Zig ZagThe Surprising Path to Greater Creativity
"Exceptional creators often zigzag through all eight steps, in varying order, every day. That’s part of the secret...Each step feeds the other seven."
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Zig Zag in Action

Pixar's Toy Story

In November 1995, Disney released Pixar’s Toy Story, the first-ever movie that was 100 percent generated with computer animation. It was a huge risk; in fall of 1994, even Pixar’s owner, Steve Jobs, was about to give up and sell the company to Microsoft. But the risk paid off big-time: The movie’s reviews were astonishingly good. The Washington Post compared it to 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. The movie grossed $28 million on its opening weekend, the most successful Thanksgiving weekend movie opening ever. It went on to become the highest-grossing movie of 1995, with $192 million U.S. box office and $357 million globally.

The plot, you’d think, must have come from a burst of inspiration. A little boy named Andy plays in his bedroom with his toys, especially his favorite wooden cowboy doll named “Woody.” At Andy’s next birthday, his favorite present is a new action figure of a spaceman, Buzz Lightyear. Buzz quickly becomes Andy’s favorite toy, and Woody gets really jealous. While on a family trip to a pizza restaurant, the two toys get into a fight and fall out of the family car, getting left behind. They go through a series of adventures and challenges to find their way back to Andy’s house, and have to face off against Andy’s mean neighbor Sid Phillips and his evil dog Scud. At the end of the movie, they are finally reunited with Andy and his other toys.

But the plot did not come from a burst of inspiration. Instead, it emerged from a long creative process that resembled a zig-zagging path. The original treatment for Toy Story, written by John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, and Pete Doctor, had almost nothing in common with the movie that we know and love. Let’s follow the zigs and zags of the creative journey that led to Toy Story.

  • Zig: The first draft was ready in March 1991. It had two main characters: a one-man band named Tinny and a ventriloquist’s dummy. The movie starts with Tinny waking up in his factory, and then he is given as a birthday gift to a young boy. The boy’s family goes on a road trip to the Southwest, and they take Tinny along. But early in the trip, he gets forgotten and left behind at a gas station. There, he meets the ventriloquist’s dummy, and they work together to find their way back to Tinny’s home. In a series of adventures, the two travel from the back of a truck to an auction, to a garbage truck, a yard sale, a couple’s house, and finally to a kindergarten playground—the happy ending in which the toys are reunited with the children.
    Pretty much the only plot element that made it into the final movie was a toy getting left behind at a gas station. Other bits and pieces zigged and zagged into the final movie: A Slinky caterpillar in the treatment gradually evolved into a Slinky dog in the final film, and in both treatment and film, there’s a threatening pet dog that the toys have to escape from, and one of the main toys is given as a birthday present.
  • Zag: After the initial treatment, Jeffrey Katzenberg of Disney told Pixar to rewrite Toy Story as more of an odd-couple buddy movie—like the older movie The Defiant Ones, about two men thrown together by circumstance and forced to cooperate even though they hated each other. So in September 1991, the Pixar team came back with a second treatment. Tinny and the dummy were still the main characters, but there’d been lots of changes. Tinny was no longer born in the factory; he was born as he was unwrapped. The ventriloquist’s dummy was already in the house, and it was the children’s favorite toy. The dummy became jealous of the shiny new Tinny, and they started to argue with each other.
    Instead of a vacation to the Southwest, the family was moving to a new town, and after a hard day of packing, they went out for pizza. The favorite toys went along for the ride, but they fell out of the car at the gas station and got left behind. Eventually they made it back home, but the moving van was just leaving for their new town. Tinny and the dummy were deterred by a vicious dog, but then all of the toys helped rescue Tinny from the dog, and Tinny and the dummy were happily reunited with the family.
  • Zig: The next zig came when Lasseter decided that Tinny was too old-fashioned. He replaced Tinny with a G.I. Joe type action figure.
  • Zag: Lasseter changed the action figure character into a space hero named Lunar Larry.
  • Zig: His name was changed again, to Tempus from Morph, and his outfit was changed to a bright red space suit.
  • Zag: The dummy was transformed into a cowboy character, exaggerating the contrast between the new space hero and the boy’s old favorite toy.
  • Zig: Disney nixed the ventriloquist dummy character. They were worried that parents (and children) would find it creepy and scary; a lot of horror movies use the ventriloquist dummy as an evil and dangerous character. Woody was changed into a stuffed toy with a pull string.
  • Zag: Tempus was renamed Buzz Lightyear.
  • Zig: Pixar wanted G.I. Joe as one of the toys in the movie, but Hasbro refused to license the rights, instead granting permission only for Mr. Potato Head.
  • Zag: The writers decided that Woody and Buzz would be rescued from Sid’s house by Barbie in a commando style raid, patterned after Sarah Connor in Terminator 2.
  • Zig: This idea was dropped when Mattel refused to license the rights to Barbie.
  • Zag: Pixar wanted Billy Crystal to play Buzz, but he turned down the part. The next choice was Tim Allen, star of the TV show Home Improvement. The directors had wanted Buzz to be a self-important, almost arrogant character, and Billy Crystal could have done this voice brilliantly. But at the first script reading, Allen’s voice made Buzz sound like a friendly, ordinary guy—and the directors decided they liked that version of Buzz even better.
  • Zig: In November 1993, this back-and-forth journey culminated in yet another rejection by Disney. The biggest problem was that Woody was too unlikable: An early scene had him abusing Slinky Dog, and another had him pushing Buzz out the window. Pixar rewrote the script to make Woody more sympathetic. Instead of pushing Buzz out the window, Buzz fell by accident.
  • Finally in February 1994—three years after the original treatment—Disney gave the green light. Production would start that April.

    Toy Story offers several lessons about creativity:

  1. The first idea won’t be great. It’s likely to be substantially modified, or to be removed altogether. But the first idea is necessary to get the journey started.
  2. Creators never know exactly where they are in the process; they don’t know how close they are to the final goal. But they trust in the process to eventually lead to successful creativity.
  3. Each zig leads to the next zag, and these changes in direction drive the creative process forward.

Excerpted from the original article in The Journal of Business Anthropology, Fall 2015, 4(2), pages 228-297