Real toys become real life in this 8-year brother collaboration


Andrea Frantz

Olivia Wieseler, Senior Editor

All eyes were glued to the big screen in Anderson Auditorium at Buena Vista University as the long-anticipated film from digital media prodigies, brothers Morgan (23) and Mason McGrew (20), finally premiered on Thursday after years of dedication. 

The 8-year film project, called Toy Story 3 In Real Life, is a shot for shot, live-action, stop motion film almost identical to the original Toy Story 3 movie.  

The idea for the project came after the McGrew brothers saw Toy Story 3 the first day it hit theaters on June 18, 2010. At the mere ages of 15 and 13, Morgan and Mason McGrew (respectively) decided they would share their love for the Toy Story franchise through their desire to experiment with stop motion animation. 

From there began the long process of recreating near replicas of scenes from the movie.  

To make the film as accurate as possible, Morgan and Mason McGrew found every outfit Ken owned in the movie, which included a European golfer outfit worth $200. Luckily, they found that clothing for $25. (Photo by Olivia Wieseler)

In the making 

With the help of their dad, Mike McGrew, the two brothers recreated miniature scenes from the movie like Ken’s Dream House and fashioned some of their own props like Tortilla Mr. Potato Head. Their largest project was transforming Mason’s room to look almost exactly like college Andy’s roomcomplete down to the doodles on the dry-erase calendar. But this didn’t all happen overnight. 

“If you watch the sequence of young Andy, there’s a lot of shots in there where it was before we got everything done. So, like the mop boards in there are wood, not white, and it doesn’t have the crown molding and same with the window,” younger brother Mason McGrew pointed out. “But over time we kept finding other ways to make the room look more screen accurate.” 

This $400 Medicom Ultimate Woody has a metal armature inside of him, three interchangeable faces and multiple hands, perfect for a stop motion film (Photo by Andrea Frantz).

The detailed reconstruction of the scenes and the necessity to make the toys move in a certain way required much research and an accumulation of props. The McGrew brothers found every outfit Ken had in his Dream House, as well as a couple of unique $400 Woody dolls from Japan that could change faces.  

But the preparations were nothing compared to the numerous six-, seven-, eight-hour shoots the brothers completedall on iPhonesBecause of the nature of stop motion, shoots often took many hours to complete. One of the longest sequences Morgan shot was 20 seconds long but took about five or six hours to shoot using nearly 500 photos. They explained that they used different kinds of audio to help keep their sanity through the long days, rattling off the variety of entertainment they listened to: Beach Boys, Wedding Crashers, The Cat in the Hat, pet sounds, The Office. 

If you pointed at a scene in the movie and said, ‘What were you listening to during this?’ I would know exactly what it is,” Mason said, Morgan nodding in agreement beside him. 

The long hours required immense amounts of dedication and focus. The McGrews even admitted to wanting to throw in the towel once or twice, but they always managed to push through. 

There’s a lot of times where you’re like, ‘Oh, my body just doesn’t want to do this.’ And you keep telling yourself, ‘Well, you have to. You’re already halfway through it,’” said Mason.  

“That’s the thing. As soon as you’re in, you’re in. You have to keep going,” Morgan explained.  


Growing support 

As word of the unique project started getting around, news outlets all over the country came to the McGrew home in Ankeny, Iowa, to see the creative venture for themselves. Just searching “Toy Story 3 IRL” or “real life Andy’s room” will garner articles and videos from networks like Oh My DisneyMashableThe Telegraph, Cinemablend, Inside the Magiceven ABC News 

Morgan and Mason had the opportunity to talk to many media outlets. Pictured are the two brothers being interviewed on the My Disney Class Podcast.

Story after story gained traction on social media, and soon their project, particularly their re-creation of Andy’s room, went viral.  

“When the original Andy’s room piece went viral, that was quite a ride for all of us to go through,” Mike McGrew, father of Morgan and Mason, said.   

“Airbnb – who wants to stay in this room?” Marcia McGrew, mother, chimed in regarding the media attention they received.  

At the Q&A session after the premiere, the brothers revealed that even professionals from Pixar itself reached out to them to express their appreciation for the project.  

“An animator from Pixar commented on a post in Reddit over the summer and said that he thought it was really great and wanted to get us out there [Emeryville, Calif.], but they were busy promoting Toy Story 4,” Morgan disclosed. 

But even with all the publicity, the brothers remained focused on the larger goal. Their parents revealed that while their boys’ project went viral, their immense dedication to the project is seen through the number of unpublished stories.  

Mike McGrew wanted to ask Morgan at the Q&A how many interviews he had turned down because he was too busy working on the project. Mike knew the answer (and it was “a lot”), but he and Marcia wanted to hear Morgan’s perspective 

“It was that he was that invested in it that he turned down people who are big name news media companies [who] wanted to do stories,” Mike explained.  


The long-awaited premiere 

After years of hard work by the McGrew brothers and years of speculation from Toy Story, Pixar and Disney fans, Toy Story 3 In Real Life finally took to the big screen for public viewing at BVU, and it did not disappoint. 

It was an evening of inspired moviemaking,” said Assistant Professor of Digital Media Jerry Johnson, who has worked closely with both Morgan and Mason. “I was so pleased that BVU could be the first screening of their film. I think it allowed the digital media program to spotlight two amazing talents and showcase our program at BV.

Despite the toys’ limited motion and ability, the McGrews found a way get the most out of their character performances. And it looks realistic, or as realistic as a Buzz Lightyear action figure walking across a daycare room floor can beThe two brothers attempted to make all aspects of the film as real as possible so it could live up to its “Real Life” name.   

Even the text for the title and end credits were made specifically for this project out of clay to give it that homemade feeling. “It feels like it was made by human hands,” said Mason. “It has that human touch to it.” 

Morgan said the film was not only a testament to their tenacity and commitment, but to their growth as media creators and animators. While it was important to him and his brother to produce great content, the main goal of the project for them was to learn and become better storytellers because of it. 

“I know a lot of people are probably looking at this like ‘Oh it has to look consistent all the way through.’ But for me it’s more so ‘How much better can I get?’” said Morgan. “I thought that was a more interesting story to see.” 

Most of the viewers could not have agreed more. Throughout the film, “ooohs” and “aaahs” and an occasional “how did they do that?” wafted around the auditorium. Everyone was clearly impressed with the expertise that developed over the course of the film, which made it that much more rewarding for these brothers. 

“It’s satisfying to see everything starting to come together after so much work has been put into it and so many years into it,” Mason said. “I mean, I’m really happy about it, but there’s a weird part in my stomach where I’m just like, ‘Well, where do I go from here?’ But I know where to go from here; it’s just a change, and change is always different. And I think it’s exciting.”  


Moving forward 

 After eight years of dedication to this one of a kind project, the McGrew brothers are now looking to the future to decide what they will be doing next. 

For Mason, who is still in college, it means finally getting some rest. “I think I’m going to go back to my room and go to bed,” he said after the premiere.  

All jokes aside, Mason hopes to keep experimenting with stop motion, using what he’s learned from the Toy Story project to keep moving forward, especially in upcoming projects like his Senior Capstone. “I wouldn’t be who I am today if I hadn’t done this project,” he acknowledged.  

As for Morgan, who graduated from BVU in 2018 and does freelance videography for the City of Ankeny as well as Kaleidoscope Marketing, he says that while he doesn’t know to what extreme, he does plan to continue improving his stop motion skills, even experimenting with his own puppets.  

“The one thing that grew the most over time for me is my love for stop motion animation,” said Morgan. “I don’t want to stop it because I don’t want to lose it.” 

Toy Story 3 In Real Life will be released on YouTube on within the next couple of weeks.