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Scary Story: How Pixar crafted the TV special “Toy Story of TERROR!”

Scary Story: How Pixar crafted the TV special "Toy Story of TERROR!"

It is common for today’s biggest animated franchises to eventually receive a holiday special, often tied in some way to Christmas. But when ABC showed interest in Pixar developing a Toy Story special, the studio decided to think outside the toy box.

Angus MacLane was directing the Toy Story Toons short Small Fry when Pixar’s Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter asked him to contribute ideas for the TV special. MacLane had been involved with the Toy Story franchise since providing animation and story work on Toy Story 2.

Of course, the temptation to go the standard winter holiday route was present – in fact, it had been present ever since the early 1990s, when Pixar considered making a Tin Toy Christmas TV special before making Toy Story instead. But among the potential storylines explored, MacLane gravitated toward a spookier new Toy Story adventure: Toy Story of TERROR!

“As much as I enjoyed receiving toys over the Christmas holiday, there was something about doing a scary Toy Story that excited me,” MacLane says. “This was an opportunity to make a specifically spooky-themed special. After three features and a couple of shorts, it was important for us to find something new and different.”

Galyn Susman reunited with MacLane to produce Toy Story of TERROR!, having previously produced Toy Story Toons: Hawaiian Vacation. Furthermore, she had produced MacLane’s first directorial project, BURN-E, a short film that premiered as a bonus feature on the WALL-E DVD and Blu-ray. “I basically follow Angus around wherever he goes,” Susman jokes, before sincerely adding, “He’s a very talented director, and I want to produce whatever he does. If he’s on it, I’m there.”

With input from Lasseter, MacLane came up with a basic idea for the project:  A road trip for Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Jessie and the rest of the toys leads to a whodunit mystery when one of them goes missing at a roadside motel.

Contrary to internet rumors, the entire production for Toy Story of TERROR! took place at Pixar’s Emeryville studio, rather than its Vancouver-based subsidiary. Toy Story 3 director Lee Unkrich helped guide the project by approving each sequence from layout and editorial perspectives. “He knows how to look at where you’re at and figure out a better way to tell the story, a better way to edit the film,” MacLane says. Another Pixar veteran on hand to offer assistance was Andrew Stanton, whom MacLane calls “a huge mentor in making sure that the special was Toy Story through and through.”

Michael Giacchino stepped in to compose the music for Toy Story of TERROR!, rather than the theatrical trilogy’s stalwart Randy Newman. According to MacLane, he and Giacchino previously hit it off while working on the short One Man Band, thanks to their appreciation of movies and LEGO. “Toy Story of TERROR! represents a mashing of genres. I felt like Michael would get that – not that Randy wouldn’t, but there’s just something about the different tones of this special. It’s different than the Toy Story features: It’s a smaller, weirder movie,” MacLane explains. “There were some ideas that I thought Michael really got, and we were interested in the same kind of source material that the film is lampooning.”

To give the TV special more international appeal, Pixar avoided a Halloween theme and simply paid homage to the classic horror movies of yesteryear. Of course, the Toy Story franchise has never shied away from its own scary elements, from the incinerator scene in Toy Story 3 all the way back to the destruction of Combat Carl in the first Toy Story.

Fortunately, the Combat Carl toy line makes a grand return to the franchise, in Toy Story of TERROR! “I wanted Combat Carl to come back; I felt like he had been shortchanged in the first movie,” MacLane jokes. Carl Weathers voiced the toy incarnation of the ultimate 1980s action hero icon, full of one-liners and so serious that he speaks of himself in the third person. Weathers being cast as an action figure with the same first name was just a coincidence, says MacLane. The director hired the actor based as much on his comedic work in Arrested Development as his physical and vocal presence in the Rocky franchise.

Combat Carl’s inclusion is one of many references to the toys of MacLane’s childhood, particularly from 1979 to 1988. “I think that each of the Toy Story films naturally reflects the toys of the people who directed and wrote them,” MacLane explains. “So, for this special – and I think for Small Fry, too – it was an opportunity for me to voice my own particular interest in the toys of my generation.”

As viewers eagerly anticipate Toy Story of TERROR!, MacLane is keeping mum on the future of Pixar’s most beloved franchise. He declines to comment on the rumor that a follow-up TV special could come as early as next year.

Instead, Susman responds, “There are so many things in development here. So many people have great ideas. At this point, it’s really hard for us to say what will come to fruition out of any of those ideas.

“Are we interested in doing more television specials? We’re interested in doing more of everything! We just love it. But will we do another one? If it fits within our schedule, and if it fits within the visions of what the directors here want to do, then yeah, we might do another one.”

Toy Story of TERROR! premieres October 16 at 8/7c on ABC.

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