"Rule One: No Complacency": Inside The Early Years of PixarS

The early Pixar films, like Toy Story, still feel like a miracle. And a new book excerpt shows how much of that early creativity came from a handful of guys, sitting around a pile of toys. They wanted something as different from a Disney animated movie as possible, and they had one rule: "No complacency."

Deadline has a must-read excerpt from the book The CG Story: Computer Generated Animation and Special Effects by Christopher Finch. The chapter deals with the genesis of Toy Story and the early days of Pixar, and includes a brilliant glimpse into the creative process of John Lasseter and the gang:

John Lasseter has said that the first thing they did when they began thinking about Toy Story was to make a list of things that they did not want to be in it. Foremost among these was anything that resembled the ingredients of Disney movies of the period. Pixar would not attempt to top The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast. There would be no soaring musical numbers, no larger-than-life caricature villains, no cute comic-relief animals. The Toy Story Brain Trust had grown up with movies, television situation comedies, and action shows rather than Broadway extravaganzas. They decided to make a buddy picture, "along the lines," says Lasseter, "of The Odd Couple and Midnight Run."

Their point of departure was still Tin Toy, and the key setting would be a child's playroom, so a buddy for Tinny had to be found. The initial idea was to pair him with a ventriloquist's dummy. It didn't take long, however, to see that such old-fashioned toys would be very hard to endow with the kind of personalities that would keep audiences glued to their seats for an hour and a half. Tinny and the ventriloquist's dummy were consigned to the archives, and a new search for an unlikely pair of buddies was launched.

An action figure of some sort seemed to be a logical choice, but it took some time for the Brain Trust to settle on the idea of an astronaut with an almost psychotic sense of mission and self-worth. And so Buzz Lightyear, Space Ranger, came into being and was given a reluctant buddy in the form of Sheriff Woody, a pull-string rag doll souvenir of an imaginary early black-and-white television series. They would prove to be superb choices, but there would be a long period of growing pains before they evolved their final, satisfyingly interlocking personalities.

The first few months of development were a period of noisy to-and-fro discussion — sometimes raucously funny, sometimes argumentative — around a table littered with a Toys "R" Us–like inventory consisting of action figures, dinosaurs, Slinky Dogs, G.I. Joes, and Mr. Potato Heads, some of whom would be reborn as characters in the movie. Here were four grown men feeling their way back to childhood, but there was one rule in place that was distinctly adult. There would be no complacency. Nobody's ideas were immune to criticism. On the contrary, every effort should be made to shoot holes in each other's ideas, however sound they might seem on first inspection. This was in fact more than a rule, it was a creed, and the license to criticize, combined with the ability to take criticism, became a strong bond between the members of the Brain Trust. Not that this way of working was always easy. As someone who does his writing alone, seated in front of a computer, I once told Pete Docter that I envied his situation of developing a story in a group situation. He laughed and said, "You should try it sometime. It can be brutal."

The whole thing is well worth reading. [Deadline]