sitting before me is a big box something like a Borg cube, but not
one loaded up with malevolent androids wanting to absorb me into the
collective. It is the box set of the three
Toy Story films on DVD. These discs have time-traveled me
back to a storied childhood that turns me into a burbling
revisits the toys' owner Andy and his family at the end of his
adolescence; he's about to go off to college and is essentially
wrapping up his childhood. Struggling to pack up his toys those
featured in the previous two films they are mistakenly delivered
to a day-care center instead of the attic. As we warp into Woody and
Buzz Lightyear's world, we see the toys at first enamored with their
new home; but of course, it ain't as simple as that.
soon realize they are held captive by an authoritarian Teddy,
Lots-O'-Huggin' Bear (also known as Lotso), Big Baby and Ken, whom
Barbie falls for. Only Woody attempts a return to Andy. However, he
is grabbed by toddler Bonnie who takes him home and plays with him
along with her well treated other toys. Woody is elated until he
hears about the embittered Lotso from Chuckles the sad clown and
decides to free his unhappy friends from the day/night grind they're
mega-hit film's primary director, animation veteran Lee Unkrich
worked his way up through the Disney/Pixar food chain. Before
joining Pixar in '94, Unkrich worked in television as an editor and
director until he came to the Emeryville, CA-based company on a
temporary editing assignment while the first
Toy Story was being developed and never left. He
subsequently worked on their many hits from the three
A Bug's Life, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, Cars, Ratatouille
and now as the director on the third and final installment in their
Unkrich, with the help of producer Darla K. Anderson, sat down to
conduct this exclusive interview and discuss the film, the process
of creating it and sundry matters surrounding its success including
the dual 2011 Oscar noms for Best Picture and Best Animated Film of
you an illustrator, cartoonist or director?
Personally I am not an animator.
never worked from that point of view?
Lee Unkrich: When I was in high school, I used to draw a lot
but didn't train as an animator. I went to USC film school, so I
consider myself a filmmaker first and foremost. But I've learned an
enormous amount over the years working alongside John Lasseter,
Andrew [Stanton], Pete [Docktor] and Brad [Bird]. So we storyboard
the hell out of these movies for years before we ever begin
animation, and it's all hand done. Some people draw on paper while
others on computer; it's gotten a little fancier now, but you're
still drawing whether it's on paper or a computer screen working
with tablets. We do tens of thousands of storyboards, and that's the
medium in which we work for the first two and a half years of making
the movie. We hash out the story and work out the little details.
Because you're a filmmaker and
not necessarily an illustrator, you think in a cinematic way, which
is why your storytelling is so successful.
I can't do anything but that; that's my background and my instincts,
that's what I brought to Pixar. When I joined on the first
Toy Story, John,
Andrew and Peter were brilliant animators, and John had made these
great short films, but this was their first feature and the rules
are different. I realized pretty early on that what we were doing at
Pixar was almost more akin to live-action than it was to any
animation that had come up to that point.
You almost had to throw out
the animation thinking.
It became a hybrid of the two. Nobody had done this before we did,
and it was really fun to be on the edge there of inventing it. So in
terms of the structure of the movie, the kinds of lenses we would
put on the camera, how we move the camera, this was all the grammar
of live-action filmmaking. I didn't look at old animated films to
figure out how to figure out the filmmaking, but you still have
brilliant animators doing the work in a way that only they can when
they're bringing the characters to life, and that's pure animation.
Computers don't help you do the act of bringing characters to life
any better; that has to come from the animator's soul and instincts.
It was the blending of the two, of the old school, live-action
filmmaking techniques and the new world of computerized animation
that gave rise to this modern age of digital filmmaking.
Because you go back to these
20th-century toy icons, this series never feels digital. I first saw
Toy Story 3 in 2D, purely as a movie, not as a 3D experience.
Lee Unkrich: Then we've succeeded because that's all we ever
set out to do. A lot of people talk about the technology and how
good it's gotten. Yes, the technology has gotten better the
computers are faster and we're able to do more detailed graphics
but what's advanced is the artistry of the people at the studio.
We've got artists working on this film who have been with us since
the beginning, so they have 16 years of making films at Pixar and
have just gotten better and better and better. They're at the top of
their game and are able to create, from a purely visual standpoint,
a film that I think just looks gorgeous, textural and organic.
Who first had the idea of
using the classic toy icons?
When John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Pete [Docktor] were cooking
up the first Toy Story,
they would go to the toy store. They would take the company credit
card to the toy store and just buy stuff and see what was on the
shelves. Though you look at Mr. Potato Head now and think, "Oh he's
Don Rickles; he's a curmudgeonly old guy and acerbic," you have to
remember that prior to Toy Story he had no personality. We have just had so much
fun over the years taking toys that we remember from our childhood
and giving them personalities. John, Pete and Andrew got to do that
with Mr. Potato Head; we got to do it with Ken of Barbie-and-Ken
[fame]. Ken's been around forever, but I defy anyone prior to
Toy Story 3 to say
what kind of personality he had.
When we were younger we used
to take other action figures and do weird things to the Ken the
Unkrich: I bet that was great fun [laughs]. And the
little Fisher Price chatter telephone that Woody talks to in the
prison, that was a toy I had when I was a kid, and I think a lot of
us had, and if we didn't have them, we'd at least seen it before.
I had those soldiers; I still
have little green army men somewhere. At the Toy Fair there is a
display of classic toys.
Lee Unkrich: It's not all about nostalgia, but that's partly
why people find the Toy Story films so emotionally [affecting]. When they do
it's because we push this nostalgia by them. For whatever reason, we
all fondly remember the toys we had when we were a kid. We've grown
up, become adults, but we try to hold on to some shred of our
childhood innocence, and the toys represent that. They represent
another time in our lives. Thank God for eBay. With eBay we can now
find those toys that we had. I can dig out all the toys I loved
playing with when I was a kid and get the ones that I didn't keep.
You know what I did to my wife and I actually put it in the movie
I accidentally threw away all of her childhood stuffed animals
that she'd been keeping. We were moving from one apartment to
another and filling garbage bags with garbage and I [threw] them
into the dumpster behind my building. Anyway, we moved, and a month
later we were still unpacking when my wife said, "Where are my
stuffed animals? All of my childhood stuffed animals; I can't find
them anywhere." I said, "What box did you put them in?" And she
said, "I didn't put them in a box; they were in a big garbage bag."
[You can imagine how I felt.]
You almost create a new
audience of kids who never knew these toys and now relate to them in
a new context.
Because they've had the toys, the actual physical toys, and now
they're getting to go see a new story with them.
took iconic characters that today's kids didn't know were iconic
characters, so they have a whole new history about them. That's
Lee Unkrich: The weirdest thing for me is always the new toys
that we invent, like Lotso the teddy bear or the other toys that
didn't exist before. It's strange for us to design something from
scratch and then walk into a ToysRUs and see them all over the
shelves. We've now invented a toy; it's a weird sort of like a snake
eating its own tail kind of a thing.
You understand the
quintessential nature of these toys, every classic icon you think of
in terms of toys; we've all had something affect us like this.
Lee Unkrich: I've had a lot of people get in touch with me
after this movie who felt very guilty, a lot of teenagers and folks
in their 20s who went in their attics and brought their old toys out
because they just felt terrible that the toys had been locked away
in the box.
Woody didn't really exist,
there wasn't an original, but there are other characters that you've
based him on. I guess it would be Davy Crockett.
Lee Unkrich: He wasn't really based on any particular toy. It
was more just of that era.
We all had a Davy Crockett, or
a Daniel Boone or something like that.
Darla K. Anderson:
It was just cool that he's a cowboy. I don't think there's anything
more quintessential from that mid-century time, and the new toy is
How do you decide which
characters you keep, which you don't keep, whom you need to add?
Lee Unkrich: Of the old toys from the other movies?
Or you added into the new
Lee Unkrich: Well in the case of Andy's room, when the first
two movies take place Andy is anywhere from seven to nine. He has
this huge menagerie of toys that he's had since he was very little
that are still in his room. When we made the decision to have him be
17, almost 18, it just didn't make sense to have all those toys
around anymore. No teenager has every last toy from when they were a
kid. We wanted to be realistic, to show that a 17-year-old probably
wouldn't have all of those toys, but more importantly we wanted the
room to just be emblematic of the threat that all the other
remaining toys were under. That they could be gotten rid of at any
point. We wanted there to be a danger hanging in the air, so we
whittled down the toy groups to the bare essentials that we needed
to tell our story. We even got rid of one of the main characters
from the first two movies. Bo Peep was Woody's girlfriend. We got
rid of Bo Peep, and it was a very hard decision to make, but we
ultimately did it because we really thought it was important that
one of the toys that the audience would have fondly remembered from
the first two films be gone. Because as we go through life we don't
end with all the people we've gone through life with. We lose people
here and there and we just wanted it to feel real, we wanted it to
feel like people had moved on.
Were you worried about getting
the right people back for the voices?
Maybe at the very beginning. We have a very big cast and we had to
reach out to everybody, but we've kept in touch with everybody over
the years they love it. We lost one cast member. Jim Varney played
Slinky in the first two films, and he passed away right after we
made the second one, so we had to hire a new actor to play him. But
luckily we found a new guy. Blake Clark is a great character actor
and he sounds a lot like Jim, was friends with Jim, so it was really
perfect. He was very emotional about it at times; he was very
honored to be stepping into his shoes.
you add characters like Ken, do you have big-name actors say, "I'll
do a test!"
There have been people over the years that do call us and want to be
a part of our films.
call you up and say, "You didn't have this toy; I'll do that toy."
Lee Unkrich: In the case of Ken, we had Barbie in the second
film and thought she was really funny and we wanted to find a way
for her character to be in the third film. And once we started
talking about her, we almost immediately said, "Well, we have to
have Ken." If we do Barbie we need to move on and have Ken. We
didn't know what kind of personality he was going to have, but we
knew it was funny. Just the idea of him being in the film was funny
to us. So we started talking about his character and we started
talking about what does it feel like to be a guy who's a girl's toy?
You're a guy but you're only played with by little girls, and on top
of that, you're ostensibly only an accessory to Barbie. He doesn't
carry equal weight. We thought about that a lot and that's why the
character's funny, because it comes out of the truthfulness of the
toy. We didn't want to just pick some arbitrary personality and
graft it on to him; we wanted it to come out of the core of who Ken
is. Once we started talking about it Michael Keaton's name came up
and we just thought he would be fantastic. We had worked with him on
improvised a lot, and a lot of his improvs ended up in the movie.
amazing to think of improvising in doing an animated film where
everything has to be so precise...
Lee Unkrich: But they don't; that's the magic of what we do.
We do all the voices before the animation. When we're doing
recording sessions the actors aren't trying to squeeze their words
into something we've already animated. It's just tape rolling and
we'll go on for hours at a time playing with lines, working and
improvising, and it gives the actor great freedom to really explore
and play with the scenes. It gives us great freedom when we get back
to Pixar, when we edit the performance together we have a lot of
great raw materials to work with, and then when we give it to the
animators there's just a freshness and a spontaneity. I can't even
imagine what it would be like to try to animate and then try to fit
voices in after the fact. That seems like such a backwards way of
working on it. In [Oscar-winner Hayao] Miyazaki's films they animate
and then put the voices in after the fact.
There are some other American animations that are done that way.
Lee Unkrich: I don't think there's many. It's just
restrictive on both ends; it would be restrictive for the actor and
limiting, and then, for the animator. My animators are providing
half of the performance of the character; they're providing the
entire physicality, and if they don't have a voice to listen to, or
at least key off of, and be inspired by, then they're nothing,
they're just in their head. It would just never work for us.
Keaton [Ken] and Tim Allen [Buzz Lightyear] were standup comics
before anything else. I'm not sure about Tom Hanks [Woody]. Was John
Ratzenberger a standup comic?
Lee Unkrich: I don't know. They're all different. Some of the
actors come in and they want to just read the text. They do a great
job but they want to cue to what's been written. And then you get
others like Michael Keaton, especially, who are very good at trying
different things. We've worked with great people like that over the
years, who are good at that. But they don't all want to, and that's
anybody ever tempted to put in a cameo of Steve Jobs since he was
CEO of Pixar?
Lee Unkrich: We never did that. I don't think he'd ever do
it. We did put an iMac in Toy Story 3, so hopefully he was happy with that. There has
been synergy between the companies. Steve's been good whenever he
has new products that he puts out, they always seem to have Pixar
trailers and images on them. So even though he's not officially part
of the company anymore his heart is absolutely with it.
you first started did you interact with him?
Lee Unkrich: With Steve? Absolutely, quite a bit. Steve has
only not been with the company for about four years now, otherwise,
the rest of the history of the company we were working with Steve.
And he's not gone. When Pixar was sold to Disney, Steve became the
biggest single shareholder of Disney and it bought him an automatic
seat on the board of directors. He has been involved at a very high
level with the company. He's a great guy.
you talk about the film to kids as much as you do to adults?
Lee Unkrich: I've had a lot of opportunity. In fact, when I
was back in Cleveland [Unkrich's hometown] I spoke at a school. I've
done that quite often where I take questions from the kids, and it's
always interesting to see what they have to say. It's funny because
kids are now more savvy than they were a generation ago about films
being made. Really little kids don't understand that we make these
movies. But they often want to know how long it took to make the
movie, and they always find that fascinating. Some of them will ask
what the budget of the film is, which I think is very funny.
is said to be the last one?
Lee Unkrich: We don't have any plans to make another one.
Besides money, what would be the motivation to make another one?
Lee Unkrich: The only way it would ever happen is if we came
up with a story that we felt just screamed to be told, that was
worthy of investing four years of our lives into making. We worked
hard to end the story of Andy and his toys in this film. But when we
made the first Toy Story
we said we're never going to make a sequel. Times change, you have
ideas, so you never know what's going to happen.
There are a lot of people that say it's the best
Lee Unkrich: Some people say the first one's the best, some
people say the second one's the best. I'm flattered that anybody
thinks the third one's the best.
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