“Toy” story man

Pixar whiz Joe Ranft explains the Buzz on "Toy Story 2" -- and gives voice to Wheezy the Penguin.

Topics: Directors,

"Toy" story man

I first fell for the comic art of Pixar while watching that intrepid spaceman Buzz Lightyear coif a troll doll during “cartoon dailies” at the Point Richmond, Calif., studio four years ago. With the jolly and acute director John Lasseter officiating like the Ghost of Christmas Present in a Hawaiian shirt, a mass of crafts people observed Buzz oozing confidence and finesse in the uncharacteristic role of hairdresser, and the troll’s eyes blinking in nervousness — or, maybe, sexual tension.

The room erupted in a dozen wisecracks as the animators envisioned Buzz taking the place of Warren Beatty in “Shampoo,” ad-libbing lines like “You are so much more beautiful than the other trolls.” Lasseter concentrated on whether they could make Buzz’s combing stroke more vertical and modulate the troll’s blinking eyes just before Buzz combs downward. The director sighed in admiration at his team’s handiwork — and at the dexterity of his leading man. “Buzz is good at everything,” he pronounced with pleasure.

So, it seems, is Pixar. It overcame the second-feature jinx with last year’s gorgeous “A Bug’s Life,” and it triumphs over “sequelitis” in “Toy Story 2,” which goes even further than the original in celebrating and satirizing the real bonds between humans and toys — and the imaginary bonds among playthings. “Toy Story” was every inch a buddy movie, with cowboy raggedy-doll Woody and sleek Space Age action figure Buzz going through the roughhouse version of getting-to-know-you familiar from “48 Hrs.” and “Lethal Weapon.”

“Toy Story 2″ is giddier, warmer and harder to classify. It’s an ensemble comedy about several unexpected matters, including Woody discovering his show-biz roots — and his “inner cowboy” — and Buzz soldiering on through a hall-of-mirrors-like experience similar to the one John Malkovich endures when he goes into his own brain in “Being John Malkovich.” The movie was originally intended for direct-to-video release, but when it was re-slated as a theatrical sequel before it went into production, Pixar threw its full resources behind it. (Lasseter is listed as director, but there are two co-directors beneath him, Ash Brannon and Lee Unkrich.)

Rather than exhaust the toys’ possibilities, the Pixar team keeps opening them up — maybe because the manic camaraderie of the toy box echoes the madcap creativity of its meeting rooms and cubicles. Lasseter and Co. know that unfettered group invention was one of the keys to great silent comedy and to classic animation. And they don’t leave their ebullience in cartoon dailies — they get it on screen.

In an interview two weeks ago, Joe Ranft, the co-head of story (along with Dan Jeup), told me that when they first got the idea that “Toy Story 2″ could contain a cheeky “Star Wars” parody, “We were all cracking up. And that’s what’s great about Pixar. We all thought, ‘We could actually do that!’ — not, ‘We can’t do that, that’s too funny.’ And we milked it all the way.”

Ranft speaks, in every sense, with animated authority. As a story man (a story developer and storyboard artist) he’s been mixed up in nearly every cartoon-feature breakthrough of the last dozen years, from “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” to “Beauty and the Beast,” from Pixar’s three features to “Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas” and “James and the Giant Peach.” (He was story chief on those last two Henry Selick puppet-animation pictures as well as on “Toy Story” and “A Bug’s Life.”) A gifted sketcher, yarn-spinner and performer, Ranft typifies Pixar’s team spirit.

“The great thing about Pixar,” he told me four years ago, “is that everybody is in on the story. Dozens of people here have read screenwriting books and gone to screenwriting conferences, and we collaborate in a form of oral storytelling, with people trying to top each other, acting out parts. I imagine it’s what it must have been like in the Mack Sennett silent clown days, with a bunch of guys selling ideas, then going off and making the movie.”

On “Toy Story 2,” it took Dan Jeup, Joe Ranft and, judging from the credits, a story department of roughly 38 people to come up with storyboards. (There were also seven writers on the original story and script.) Despite the labor that goes into each Pixar production, Ranft speaks with the undiminished ebullience of a die-hard fan. As the rare story man to make a leap into credited speaking parts, he considers it a wacky yet awesome educational gift to be able to sit in on recording sessions with the likes of Tom Hanks (Woody) and Tim Allen (Buzz). Ranft says he doesn’t feel a twinge of regret when he does a temporary track for such a beloved character as the Cowardly Lion-like dinosaur Rex and bequeaths it to someone else — in this case, Wallace Shawn. “Wally Shawn has what you might call a funny, comedic-sounding voice, but he’s also a great actor; he was wonderful as Uncle Vanya. I’m not saying he brings exactly the same thing to Rex that he does to Vanya, but when I hear what he does with Rex after I do it, I think it’s got so much more range.”

In retrospect, it seems inevitable that Ranft got into what he now calls “this surreal business.” He was a kid magician (“I used to send away for stuff in the back of Boys Life magazine”) and joined the Junior Magic Castle Club when he was 15; growing up, his favorite writers were Kurt Vonnegut, Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe. Like Lasseter, Ranft comes from Whittier, Calif. But he first met Pixar’s prime mover when Ranft was a freshman and Lasseter a senior at the Disney-sponsored California Institute of the Arts (or CalArts) in Valencia in 1978.

Ranft had an experience shared by many of the Pixar hands I’ve talked to. “When I saw a veteran Disney story guy [Bill Peet] show sketches from ‘Song of the South,’ something about conceptual work clicked for me — getting across the characters and the feelings in a scene and relating it in pictures that are visually entertaining. How do you get a character who’s this personality to face off against a character who’s that personality graphically? It’s the business of drawing up ideas.”

After two years at CalArts, Ranft signed on at Disney. He also started taking classes with the Los Angeles improvisational comedy troupe the Groundlings, which then included Jon Lovitz, Phil Hartman, Paul Reubens (Pee-wee Herman) and Bob Saget (“Saget was very funny there!”), and frequenting the silent movie theater on Fairfax Avenue, especially when it played Laurel and Hardy shorts.

“Laurel and Hardy used to dream up a funny idea, then get on their feet and make it play — and working with the Groundlings made me realize I could do that. Before ‘Toy Story,’ all of John’s films — his shorts — were silent; he thinks like a silent filmmaker. I think animated films work best when they’re like pantomime and the dialogue adds the icing. Even in a movie like ‘Aladdin,’ my favorite moment is when the magic carpet comes alive.”

Storyboarding is Ranft’s bailiwick — the rendering of a movie’s action in drawings. Even more than they do for live-action filmmakers, the storyboards allow animators of all kinds to see whether humorous ideas translate into visual comedy, and whether a group of them coheres and generates momentum. When put on a reel, they become a rough-draft cartoon. “The animators then retranslate our drawings and, hopefully, make them better,” Ranft once explained to film historian Frank Thompson. “It’s like a relay race. We’re the first baton and we try our best to get something up there that’s entertaining and funny. But everyone else down the line takes it and improves on it.”

At Pixar, that kind of catalytic collaboration starts long before the storyboarding, in comedic jam sessions, and — to borrow from Buzz Lightyear — it continues “to infinity and beyond.” In “Toy Story,” which centered on the hate-love relationship between Woody and Buzz, Ranft says, “We had to make sure that these two had enough depth that you’d root for them to work things out. You had to feel close enough to Woody to feel what he was feeling, like, anger for the way Buzz was screwing things up, even though Woody himself was sort of an aggressive jerk. Woody started out being too sarcastic — we had to get him to be more genuine and benevolent, so you would pull for the guy if he got twisted in his pullstring. And Buzz had to get less like Captain Kirk or Dudley Do-Right and more like this cop from outer space. Tim Allen really helped push it in the right direction. He made us see that it was as if this soldier were on his way to Washington to help strategize for D-Day and instead gets stuck in this Podunk town, where he meets this guy, Woody, who thinks he’s just gone off the deep end. It was great to have Tim as Buzz and Tom Hanks as Woody; we never thought we were doing a sappy, G-rated relationship.”

Ranft believes that with “Toy Story 2″ Allen makes Buzz “an even more dimensional character. And he’s such a good comic he always comes up with alternative improv lines; he just zeroes in and makes the material better.” Ranft loves an Allen ad-lib near the end, when Buzz attempts to befriend a new cowgirl-doll character (played by the irresistible Joan Cusack) and gets off a fumbling fond remark: “I’d just like to say that your hair … it’s a lovely shade of … yarn.”

To Ranft, a pair of brainstorms — one apiece for Woody and Buzz — gave the sequel its gale-like slapstick force. First, Lasseter and Pete Docter (a key collaborator on “Toy Story”) cooked up the concept of a creepy toy collector, Al of Al’s Toy Barn, kidnapping Woody. (In the film, voice actor Wayne Knight gives Al a lewd edge.) “As soon as I heard that,” Ranft admits, “I thought, oooooh — it would be fun to get into the whole world of collectibles. And along with that came the idea of Woody discovering a history that’s new to him and to us. In the first film you knew Woody was a cowboy jealous of a modern space toy, but you didn’t know he was based on a ‘Howdy Doody’-ish TV show with all this merchandise from the ’50s.” The merchandise grew to include several engaging new characters — Jessie the yodeling Cowgirl (Cusack), Stinky Pete the prospector (Kelsey Grammer) and Woody’s trusty steed, Bullseye. The TV show also inspired composer/tunesmith Randy Newman’s snappiest contribution to the soundtrack: a theme song for “Woody’s Roundup” that proclaims our hero to be “the rootinest, tootinest cowboy in the wild, wild West.” (Take that, Will Smith.)

The other creative jolt came when Andrew Stanton, another “Toy Story” alumnus (and co-director of “A Bug’s Life”), found a way to resurrect the comically fixated Buzz Lightyear of the first film without giving the character a lobotomy. “One of the funnest things of the first movie,” says Ranft, “was having a deluded Buzz who kept thinking he was a real space hero — so much comedy came out of it. We kind of lose that when Buzz is in the know.” An early draft of “Toy Story 2″ contained a scene in which the wised-up Buzz met his latest model, Ultra-Buzz, in the aisles of Al’s Toy Barn. Stanton’s stroke of farcical genius, Ranft explains, “was to make them identical to each other, and then to switch their places — so that we get to play with a deluded Buzz again for the end of the second act, heading on into the third. This new Buzz is even more pumped up than Buzz was in the first movie. And then things just started to roll in terms of ‘Star Wars’ parody shtick.”

Sometimes the process includes picking up shticks that fell off earlier movies. Take the new motif of Rex sweating to overcome the intergalactic supervillain Zurg (who’s part of the Buzz Lightyear merchandising cosmos) in a complicated video game. This running, jumping and standing-still joke was rooted in the opening Lasseter had planned for the first film, to introduce the toys’ owner, Andy, and his best toy pal, Woody:

“On the first ‘Toy Story’ we thought we’d start with a Buzz Lightyear adventure in space. It was big, over-the-top, and we storyboarded it and put it on a story reel; the movie would have started when we pulled back from a TV and had Andy sitting with Woody and realizing he doesn’t have a Buzz Lightyear toy yet. We murdered that darling on the first one, but it came back in a different way in this film.”

The Pixar team didn’t merely intend to rescue worthy discards but to satisfy the needs of a second film in a series. “In the first ‘Toy Story’ film, we had given Woody a bad dream in which Andy is playing with Buzz, who’s glowing in the dark; Andy sees that Woody doesn’t glow in the dark, so he throws Woody away. Then you see Andy’s whole room driving away behind this corrugated-steel moving-van door, and Woody left in a trashcan with roaches crawling all over him. It didn’t work, it was too off-putting. But when Pete Docter and I showed that storyboard reel at a talk we gave at CalArts, it got a lot of laughs. It made us realize that if people already know and love your characters, you can get away with things that are a little darker. In this film, it was cool to push toward surreal nightmare limits.”

And what about the character Ranft gives voice to — Wheezy, the asthmatic penguin? Did Pixar honcho Steve Jobs intend that as a subliminal reference to the penguin mascot of Linux software? “Linux? What’s that? Really, I have no idea what that is. We had an idea for a broken squeaky penguin who had asthma way back on the old ‘Toy Story.’ It was actually before the creation of Buzz and Woody — we had the character of Tin Toy, from John’s short film ‘Tin Toy,’ in Buzz’s position, and the equivalent of Woody was a ventriloquist’s dummy, not a cowboy, and we had a whole thing with a penguin. We always talked about a squeaky penguin who had his squeaker broken and kind of wheezed. During this movie we were brainstorming about this moment when Woody has this crisis — it used to be that Woody fell out the window accidentally. It took another pass at the story for him to see another character, who is broken, whom he identifies with and goes to rescue. And we thought, why not bring in Wheezy?”

Even as a performer, Ranft is attracted to supporting comics like Wheezy, who are often inexplicably uproarious. As a story man, he makes them his specialty. At Disney, his motto was “Give me the dwarves!” When he tried to sketch romantic figures like the Little Mermaid, his drawings would be passed around as office jokes. But he made a real contribution to figures like the bon-vivant candlestick who dispels all gloom in “Beauty and the Beast” and the major-domo-like clock in the same film, whose pendulum registers like a dandy’s watch fob. “You know, they were sort of like Woody and Buzz: two contrasting characters who don’t get along, and you get material out of their conflict and opposing views.”

Ranft had done small vocal roles such as Igor in “Nightmare Before Christmas” (“I got to salivate and say, ‘Master, the plans,’ and be thrown a dog biscuit”) and the binoculars in “Toy Story” (“I had five lines”). But his performing breakthrough was as Heimlich the Caterpillar in “A Bug’s Life.” He credits a fellow Pixar story man, Jorgen Klubien, with much of Heimlich’s hilarity. “We were schoolmates way back at CalArts, and he worked on ‘Nightmare Before Christmas.’ And we had this caterpillar clown we were playing with, while we were trying to think of how to distinguish the various characters in P.T. Flea’s circus — about 10 of them. Jorgen thought, ‘Why not make this caterpillar guy a German?’ Jorgen’s from Denmark, and sometimes I think he thinks that everything from Germany is funny; maybe that’s partly because when he grew up all the circus people traveling through Denmark were from Germany.

I just started to say, ‘Oh, yah!’ — I started to do this goofy accent that I used to do when I was trying to imitate the Katzenjammer Kids when I was a kid, and people would laugh. So I got to do the ‘scratch’ voice. We were trying to get other actors to do it, and another actor was cast in the part. But there was a reel with the new actor cut into half of it, and half with me. And John Lasseter took the reel home — and his wife Nancy wasn’t laughing when the other guy did the lines, and was laughing when I did the lines. John talked to some people and they came to me the next week and offered me the part. And I didn’t turn it down!”

Now that Ranft has a vocal track record, roles come to him naturally. “Wheezy entered the story a little later; I did the scratch voice for it and everyone liked it a lot. And now I had this precedent of having done Heimlich, so they said, ‘Let’s just give it to Joe.’ You know, I could never be objective about Heimlich or Wheezy. When they came up in story notes I kept my mouth shut, or I would have felt like I was trying to pad my part. I deferred to my colleagues and just did stuff until they laughed. It’s pretty cool to go into a recording session where all my friends are directing me. I can relax and cut loose.”

In Pixar’s early years, you couldn’t discuss the studio’s work without talking about the novelty of computer imagery. But as that technology has improved — and helped reenergize and expand traditional animation, too — it’s once again possible to talk about animation sensibility. You can gauge Joe Ranft’s versatility by how closely he’s worked with artists as different as Lasseter and Henry Selick, who’s now gone from the all-puppet “Nightmare” and the mostly-puppet “Peach” to the mostly live-action “Monkey Bone” (due out next year). Ranft describes Selick as having a rock ‘n’ roll-meets-Da Vinci temperament. “When I met him in the early ’80s, he introduced me to the after-hours L.A. band scene: We’d hang out in clubs and listen to X or the Blasters. Henry played in a rock band once himself; he’ll still go off to his office to play guitar or electric piano to ease off and think.” At the same time, Selick operates scientifically. “He gets an outrageous premise — something that comes from a real dream place — then approaches the aesthetics of it like a mechanical engineer: What can we build on this foundation, how do we buttress it? If we have a mechanical shark, how does it kill? Will it shoot things from its snout?” Ranft thinks Selick has an uncanny gift: “He can articulate things through animation that people couldn’t say otherwise.”

Lasseter’s gifts are for undiluted playfulness and joy. “John’s in love with toys, and he has this attention to appealing design and detail; the certain flavor in the ‘Toy Story’ movies were in his student films at CalArts — they have an entertainment sensibility. The collector’s room in ‘Toy Story 2′ is the most glowing nostalgic view of nostalgia. You see how cool the designs of those old toys were — they’re made out of tin, and they’ve got things printed on them — and John’s just in love with all that, you see him light up and say, ‘Oh, look how this was fabricated, they had little tabs.’ John is actually the anti-Al (of Al’s Toy Barn), or Al is the anti-John. What we work for, really, is to see John light up! John is a guy who can’t hide his feelings, and when he likes something, he lights up!”

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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