MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: During work on Toy Story 2, the vast majority of the film was accidentally deleted due to a pair of computer errors.
Ever since computers became the primary place where work is done (both in school and in business), there have been horror stories about people losing their work due to some sort of mistake -- an accidental deletion, a computer crash, a power outage, whatever. These tales have been part of popular culture as long as computers have. I happened to catch a 1988 episode of A Different World in which Denise Huxtable loses a term paper she was writing on a computer (luckily, Dwayne Wayne recovers it for her). Rarely, though, do these stories come close to the sheer terror of the time in 1998 when Pixar accidentally deleted roughly 90 percent of Toy Story 2.
Read on to see what happened!
It was early in 1998, and the good folks at Pixar were hard at work. The majority of their staff was preparing A Bug's Life for release in the fall while a good chunk (I'd say the split was roughly 250 on the first film and 150 on the second) was already nine to 10 months into production on Toy Story 2, due out in November 1999 (this is likely why the "outtakes" of both films include cameos from the other film, as they were being produced at the same time -- a tradition that has continued with other Pixar features). One day, Toy Story 2 Associate Technical Director Oren Jacob (who would eventually become the chief technical officer of Pixar before leaving to do some work on start-up companies, including the one co-founded in 2012, ToyTalk) was in an office with a few other associate technical directors (they all worked under the supervision of Supervising Technical Director Galyn Susman) when they just happened to be looking at a directory where the assets for Woody were held. Upon a refresh, they noticed the assets kept decreasing. Like where Woody would have a hat, suddenly he didn't have a hat. Or boots. Or suddenly a body at all! They quickly looked at the other characters and as they refreshed, all the other characters were beginning to disappear as well!
You see, someone had run the command “rm –rf”; rm is used to remove files from directories on a UNIX shared computer system. However, in this instance, someone had accidentally used it on the master root of all the directories on the shared system. You might be dubious as to how one person could wipe out all of the files on the system, but the way that a movie like Toy Story 2 was done at the time was that pretty much every worker had direct access to the master files because everyone was working on a different small piece of the project at the same time. It would be far too time-consuming for each of the dozens and dozens of animators to have to seek special permissions to make changes to the master files, so instead everyone could make changes, from the lowest person on the totem pole to the highest of all head honchos at Pixar. Obviously, Jacob freaked out and, in effect, got someone to unplug the entire system before the whole project was deleted. This happens and later that afternoon, when they boot the system back up, they discover that 90 percent of the film has disappeared.
While that would naturally freak anyone out, important things being deleted like that is not quite as shocking as you might think. Again, when you have more than 400 people all sharing access to the master files, sometimes things get deleted. At one point, all of the bugs in A Bug's Life were lost. While freaky, there is always a back-up of the master files. In the case of A Bug's Life, the back-up was used and the bugs were restored. Here, however, things did not go so well. It might be hard to believe, but back in 1998, all of the information used to animate a movie as complex as Toy Story 2 only took up roughly 10 gigabytes. That's less room than your average flash drive that you can pick up at the local drug store. The back-up for the film, though, only had 4 gigabytes of room. Again, things were much different back then, and 4 gigabytes was a lot of space. However, it was not enough space. And roughly four to five months into the project, that 4-gigabyte ceiling had been reached. The way the back-up was set up, though, was instead of an error message saying that it could not add any more data to the back-up, the back-up would just add the new data in place of the old data. The folks at Pixar didn’t realize that at first, so when they booted up the retrieved data, it looked pretty much like they had their film back. And people went back to work on the film. However, it was soon apparent that they only had something like 40 percent of the files for the film and things slowly began to break down. Like part of a scene would be fine but parts of it would not be fine. Because you couldn't predict what parts were fine, the whole thing was just useless. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, now was the time for the tears. Everyone panicked but at the same time, everyone got together and tried to brainstorm possible solutions for this crisis. Workers here and there had saved their work on their local computers, so they were able to cobble together bits and pieces of the film, but no one had a complete copy of the film (obviously, as no one would have that much room on their computer). Well, as it turned out, almost no one.
Earlier, we mentioned Supervising Technical Director Galyn Susman. A few months earlier, Susman had given birth to a son. As she was a new mother, she needed to be able to do some work from home, so Pixar had set up a computer for her that had the complete film. In addition to the full film at that point, she would receive incremental updates with changes made over that time. No one knew when the last update had been, but obviously whatever she had was better than what they possessed at the moment. So they headed to her house and drove her computer back to the Pixar offices (Susman and Jacob later recalled the amusing procession, with her computer wrapped in blankets and strapped into a seat belt in the back seat with Jacob nervously watching it as Susman drove). The computer was plugged in and booted up. It had been updated two weeks ago. So they had the original back-up from a few months ago, her current updated version plus whatever other files they could cobble together from the various worker's individual work stations. That gave them roughly 70 percent of the film's files (as of the update two weeks earlier) as being verified as working fine. They had to then hand-check all of the directories for the remaining 30 percent to make sure it was correct. That took the entire staff working the whole weekend with very little sleep making sure the other 30 percent of the files were accurate. Eventually, they finished and production on the film was back up and running.
Amusingly enough, after the film was completed by the end of 1998, the head honchos at Pixar (including John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter and Joe Ranft) viewed the film and determined it wasn’t ready (a view held by Jacob, as well). They felt they couldn’t release it as produced, especially when they were still a relatively new company. So they then more or less scrapped the entire film, and in an amazing feat of animation mastery, what had taken them two years to produce was re-done in less than nine months in order to have Toy Story 2 ready for a November 1999 release.
It’s pretty funny that all of that work was done to restore files that went more or less unused. Of course, it wasn’t as simple as that. While yes, the vast majority of the first version of the film was redone, obviously the production work done on the characters were put to use on the new version (and some scenes from the original film were included in the new version), so it is still very important that they were able to salvage the original film. After all, if they had spent many months restoring the original film from scratch only to have it come out the same as the original version, they would not have finished it by the end of 1998, which in turn would not have given them enough time to scrap it and re-work the film the way that they did, so we would never have had the version of Toy Story 2 we now know and love. So it is still a big deal that they were able to save it!
The legend is...
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