Interview: Pixar's Toy Story 3 Director & Editor - Lee Unkrich
by Alex Billington
June 17, 2010
Tomorrow, Pixar's long awaited, highly anticipated sequel Toy Story 3 arrives in theaters nationwide. The movie wouldn't be what it is without the steady, sophisticated and genuine direction (and editing) from Lee Unkrich. Unkrich started working at Pixar years ago as an editor on Toy Story and after co-directing a few other Pixar movies, finally made his solo debut with Toy Story 3. I thankfully got to talk with Unkrich last week and asked as much as I could in the 15 minutes of time I was given, as he's a director I've been anxious to talk to. We still covered quite a bit of ground and I learned lots of cool stuff about Toy Story 3. Read on!
Woody, Buzz and the whole gang are back… As their owner Andy prepares to depart for college, his loyal toys find themselves in daycare where untamed tots with their sticky little fingers do not play nice. So, it's all for one and one for all as they join Barbie's counterpart Ken, a hedgehog named Mr. Pricklepants and a pink, strawberry-scented teddy bear nicknamed Lotso to plan their great escape. Watch the last full trailer.
First off, I wanted to say thank you for being so active on Twitter. I think it means a lot to the fans to see filmmakers out there who are that interactive and that involved with those fans, especially from Pixar, and I just want to say thank you for being that active.
Lee Unkrich: Oh sure, yeah, it's been fun, and I'm glad I had something to actually say. I don't know, once this movie comes out and we get through the run, I don't know how much more I'll be tweeting for a while because I think people will probably move on to the next person [at Pixar]. But I need to get more people tweeting at Pixar, I think that's the problem.
It's known that you started out as an editor at Pixar back in the 90s, and I'm wondering if you can talk about the journey you've taken to get here, to directing Toy Story 3, and what your journey has been like at Pixar?
Unkrich: Sure. Well just briefly, yeah, I did start as an editor for the first Toy Story. But I went to USC Film School before that and I always thought of myself as a pretty well-rounded filmmaker. I just ended up focusing on film editing as I was getting my career started. I'm very passionate about editing and will continue to edit for the rest of my career, but it's not like that was all I did and then somehow I grew into directing a movie. I did direct quite a bit when I was in school, and I directed some television afterwards.
So, you know, when I started editing Toy Story for John [Lasseter], I think it became clear pretty quickly to him and Andrew [Stanton] and Pete [Docter] and everybody [at Pixar] that I was bringing more to the table than just being an editor, although that would have been enough. We were all trying to figure out what the hell we were doing on that movie. Nobody had made a CG feature before. John had done the shorts, which were fantastic, but he himself just came from an animation background. So he had good instincts cinematically, but he would be the first to admit that he had a lot to learn still. And I think I kind of finished or completed that puzzle when I showed up at Pixar, because I brought, I think, that kind of live-action sensibility to the studio.
So the guys all came to really rely on me to help them make their films, as evidenced by the fact that I started co-directing and -- working with Andrew, working with Pete, working with John as co-director. We made those films together, but as co-director I got to have all the joy of making the movies, I just didn't have to have the burden and the full responsibility on my shoulders of the whole film. I didn't have to experience that until this film. But I feel like I'm doing kind of the same thing all along through the studio, so it's not -- when John asked me to direct Toy Story 3, it was a bit of a stretch for me just because I hadn't been at the helm solo, but in many ways it wasn't a stretch and it just, it made sense.
What are the things you've learned in taking control over the entire movie by yourself, as a solo director this time?
Unkrich: Well, I learned that it's okay to be afraid of things that you don't know how to do and I've learned to embrace that. I'm lucky to be surrounded by incredibly talented people at Pixar, of course, and I learn a lot from them each and every day. Probably my biggest challenge on this film was, or at least the thing that I had the most trepidation about, was working with the animators, because it is Pixar Animation Studios after all, and I'm the first filmmaker at the studio -- the [first] person directing who is not an animator -- I didn't come from an animation background, and I knew probably about as much about animation as anybody who's interested in movies, when I came to the studio.
But I've had 15 years of watching John work and Brad [Bird] and Pete and Andrew, and I've learned a lot through osmosis through the years. But even so, I still felt some insecurity, I guess I would say, starting this film, just because I know I contributed greatly to the [past] films, but I hadn't ever worked really closely with the animators and I hadn't worked with them in years, since Nemo. And I wasn't sure if I was gonna be welcomed into the fold and that they would respect my creative leadership. And this was all my own crud going on in my head, right, because as it turned out they -- I think people really respected what I had brought to the other films, and they felt like they were in capable hands.
And I quickly learned, as we started animating, that I really didn't need to know a lot about animation. I just needed to have instincts and opinions about performance, about acting, because the animators are ostensibly actors, just as much as Tom Hanks or Tim Allen, they're just providing the physical performance. So I would talk to the animators very much the same way I would talk to the actors providing voices. I didn't tell them how to animate. I didn't tell them how to move the characters. I just helped them bring the characters to life and really helped them understand what was going on in the characters' minds at any given moment. And that, coupled with some really great supervising animators and directing animators that I worked very closely with, we were able to get through the whole movie very successfully. And I feel like I'm totally thrilled with how the film came out, but I'm especially happy with the animation on it.
Well, it looks fantastic, and I think it again shows just how far Pixar has come. Speaking of which, I've heard some talk about how this was crafted to feel like it was a direct sequel to Toy Story 2 as it if were made by Pixar in the year's following that movie's release in 1999. Is that true?
Unkrich: Yeah. I mean, I wanted -- even though all these years had gone by, I wanted there very much to be a continuity with the previous films. I didn't want it to feel like different people were making it and… I mean, people love Toy Story and Toy Story 2, and I wanted them to embrace this film as fully as possible. I wanted there to feel like -- even though 11 years have gone by and a lot has changed in the lives of the toys, I wanted it to feel like we were very much in the same universe. And we decided very early on that we didn't want to do just a random sequel sending the toys off on some crazy adventure. We wanted there to be some thematic continuity and kind of an over-arching storyline that went through these three films so that in the end you could look at is as one awesome four-and-a-half hour movie.
How did the script develop originally from the idea of Andy going to college into the toys being sent to daycare and so on? You were intimately involved with the writing, right?
Unkrich: Yeah, absolutely. Well, we came up with kind of the bare skeleton of the story at the very beginning of the process. John Lasseter and I and Andrew and Pete and Bob Peterson and a couple of other people, we went away. We went off to this cabin in Tomales Bay where the guys had cooked up the original Toy Story years and years ago - we thought it would be good luck to go back there. And so we locked ourselves away for two days with no phone calls or meetings or anything, and we just sat around talking about what we really wanted Toy Story 3 to be. And it was clear to everyone in the room that it needed to not only be just as funny and action filled as the other films, but it needed to really have a strong emotional core. And we made the decision in that two day off-site to have Andy grown up. It just seemed like the right place to set the story because at the end of Toy Story 2, obviously Woody's made peace with the fact that Andy's gonna grow up some day, and it seems like he's okay with it. But we knew that in life there are a lot of things we think we're gonna be okay with but then when you get to that day, you really see what you're made of. And we thought it would be really interesting to explore how Woody would deal with that day when it finally came.
The daycare idea we also came up with that weekend. We had kicked around that idea in the past, just as -- when we'd talked about options for the toys and what… Years ago we would talk about what would happen when Andy grew up, and we thought well maybe they'd end up in a daycare where they'd be played with by kids. And to us that seemed like a happy ending kind of a story. But in this case we saw the potential to kind of put a twist on it and make it feel like it was gonna be the perfect solution for the toys, but then pull the rug out from under them. And so we talked about daycare as prison at that point, and it becoming kind of a prison break film, and that seemed like it had a lot of potential. We we were riffing on the -- kind of the similarities between daycares and prisons, and how daycares are kind of prisons for toddlers. And we started talking about Lotso as well…
Lotso is a character that Pete and John and Andrew had talked about years and years ago, before Toy Story even existed. They had this idea -- when they were first trying to figure out what Pixar's first feature was gonna be. They knew they wanted to do something with toys because John had done Tin Toy, and so they were trying to come up with a feature for Tinny, for that character in Tin Toy. And they had this whole idea about -- it was like a Rip Van Winkle kind of a story about -- Tinny stayed on a shelf in the back of the toy store for years and years, and then he finally ventured out front and the toy store had become this big conglomerate Toys R Us kind of a chain. And the whole movie was gonna take place in the toy store and there were gonna be, every aisle in the toy store was gonna be like a different neighborhood in the city. And there were good neighborhoods and bad neighborhoods, and they had this idea for like a bargain basement bin of all the toys that were marked down. And there would be this character named Lots-o'-Huggin' Bear, and he had kind of his cronies around him and they would go out and raid other neighborhoods in the city.
So it was this funny idea but it never went anywhere because, of course, Toy Story became Toy Story. But, as we've all found, good ideas kind of -- they don't go away, they just kind of go into hibernation. And so Lotso got pulled back out and we started to explore him further and we didn't know his character really at all. It was just kind of the bare bones idea of there being this bear who is the leader of all the toys, and this authority figure at the daycare center.
And then the other thing that we came up with at that off-site was the very end of the movie, literally the last scene. We didn't write it but we talked about the idea of it and what was gonna happen at the end of the film. And that was a big breakthrough for us, that we committed to that ending, because we all felt that it was the right ending for the movie. And that was a good thing to have, because very often when you're writing, when you're creating a film or story, it's -- the ending is one of the hardest things to come up with, the right ending. But in this case we had an ending that we knew was right and it was just a matter of creating all the connective tissue to get us there.
As someone who's been at Pixar for a long time, what are the biggest ways you've seen the studio evolve and develop over the years?
Unkrich: Well, we've sort of grown. The studio's a lot bigger and there are a lot more people, but I think that we've done a really admiral job of kind of keeping the vibe and the kind of -- the core philosophies of the studio in place, even though we've gotten a lot bigger. And I think that's evidenced by the fact that the films continue to be good. So, in terms of change, I think the more applicable thing is just noting that we haven't changed a lot, that even though we've had all the success and we've grown, we've managed to kind of keep a lot of things, the things that are working, the things that help make the films really great, the same.
Thank you to Lee Unkrich and Disney/Pixar for arranging the interview. Pixar's Toy Story 3 hits theaters everywhere in 3D this weekend. You won't want to miss it - get your tickets now!