Last week Disney laid off 75 employees from animation studio Pixar, and among those affected were some long-time, senior personnel. That includes Angus MacLane, director of Lightyear (who had been there for 26 years) and producer Galyn Susman, famous for being the person who “saved” Toy Story 2.
As has been recounted numerous times over the decades—in perhaps the most detail in this 2012 TNW story—during production of Toy Story 2 back in the late 90s an animator cleaning up some files one day accidentally deleted most of the team’s two years of work on the film.
Not to worry! They had backup tapes—yeah, tapes, remember this was 1998—and quickly found that while some of their most recent animation work had been lost, that was only around a week’s delay. An inconvenience, but for a movie that was taking years to produce, not a huge problem.
Or so they thought. The more the team began working with the data saved on the backups, the more problems they ran into. Turns out that the backup tapes had suffered issues of their own—they had quietly filled up months back, and has been erasing old data with new saves every time they backed up—and so the restored animation wasn’t working either.
Oren Jacob, former Chief Technical Officer of Pixar, recounts this dreaded moment:
“That work is definitely wasted, because it’s on top of an unreliable restoral,” recalls Jacob. “Now sadly, what’s happened is that there is zero confidence in any solution, because the restoral is bad, the work on it is bad, the deletion was horrible, and the backup tapes are busted.”
“All possible directions to move are broken and, maybe worse. We don’t quite understand how they’re broken. If only 10 percent of the show is not on the tape, which 10 percent? I don’t know.”
“That was the big meeting, in the conference room back in Bugville (Pixar’s corporate complex). All the big brains in the studio are like, “Uh, I don’t know. Oh my God!”
Amidst the doom, one person had an idea. Supervising Technical Director Gayle Susman, who had recently had a child, had been doing a lot of work from home and had her own backups.
“She and I just stood up and walked out, back to her Volvo, drove across the bridge, got the machine, got some blankets, I hugged it with seatbelts, across the back seat. Drove at like 35 with blinking lights on, hoping to get a police escort. No cops saw us, so it didn’t help us.”
At that point, the Volvo had become a $100M machine, as the entirety of the team’s efforts so far on the project were ensconced on its drives.
They made it back to Richmond in safety. “Eight people met us with a plywood sheet out in the parking lot and, like a sedan carrying the Pharaoh, walked it into the machine room.”
And it worked! The data took a ton of work to reintegrate with the whole team, but they eventually got back up to speed and the movie was saved. For a time, at least; while Susman, her backups and her Volvo have long been the stars of the story, it’s not as widely reported that not long afterwards Pixar’s leadership hated the movie so much that loads of it had to be scrapped and redone anyway in a hellish, months-long crunch that may have resulted in a pretty great movie, but also in a huge physical and emotional toll on Pixar’s workers that left “a full third of the staff” with RSI and instances like the time an animator “had forgotten to drop his child off at daycare one morning and, in a mental haze, forgot the baby in the back seat of his car in the parking lot”.
Fast forward to 2023 and as part of wider layoffs at Disney—who aren’t just cutting staff, but TV shows as well—Susman is now gone, alongside Lightyear director MacLane and Pixar’s vice president of worldwide publicity Michael Agulnek. The Reuters story announcing the layoffs sure does paint a picture of their dismissals coming as a result of not just Lightyear’s poor (by major Pixar movie standards) box office performance, but of Disney being pissed off that “Lightyear could not be shown in 14 Middle Eastern and Asian countries because of its depiction of a same-sex relationship”, which “had an impact on its box office performance.”