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If you’re a 90’s kid like me—or if you’ve been to Disneyland or Disney World in the last 15 years—chances are you’ve seen the work of Jerry Rees. Now a staff director for in-ride attractions at Walt Disney World, Rees had been involved with some amazing films, like TRON, The Fox and the Hound and Space Jam… but he’s best known for writing and directing the 1987 animated classic The Brave Little Toaster. Now a milestone in animation, Toaster pushed several new boundaries for animated films by taking its story to a much darker, edgier place than was normal at the time and using comedians (i.e., Jon Lovitz and Phil Hartman, pre-SNL) as voice actors.
Toaster holds a special place in my heart for being one of a handful of movies that got me interested in moviemaking at a very early age, and—as evidenced by the packed screening of the film at Cal State Northridge last year—plenty of kids currently in college regard the film as an integral part of their childhood. Rees and I discussed his early interest in animation, his experience getting Toaster made (and the shock he had when he took it to Sundance), a possible sequel to the film and the legacy it has left behind.
Andy Young (MM): When did you figure out you wanted to be a moviemaker?
Jerry Rees (JR): Really young. I made flipbooks as a kid, and as I got older, I started seeing how many stories you could tell. Then it stopped being a novelty and became a storytelling tool. I remember in high school our teacher asked us, “Where are you going to be in five years and 10 years?” I remember writing down: “In five years I’ll be in film school, and in 10 I’ll be working at Disney.” And things actually turned out that way.
MM: Where did you go to film school?
JR: As soon as I graduated high school I was a TA for the first year of the Character Animation program at CalArts [California Institute of the Arts]. I got to go through the studio archives and see scenes and the original drawings from some of my favorite Disney films. During the summer before the program started, I was answering phones for our teacher, taking the names of future students like John Musker, Brad Bird, John Lasseter… So we all had those first few years together until Disney asked the four of us to jump ship and just start working.
MM: What did you do after school?
JR: We came in at the end of Pete’s Dragon, so my first job was doing cleanup work on that film and working over the live action footage. So it was really more like a technical exercise. But then we worked on The Small One and The Fox and the Hound, and I got to cut my teeth as an animator on those.
MM: How did The Brave Little Toaster come into your life?
JR: I was working on TRON, and around that time me and Brad made a pencil-test faux trailer of The Spirit, so I left Disney to pursue that full-time. We moved to Marin, California and met with [producer] Gary Kurtz, who had just finished Star Wars V. He paid us to storyboard and write The Spirit, to get it off the ground. After five years, the project turned out to be an overreach for him, and we stepped away to lighten Gary’s load. The instant that happened, I got the call from Tom Wilhite to helm Toaster. People thought I was crazy going from Spirit to Toaster, but Tom sent me the novella and offered to let me develop, write and direct the film. To me, that was such a change from just waiting around and being another cog in the machine, so I signed on.
MM: Did you already have your actors, or did you write with certain voices in mind for certain characters?
JR: I remember when we did auditions, people came in and were doing these silly cartoonish voices, which I hated. Joe Ranft, my co-writer, had been taking night classes at [Los Angeles comedy club] The Groundlings, and that’s where we got the idea to get people like Jon Lovitz and Phil Hartman to do voices—this was before they were on SNL. Once we auditioned them I was happy, and we wrote specifically for those voices.
MM: This movie has much darker, edgier tones then the usual children’s animated film. Was that ever a sticking point with the studio?
JR: It was never an issue. There was no studio collaboration. If we did it through Disney, this movie probably would have never been made, or at least not like how it came out.
MM: What was the budget for the film?
JR: Around two and a quarter million for the whole 90 minutes. People actually thought it was more expensive when they saw the film.
MM: What was the production process like?
JR: I really love working with a small team of creative people who have multiple skills. On Toaster, many of my key crew members did two, three or even four different jobs—all in sequence, and all involving things they were good at and liked to do. I might ask one person to storyboard a scene, do test animation to help establish the personality traits of a character, perform a voice and animate. This wearing of many hats is hard to do within the structure of a big studio, but a smaller “boutique” environment allows much more of this freedom. It doesn’t just save a bit of money by keeping the crew size smaller, it also allows each artist to use more of his or her talents, plus—and this is important—it keeps a more cohesive creative continuity from the beginning to the end of the process. Core ideas are more easily preserved in fewer hands. And it’s fun!
MM: Talk about the “travesty” that happened at Sundance.
JR: We were using Sundance to get distribution, and this was when Sundance was just getting up-and-running. We had a really positive reaction at our screening, and we were hoping we would get the spotlight… we thought if Sundance celebrated us, it would help [us get distribution]. I met some of the judges, and three of them told me at different points that “We thought you had the best movie here this year, but to say that an animated film won the top prize? We don’t think people would take the festival seriously… But secretly, you have the best movie here!” And it was so weird to watch someone else win the award with them winking at us. Back then, animation was still seen as the bastard stepchild of the industry, and we had hoped to elevate it to a legitimate storytelling medium. And of course, now it’s completely different.
MM: You did a screening of Toaster about a year ago with Deanna Oliver (the voice of Toaster) in a theater packed with college kids. Was it weird seeing the film with an audience that grew up with it?
JR: It really is mind-boggling. When we made the film, we were all around that age, and we hadn’t thought to the “legacy” and future of the film. The students at Northridge chose it as a part of their film series, and they contacted us to do a Q&A. It was weird to tell them we made it before most of them were even born.
MM: When I showed you my “unofficial sequel” to Toaster, you told me you were actually developing a real sequel. Are there any plans that you’re allowed to talk about?
JR: I had nothing to do with the home video sequels (I’ve never even seen them), but there have been some rumblings about its rebirth with contemporary, fresh sensibilities among people who are rediscovering it. The thinking is, there may be enough momentum for us to get some funding and make a legitimate sequel, with me writing/directing and bringing as much of the original cast/crew as possible. Since I’m considering a live-action/CGI combo, there will be some obvious shifting of duties for certain departments. In addition, I plan to invite fans into the process in a couple of ways—to animate a certain amount of production footage themselves through a virtual studio portal—and to submit parody mini-shorts of their own creation to be cut directly into the feature. The sequel would pick up right where the original left off, with the Master in college.
MM: Do you think film school is worth it?
JR: I think there are many different paths that can lead you to what you want to do; it’s an evolving situation. Depending on the instructors that you have and who you’re working with, there’s a lot to learn and a lot to value from film school, but there’s also a lot of value in apprenticing in real situations. I was getting critiques from members of [legendary Disney animators] the Nine Old Men before I even went to film school, and after two years of college, [Disney] asked me to leave and start working. There’s value in both paths, but I never finished my degree and I haven’t felt any damage from it.
MM: Any advice for people who want to make their own movies?
JR: As director, make a plan that you’re happy with and stick to it. Your crew can then trust that they won’t be tripped up halfway through and will be free to charge ahead at full speed. Aside from that, take the part of filmmaking you love the most and start doing that. Then you’ll have stuff to share with a school or a company or a team, and they can see your excitement as evidence of what you’re capable of.
Andy Young is a director, editor, writer and composer living in Austin, Texas. At the age of twenty, he has produced over 100 short films and one feature film, The Legend of Action Man, which he shot on a budget of only $200. Andy continues to make low-budget shorts with his sketch comedy group Dingoman Productions.