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Unkrich Talks 'Toy Story' Trilogy

The director of Toy Story 3 shares his thoughts on Pixar's signature franchise.

Check out the Toy Story 3 trailers and clips at AWNtv!

Toy Story 3 summarizes everything the Pixar creative culture represents. All images © Disney/Pixar.

Pixar is so inescapably linked to the adventures of Woody and Buzz that you might say that the Toy Story trilogy represents the Pixar story. Think about it: Pixar first introduced the CG-animated feature with Toy Story in '95, creating a blueprint and revolutionizing the industry. Then, four years later, Pixar soared to even greater heights with Toy Story 2, laying the foundation for subsequent ambition and innovation. And, now, in a summary statement about everything the Pixar culture has represented for the past 15 years, the studio bids a bittersweet farewell to Woody and Buzz in Toy Story 3 (opening Friday).

But even more crucially, the Toy Story trilogy has been Pixar's crucible: After the notorious "Black Friday," Pixar realized it had to make Toy Story the Pixar way, humanizing Woody and validating his existential optimism about the role of Andy's toys. Then with only nine months to deliver a revamped Toy Story 2, Pixar added greater tension to Woody's fear of abandonment. Finally, when faced with an unworkable premise for Toy Story 3, the Pixar brain trust summoned some of their life experiences in constructing a final adventure to "Infinity and Beyond."

When I first raised the notion of Toy Story representing the Pixar story, producer Darla Anderson said it was hard to put those emotions into words. She recalled the first internal screening at the studio: "I invited everybody who had been at the studio since Toy Story. I just wanted it to be a touchstone of sorts. And a lot of people after that screening were very emotional about it, and I think a lot of it had to do with that projection of, 'Wow, we've been on this insane, incredible, fabulous but intense journey.'

Then, in metaphorically applying the lesson learned at the end of Toy Story 3, Anderson observed, "Change is necessary, but you don't lose the love no matter what."

I raised the same observation with Toy Story 3 director Lee Unkrich, as we further explored the significance of the trilogy for Pixar.

The secret to Toy Story was that it was more like live-action than animation.

Bill Desowitz: What do you think about the notion of the Toy Story trilogy representing the Pixar story and Toy Story 3 as its summary statement?

Lee Unkrich:

Well, if you're feeling that, it's probably a reflection of our returning to our roots in making this film. You know, going back 15 years when I was first working on Toy Story with John [Lasseter] and Pete [Docter] and everybody, it's a long time ago, but in many ways it's not. In many ways we still feel like we're back in that space. Making that film we had no idea if it was going to be any good, if anyone was going to like it, if we were ever going to make another movie again. But we were having a really amazing and fun time making it anyway.

BD: It was your rite of passage.

LU: It was. For many of us, it was our first feature and we knew we were doing something new and unlike anything anyone had seen before. I personally felt very fortunate to be on it because I had been a big fan of John's shorts and I pinched myself everyday for the opportunity. So, it's very strange for me to have directed this film because, when I first came on, I was hired as an editor, as you know, and it was just a short-term job: I was only supposed to be at Pixar for four weeks helping on the movie. And it's very surreal to find myself in this position all these years later.

But we're a very different studio now: the original group has split up, especially with Andrew [Stanton] off making John Carter. And everyone's very busy on their own projects. And as much as I wanted everyone returning and coming together again like a band reuniting to make Toy Story 3, that just wasn't a reality. So I really had to do my best to summon that spirit and do my best job to make a film that felt like we had all worked on it. I know it never will: If John had directed this movie, it would've been a different movie; if Pete  and Andrew had been involved, it would've been very different, but I just had to do the best I could to make a movie that was worthy of sitting alongside the other two.

It is a homecoming in a lot of ways, though, because so many people who worked on the original Toy Story clamored over themselves to get to work on the film. And I didn't know if that was going to be the case. When I first started assembling a crew, I didn't know what the reaction was going to be; I didn't know if people at the studio would be apathetic about it and not want to work on it 'cause they wanted to work on something new. But the truth was that everyone wanted to work on it. It was the heritage of the studio; there were people at the studio who had been there since the first film and desperately wanted to be a part of it; and there were young people at the studio, who, frankly, were kids when we made Toy Story, and Toy Story was the film that inspired them to become artists and filmmakers themselves. And I guess it's the same as if I had gotten to work on a Star Wars sequel. Star Wars came out when I was 10 and that's what got me excited about wanting to be in movies. And the fact that it turned out well and that people who have seen it so far are embracing it, it does feel very much like… What was the word you used? Like a summary?

Pixar withstood its greatest creative crisis Toy Story 2.

BD: Yes, a summary.

LU: To me, that sounds like we were coming to an end, with things wrapping up.

BD: No, it's more in keeping with what happens at the end of the movie: one door closing and another opening.

LU: True.

BD: It's an opportunity to step back and look at what Pixar has accomplished and what it represents -- and all the life experiences.

LU: That's true: Another interesting thing is that the world sees our films as [films]. That's all they have to go on. But behind those films are people and people who have been living lives for the past 15 years and going through all kinds of experiences: having kids, raising those kids, losing friends -- losing Joe [Ranft]. All kinds of things have happened, and all those experiences are inexorably woven into the movies, so when we look at the films we don't just see the films -- we see everything happening behind the scenes and everything that went into making decisions on the films. For us, they are our lives.

Toy Story 3 is a reflection of the Pixar team being at a different place in their lives.

BD: And your view of these beloved characters has changed as a result of your life experiences. You're middle aged now.


Your vision of adult conflicts is different when you're 42 from when you were 23. So we've got a lot of people commenting about how our films have gotten mature lately, with this film and with Up and with WALL•E. But to us it's not a conscious choice to do that: it's just a reflection of us being at a different place in our lives and we think about different things, I suppose, than when we were young.

BD: Looking back, what was the biggest epiphany for you on Toy Story?

LU: Well, my biggest epiphany on Toy Story was when I realized that what the guys were doing was more like live action than animation. I think they didn't even know that themselves -- everything was kind of being invented and figured out. And because I came in from the outside and from a live-action background, I remember starting to watch a lot of animation because I thought I needed to learn this different grammar because I had never worked in animation before. But I quickly realized that we didn't need that. It was not what we were doing: we were doing something new and interesting. Obviously we were creating animation, but it was within a wrapper of live action, almost, because of how we were making films. So that was a big epiphany. I would interject at a lot of meetings different ways of doing things, different ways of visualizing. And John began to trust me and more and more handed over the reins to me to handle all of the staging and camerawork in the movies. And that and other things led to me having this opportunity to direct Toy Story 3.

BD: Anything, in particular, that you remember calling attention to?

LU: I do have a very specific memory at one of our early layout meetings. In the storyboards, there was this moment of Woody climbing up the bed and then seeing Buzz for the first time. And in the storyboards it was always Woody climbing up on the bed and looking and seeing something and then we cut to what he was seeing, which was Buzz's legs and the camera moved up and revealed Buzz's face. And I didn't know if it was my place or not in this early meeting to make another suggestion -- I was still very new in the group -- but I suggested that we have Woody peek up over the bed and then have the camera actually glide back through Buzz's legs and then rise up to reveal his face. Everyone was very excited about it and that's obviously how the moment plays in the movie. I always remember that moment as being the beginning of the guys looking at me and starting to trust my visual instincts.

BD: And what was the biggest epiphany on Toy Story 2?

LU: Well, on Toy Story 2, it was more a realization that when we were all together, we could do amazing work, because we had to redo that whole film in only nine months. We basically shut down the studio and it was all hands on deck to get the movie made.

Lee Unkrich went into Toy Story 3 with a lot of insecurities about working with the animators.

BD: Pixar has always delivered in moments of crisis.

LU: That's the thing. And you can't manufacture that -- we've tried to over the years. We've tried to create that false pressure and it never works. You always know it's not real. When we came onto the film, we had a lot of meetings to kick around story ideas of how to fix the film and at a certain point we kind of thought we had it licked. But the problem was we had nine months to do it and that seemed utterly impossible. And I remember being in the office of Steve Jobs for some reason and I told him I thought we could make this movie really great; we just can't do it in nine months. We're going to have to delay the release. And Steve said we can't do that: there are too many promotional partnerships and marketing things in place. It's an impossible thing: we have to do what we can do in nine months. But then he followed that up by saying that when he looked back on his career, all the things that he was most proud of were done in situations like this under these circumstances. And I've just always remembered that because he was right: we did get through it, we are incredibly proud of that film and it was done under really harrowing circumstances.

BD: And here you were again, faced with a crisis on Toy Story 3, given 24 hours to come up with a viable premise.

LU: Yeah, exactly, because we had the right people together. And would it have been even better if we had Joe there? Perhaps. But we had what we had. We get a lot of work done quickly when we're together. That's certainly the case and we're not all together enough. We've had to find a balance between all having our own projects and having more films in the pipeline and being together more.

BD: As an editor, were you better able to see the forest through the trees in directing Toy Story 3?

LU: Certainly. Personally, I think editors are the best candidates to become directors. You don't see it a lot but there are several great directors out there who started as editors. In my mind, the editor is second only to the director in shaping the finished film and making the film work or not work. You're intimately involved with performance and staging, and, at its very core, the communication of ideas and emotions.

The subtlety of human performance in Toy Story 3 is one of its greatest achievements.

BD: Was there anything like an epiphany on Toy Story 3?

LU: My biggest worry going into the film, other than wanting the film to be great, was the fact that I'm not an animator, because I'm the only director at the studio to have made a film who is not an animator. I went into this with a lot of insecurities about working with the animators and whether they would respect my taste and choices and whether they would accept me as one of their own. Even though I've been intimately involved in making so many films at Pixar, I'm like an interloper at times… But the thing that stands out the most and makes me the most emotional when I talk about it was my experience working with the animators. They completely took me in and trusted me and, together, I think we created some really, really great work.

BD: What were the most difficult scenes?

LU: There were two: one was the last scene in the movie with the subtlety of performance in a human character, especially with a human character that couldn't be as stylized as we did in The Incredibles or Ratatouille. It still could be stylized but it needed to look more human because we needed a distinction between the humans and the toys. That was a very tough scene and the last one that we animated and we spent a very long time on the writing of it, honing it, getting it just right. But the other scene that was tough was the climax. I always knew I didn't want any dialogue in that scene: I think Jessie has one line in the beginning and that's it -- and everything needed to be communicated wordlessly. And we spent a long time on those performances getting them just right, and I think that's part of why people feel such powerful emotion in that scene. The animators did an incredible job of showing the souls of all of them and the desperation and doing it wordlessly is every animator's dream, I think.

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.

Bill Desowitz's picture

Bill Desowitz, former editor of VFXWorld, is currently the Crafts Editor of IndieWire.