Pixar does it again! In a sequel many are calling better than the first (is this possible?!), the Toy Story gang is back in theaters. Karl Cohen paid a visit to the studio and spoke with the film's directors and producers. A real treat.
In 1996 when Pixar announced they were going to do a direct-to-video sequel to the original Toy Story, a lot of people expected the finished results to be a mediocre low budget video made to cash-in on the company's initial success. Animation World Magazine wanted to find out how this project became a major animated feature that could very well set new box office records.
A talk with Ash Brannon, co-director of the film, quickly laid the matter to rest. He explains that, "When we started the film in 1996, the thing to do was to make a direct-to-video sequel. That's the way Disney did it and we follow suit. Nobody was making animated theatrical sequels (with rare exceptions including American Tail 2). So that was what we did, but we knew we had a great story. We worked on the film keeping the standards of a theatrical film. And to top it off, all of the original cast returned. The entire cast is back including Tom Hanks and Tim Allen. In addition we have some great new voices including Kelsey Grammar, Wayne Knight and Joan Cusack. We started developing the project in 1996. We went into production around 1997. We soon realized this film was going to be much better than a direct-to-video product. At the beginning of 1998 we announced it would be a theatrical feature."
One of the strengths of Pixar's features has been their soundtracks. Brannon reveals that once again Randy Newman has provided "an amazing score." The musicians include many members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. "They are amazing. The score is a real highlight of the film. It's just beautiful."
He adds, "Randy doesn't sing in the film. He wrote a couple of songs that other performers do. None of the characters sing. We really don't like that." Pixar doesn't interrupt their strong stories with characters breaking out into song. They do not share Disney's fondness for having characters sing. "It changes the reality of the film."
Developing The Script
According to Brannon the film's script grew out of "story ideas from the early Toy Story treatment that John [Lasseter] developed eight or nine years ago. The basic premise of the new film comes from John thinking, `What if Woody was kidnapped by a toy collector?' It was inspired by the realization that John has a lot of toys in his own office that his kids cannot play with because they are collector's items."
Developing scripts at this studio is not the work of one person. Brannon explains, "It's a real collaborative environment at Pixar. It's not important that we take ownership of ideas. It's more important that ideas reach their full potential. You throw something out in a discussion and anyone else is free to say, 'That's a good idea but what if you did this?' You may come up with a better idea. You build on ideas and take it is far as you can.
"You just kind of go along a path. We had the premise that Woody was kidnapped by a toy collector. It begs questions. It means he must have been valuable. And if he is valuable, why? So we had to come up with a good reason for that. After a number of good ideas we thought the best one was what if he were a toy based on a 1950s TV show. It seemed like a lot of fun to go back into the past and create a history for Woody that never existed in Toy Story. So Woody is kidnapped because he is valuable and he completes a collection.
Wayne Knight brings to life the toy collector, Al. © Disney Enterprises, Inc. and Pixar Animation Studios. The voice of Jessie is proved by Academy Award-nominee, Joan Cusack. © Disney Enterprises, Inc. and Pixar Animation Studios.
"So where can we go with this emotionally? One thing we realized that we never explored in the first film was what it was like from the toy's point of view to realize that a child will out grow you. Kids grow up and there's nothing you can do about it. Rejection. We realized it was something we could do and give him an option. He could be a collector's item and be taken care of for a long time or he could be taken back to Andy and know it is not going to last. It's a great dilemma. You can't ask for a better ultimate decision for a character to make. So the film sort of evolved along those lines.
"We tried to develop twists in the story so you don't know where it will go. The best thing to do is assume something and then do the opposite. What if Woody had a decision to make that might make him think twice about the decision to go home? "The toughest time was developing the new characters that Woody meets, his fellow collectibles. We knew they had to be there, his fellow merchandise from the show. They couldn't be just cardboard cutouts. They had to influence Woody somehow. And that's what we had to figure out. When we overcame that we knew they were solid and appealing as characters. "We had no problem with the rescue mission side of the film. We knew if Woody was stolen, Buzz would lead a rescue party. There would be a lot of comedy potential there. The hard part, the heart of the film, was the emotional journey Woody was taking. That was the hardest thing to figure out." A Mighty Trio Although Ash Brannon did a lot of work developing the story, he says "the influence of John Lasseter was important." Lasseter, as the film's executive producer and top director, oversaw much of the production including the animation. In the film's credits Lasseter is given credit as director, followed by two co-directors, Ash Brannon and Lee Unkrich. Brannon focused on development, story and animation, Lasseter was in charge of art, modeling and lighting, and Unkrich oversaw editorial and layout. The three tried to work together as closely as possible. Since they met daily to discuss their progress with each other (they wanted to make sure they were all going in the same direction), the boundaries of their responsibilities overlapped.
"At this point Pixar is growing," says Brannon. "John really wants to play a role in mentoring new directors and helping people grow. That is what happened to me. When the project began as a direct-to-video he thought it was right up my alley since I knew the characters so well." (Brannon worked on the story for the first film.) Time Magazine, in a cover story that appeared about a month before the film's release, proclaimed Pixar has "struck gold" with Toy Story 2, and Brannon is just 29 years-old! Lee Unkrich, the second co-director, joined the production of Toy Story 2 after completing his work on A Bug's Life. He states, "I had never worked in animation before I came to Pixar. What I brought to the team is a live-action sensibility. We have always found that what we do is a hybrid between animation and live-action. It's obviously animation because artists are hand animating each and every frame of the film, but at the same time the way we stage scenes and block out our camera movement, that comes from a live-action perspective. I think those two elements have combined to give our films the unique look that they have." Unkrich's role with layout was to determine where the camera was going to be at any given time, which characters were going to be in the shots, the basic blocking of the shots, whether the camera was going to be moving, etc. He designed everything that went into setting the stage for the animators to do their work.
New Advances In Animation
Lee Unkrich explains that in making the sequel they didn't want to stray too far from the look of the original film, but the company had developed a lot of new software since the first feature had been completed. He remarks, "We wanted to take advantage of the technological leaps that have been made since Toy Story. We learned a lot while making A Bug's Life. It was full of organic life forms. Nothing was made of plastic in the entire film and that was a big challenge for us. We also made great leaps in automating animation, both with crowds of ants and grasshoppers and animating wind through grass and leaves on trees. It was a complicated movie." He says that the new film "looks like the Toy Story we remember, but it is far more lush and vivid."
"When we finished Toy Story we were at the forefront of animating the human form, but all of us would agree, looking back on it, it was the best we could do at the time. If we were to ever tackle humans again we would want to spend more time on it and do a better job of it. "We had a whole team of people on Toy Story 2 dealing with the humans, especially the lead character Al, the toy collector who steals Woody. I think everyone will agree that we have made great strides forward. He is such a realistic person, but at the same time it's good to point out that we never set up for ourselves that we would try to recreate reality. We're not trying to make a human on the screen that people will think is a real human interacting with the toys. Part of the world of Toy Story is that we stylize the humans somewhat and give them a caricatured look.
"At the same time we've made the skin very realistic with hair on it. Al has hair on his arms, beard stubble and little hairs in his nose. All those things add up to a viewing experience that makes people think to themselves, `I know that what I'm seeing is not real, but it really does look real.' I'm really proud of him. I think we have done a really amazing job with him. "This film was very difficult because it was a very big project. A lot of people worked hard on it and they all really pulled together and were a great team. Glen McQueen, supervising animator, did brilliant work on this film and was a real team leader. He really inspired the animators to do spectacular work. The animators had to work quickly, but there were no compromises...McQueen had to spend so much time working with the animators on a daily basis that he wasn't able to animate a whole lot." All of the animators at Pixar worked on multiple characters. Brannon says, "Glen McQueen assigned the shots. He decided which animator would work best with each shot. Some are really great with action scenes, others are better with quiet moments. There are certain animators who are really good with a specific character such as Woody or Buzz so they got more Woody or Buzz shots. We tried to give people a series of shots that go together so the animator could work on the continuity. "We are finally getting a lot more female animators. We have really great female lead character animators. A couple of them really took off and did some incredible work. "The animator works as an individual on the shots and we check their work in dailies. At these screenings we give feedback and anybody can say what they want. It's important people see how shots will cut in and around their shots. We need to make sure everything will fit together as a whole.
"We have certain animators that everyone goes to with their questions. There is a lot of learning going on. People are in open cubes, not offices. This promotes a lot of interaction among the animators." Unkrich says, "A major development was Pixar University, established after the completion of Toy Story. It is an intense training program." Some of the company's top artists teach the new animators the software that will be used and the fundamentals of animation. The school offers the entire staff a well rounded education in drawing, sculpting and other disciplines. Unkrich feels, "The most exciting thing is when we bring somebody on board that we are not quite sure about and they end up really wowing us by doing brilliant work that wasn't expected from them. That happens more often than not."
Making Late Changes
At Pixar they spend as much time as necessary on the story reel trying to get everything worked out just right. The story reel consists of rough storyboard art in the proper sequence to give everyone a chance to study how the film will fit together. Animation is so time-consuming that they don't want to do very much of it a second time! It is better to make changes before the animation begins. Despite all the planning, almost every production requires some changes to the animation as things progress. On Toy Story 2 there were a few short sequences that were changed after they were animated. Unkrich explains, "There is a sequence where Woody is kidnapped from the yard sale that Andy's mom is holding. Originally Andy ended up there accidentally. He fell out of a window, slid down the roof, and fell into a box in the yard sale. When we added Buster, Andy's dog, and Wheezy the penguin to the cast, we came up with a great idea. Mom takes Wheezy outside to sell him. Woody goes outside to rescue Wheezy. We completely rethought the idea of how Woody gets down to the yard sale."
When the film was well into production they decided it would be better if they added a few new characters. Unkrich says, "It's not that easy to add things at that point. We had to go through the process of designing the characters, doing all the computer modeling, developing the proper articulation so the animators could bring the characters to life, and do all the texturing, coloring and shading of the characters. It's really a huge process. You normally don't add characters that late in the game, but they were really great characters to add. We don't regret it one bit. The new characters include Buster, Andy's little wiener dog, and an asthmatic squeeze toy penguin called Wheezy. Luckily we hadn't animated the sequences they are in so we didn't have to redo footage." Special Effects Unkrich says, "We had an effects team on this film and they did have a lot of challenges. In our world we have such strange limitations that sometimes the effects team has to recreate reality. It's not like doing a special effect laser or explosion. It can be something as simple as dust. "In this film we explore the notion of what it is like to be a forgotten toy. We have a number of scenes where toys have been left under the bed or left high up on the shelf. What better way to say that visually than to show them covered with a layer of dust. We knew we wanted to put lots of dust in the film, but we were not sure we could do it. The effects team, led by Oren Jacob, did a job that surpassed our expectations."
Pixar never uses motion capture according to Brannon. "It isn't right for our film since it is a very caricatured world." The people in the film have to be carefully animated by hand so they will look right. People seeing the film know how humans move so "if you don't animated it right, it looks wrong immediately. You can animate toys anyway you want because we don't know for sure how they move."
Getting A Job At Pixar Although Ash Brannon was a classmate of Pete Docter at Cal Arts (Docter co-directed Toy Story and is directing another feature at Pixar), they went in different directions after college. Brannon explains, "Docter came to Pixar right out of school. I didn't. I like drawing a lot. I didn't want to get right on a computer. When I left Cal Arts I had never seen a computer do really great character animation. I went to Warner Bros. and worked on some shorts and a Nike ad. We were trying to revitalize some of the old characters.
"In early 1993, Andrew Stanton and Joe Ranft were down in LA and they showed me a 30 second test that had been done for Toy Story. It displayed an amazing degree of character animation. I'd never seen that done on a computer. I dropped everything and literally two weeks later was working at Pixar. I did some story work on the first film and then moved into directing animators on the next film. I also did some story work on A Bug's Life before starting on the sequel."
When Lee Unkrich grew up in Ohio he developed a love for movies. At USC (University of Southern California) he discovered he was really good at editing. He also directed a graduate film. After film school he worked in television. The Avid Media Composer was just coming out and it was clear to him that non-linear video "was going to rock the industry and completely take over. I knew the day wasn't far away that we wouldn't be editing on film anymore." Among his credits is Silk Stockings, a series he edited for the USA Network. "One day I got a phone call from Bob Gordon, who was editing Toy Story up in the Bay area. He asked me if I was interested in working on an animated movie. I was very skeptical. I thought, 'What could they possibly be doing?' I was very skeptical of anything being made outside of Los Angeles. Then he mentioned the name Pixar and my eyes just lit up because I had been a fan of John Lasseter for years. He didn't have to say much more before I was on a plane."
Advice When it comes to advice for people interested in becoming animators Ash Brannon says, "Draw, watch old films, great new ones, and learn as much as you can about the process. Learn to draw, even if you are doing computer animation. The skills you learn by animating by hand are indispensable. Even though you don't have to draw on the computer, you still have to come up with great poses, silhouettes and expressions. It helps so much. If you work with clay instead of drawing, it's not going to hold you back as all the principals are the same -- timing, squash and stretch and so on. You need to learn the classic principles." Lee Unkrich states, "We are living in a world that is changing rapidly. If somebody wants to eventually become a director in computer animation, I would say that you need to have a more fully rounded film education than just a traditional animation background. That is obviously a vital skill to have, but any animator who wants to direct would be well served to study editing, cinematography, and live-action directing." The Producers I also had the opportunity to talk briefly with Karen Robert Jackson and Helene Plotkin, the film's producers. They worked on the film for over three years, so I asked about their role with the production. Plotkin explains, "We wind up doing a lot of things live-action producers do like dealing with executives, publicity, talent, lawyers, contracts, budgets, schedules and things like that. We hire the crew. We oversee all the managers, coordinators, and the creative leads. We make sure each of the departments runs smoothly and efficiently so we can make the best film possible. "In animation we are concerned with the cast, sets, props and lighting, but they are built within the computer. You have to make sure everything is built on time, you have to have the talent in place, and you need to know in advance what the characters will look and feel like." Jackson explains, "A large part of our job [now] is to make sure people are as excited about this film as we are. We have worked so long and hard on this and we believe it is a wonderful film. We want to make sure people see it. "We have created a film that is true to the original in terms of bringing great characters to the screen, having great relationships between characters, and a great message. It's wonderful entertainment for kid and adults...it's a great story...it's a big production...it's a great film!"
Disney As A Partner
Lee Unkrich declares, "We have a great partnership with Disney, especially with Tom Schumacher who is head of Feature Animation. We regularly show them story reels and animation. They don't interfere, but if they see a problem they will point it out. Usually they are right and we will fix it. The best thing about our relationship with them is that they are a neutral third party. They will look at the things we are doing and point out to us the things that are not working as well as they could. We go away and hopefully come up with great solutions to the problems." The two producers explain they work closely with Disney. While Pixar was developing images to be used in marketing the feature, Disney was creating the copy. Pixar approves everything that Disney does to promote their films. Plotkin enthuses, "They are terrific partners, very supportive." Final Words Unkrich says, "I think the thing that all three of us [Lasseter, Brannon and Unkrich] can say we are the most proud of is staying true to the heart of the first movie and the first characters. John likes to say the world of Toy Story is like a great sitcom like Cheers or Mary Tyler Moore. It's really true because when we sat down to write the sequel a lot of things really wrote themselves. The characters are so fun and dear to our hearts that dialogue practically spills out of their mouths without us really working very hard on it. We are all very proud that it is really a natural extension of the first film, yet at the same time it doesn't feel like we are rehashing anything from the first film." When asked about the future he muses, "It's likely that John and I will work together again. I love working with John. I feel I'm working with the Walt Disney of our times." Karl Cohen is President of ASIFA-San Francisco. His first book, Forbidden Animation: Censored Cartoons and Blacklisted Animators, is published by McFarland Publishers. He also teaches animation history at San Francisco State University.