Director/Animator Angus MacLane Talks Pixar and Toy Story of Terror

Toy Story of Terror includes Jessie, Buzz, Woody, and the rest of the Toy Story gang. Photo: Disney/Pixar.

There’s something spooky coming to lurk through stores this summer. It’s Toy Story of Terror!

Okay, the idea of a new adventure with Woody, Buzz, Jessie, Mr. Potato Head, Rex, Mr. Pricklepants, and the rest of the gang probably doesn’t sound all that scary. Well, how does the idea of losing one of Pixar’s beloved characters sound? (Feel free to insert some evil laughter here.)

That frightening concept is the idea behind Toy Story of Terror, a Disney/Pixar TV special, which ran on ABC last October. Now, for the first time, that special is coming to Blu-ray! The two-disc set includes the 22-minute short, with eye-popping colors and a lively DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. Of course, Disney/Pixar is also throwing in a little something extra, including three deleted scenes, three “Vintage Toy Commercials,” and a short on the making of Toy Story of Terror. The best of the special features section is located under the “Toy Story Toons Shorts” menu. This area includes a crop of short animated films that were also previously released, but in theaters. That lineup includes “Hawaiian Vacation,” “Small Fry,” and “Partysaurus Rex.”

Toy Story of Terror (as well as “Small Fry”) was directed by long-time Pixar animator Angus MacLane. MacLane is a double Annie winner and has worked on every Pixar feature film, with the exception of the original Toy Story. If that’s not impressive enough, he’s also an avid Lego fan (and creator of CubeDudes) and a co-director of the upcoming Finding Nemo sequel, Finding Dory.

Recently, I got a chance to talk to MacLane about Toy Story of Terror, directing animation, and losing an entire lunchbox of beloved toys.

GeekMom: I know that you’ve been animating for Pixar for a long time and you’ve even directed a few shorts. Did Pixar basically come to you and say, “Hey would you be interested in directing this installment of Toy Story?” How did it all come about?

Angus MacLane: Well, I was in the middle of working on Small Fry and it was something that the company, that they wanted to make this Halloween or spooky-themed Toy Story special and I think they just saw it as being a good fit and it worked out schedule-wise. It was an assignment, but something that was, for me, still a very personal film and something from the ground up. It was a collaboration of figuring out what the movie was. It was an opportunity met with preparation.

GM: Well, did they just come to you and say they wanted a Halloween special and they wanted you to direct it? Was there an idea? How did the storyline come about?

AM: It was like, “We want to do a non-specifically Halloween/spooky Toy Story special; what would you want to see in that?” Then after thinking about it for a bit, I had a meeting with John Lasseter and we kind of went back and forth on a few different things. What I wanted was… I wanted Jesse to be the main character and have Combat Carl in the movie somehow. Then, we settled on it being in a spooky motel, the manager being the bad guy, and it being about eBay sales or you know, online auction sales. That’s kind of what we started with and then from there, we began to develop the process.

Director/Animator Angus MacLane. Photo courtesy of Disney.

GM: How does being the director change the whole process for you? What was your greatest challenge?

AM: What’s challenging about being the director, well…. you’re just managing a lot of different things, whereas being an animator, you’re focused on one shot or many shots in a sequence. As a director, you’re trying to keep a tone and the timbre of everything consistent and you’re trying to make the movie good. At least in my experience, the movie wants to be bad. It tries to be bad and boring at every step of the way and you’ve got to keep a sharp eye on things that will make the movie bad. It’s kind of a reductive process; it’s not very additive. You want to figure out all of what your movie needs and how much it needs. Then, you don’t have unlimited time and resources and you need to figure out how best to use those time and resources that you have. And then you need to find a way to work and convince a group of very talented individuals that the story that you’re making is worth making, to join us on the journey to make this picture, and hopefully have a pleasant time doing it.

GM: You’re normally part of the animation team. How many animators were involved with this 22-minute short?

AM: Maybe 20? For a feature, it would be anywhere from 40 to 70, depending on which feature. I’d say 20. It was a smaller crew, but it was still the same feature-quality. There were some newer animators, but everyone did fantastic.

GM: Looking at the plot of Toy Story of Terror, did you ever lose a favorite toy as a child?

AM: I had a skateboard stolen. It was horribly traumatic and then years later, I found out who stole it and it was awful.

GM: Well, that’s not as traumatic as losing your favorite pal!

AM: Well, I think I’m blocking this out, but I did lose an entire… like you know those old metal lunchboxes? I had an old Return of the Jedi lunchbox; it was full of Star Wars figures. Maybe 10 Star Wars figures, and maybe some Fisher Price Adventure People were in there too. I lost that when I was like 5. The reason why it took me a moment to remember is because I think I blocked that out because it was so painful. But yeah, I lost a few favorites there.

GM: Well the theme is painful like that, with toys going missing. So out of the entire Toy Story cast, which toy would you be most upset to lose—and why?

AM: I’ve always had an affinity for Buzz, just because he’s kind of the most robotic physically, as a toy. He’s the coolest toy, but they all have their positives and negatives, character-wise. Like, Woody is a great main character and certainly, in Toy Story of Terror, the focus is Jesse’s arc, but as far as when I came into the Toy Story world, I was always drawn to Buzz. On Toy Story 2, when I was first an animator, I really liked animating Buzz. That’s something that was important to me because that was the first Toy Story that I got. And I’ve always been interested in space toys.

GM: In this special, I noticed that there’s a little bit of Predator action going on. Are you a fan?

AM: I am. I do like Predator quite a bit. There’s a number of action films of the mid-to-late ’80s that have a certain kind of charm to the simplistic clarity of the mission—or it’s very cut and dry. That one is exciting because you get both the kind of the picked-off Ten Little Indians storyline and the one-character survival story at the same time. There are a lot of different things in that particular film. I think it was also McTiernan at the height of—not the zenith of his powers—but, it was at the time, dismissed. Now it’s seen as being a really solid action film in a way that I think they don’t make anymore.

Courtesy of Disney.

GM: I know that you’re quite the Lego fan, correct? What did you think of that movie?

AM: It was great. They did a great job. It’s basically going into it, you’re like… they’re going to make “Play-Doh, the movie.” The way I view Lego is like it’s a building medium, it’s like clay. It’s a tool. To say we’re going to make a movie about that and have it be as funny, heartfelt, and as hilarious… I think they did a fantastic job.

GM: Since Toy Story of Terror has that horror vibe… what scares YOU?

AM: I can tell you that the movies I think are scary are The Exorcist and The Shining. It’s not what’s shown, it’s more like what’s implied. It’s like the absence of action. A lot of times, there are these big moments of anticipation, big moments of the unexplained or the unknown. They are often very simple things and there’s a craft in those movies that’s really terrific. Oftentimes, it’s the mundane mixed with the supernatural. Certainly, the original Ring is very scary because it is so mundane with certain simple supernatural elements. Filmmaking-wise, those movies are pretty impressive.

GM: So your next film is Finding Dory. How many people are constantly asking you for spoilers?

AM: Nobody! Nobody asks. [Laughs] I think nobody wants to know.

Disney will release Toy Story of Terror on Blu-ray and DVD on Tuesday, August 19, 2014.

Learning Through Legos: S.T.E.M. and Back Again

Lego Bricks
Lego Bricks by Gina Clifford

Legos are internationally cherished small plastic interlocking building blocks and minifigures that can be taken apart and used to build other objects. Over the years, Lego has expanded its creations to include products like gears and pulleys and even electronic parts for constructing programmable robots. As a result, there are popular Lego robotics leagues and Lego education products focusing squarely on programming, solar, and even wind energy exploration. So, we see the science, technology, engineering, and Math (S.T.E.M.) connection, but what do Legos have to do with other stuff like reading, writing, or art?

Learning by Doing

First, kids love to learn by doing. Period. In fact, noted computer scientist and constructivist from the MIT Media Lab, Seymour Papert, believes so strongly in learning by doing that in 1998 he worked with Lego to create Lego Mindstorms, a programmable brick that can be used to make robots. The name for the product came from Papert’s book, Mindstorms, published in 1980. Lego even funded some of his research! Let’s take these little S.T.E.M. jewels and extend their reach into non-traditional starring roles in the arts and humanities.


Lego Pirates
Lego Pirates by Gina Clifford

There’s nothing like necessity for prompting a child to read.  Lego kits come with detailed instruction manuals that a child must read and follow in order to complete the model.  Therefore, young Lego builders are developing their reading comprehension every time they follow the instructions for a new model.

More interesting, though is tying a piece of literature to a building project.  Imagine building scenes from Alice in Wonderland out of Legos.  Alternatively, build and then reenact your favorite scenes from Treasure Island in Lego. Check out literacy expert Susan Stephenson’s great suggestions on this topic.


Susan also provides ideas for using Mini-mizer, a free online digital Lego minifigure creation tool.  Mini-mizer is a cool tool for creating a wide array of digital minifigures that can be saved by taking screen captures.  It would be fun to use these neat screen captures in original comic strips, stories, etc.

Digital Storytelling

Lego-themed stop-motion videos are extremely popular.  A quick search on YouTube yields thousands of kid-created Lego stop-motion animation videos riffing on popular movies like Star Wars and Harry Potter.

Creating a stop-motion animation video isn’t kid’s play, though. Stop-motion animation takes serious time and skill. Creating even a rudimentary Lego stop-motion animation video requires developing at least basic photo, video, and sound editing techniques. More elaborate videos often involve developing a story board, writing a script, creating an original music score, adding special effects, learning about copyright rules, and even marketing a video to friends and fellow fans. In spite of the time and effort required to learn, young Lego fans painstakingly learn these skills on their own without prompting. In addition, young Lego engineers who explore stop-motion animation end up developing writing and story-telling skills as they explore new ways to express themselves through Lego.


Batman minifig
Created with Mini-mizer

Creative kids are in good company, too. Pixar animator, Angus Maclane, builds with Lego bricks to help him unwind after animating all day.  He also builds Lego models of animated characters to help him visualize his digital creations in 3-d.


Nathan Sawaya, a New York-based artist who has taken Lego bricks beyond child’s play with his traveling art exhibition, is an inspiration to all aspiring Lego artists.  As a child, Sawaya drew cartoons, wrote stories, perfected magic tricks, and played with LEGO. Nathan’s Lego sculptures are stunningly realistic  fine art that adults and children can enjoy together. Check out Nathan’s museum tour schedule to find an art museum near you that might be hosting an exhibition of Nathan’s work.

So, those sweet little bricks are really kids’ prototyping laboratory wares.  Fertile imaginations unleashed beyond STEM flow freely wherever the creative spirit dictates.  Oh! Don’t worry. Leaving the S.T.E.M. path actually leads back to it, sometimes profoundly. Check out Jim Bumgardner’s 2007 GeekDad article explaining how he erased his classroom math failures through creative discovery — outside the classroom.

Now go build some cool Lego creations with the kids!