By Leo N. Holzer
Special to Pixar Planet/Upcoming Pixar
John Lasseter is a crowd-pleaser, first as chief creative officer overseeing films at both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios and now as someone relishing his new role guiding theme park development through Walt Disney Imagineering.
I recently spent a few minutes with Lasseter at Disney’s California Adventure talking about Toy Story Midway Mania and many more minutes with others involved with the development of this amazing new attraction.
“The goal that I have working with Walt Disney Imagineering,” Lasseter said, “is you want to make a ride so good that once you get off it you want to get back in line and ride it again immediately. That’s the goal and there’s nothing less than that in my book.”
What follows is a transcript of my short interview with Lasseter. Highlights of interviews with Imagineers Bruce Vaugh, Kevin Rice, Kevin Rafferty, Chrissie Allen and Pixar’s Roger Gould specifically about this high-tech wonder will follow in the days ahead.
Q: John, tell me about the impetus of this ride, combining your “Toy Story” characters with classic midway games:
A: I’ll go into geeky details for you because I know you like that. Do you remember DisneyQuest, the pirates thing? That was an R&D project that Imagineering did that I thought was really, really interesting and innovative. Then of course you know Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters and I love that ride, but I don’t quite know if I’m hitting the target or not so I’m always looking to see the scores.
Well, the Imagineers came to us and proposed what if we combined the DisneyQuest pirates thing with a sort of Astro Blasters kind of thing and do it all themed around the characters from Toy Story?
And I thought, ‘done. Let’s go.’ That’s awesome because I love that technology, And it’s perfect for our characters given that they’re computer animated. So we started.
But, to me, it always about the story, even with a ride like this. What’s the story? So we came up with the idea that Andy got this game and he’s got the Toy Story characters to set up and host all these games for you. And you’re the size of the Toy Story toys. That became the concept and it fit really well at this spot in California Adventure because it’s here in the midway area. And then having Mr. Potato Head as the carnival barker is so much fun. So that’s where the impetus came from. And out of that we started.
I would go down to Imagineering all the time and it must have been a year-and-a-half ago, maybe two years ago, at the very, very, very first mock up of what the game play could be like. It was just the guts of a gun that was pieced together, you’re sitting on a plywood bench and you’re looking at a screen with this graphic. I was wearing 3D glasses and I pulled the string and out came a projectile that went off into a distance.
Well, they couldn’t get me off it. I wanted to play it again and again. I even missed my next meeting. I thought wait a minute if it’s this addicting — and everyone was reacting the same way — can you imagine what it will be like sitting on a ride vehicle and having the beautiful graphics with Pixar animating the Toy Story characters, how good this is going to be? This is going to be addicting. This is going to be great.
We worked very closely with the team — and an amazing group of Imagineers worked on this — and we (a small group from Pixar) just kept going down again and again and again working with them on this thing, perfecting it, getting it right, and getting the Pixar animators to actually animate the Toy Story characters.
It’s so much fun people don’t realize how complex this ride is. It’s staggeringly complex, between the computers, the ride system, the game play. Think about it, you’re pulling a string and you’re visually seeing a projectile come out. Well, it’s like you pull a string, that sends a signal down into the track, that goes back into a computer somewhere and does something before it comes back and goes into a projector to show it. It’s like ‘wow.’ But it doesn’t matter. I don’t want people to think about that. It’s about the entertainment.
And the goal that I have working with Walt Disney Imagineering is you want to make a ride that is so good that once you get off it you want to get back in line and ride it again immediately. That’s the goal and there’s nothing less than that in my book. That’s what I think we’ve done here, what Imagineering has done here, with this amazing ride. And this is the beginning. Look at how beautiful the building is, the queue area and Mr. Potato Head Barker. This is really an indication of what the rebirth of Disney’s California Adventure is going to be. Everything is going to be at this level. In five years, you won’t believe how beautiful this park is.
Q: I’ve heard Pete Docter and others say that while making “Toy Story” many people at Pixar were thinking about the day the characters might end up in the Disney parks. How staggering is it to see the journey of what you’ve done with the “Toy Story” characters, how far they’ve come and the growth of all the Pixar attractions?
A: The fact that I worked at Disneyland, that I grew up a half-hour away and came here all the time, to see the characters I’ve created come alive in the parks, it’s been so unbelievable. But then what’s even more exciting to me is to turn around and look at the faces of the kids and families looking at your characters. To see how these characters have touched these families.
Think about it, ‘Toy Story’ came out in ’95, it’s 2008 — that’s 13 years ago. So a 13-year-old right now doesn’t know a world that didn’t have ‘Toy Story’ in it. That’s two generations of kids — because Walt Disney believed that every seven years there was another generation of children — that means we’re almost on that second generation of children.
But it’s what we do at Pixar. We make these films to last for generations. … We believe in making these films right with great stories and great characters that will stand the test of time — long after the technology that created it becomes old, it doesn’t matter. It’s about entertaining audiences.
The fact that ‘Toy Story,’ the first computer animated feature film, is still many people’s favorite movie — and on the AFI’s list of the top 100 films of all time, which I’m so proud of — just shows the strength of these characters. It’s like seeing the faces of people riding this ride, it’s fantastic.
Images Courtesy of Al Kipnis.