The Story Behind the Toy Story

A History of Animated Storytelling

Jan 19, 2018 · 8 min read

At The Mission, we are obsessed with great storytelling. One of our favorite questions to ponder is a classic chicken-or-the-egg scenario:

Did great stories create our culture or did our culture create great stories?

There are two sides to this question:

  1. The influence of the past/current culture on great stories
  2. The influence of great stories on the future/current culture

Stories influence our culture which influences our stories which influence our culture… and so on.

One of the best ways to create great stories that add to society and evolve humanity is to analyze past impactful stories. So today we are happy to announce a new segment tentatively titled: ‘On this day in storytelling history’.

(Hopefully, we can come up with something a little bit more catchy 🤔 )

In these articles, we will:

  • Analyze the history behind a story
  • Share some fun facts about its creation
  • Break down what made the story such a hit
  • And analyze its influence on our culture today

Without further ado, here is today’s segment…

The Story Behind the Toy Story

On January 19, 1993, production started on one of the most memorable animation films ever created…

That’s right, folks. 25 years ago today, Disney and Pixar started piecing together the storyline of a film that would later be called Toy Story. Feel old yet?

A Little Bit of Context

This was kind of a big deal for Pixar

At the time, Pixar was still a young company. In 1986, Steve Jobs bought the studio for $10 million and that same year, their first product, the Pixar Image Computer, was used to produce a short film called Luxo Jr. This film won the Best Animated Short at the 1986 Academy Awards and gave Pixar a much-needed publicity boost.

The Pixar Image Computer. (Photo Credit)

Meanwhile, as Pixar was developing its brand, Disney was testing out new means of video production. In 1991, Disney started working with Tim Burton on the first film ever produced outside of Disney Studios. It was a stop-motion picture called The Nightmare Before Christmas. As you likely know, the film was a massive hit, and it is because of this successful partnership that Disney felt comfortable with the idea of potentially working with another studio.

At the Toy Story 20th Anniversary Panel, director John Lasseter said:

“Because of Nightmare Before Christmas, Toy Story happened.”

Disney and Pixar made a $26 million deal to produce three movies together. This partnership was a huge deal for Pixar — success with Disney could launch them to great heights, but failure would mean almost certain destruction.

This was a whole new type of film

If this were the average animated-film project of the time, it would have been a lot of a pressure for a young company to handle. But this wasn’t just an average project — it was a whole new concept that put even more stress on the team.

This was to be the first ever completely computer-animated feature-length film. The technology to pull this off did not exist.

So what do great thinkers do when the current tech isn’t enough?

They make new tech that is.

And that is exactly what Pixar did. On top of creating an amazing storyline, they were responsible for developing brand new hardware and software to execute said storyline.

“At that point, none of us knew what we were doing. We didn’t have any production expertise except for short films and commercials. So we were all complete novices. But there was something fresh about nobody knowing what the hell we were doing.” — Ed Catmull, former software engineer and current Pixar and Disney Animation President.

Pinning Down the Storyline

It’s interesting to learn about studios’ original concepts for stories. Oftentimes, these initial ideas seem outrageous when compared to the final, delivered product. Pixar and Disney are no exception.

There are several things in the original storyboards for Toy Story that (thankfully) never made it into the final movie.

Woody the Bully

Lovable Sheriff Woody, fearless leader of Andy’s toys, was supposed to be, well… not so lovable. In fact, he was first written to be a cruel jerk.

The producers were trying to be different by having their main character be a bit edgy, but they “took it way too far” and ended up just creating a bully that didn’t work with the script.

Woody was so unlikable that production was actually put on hold until his character was recreated and approved by Disney. To keep the project from falling through, Steve Jobs had to fund the film until Disney was back on board.

Toy Story… the musical?

Disney LOVES musicals and during production, came to Pixar with a few songs they thought should be included.

Pixar shut that idea down immediately.

Although Disney was disappointed at the time, the movie turned out totally awesome with just Randy Newman’s contribution:

More Humans, Less Toys

Disney writers also didn’t seem to get that the film was about the toys, not the children who played with the toys. The scriptwriters kept adding more human characters, shifting the focus of the story.

Along comes Joss Whedon who took over writing and made the film what it is today.

No Fairy in This Tale

Disney was on a roll with princess and fairytale movies. Pixar wanted to stand out and … think different? (S/O to our main man, Steve Jobs.)

Pixar didn’t want the typical, flawless protagonist fending off the typical, horrible villain. Instead, they wanted to create a story separate from that movement. Thus, the concept of Toy Story was birthed.

Emotion AND Tech

Since this was such a big technical feat — to produce the first fully computer-animated film — the Pixar team wasn’t sure which they should focus on more; the story or the tech.

Although Disney had hired them because of their notable tech achievements, Pixar didn’t want to deliver a great animation with a poorly planned plot.

After a few setbacks, like the mean Woody character, Pixar knew they needed to pump more effort and support into the storyline. They decided to put ‘story first.’

Once the movie was complete, the team wasn’t fully satisfied with the picture quality, but the audience found the story so great that the delivery didn’t matter.

Decades later, screenwriter Andrew Stanton said, “It’s the ugliest picture we will ever make, but you don’t care because you get wrapped up in the story to this day.”

Photo Credit

Fun Design Facts

  • Buzz Lightyear was originally drawn as a 6in toy named ‘Tempest’. (For reference, his current height is 10in.)
  • Buzz was also supposed to have a red space suit. So, where’d the light green and violet purple come from? Director Lasseter’s favorite color is that bright green and his wife’s is violet purple. According to Lasseter, “Just like she and I, they go really well together.”
  • Lasseter’s Tinny from his short film Tin Toy was the basis for Buzz.
  • Woody was first designed as a ventriloquist dummy. The producers eventually found it too ‘creepy’ and switched to the pull string doll we all know now.
  • Toy Story’s tentative title was You are a Toy.
  • To understand how they should animate the army men’s movements, animators actually pinned their shoes to wooden slabs and walked around like that for a day.
  • Before full animation begins, the script is recorded with the voice actors. Many of the funny scenes that ended up in the movie are actually just off script recordings of Tom Hanks messing around with random props. One of the most notable scenes that made the final cut is when Woody is swinging Buzz’s arm around like a shadow puppet. This wasn’t written in the script. They just gave Hanks a dummy arm to mess with and let him roll.

The Toy Story Saga

Toy Story was released on November 22, 1995, and it killed at the box office. It grossed $192 million in the US and $356 million worldwide. That wasn’t the end of the Toy Story story, however.

Toy Story 2 was released four years later. It grossed $246 million in the US and nearly half a billion worldwide.

Eleven years after that, Toy Story 3 came out and was a huge hit. It grossed $415 million in the US and $1 billion worldwide.

Thought that was the end?


Toy Story 4 is set to release next year. Yes! There will be another. Let’s hope this one is as great as the rest.

Lasting Impressions

Toy Story has been recognized as Pixar’s best film. It was the film that elevated the studio to where they are today, formed an unparalleled relationship between themselves and Disney, and transformed the way we experience animation.


It was the first feature-length, computer-animated film. The technology developed while creating the movie paved way for a whole new era of animation.


After many successful movies together, Disney bought Pixar in 2006 for $7.4 billion — compare that to the $10 million Jobs spent on the studio in 1986. Disney and Pixar continuously evolve, expand, and innovate. Together, they have set the standard for animation and animated storytelling.


Most importantly, the story told in Toy Story is timeless. Toy Story expertly articulated fundamental values of friendship and acceptance of others. As intended, none of the characters are flawless heroes or underdeveloped villains. Ironically, they are more ‘human’ than actual human characters in other films.

The lessons that can be derived from Toy Story are ones that we, child or adult, can apply to our everyday lives.

Plus, who doesn’t want to watch Buzz and Woody’s hysterical bickering?


That’s it for the first segment of ‘On this day in Storytelling History.’ Let us know what you thought in the comments below! What story would you like to learn about next time?

As always, thanks for reading The Mission! If you enjoyed this article, please clap it up and share it around so that others can find it.

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Stories & podcasts that make smart people smarter: The Mission Daily: The Story podcast:

A network of business & tech podcasts designed to accelerate learning. Selected as “Best of 2018” by Apple.


Written by


Stories & podcasts that make smart people smarter: The Mission Daily: The Story podcast:

A network of business & tech podcasts designed to accelerate learning. Selected as “Best of 2018” by Apple.

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