Was Nearly All of Toy Story 2 Accidentally Deleted Nine Months In Due to a Pair of Computer Errors?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about movies and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the movie urban legends featured so far.

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 was 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 crashing, a power outage, whatever). These horror stories have been part of the popular culture as long as computers have been part of the popular culture. I happened to catch an episode of A Different World recently from 1988 where Denise Huxtable loses a term paper she was writing on a computer (luckily, Dwayne Wayne recovers it for her). Rarely, though, do these horror stories come close to the sheer terror of the time that Pixar accidentally deleted roughly 90% of Toy Story 2 back in 1998.

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 work force was preparing A Bug’s Life for release in the fall of 1998 while a good chunk (I’d say the split was roughly 250 on the first film and 150 on the second) were already nine-ten 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 films). 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 company he co-founded in 2012, ToyTalk, an interactive toy company) 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 that 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 a command 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 film at the same time. It would be far too time-consuming for each of the dozens and dozens and dozens of animators to have to get 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, then, Jacob freaks out and, in effect, tells someone to unplug the entire system before the whole project is deleted. This happens and later that afternoon, when they boot the system back up, they discover that 90% of the film has been deleted.

While this would naturally freak anyone out, important things being deleted like this is not quite as shocking as you might think. Again, when you have over four hundred 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 deleted. 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, though, 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 about 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-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 did not realize this 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% 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. Since 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. Since she was a new mother, she needed to be able to do some work from home, so Pixar had set up a home computer for her that had the complete film on it. In addition to the full film at that point, she would receive incremental updates with changes made to the film over that time. No one knew when the last update had been, but obviously whatever she had was better than what they had 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 to the offices). 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. This gave them roughly 70% 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% to make sure that it was correct. This took the entire staff working the whole weekend with very little sleep making sure the other 30% 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 that it was not ready yet (a view held by Jacob, as well). They felt that they could not release it as it was currently produced, especially when they were still a relatively new company. So they then more or less scrapped the entire film and started over from scratch and in an amazing feat of animation mastery, what had taken them two years to produce to that point was re-done in less than nine months in order to have Toy Story 2 ready for a November 1999 release.

Pretty funny that all of that work done to restore the files were then more or less unused. Of course, it was not 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 of the film (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 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…

STATUS: True

Thanks to Matthew Panzarino’s in-depth article on the situation at The Next Web. The bare bones version of the story first appeared at Tested.

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is [email protected]

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2 Responses to “Was Nearly All of Toy Story 2 Accidentally Deleted Nine Months In Due to a Pair of Computer Errors?”

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  2. In UXM201 (January 1986) Cannonball also loses his term paper due tue a computer crash and Kitty recovers it for him.

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