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Mission Critical: ‘Lightyear’s Journey to Infinity and Beyond

With Disney-Pixar’s much-anticipated animated feature starring the beloved ‘Toy Story’ character now playing in theaters, director Angus MacLane and producer Galyn Susman reflect on their title character’s journey to the screen.

After years in development followed by even more years in pandemic-throttled production, Disney-Pixar’s CG animated feature Lightyear, based on the iconic Toy Story franchise, has finally opened in theaters around the globe in a dazzling mix of RealD 3D, 4DX, Dolby Cinema, and IMAX formats.

Chronicling the adventures of the “real-life” Buzz Lightyear – the inspiration for the toy voiced by Tim Allen in four Toy Story features – the definitive origin story stars Chris Evans as the title character, who, as a young astronaut, is marooned on a hostile planet far from Earth. As Buzz struggles to find his way back home, he’s joined by a group of ambitious recruits (voiced by Keke Palmer, Dale Soules, and Taika Waititi), as well as his redoubtable robot companion cat, Sox (Pete Sohn). And, just to ensure that the already daunting mission isn’t too easy, Buzz and his cohort also have to contend with the arrival of the mysterious Zurg and his army of ruthless robots.

It would probably be stretching it a bit to say that director Angus MacLane (WALL•E, Finding Dory) and producer Galyn Susman (Ratatouille, Toy Story 4) faced comparable challenges in their efforts to reimagine the cantankerous Space Ranger and bring his defining adventure to the screen, but, as the two related in their first AWN interview, it wasn’t exactly smooth flying. Now that Lightyear has finally made its way into theaters. MacLane and Susman provide additional details about their creative journey and the development of their lead character, which was as much an exercise in abnormal psychology as it was a consideration of various technical and stylistic options.

AWN: What were the most significant character traits that played a part in your depiction of Buzz and in your storytelling?

Angus MacLane: As we discussed a bit in our last interview, the defining characteristic for Buzz is that he sees himself differently from those around him. So we always wanted to have that narratively. As a personality, Buzz is a perfectionist who wants to do the right thing, and he can't get over the mistake that he made at the beginning of the film. And so he is willing to basically wreck his life to go back and fix this mistake. And it's that rigidity – or steadfastness – that’s always been part of his character: “I'm going to do the job. I get the job done.” That's the Space Rangers thing that we always wanted to play with and ultimately find a way to push it to an extreme.

AWN: He's got this stubborn determination, which sometimes can be an admirable trait, but can also have a real downside. How does that characteristic pay off with regard to his narrative arc, and what do you want us as an audience to learn from it?

Galyn Susman: Buzz thinks, or at least he's deluding himself to believe, that what he is in pursuit of is in everyone’s best interests, not just his. So it's not just that he wants to right his wrong – he wants to bring the people home. And he really believes, he's convinced himself, that that is his mission. But, somewhere along the way, the people who consider Earth home are long gone. So he's really just doing it for himself. He's doing it to appease his ego and he needs to learn that it's not in the best interest of everybody. And if he's really going to be true and honest and, frankly, heroic, he has to embrace the people around him and say, "Yes, this is your home. And it is my home too."

AWN: Were there any specific issues in moving from a toy to a “real” character?

GS: Buzz is a very loved character, but he's also very literal. He calls it as he sees it. Sometimes if you call it as you see it, you can come off as not a very nice person. I mean, it's one thing to be a little clueless; it's another thing to be flat-out insensitive. So we made sure, for example, when Sox would do something for him, he would say, "Thank you, Sox." That made all of the difference in terms of his not being so single-focused that he was unpleasant. We needed to keep him likable.

AM: The biggest thing is that, where he's a side character in Toy Story,  we had to make him more well-rounded for Lightyear. Because otherwise, he’s just like, "Well, I'm doing this thing and now I'm doing this." It'd be really hard to sit through an hour and a half of mission-log Buzz Lightyear. He had to be a little more well-rounded for the tone that we were going for in this film. And that was a bit of an education and a challenge for us.

AWN: Since you mention Sox, how long did it take for you to determine what that character really should be?

AM: He was pretty fully formed early on. The key to Sox is that he isn't sarcastic, he isn't trying to be liked by the audience. He just is. And a lot of his charm, and the comedy, comes from his innocence and from his being really kind of earnest. That kind of cute character can be successful or it can be unsuccessful. There are plenty of examples of it being really distracting and irritating in other movies. So that was really a focus for us – to have something that justified its existence, that didn't disrupt the tone of the film, but was still funny. And it served as a pressure release valve for the tension of the film.

AWN: Why did you decide to go with a chunky 80s look for the visual style, and how long did it take you to arrive at that decision?

GS: From the beginning, Angus always said that he liked the visual of the practical model – that sci-fi films of the 1970s and 1980s have a warmth to them. They have a tactile nature that the later CG films don't have. And what we also found in constructing that world is that it's more immersive. I think, as an audience member, you feel more a part of it if it isn’t bright, shiny, new, and high-tech.

AM: I just like the way that stuff looks, so we just did it. Storytelling-wise, I think that the chunkiness helps you feel that there's a process to the world – that the characters have to press buttons, which is useful to us when the characters don't interact in a physical space with each other. There's not a lot of contact between things. So to realize that in the technology makes the world feel a little more tangible, and that's useful to us. But mostly the cassette futurism design language is just a combination of things that I think look really cool. It's just my sensibility.

AWN: At the same time, the world of Lightyear is still a high-tech environment made with high-tech CG animation, and there’s a kind of photorealism in some of the elements. How did you integrate that with the chunky style?

AM: There's a sensibility and a stylization to the characters and to the technology and to the setting and the sets. Part of what I try to do as a director is make the look consistent – and everyone's working at that all the time, to really make sure it's one cohesive look. It's just trial and error and a lot of maneuvering to make sure that each element fits in with the other elements. And that there's nothing that's too realistic or not realistic enough for the sensibility of the movie.

AWN: Tell me a little bit about your working dynamic. What was the development process like and how did the team come together?

AM: Galyn and I have worked together on many projects for many years. And Galyn worked very hard during every stage to get the movie made, whatever was needed at that time. There were four of us for a year and a half, just slowly cooking on things, aligning things so that the movie could get made.

GS: Angus has exceptional taste and an exceptional eye. And I have faith in him as a director, and I trust that what he's choosing to put on the screen is worth our spending the effort and worth asking our crew to do. And I think that's really important. I don't know how I would produce someone if I didn't have that level of faith in their storytelling abilities.

AM: We're just like Alisha and Buzz, back to back, fighting the bugs of production. She's dealing with getting the resources we need, and I'm dealing with the aesthetics of what the movie needs to look like. And it's that collaboration that makes the movie possible.

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Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.