To Infinity, Beyond and Daycare!

Director Lee Unkrich and producer Darla Anderson share their thoughts on Toy Story 3, the third outing for Woody, Buzz and the rest of the gang which may be their most popular and emotional adventure ever.

Talk about pressure! There’s a lot riding on the third outing for Cowboy Woody, Buzz Lightyear and the rest of John Lasseter’s buddies. Will Toy Story 3 be as good as the first two movies that skyrocketed Pixar to intergalactic level fame and popularity? Will the cast of characters that jumpstarted the CG animation revolution be able to melt hearts, tickle the funny bone and make a smooth transition to 3-D screens? Can the third chapter of a trilogy ever be as good as the first? Judging from the early buzz and the advanced screening at the ShoWest confab in Vegas in March, the answer to all those questions is a resounding yes.

‘Right after Disney bought Pixar, John Lasseter took me aside and told me that he wanted to make Toy Story 3 and he wanted me to direct it,’ says director Lee Unkrich, who co-directed the first two features. ‘We wanted to make it right after Toy Story 2, but because of the contractual issues with Disney, we had to sit on it for a while.’

As Disney/Pixar topper and the movie’s exec producer John Lasseter has pointed out, the movies have always reflected the filmmakers’ personalities and experiences and this one is no different. ‘So much of me, Andrew [Stanton], Pete Docter, Joe Ranft and Lee [Unkrich] has seeped into these stories about Buzz and Woody, and I think Toy Story 3 continues that. For me personally, I was able to tap into the real emotion of taking my son to college. It was an immensely powerful emotion. You’re with someone since birth, and then all of a sudden they’re going away. The timing between Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3 was perfect for letting Andy’and our own life situations’grow up.’

In the movie, the toys have to adjust to the new environment after they’re donated to a daycare center when Andy goes away to college. Penned by Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine) and based on a story crafted by Lasseter, Stanton and Unkrich, Toy Story 3 also introduces several new characters, including Barbie’s pal, Ken (voiced by Michael Keaton), the thespian hedgehog Mr. Pricklepants (Timothy Dalton) and a giant pink teddy bear known as Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear (Ned Beatty).

Unkrich says it took them about two and half years after their first big, brain-storming weekend in a cabin in Northern California to flesh out the ideas that would make the third installment a strong journey. ‘I remember when we set out to do the first sequel, people were asking us, ‘Why can’t you let it be? Don’t ruin a good movie’ But we managed to develop a story that was really promising, so we decided to break that curse.’

‘One of the things that anchored us was looking at the films as a big trilogy,’ says exec producer Darla Anderson, who was running the studio’s short films and commercial division when the first movie was greenlit. ‘That gave our footing creatively. However, you can still get a complete experience if you haven’t seen the other two.’

Unkrich says his favorite movies are those that give the audience a complete experience. ‘The most satisfying films are the ones that make you laugh, thrill you and make you feel something as well’the ones that you get your money’s worth,’ he adds. ‘We could have just made a wacky adventure for the toys, but it wouldn’t have been enough.’

He points out that no matter how he looked at it, this third chapter was going to be a tough nut to crack. For one, he was stepping in as director, doing what Lasseter had done for the first two movies. ‘Those are some big shoes to fill,’ he says. ‘Those movies were his babies. I joked with him that he was giving me the keys to his expensive, shiny sports car and trusting me not to scratch or crash it. Luckily, we’ve been working closely for 16 years, and we complete each other creatively. He didn’t want to entrust the film to anyone but me.’

And then there was the Pixar dilemma: Here was the studio with the perfect record. To date, the magical CG workshop in Emeryville, Calif. has delivered 10 films that have been huge commercial and critical successes all around the world. As Unkrich explains, nobody wants to be the director who makes the studio’s first bad movie!

Polishing the Old Toys

Of course, the animators faced other more practical dilemmas as well. Technology and CG animation tools are remarkably more powerful and refined today than they were some 15 years ago. Not to mention that the third movie has the special ability to tell its story in top-of-the-line stereoscopic 3-D technology. In essence, all the characters had to be rebuilt while keeping the design essence that was a trademark of the first two movies.

‘The films we make now are really gorgeous,’ says Unkrich. ‘I didn’t want Toy Story 3 to feel like it was in a completely different design universe’it’s still a Toy Story film’but I certainly wanted to take advantage of the technology and artistry of which we’re currently capable. We always said that the first Toy Story movie was the ugliest film we ever made, and that’s true. We’ve gotten better and better. We have an amazing team of artists and we’re bringing in young and brilliant people. As a result, we’ve made a movie that’s in tune with today’s technology and looks exponentially more beautiful than the first sequel.’

Anderson says the cloth and hair simulations and the huge effects featured in the movie truly raise the bar technically and artistically. ‘Lots of the characters have lots of layers, and then the huge effects scenes include many organic material,’ she notes. ‘The tough thing is that when you deliver effects perfectly, audiences doesn’t even think about it’which is what we want. When the effects team hit it out of the park, you get sucked into the story and don’t even think about how they created the visual effects.’

Another huge improvement is the depiction of human faces. Not only is Andy a college-age teenager, he looks a lot more real and appealing than other humans we have seen in CG-animated movies. ‘Andy had to be appealing,’ says Anderson. ‘When you look at him, you’ll be really surprised at how real he looks, although he’s definitely stylized. Back when the first movie came out, we didn’t have the technology to make the humans look good, but I think audiences will really see the difference.’

When asked about the particular pitfalls of designing a 3-D project, Unkrich says that their approach is to see a 3-D window to their world and that they really don’t take the third dimension into account. ‘We have a crack team of 3-D technicians and we’re not interested in the gimmickry. We stage our films so cinematically that they look awesome.’

Although there have been numerous films and TV shows featuring children’s toys, not many of them are able to do what the Toy Story gang can do: Dazzle you with their pristine animation, make you laugh at their jokes and cry with them when life deals them a blow. Unkrich says the reason is that the movies address universal themes. ‘We all played with toys when we were kids and we tend to impart personality to our toys,’ he muses. ‘We all want to believe that they’re alive. Then as a group, the toys are also a great collection of characters’characters that we want to spend time with. They’re like your family’some of them, say Mr. Potato Head, for example, may annoy you, but you still end up caring for them.’

Both Unkrich and Anderson point out that movie touches upon some deep themes. ‘It’s about change and how you deal with it,’ says Anderson. ‘Life is about change and milestones like going to college, getting that big job, getting married’and the emotions each brings up. It’s a deep film, if you want it to be, but you get to laugh and have a great adventure as well. Toy Story was a seminal movie that launched our industry, but it might not have propelled our world as much as it did if it didn’t have a believable story and wonderful characters. That’s the thing about animated movies: You go in with an open mind and open heart and they can really disarm you and hit you emotionally harder than live-action movies can.’

Disney/Pixar’s Toy Story 3 will begin its theatrical run on June 18.