Inside Pixar’s Living Archives

To celebrate the anniversary of Toy Story, Pixar opened the doors to its Living Archives. Here's what Ryan discovered...

Remember that “Oooh” noise those cute, three-eyed aliens made in Toy Story? Your humble writer is doing that right now as a curator wearing white cotton gloves opens a box with a flourish. She’s just revealed an original, hand-carved head of Buzz Lightyear. It’s about 18-inches tall, made of modelling clay, but unmistakeably Buzz: its square-jawed face wears that determined, faintly self-satisfied expression that gazed from a legion posters and lunch boxes following Toy Story’s runaway success in 1995.

We’re in the middle of what, from the outside, looks like an extremely clean yet thoroughly anonymous industrial building located near a paella restaurant in Emeryville, California. Inside, however, it’s a veritable geek’s paradise. This is the Pixar Living Archive, the humidity- and temperature-controlled final resting place for the thousands of sketches, models, scripts, storyboards and other ephemera that Pixar has generated since it was founded almost 30 years ago. 

The archives are accessed by entering a lift large enough to swallow an American-sized family car. “You might get cold,” lead archivist Christine Freeman tells us as the lift doors open to reveal a gleaming white corridor. And she’s right – there is a bit of a nip in the air – all the better to preserve the estimated five million bits of artwork and other materials from Pixar’s feature films and shorts.

“We still get regular donations of things found behind filing cabinets,” Christine says, as she casually leads us past a life-sized sculpture of EVE out of Wall-E. To our right, sitting in a glass case: the volcanoes out of the short film, Lava.

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Much of the archive’s original artwork is stored in box after box, too many to count, stored lovingly on rows of shelves. It’s strange to think that what’s housed here is, in one sense, a by-product; the plans, ideas and paintings that lead up to the final CG movies that have made Pixar one of the most famous animation studios in the world. Some of the items handed to the archivists are coffee stained, or partly obscured by hastily-scribbled notes from a phone conversation.

“Everyone thinks it’s all digital,” Christine says, “But we have boxes and boxes of art.” 

These sketches and sculpture items collectively build up a rich, irreplaceable account of Pixar’s history. A sketch may be clutter to an artist once it’s finished, but as a cultural artifact, it can be invaluable. This much becomes clear when Christine opens a folder and pulls out a sheaf sketches made in the late 1980s.

Drawn quickly and confidently, these are early story boards for Tin Toy, John Lasseter’s groundbreaking 1988 short that would, in time, form the basis of Toy Story. Indeed, the sequence of drawings that Freeman shows us reveal the genesis of Woody and Buzz, the cowboy and space adventurer double-act that would become world famous in 1995.

Woody and Buzz had their origins in a planned TV short called A Tin Story Christmas; planned as a holiday special, it was about Tinny (the tin toy of the title) and a slightly disturbing ventriloquist’s dummy. It never got made, but Lasseter returned to the concept when Pixar inked a deal with Disney to make a feature film in the early 1990s.

Over time, the idea of a tin toy evolved into a character named Lunar Larry (better known by his later name, Buzz Lightyear) while the ventriloquist’s dummy eventually became the toy cowboy, Woody. The sketches Freeman show us track the Buzz’s gradual transformation into the character we recognize today, from an egg-shaped design (vaguely akin to EVE’s svelte form from Wall-E) via a more squat character in a red space suit. 

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Woody, meanwhile, went through an even more dramatic series of changes, from an ungainly, Punch and Judy-like puppet with an outsized head and articulated jaw, to a surly-looking gunslinger with bandy legs, to the slim, elastic-looking character of the finished film.

As ideas went back and forth, artist Bud Luckey began making sculpting 3D versions of Woody and proto-Buzz out of modelling clay. Christine shows us several of these, some wildly different from the last. In almost every case, the sculptures are replicas; the originals, extremely delicate and prone to damage, were mostly destroyed in the process of being placed into moulds. The good news, though, is that the molds mean that replicas can easily be reproduced, which can then be kept in the archive for later use or displayed in museums as part of Pixar exhibitions.

One early sculpt of Buzz uses a perfectly round, glass lampshade for his space helmet. At the time, Christine tells us, these were purchased for about $7.95 from a furniture store in nearby El Cerrito. Now no longer made, the glass domes have to be hand-blown in Italy at a far greater cost.

While most of the sculpts and even the images on the walls are reproductions (“We don’t keep things in full light,” Christine tells us), there are one or two pieces that are original. One box in particular catches my eye. “Woody” it says on the side in large letters; beneath, there’s a large red arrow pointing straight upwards. Lifting the box with, Freeman reveals a model of Woody’s head, sculpted from clay. It’s an original model made by Luckey in 1995, and it’s what Freeman calls a “digitisable head”; a final character design ready to be recreated in a computer by Pixar’s CGI wizards.  

The head is complete in every detail, except for one: Woody’s eyes are eerily lacking pupils, since these are only added in on the computer. “Don’t look him in the eyes,” Christine advises. “He looks scary without pupils…”

No less scarier than another artifact Freeman handles with her cotton white gloves later in the tour. It’s a creepy, mutant toy from Sid’s bedroom – Sid being the shark-eyed, vaguely psychopathic kid out of Toy Story. A closer inspection of the lump of plastic in Freeman’s hand reveals its origins: it’s a motorcycle cop out of the old CHiPs TV show rammed into the torso of a Hulk Hogan doll. This formed the basis of the Rockmobile character in the finished film. The toy designs changed, but the underlying concept – that of a torso walking along on the palms of its hands – remained the same.

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It’s but one example of the range of curious items tucked away in the archives. Elsewhere, we spot a physical mock-up of Carl’s familiar walking stick from Up (the one with the four tennis balls on its feet). There are folders full of photographs – snaps of chipped skirting boards, cracked tarmac and a rusty old toolbox – all used as reference for Toy Storys textures. Elsewhere, there are scripts, notes, crew TV shirts, security guard ephemera – an extraordinary array of Pixar ephemera.

As well as its historical value, the Pixar archive has a practical use; it serves as a library of reference materials for the studio’s artists and animators. The creators of Monsters University, for example, would regularly browse the archive of sketches and models for 2001’s Monsters Inc; the wealth of Incredibles resources have proved similarly handy for the makers of The Incredibles 2, due for release in 2019. 

The Pixar Living Archive has come a long way since it was established in 1998. Up until then, Pixar’s artwork was sent off to be stored to Disney’s archives in Los Angeles. But art department coordinator Jonas Rivera, then still a teenager, came up with a bright idea: “Why don’t we have the archive here?” 

Once small enough to fill a double office, the archive moved with Pixar from a rented building in Point Richmond to Emeryville in 2000. In the 15 years since, the collection has swollen to occupy an area of more than 17,000 square feet; in April 2016, the archive is scheduled to move again to an even larger building.

A record of Pixar’s 30 year story, the Living Archive is a reflection of how far the studio’s come since its experimental early days in the 1980s. Pixar may be famous for its CG films, but the thought and dedication that goes into its work has left a lasting physical legacy. The Pixar archive represents nothing less than the collective imaginations of a legion artists and animators, all poured out on paper and etched in clay.

“Oooh,” indeed.

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