On Disney+ short-form series Forky Asks a Question, Bob Peterson seized the chance to work with a beloved new character from the Toy Story franchise, which was introduced to him before the rest of the world, creating stories at the same time for characters that had never gotten much screen time in the Pixar films.
A spastic, plastic spork voiced by Tony Hale, who knows nothing of the world, Forky was brought to life by toddler Bonnie in Toy Story 4. In Peterson’s series, Forky asks a series of questions about such topics as time, love and cheese, to learn a bit about how the world works.
Learning of Forky toward the end of production on Toy Story 4, Peterson instantly saw in the character something—or someone—worthy of further exploration. “Forky was going to be a super fun character, and I’ve always been a fan of Tony Hale,” says the series creator, who has worked at Pixar since 1994. “So, when we set out to figure out what our first foray into Disney+ might be, I [leaned toward] Forky as a main character, and it just came out of my appreciation of that crazy character.”
To Peterson, Forky was a special character, resonating both with animators and audiences, simply because of the naiveté with which he entered the world. “The character was just created, so he doesn’t know what the world’s about, and yet has this odd wisdom about him, and I think that’s part of it, just his childlike look on everything. Just the not getting the world, the goofiness, the Tony Hale of it all, I think really helps,” says the two-time Oscar nominee, who was recognized as a writer on Finding Nemo and Up. “I think he reminds you of the inquisitiveness of your childhood in some respects, and he just releases you to celebrate his silliness.”
Before being able to bring Forky Asks a Question to fruition, Peterson had to engaged in a long series of pitches, with executives and artists at both Pixar and the fledgling Disney+. “I pitched it first to Jim Morris, Pete Docter, Josh Cooley, the director of TS 4. I wrote kind of a spec script for one of the episodes, and they liked it, and so I wrote five episodes,” he recalls. “Then, we went down and pitched to [Disney+ President of Content & Marketing] Ricky Strauss and [Senior Vice President] Agnes Chu and they liked it, so I wrote five more.”
The gist of the challenge for Peterson in creating a series around Forky was to figure out the right questions for the character to ask. “And that grew out of who I wanted to pair him with, because I had this whole smorgasbord of great side characters, and I thought this would be a great way to expand on what we know of the side characters, or at least give them more screen time, so we can enjoy their character,” he says. “[For example], Rex really likes the idea of the ancient world and dinosaurs, and so I thought he would be great to pair with someone asking about time.”
The benefit of working with characters and environments from an existing franchise—and specifically, one that had a film in production at the time—was that it made the short-form series all the more doable, on creative and practical levels. “The nice thing about these, for me, was that I could use some of the models; I could use the sets. Toy Story 4 would record a character, and then I would record them afterwards,” Peterson shares. “So, it made things a little bit easier to draft behind Toy Story as they were going along.”
For Peterson, the standout episode of the series—and the one he submitted for Emmys this year—is “Forky Asks a Question: What Is Love?” which featured the voices of entertainment icons Mel Brooks, Carol Burnett, Carl Reiner and Betty White. “That was an absolute career highlight. I couldn’t believe it was happening,” the Forky creator admits. “When I heard that they were in Toy Story 4, I was so mad and jealous that I didn’t get to work with them, and so when it came up that I could choose some side characters, I thought, ‘Well, why not tell a story about what is love, from the viewpoint of these seniors who have seen and done it all?’”
With “What Is Love?” Peterson’s idea was to craft a piece that was nostalgic to him. “I thought it would be fun to craft something a bit soap opera-like for those four, and then I concentrated on their strengths. Carl is hilarious, but also has this super-likability, and he’s very grandfatherly. So, his role felt like that. Betty is so fiery that I wanted her to be the scorned lover,” he says. “Carol, I tried to work in her Tarzan yell and just her amazing craft of comedy, and then Mel is so smart that I tried to give him just that Mel Brooks quality of super-smart and super-funny.”
On production on the episode, Peterson got to spend 30 minutes, recording the voices of each of the actors—the experience being, he feels, a career highlight not to be matched again. “They are seniors in their 90s, but they brought great energy, and I really felt like a steward for these classic actors. I was so lucky to have them together, and I just wanted to make sure that [it would] work as well as it could for them and for the audience,” he says. “Then, throwing Forky up against them, in reaction to these giants, is just icing on the cake, and Tony really did a great job there.”
Throughout his time with Forky, Peterson indeed found Hale to be the consummate voice actor. “Tony’s so funny, and really tries to work things, so that they end up with a great cadence to them. So, we had a day with him for the whole series, just one day,” the creator says. “He’s such a good performer in front of the mic, which is not always an easy thing to do for an actor who’s used to using their entire body to convey emotion. You have to just rely on the rise and fall of your voice to do that, and he was great.”
In retrospect, Peterson finds that there are distinct benefits to extending a franchise like Toy Story through something like a short-form series. “The things that affected me [growing up] were the Bugs Bunny shorts and the things that those short forms really hit home, and I think it allows you to just be a little more succinct and a little bit different with the humor,” he says, “because you’re not really reaching the depths of pathos that we do in the film. So, you can keep it a little more lighthearted and silly as you go.”
Working as an animator on the original Toy Story film, Peterson has always been proud of his association with the franchise. And now, with Forky Asks a Question, he can enjoy a distinction that he, himself, has brought upon it. “This is Pixar’s first Emmy nom because we just haven’t been part of the streaming world until now. So, I’m very proud of that,” he says, “that I was able to bring that first nomination.”