy Story" ice show.

"But even though my costume is one of the simplest ones in the show, it can still be difficult. I have to wear a 10-gallon hat in the shows and if it catches wind, it can throw off my balance."

Another challenge for Gornik was learning how to skate like a rather klutzy doll rather than the naturally fluid skater that he is. Gornik had to master the art of skating somewhat bowlegged to accurately capture the physically awkward Woody, who is an old-fashioned pull-string cowboy.

"Disney on Ice Presents Toy Story" is one of a slew of Disney-themed ice shows that Kenneth Feld has produced for family audiences over the years. But unlike the animated films "Beauty and the Beast," "The Little Mermaid" and "Aladdin" (all of which have been turned into ice spectaculars), "Toy Story" is not well known for its music. Absorbing music is seen as a crucial element to the success of a theatrical ice skating show.

"A lot of people said it wasn't possible to do an ice show of 'Toy Story' because skating is basically music driven," explains Bilik. "It took a lot of people, a lot of thinking and a lot of creativity to figure out how to turn this thing into a skating show. We love to surprise people."

Bilik--who has an extensive background as a songwriter, composer and music arranger--wrote one original song for the "Disney on Ice Presents Toy Story." Songs written and sung by Randy Newman in the film were also reinterpreted for the frozen pond version. However, the biggest musical addition was accomplished when Bilik took some of the music that is heard under the film's dialogue and placed IT front and center in the ice show.

There were also set design challenges involved in bringing "Toy Story" to the ice. "The real problem when we first started was, 'How are we going to make people think that 6-foot-tall skaters are toys?' " Bilik recalls. "We finally figured that we had to make everything else look big so that when you were watching the show the characters looked small."

The stage set includes 14-foot-tall gas pumps, 18-foot-high rockets and a 12-foot-tall bed. Much of the production's $8-million budget was devoted to creating the show's set pieces. Costumes, gadgets and special effects also proved costly.

R.C., a remote-controlled car, is a big crowd pleaser. Featuring a custom drive train, batteries, brakes, motor and T-bar steering mechanism, the self-propelled vehicle measures 10 feet long and 6 feet tall and weighs about 1,700 pounds. The wheelie-popping R.C. is prominently featured in the show's high-octane climax.

Bilik says "Disney on Ice Presents Toy Story" packs plenty of entertainment value, even for kids weaned on video games and high-tech, special-effects-laden movies.

"I have friends with young kids and they go, 'I don't want to see an ice show.' But they experience it and then suddenly it's, 'Those guys are cool.' The skaters win them over just by their performing ability," explains Bilik. "The kids realize that we offer something that a video game can't possibly offer, and that's live entertainment. A guy doing 10 double axles [which one character sometimes does during the course of the show] is not trick photography. Even if you're not an aficionado of skating, you'll appreciate it."

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