I recently was able to sit down with a very talented and experienced individual who worked at Disney for many years. He helped with the creation of some of Disney’s most iconic TV series from the late 1980s and through the 1990s. He is the one and only Tad Stones.
Interviewer: So when did your journey with Disney begin and what were some of your earlier projects?
Tad: I began working at Disney in 1974 as an inbetweener on Rescuers. I was at features for several years and I did some educational films. Then I moved to Imagineering and worked on rides for the EPCOT Center. I worked on the Transportation Pavilion with Ward Kimball, I worked on the Imagination Pavilion with Tony Baxter, I worked on an unmade Space Pavilion where I got to meet George Lucas, so that was fun.
Then I went back to the studio to do various EPCOT Documentaries which didn’t happen. And then eventually was a consultant on TV, then eventually becoming one of the founding fathers of TV Animation.
At first I went to TV Animation and actually when I went over I was technically management. I was a Creative Manager of development. But then around the 3rd season of Gummi Bears there was a change in story editors and I was tapped. So I did a season of Gummi Bears and then Rescue Rangers right after that.
Interviewer: So what lead you to coming up with the concept of Rescue Rangers and deciding to use pre-existing characters like Chip and Dale and throwing them in this scenario?
Tad: It had kind of a windy road. We would have “Gong Shows” at the time with Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katsenberg and Richard Frank, who at the time was the head of TV. Those would be where you would pitch and idea in a sentence or two and they would maybe ask questions about it and want more or just say “Gong, Next”.
So during one of those, I think it was David Weimers and Ken Koonce who came up with the name Miami Mice because Miami Vice was on all the time and they lived clever names. They always felt like you had to do a great show but having a fun name would get more people to view it in the first place.
Anyway, we developed Miami Mice and we quickly changed the name to Metro Mice, I believe to legal reasons. The first shot was just a mouse police station. Even the artwork had guns, which was crazy to think about. We realized the problems of doing Hill Street Blues in the mouse world was that you couldn’t to the normal police crimes they’d be too violent. So we played around with ideas and we decided to make it a general group. We came up with a group of rodents and lizards etc.
We originally had a version of Monterey Jack, we had Gadget and Zipper the fly but we also had chameleon who wore plaid and she was like the secretary of the group. There was an Asian cricket. They also flew around a near sighted bald eagle. And the leader of the group was this guy in a little aviator jacket called Kit Colby. So we pitched that to Michael Eisner with the name Rescue Rangers. They liked the show but they didn’t have any feelings for the main character. I asked “Is that because we haven’t fleshed them out enough?” and they pointed to some other pitches like RoboDuck and were like “We got those guys in one drawing and one sentence. You just need more work”.
Then in the same meeting we went through some of the classic Disney characters and as soon as we said “Chip and Dale” Michael Eisner said “Put those characters in that show” and Jeffrey chipped in and said “Home Run”. So we didn’t come up with the idea of using them that was Michael Eisner. So since we had a double lead we had to loose members of the team. There were just too many characters. So we paired it down to Monterey Jack, Gadget, Zipper and the two guys. And then the Bald Eagle was replaced by Gadget’s Ranger Plane. And that’s how it started.
Interviewer: Is it true that Chip and Dale’s designs were based on Indiana Jones and Magnum P.I.?
Tad: Chip’s hat was definitely based on Indiana Jones, I forgot who did that. I worried about it being too on the nose. The Aviator jacked was originally from Kit Colby. Dale needed clothes and I thought of a Hawaiian shirt. When I saw the color model of the red shirt I must have said to a PR person but I said “Yeah it’s Indiana Jones and Magnum P.I.”. But it wasn’t meant to be a direct connection.
Interviewer: Since the show and film are similar was there any suggestions to potentially connect Rescue Rangers with 1977’s The Rescuers in any way?
Tad: No. We pitched a Rescuers show early on because it was a series of books. So naturally it could be a series on TV. But Katzenberg said “No. We already have a sequel in the works”. So when we came up with Rescue Rangers he basically said “Make this your Rescuers”. So there was no crossover between the two.
Interviewer: So moving onto Darkwing Duck, what lead to the creation of this superhero character?
Tad: That once again goes back to Jeffrey Katzenberg. There are people who believe that Darkwing was inspired by two episodes of Ducktales, being Double-O Duck and The Masked Mallard. The way he came to be was that Eisner and Katzenberg liked catchy titles. So he knew about this Ducktales episode called “Double-O Duck” and said “I want you to do a show on Double-O Duck. But I want you to do a different character”. So I took a shot at is and made it a James Bond Parody and neither I or Jeffrey were excited about it. So he told me to just do it over.
I had a meeting with a bunch of the guys who I wanted to work on the show and then Duane Capizzi saw the original drawings and he said “Well that reminds me of pulp heroes like the Green Hornet” and a lightbulb went off in my head. Because I loved all that stuff, especially The Shadow. That gave me the idea of having a different group of characters for a secret agent team. Doc Savage had a team of specialists and I said “That could be what we can do”.
We paired down the team and ended up with a trio of a father, and daughter and Lauchpad. They liked the show, we started doing writing and trying to promote the show. And then the people who owned the rights to James Bond sent a cease and desist letter. But that was okay because by then Jeffrey felt that we had a great show. So we had a contest with the staff to come up with a name and Allen Burnett pitched “Darkwing” and I loved immediately. But I wanted to pair it with “Duck” because Darkwing is what he felt about himself and Duck just sounded silly which is how things usually worked out for him.
The important thing was once I lost the “Double-O Duck” name I was free to move him into what I loved, which was Silver Age comics with a bunch of silly stories. I just had my vague memories of comic covers and stories I read. So that is what pushed Darkwing into the super hero setting. We kept the spy thing as like he’s a freelance agent working for them. And we fleshed out Gosalyn and Darkwing’s life with all these other characters and then we had fun creating super villains. I had a fantastic team of story editors who would take those ideas and make them real.
Interviewer: So when taking the character Launchpad from Ducktales and putting him in Darkwing Duck was there ever meant to be a connection between the two series or did you just like the character?
Tad: We just liked the character and we actually changed him if you compare model sheets. We basically redesigned him and his personality lost a lot of I.Q. Points. We had him go from a crummy pilot to a very good pilot because he would rarely crash the Thunderquack, where in Ducktales it was a running gag how often he’d crash. It wasn’t a direct connection. Going back to Silver Age comics there would be crossovers between Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman, but it wasn’t like today where people keep track of continuity. Back then it was like “Hey why don’t we put Superman and Batman together? That would be a good story.” and that lead to a comic called World’s Finest. And that’s how it was.
We used Gizmo Duck as a Superman character. Everybody loves Gizmo Duck. Gizmo Duck is the one who gets the key to the city. Gizmo Duck is the guy who gets on the front pages. Gizmo Duck gets all these things that Darkwing would love and he’s got such a huge ego but he doesn’t get any of that. For comedy reasons that’s how we brought him over. I sorta call it a multiverse, as yes there is a Duckberg in Darkwing’s world and there is a Scrooge in Darkwing’s world, but we never went back and researched Ducktales and said “Hey let’s take that from that episode”.
I say it’s a different universe and some fans went crazy and pointed to Lauhchpad and say it’s the same universe and I say it’s proof that it’s a different universe because obviously it’s a different guy.
Interviewer: So after Darkwing you then moved from the more comedic shows and did more action oriented shows such as the Aladdin and Hercules shows. But then you would eventually do a show that wasn’t based on a “Disney” property but instead a “Pixar” Property. What lead to you making the Buzz Lightyear Show?
Tad: Right after Darkwing I pitched a science fiction show. It would have been in tone with Darkwing but crazier and wilder. I felt like “Oh in this next show we can get even funnier”. But, I had started at Disney’s Features Department and partly because of that background they wanted me to do feature projects. I went to a meeting thinking “Are they going to do the science fiction show after all?” and they said “No, we want you to do Aladdin.”.
So all of those were assignments. I also worked at direct-to-video and looking at the landscape of how long things were taking to develop I actually went back to the TV side. I said “Is there a chance you’ve got a project for me” and the day before some management thought “You know who would be perfect for this Hercules series would be Tad” but they didn’t bring it up because I was on the direct-to-video side of things. But I walked in and said “Hey can I come back on this side?”
And then after Hercules was Buzz Lightyear. The difference with that was you would usually alternate teams. After Ducktales I did Rescue Rangers then came Tale Spin then I did Darkwing. So there was that breathing room in between series. But after Hercules, they wanted the same team to do Buzz Lightyear, so it was really hard to transition between shows. I tried to do preliminary work but it was hard for Mark McCorkle and Robert Schooley to let go of Hercules. They loved that show. I said “Okay we have to do Buzz Lightyear Fridays”. But when they were able to concentrate on it they made it their own. They liked my ideas and that’s how it was.
So we started developing that. We met with some of the guys at Pixar. We met with guys like John Lasseter and Joe Ranft. The problem was I knew that John always wanted Buzz, in head head canon, was the Buzz toy was based on an action-adventure show. We had something that was like based on a different kind of humor. When they did their opening in Toy Story 2 we were like “Yeah that’s brilliant. I understand that’s what you want. But we need to turn out a script every week. You guys took how many months figuring out that sequence? That’s not how Television works”.
In Toy Story Buzz thought he was a space man in a world of toys, a fish out of water. In our show we had to put the fish in water. We thought “How do we capture the similar humor?” and our solution was to put him in charge of a group of rookies. It was humor as well as action-adventure.
As for the Disney vs. Pixar thing we really didn’t see any difference. I don’t remember when Disney bought them but at the time there was no difference.
Interviewer: So when creating this world for Buzz Lightyear and his story what was it like coming up with all these weird and different alien worlds and creatures and crazy characters in space?
Tad: That was fun. When working in Imagineering on that Space Pavilion I would go to the World Science Fiction Convention and meet science fiction writers I always loved it. I also loved Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, Lost In Space, Star Trek, all of that. And combining that with the super hero/super villain side was super fun. But Mark and Bob were really running up the story on that one. Pre-Hercules I was mostly in charge of story but Mark and Bob really headed up the story on that one.
Interviewer: So with the character of Mira Nova being a Princess turned Space Ranger would you say in a way that she is Disney’s very first Extra Terrestrial Princess?
Tad: Well (laughs) that depends on when you consider Star Wars came out in 1977 but Disney didn’t own it at the time and our series came out before that so you have to deal with the Princess Lea question. But when we created her it wasn’t in the mind of Disney Princesses as they are now. It was that we wanted a variety of backgrounds for these characters and a way to get into other types of stories. So that’s where the Princess thing came from.
Interviewer: So what lead to the creation to the Buzz Lightyear movie tie-in?
Tad: We always did multi-parters to introduce our syndicated shows. We would do a four or five part show and Friday nights before the series started you would run it as a movie then divide it into shows. We did that with Rescue Rangers and Darkwing and I think Ducktales did that as well.
So we pitched Buzz Lightyear of Star Command to Michael Eisner and he liked it. By the time we did that they had taken Toy Story 2 from a direct-to-video film and made that a theatrical instead. So we said this series would come out before Toy Story 2 which was originally okay with Michael Eisner.
We went into production and at a meeting some executives thought that it would take away from Toy Story 2 so the decision was made to sort of push it back until after the movie comes out.
What that lead us to do is that usually you hold off those four part episodes until the end of development. But because we had been delayed we were able to do the multi-part as the last thing. You usually want to delay the multi-part stuff because you don’t know the characters yet but you don’t know them until you flesh them out in scripts. All the design work had been done, so we took our budget and moved it towards new locations and designs so it gave it more production value. By that time we really knew our characters and we added some bells and whistles. So it wasn’t like us saying “Hey’ let’s do this” it was them saying due to the popularity of Toy Story “Instead of as a preview of the series let’s put this out as direct-to-video”.
In our show Patrick Warburton was Buzz and he had a very unique take to his speech. But they said “Since it’s direct-to-video let’s bring back Tim Allen”. But the animation is already done so Tim had to work around the animation which had been done for Patrick. He did his performance looking at the animation and it was hard for him because he had to make it his Buzz while the cadence was entirely different. When you look at it side by side he did a great job of making it his, but when it went onto TV as the separate parts it was Patrick again.
Interviewer: So after Buzz Lightyear was finished you were tasked with doing another show that was eventually turned into a direct-to-video film instead. What can you tell me about the canceled series Team Atlantis?
Tad: It was great. Everybody was super excited for it, certainly at the start. We started Team Atlantis while the film was still in production. We had access to their designs and things like that. We had the concept of, at the end of the movie they raise this crystal that reenergizes the Atlantis. Our feeling was that in history Atlantians were travelers and explorers and teachers and left all of these artifacts all across the world. So our concept was that all of those artifacts are empowered by this crystal. When Atlantis sank all that power was cut off. At the end of the movie when that crystal got re-energized it beamed out energy to all these artifacts. It gave a mission to our group and basically search for those artifacts and make them safe.
The show had a supernatural element too. I always loved Hellboy, and I said “I’ll never get to do Hellboy (even thought I later did) so I’ll make this my Hellboy”. So we got into mythology and Loch Ness Monsters and Dinosaurs and all these ancient legends. We were super pumped at the beginning. However management at TV changed. Disney had just shifted from Disney Afternoon to Disney’s One Saturday Morning. So when we tried to sell it, it would go onto Toon Disney and maybe on ABC. They fought hard for it but it would only be on ABC. I wondered how that was going to work but I was happy the show could continue.
Immediately the executive turned around and started giving us notes to make is more kid friendly and softer. For the writing staff it started going downhill. We were in the 30s in terms of premises and 20s in terms of outlines and had well over a dozen scripts. Then things got weirder and I remember saying “I don’t even know what show we’re doing now” because we weren’t allowed to do certain things anymore. Then production staff came in looking at some of our early scripts, which were out best work, and they were saying “This is some of the best work Disney’s ever done”.
Then the movie came out, and ABC isn’t happy with the scripts they were seeing, and tried to change things. So when the movie didn’t do all that well, instead of trying to re-promote it they kind of just wrote it off. Making it a bigger disaster than it really was.
There was a meeting called and on a Friday the 13th, the show was shut down and people got laid off. They were rehired for the next project but there was definitely a gap in their employment. It was a miserable end. But in the early days the show was super exciting and just great fun. We felt like we were doing something really different. We must have felt like those guys working on the Batman show when they were working on that.
To get back to that direct-to-video thing, by the time we were shut down there were literally two episodes shipped overseas that were being animated and another one that was halfway done. We got permission to try and connect them together. They thought it was gong to be like 5 minutes of extra material but we did 15 minutes but they let it go and the project was much better for it.
So yes, that was the tragic story of Team Atlantis.
Interviewer: One of the more well known canceled episodes of Team Atlantis was a crossover with Gargoyles. What lead to that collaboration?
Tad: Just that Greg Wiseman was there on staff. The original idea was that since the crystals made you live thousands of years that we would have adventures set from the 1930s all the way to present day. But we ended up setting it up back in the 1910s. Greg said “Most of the Gargoyles are Frozen, but Demona is still active in Gargoyles lore”. So he basically came up with that. It was a fine adventure story without needing to see Gargoyles. But it definitely hit that mark of a fun crossover.
Interviewer: So there is a fan theory that there were plans for a crossover between Team Atlantis and the Legend of Tarzan TV series due to the character Queen La. Queen La was from the original Tarzan novels and ruled the city of Opar which was connected to Atlantis. In addition her character design was inspired by Kida. So is there any truth to that rumor?
Tad: It could have but nobody ever pitched it.
Interviewer: So looking back all these years later at all the shows and projects you worked on how do you feel that your work had touched so many people and gave joy and laughter to multiple generations of young people?
Tad: Well I shared an office with Ron Clements. He would do Aladdin and Treasure Planet and all that. He would go to a theater and listen to the crowd’s reactions. But with us we didn’t sit in people’s living rooms, we had ratings. We were told what is and isn’t a success. And since our episodes didn’t depend of ratings it was preordained we didn’t have that “Are we going to get renewed?” thing. It wasn’t until I was retired I into comic book conventions. My first one was at Momocon in Atlanta. I had people all misty eyed and break down in tears over shows like Darkwing Duck. The relationship between Darkwing and Gosalyn was so special to young girls from troubled households, which I never saw that coming.
The last convention I did was in Russia. I felt like a Rockstar. They had giant screens and a banner that was like 15 feet tall. They explained to me that Ducktales, Rescue Rangers and Darkwing were some of the first western shows to be shown in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. They hadn’t had anything like that because Russian Animation was very limited and were often fairytale based.
It was the only thing on Club Disney and people would record and sell video tapes in the Red Square. So they explained to me that “Tad, every kid of that generation saw your shows”. One day two policemen came up and asked when we shut down and we got nervous but they said “No no no, we just want his autograph”.
So that’s when I realized that was the reach out shows had. I wrote letter on Facebook to all the staff to say when it’s my name up there, and you know it takes a village to do a show. We all created these shows and to receive this reception around the world… I mean I went to a convention in Belgium and I met a bunch of Italian Disney artists and they all grew up on these shows too. So I was amazed when I met these people and the fans and hopefully I can do more conventions in the future. It means a lot. But at the time you are the ugly step child of the studio system.
Since working at Disney Tad Stones went onto do various other projects, including two animated Hellboy films. He has since retired from actively working on shows but his work, and the work of the rest of the crews he worked with, will be remembered for a very long time and we all thing them for it.
**Editor’s Note** I just want to say thank you to both Mr. Milo and Mr. Stones for this interview.
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