Dawn C. Chmielewski covers Disney for the Los Angeles Times and she recently wrote about the interesting role Pixar guru John Lasseter plays in the Disney toy line. During the course of her reporting she interviewed Albert Chan, president and CEO of Thinkway Toys, and since we’re always interested in the toy aisle here at Hero Complex we bring you a Q&A with the toy master whose company was an early part of the Pixar success story.
DC: How did the relationship between Pixar and Thinkway get started?
AC: Thinkway and Pixar’s relationship began 15 years ago. When Pixar launched “Toy Story” in 1995 it was the first fully computer-animated movie. As such, it was different than traditional 2-D animation and Disney had difficulty convincing any major toy company to develop toys for the world’s first CGI film. For me, it was no risk at all and seemed like an unbelievable opportunity. The first time I met John Lasseter, about five minutes into the meeting, he and I started talking about his toy ideas and that transpired into playing with his toys on the floor in his office. It was a “toyetic” beginning and that’s how Pixar and Thinkway’s relationship began.
DC: What was John Lasseter’s role in the maverick decision to create a foot-tall action figure?
AC: John emphasized that the Buzz Lightyear action figure toy should be 12 inches in size. He explained that Buzz was designed as a 12-inch toy in reality and that’s the scale applied throughout the film. This was different than traditional action figures sizing but I was willing to listen. At that time, the norm in the action figure category in North America was 5-and-a-half inches. I was unsure if retailers would accept the larger size and groundbreaking higher price point. A smaller size prototype had already been made and I would need to go back to the drawing board and start over again in order to create the larger-sized Buzz Lightyear from John’s vision. Adding to the challenge, I was faced with an impossibly short lead time to redesign, produce and ship the products before the movie release in just five months. To this day, I still remember the exact words John said to me: “Albert, just trust me.” I gave him my trust and followed his guidance. That crucial decision changed my life with the international success of Buzz Lightyear and “Toy Story.” The success also inspired Thinkway to explore many new items with innovative technologies and establish a point of difference in the market. Indeed, John unknowingly changed the nature of the action figure category in the toy industry.
DC: Was there anything unusual or noteworthy about the collaboration?
AC: Collaborating with John Lasseter is an honor and has been a tremendous learning opportunity for me. My company, Thinkway Toys, has been in the business for almost 27 years. As a toy maker, Thinkway is known in the industry as a pioneer and leader in innovative animatronic toys. We have produced many licensed products, including the “Star Wars” interactive talking banks and won numerous design and retail awards along the way. John is considered the best in his field. When our worlds met, we were both excited about the potential of our collaboration and we have a common interest: to make quality toys.
DC: Lasseter has said that you were the only toy maker who would make a Jesse doll based on “Toy Story 2” or Edna Mode from “The Incredibles.” Apparently, other companies thought these films would appeal primarily to boys and that the toy lines should reflect that. What made Thinkway go a different direction?
AC: Over the years working with John, I have learned to follow his instincts in making toys for his movies. For instance, John pointed out that there was a niche for a Jessie and Edna doll. Most Pixar films are family oriented and appeal to both genders. Normally, producing girl’s toys for what is perceived to be a boy’s movie is risky in the toy industry but I respected John’s advice and took the Jessie and Edna dolls to market. The results? Let’s just say that John’s instincts were right on the mark again. Edna was a complete sellout and Jessie’s sales are now close to Woody’s!
DC: Lasseter said that he traveled to Hong Kong to join you on a visit of a toy factory and to gain greater understanding of the manufacturing process. How did that visit change the nature of the discussions about upcoming toy lines?
AC: After the “Toy Story” movie was released in 1995, John told me he would be in Hong Kong and would like to visit the toy factory that makes the “Toy Story” toys. After his arrival, we took a two-hour car ride to the factory in China. While we were there, he left no stone unturned and went through the entire production process. He looked at and felt the various colored plastic pellets that would eventually form the different color components of the action figures. He studied how the factory workers applied spray paint on the toy figure faces. After going through every production stage, John realized that the manufacturing process was still very labor intensive and not as automated as he had expected. It was a very hands-on process and involved hundreds of workers and man hours. After the factory visit, I believe John’s insight helped him strike a balance between what is essential to staying true to the film characters while being mindful about what is practical at the manufacturing level.
DC: Is there an example where he’s pushed you to change a design to make it more authentic or rejected an idea because it wasn’t true to the film?
AC: Yes, I remember such an incident during a Wall-E product review last year. At the meeting, I presented my company’s key TV campaign item, the “U-Command Wall-E.” It was a remote control toy with hidden wheels under Wall-E’s treads for mobility. John rejected the hidden-wheels design and preferred that Wall-E’s treads be real working treads just like the character in the movie. It was important to him to keep the character’s integrity in the toys. This was a challenge because I had to re-engineer the design and make sure that the treads would not fall off when the remote control toy makes a turn. John spent time to listen to my explanation, asked questions and tried to guide me in finding creative solutions as if he was a toy engineer. I took the time to redesign the treads and this U-Command Wall-E turned out to be the fastest selling product in our line, globally.
DC: Does all of this make him different than other Hollywood creators and executives that you deal with?
AC: Typically a licensee does not work directly with filmmakers. John is both a passionate filmmaker and toy collector and his interest in the toys ultimately led to better products on store shelves and it was a lot of fun collaborating with him along the way. John has endless enthusiasm for toys and is always curious about how they are made and how closely they resemble and function like the original movie characters. He gets excited about the prototypes and like a big child gets down on the floor or table to play with them. When I showed John and other Pixar filmmakers and animators the Definitive Toy Story Collection Buzz Lightyear the first time, they were impressed that Buzz’s wings pop out exactly like in the movie. He studied it closely, left and right, with his filmmaker’s eyes. Then he looked up and educated us with a film fact: Buzz’s wing tips should be red on one side and green on the other, like a real airplane! I am always enlightened by John’s input.
— Dawn C. Chmielewski
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CREDITS: “Toy Story” and “Wall-E” images from Pixar. Albert Chan photo from Thinkway.
FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version if this post had a typo in the name of the Pixar character Edna Mode. No capes!