Toy Story 3 Interview: Director Lee Unkrich

Lee300Toy Story 3 is out this week and we’ve been speaking to the film’s creators. Director Lee Unkrich talks about his favourite toys, filming in 3D, rounding off a 15 year journey and not wanting to scratch John Lasseter’s sports car.

It’s been 11 years since the last film, why the big gap between Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3?

Well, we wanted to make a Toy Story 3 directly after Toy Story 2. I remember John Lasseter (Pixar’s Chief Creative Office) taking me aside and saying “come on let’s do it”. We got all the models built to make another movie. But as it turned out we couldn’t make another movie because of contractual problems with Disney and finally when Disney bought us, just over four years ago, that freed us up.

The interesting thing was that the idea that we had that we thought was going to be Toy Story 3 almost immediately was completely abandoned. We thought, you know, it’s a good concept, but it’s not really a film.

That must have been heart wrenching for you when another studio started playing around with all those characters you’d created. It must have felt like they were stealing your children.

Yeah when Disney started to make their own version of Toy Story 3 without us, that was horrlble. That was the darkest time in Pixar’s history but luckily that future never came to pass.

You been involved with Toy Story from the beginning: as an Editor on the first one and co-directing the second one. How does it feel to be finally let off the leash to do one on your own?
It’s great; it was incredibly stressful and very difficult. I was very worried about being the guy to go down in history as the guy who made the crappy sequel to the Toy Story series. I was at John’s side from the beginning, in this case I had to take on the responsibility of every aspect of the film but it was great fun too, I just surrounded myself with really talented people.

That moment when John gave you the go ahead to work on the film must have been great.

Yeah, when he gave me the keys to his shiny sports car, and I promised not to scratch it! It was great. When he first told me he wanted to do it, I was flattered and excited and then I wanted to throw up. Seriously. I just realised the enormity of the road ahead and the enormity of it. There were times when it was hard to get up in the morning because it just seemed like I was trying to do something so completely impossible.

How long were you working on the project for? Was it difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel?

I was working on it for four years. Well, that’s how long the movies take so in my 16 years at Pixar, I’ve gotten used to working to that time frame and if you look at each film, it’s so rich with detail, it just takes time. It’s like running a marathon; you say four years and it seems like long time but in actuality it’s not enough time while you’re making it, that every day’s a race.

John Lasseter once said, “We never finish films, we just release them”

It’s true, it’s because we’re constantly noodling with them. Anything that’s not being animated is fair game to be rewritten or reworked.

Did you do a lot of prep work for the movie? Did you visit a lot of day cares, watch a lot of prison movies?

All of the above. I think I saw every prison movie that’s ever been mad and several of them influence the film directly, most notably Cool Hand Luke – there’s a lot of references in that movie there. We visited a lot of day care centres, watched kids play, visited a couple of prison – spent some time on Alcatraz, visited San Quentin and it was very interesting to us to see the similarities between day care and prisons – they’re actually more similar than you’d think.

Day care centres usually have these murals hanging up but if you strip those away, you find that they’re actually quite institutional – very much like prisons. You see security cameras and walled exercise areas in the back – they’re so similar, so we tried to have fun playing with that.

I bet the prisons didn’t have the horror of a cymbal-playing monkey running the show.

I love that. I put that in because I’ve always loved monkeys, ever since I was a little kid. But I was really afraid of that toy when I was a kid. But the thing that’s interesting to me is that that’s an actual toy. That’s a real toy, a real thing that’s been around for decade. And it’s so funny to me that someone thought it was a good idea to make a toy like that that was for children. So we tried to remain as true to that as possible.

Actually, Big Baby scared me quite a lot in this movie too. What’s your thing about babies?! You had Babyhead in the first one which was really creepy too.

I don’t know. You’re setting a film in the toy world; you want to be true to that. Baby dolls are part of that world and I think a lot of people find them really creepy.

After 15 years of working with Toy Story, was it really difficult to say goodbye to those characters after all that time?

Yeah it was. You know the last scene in the film was always very emotional for us. Here’s the interesting thing, when we were making the film, we found that last scene very emotional because we were kind of saying goodbye to the characters, but I don’t think that’s why the audience finds it so emotional. It’s not just about Woody and Buzz and saying goodbye to them, it’s about so much more than that.


The film does really feel like it has a sense of closure for all the characters.

Yeah, I really wanted it to feel like the end and we don’t have any plans for Toy Story 4. There was never any mandate to end it in a way so that we could continue the story. From the very first day, we came up with Toy Story 3, we knew how it was going to end, it felt like the right ending for the toys and gave them that future.

There’s that wonderful scene near the end where Buzz reaches over and holds Jesse’s hand and you think that maybe they won’t make it and it’s one of the only kids’ films that evokes that kind of fear.

Well, we were trying to be truthful to that moment and I know it’s very intense.

What has the reaction been to that scene? I know parents are often very protective of their children.

What’s interesting about that scene is that it’s extremely emotional for adults. And I think part of being a parent is wanting to protect their kids from those strong emotions that they’re feeling but in actuality, kids are experiencing that scene in the same way, right? Adults have a much greater sense of their own mortality than kids do. And I’ve sat with my five-year-old on my lap watching the movie and saw his reaction tot that scene. And you know, he was biting his knuckles and he was nervous but I know he wasn’t feeling the same really really intense emotion.

Did you have a favourite toy when you were a kid?

Yeah, I grew up in the 1970s and there was a show then called The Six Million Dollar Man which was really big and that was my whole life and I had all these dolls and those were absolutely my favourite toys and he ended up influencing Zurg. Because Zurg has a hole in the back of his head that you look through to see “Zurg vision” and it was directly taken from The Six Million Dollar Man doll.

I myself am massively influenced by Thundercats and had all the toys with the light up eyes.

That’s actually where Twitch came from, the bug guy with the staff. He was influenced by Thundercats and He-Man and that whole world of toys.

Disney’s been running for over 70 years now. Did you have a favourite film growing up?

I don’t know if I had a favourite film when I was growing up but when I was in college I saw Dumbo again. I probably saw it when I was a kid but when I was in film school I saw it again and I was floored by one: that they were able to tell such an emotional story in such a short amount of time because people forget that that movie’s only an hour long and yet people consider it feature length. It’s like maybe 62 minutes long but it has one of these heartbreaking scenes. It’s got this bit where Dumbo’s mother goes berserk, seemingly. I think she’s trying to protect Dumbo but the humans see her as an animal that’s gone nuts and they lock her up in a cage in a jail car. And Dumbo’s outside the car wanting to see her and they can’t be together and she puts her trunk outside the car and cradles him and it’s this heartbreaking scene and it’s a testament to how powerful animation can be, that you can tell a very real human emotional story.


I think that stood you in a good stead for the emotional journey you’ve put us through with Toy Story 3!

You know I read something today that I thought was interesting. They were talking about animation and how can we have such intense emotions or reactions to watching what is essentially artifice, it’s animation, it’s not real right? And this particular writer said something about how when you’re watching live action, your investment is always that you’re watching somebody else, you’re watching someone else’s problems and somehow with animation, even though they’re not yourself, they’re characters, you put yourself on to them so much more so that you almost feel that you’re watching yourself – even more so than when you’re watching an actor.

Have you seen that advert that Spike Jonze did for Ikea about a lamp that’s being thrown away? You develop an emotional attachment to a lamp in a few minutes.

And you know, he wouldn’t have been able to do that without John Lassetter doing Luxo Jr.There’s a funny story with John. When John first made Luxo Jr., it was meant to be shown at Siggraph, this big computer graphics conference and at the time it was just filled with these braniacs and computer scientists and he showed the film and this guy wanted to come talk to him after the screening who was one of the bigwigs of computer graphics and science. And John was really nervous because he was afraid this guy was going to ask him about something and he was worried that he wasn’t going to be able to answer some highly technical question. And the guy came up to him and said, “Listen I love the movie, but I just need to ask you one thing. Was the lamp the mom or the dad?” And John realised at that moment that he had succeeded completely in doing what he set out to do – forgetting the graphics and the artifice and this guy had invested himself in a table lamp.


Did the desire to film in 3D affect any of your creative decisions?

Well, we always knew it was going to be in 3D and Up last year was the first film that we made in 3D. An interesting thing happened when we remastered Toy Story and Toy Story 2 into 3D, those film were of course not designed to be in 3D in the first place, when we turned them into 3D without changing anything, we didn’t change a single frame, we just rendered the other eye view so you could watch it stereoscopically, we all watched them and felt like they were designed to be in 3D. They made really good use of space and depth and what that told me because I had been responsible for doing the staging and the camera work on those first two film was that I didn’t need to think about 3D and that I could continue working in the same way that I always have.

I find 3D that pokes out of the screen really distracting. It gives me eyestrain but it also pulls me out of the movie. I’m not longer forgetting that I’m in a theatre and getting wrapped up in a story, I’m thinking, “oh look that’s coming out of the screen” and didn’t want to do that. I’ve had some people criticise the film and say “hey, I came to see a 3D movie, where’s the stuff popping out of the screen?” but I guess they’ll have to see other movies to get that. I thought of it more being like a diorama, that we’re looking at the space behind the characters.

Some people like 3D and some people don’t. But all I tried to do was make a movie that would stand the test of time. That being said, I think that being in 3D is a fun way to view the movie – when we were little and we’d look at viewmasters, it was fun to see this 3D vision.

3D is becoming almost ubiquitous now. What’s the next stage for animation?

You know…I don’t know and I actually don’t really care so much because I really care about telling a good story and the rest of it is just icing on the cake. I don’t know, are we going to have holographic movies someday? It’s so exciting to be working in cinema because it’s a relatively young artform, just a 100 years. I think cinema will continue to change and evolve but I think that there are certain things that will not change.


Are you allowed to say anything about the status of the cancelled Pixar film Newt?

Well Newt was a film we were making and it’s on the shelf for now. Thaere are a lot of films that we develop and work on that have problems that we can’t solve. For every movie you’ve seen in the theatres that’s come out great, there are a hundred projects that for one reason or another didn’t – you just haven’t heard about those! Newt is an idea that we all liked quite a bit and you know we’re hoping that a director in the future will come along and crack the nut but for now we wanted to rechanneled people on to other projects.

Pixar for a long time have resisted sequels but now we’re starting to see films like Cars 2, Monsters Inc. 2 and Toy Story 3. Why do you think that is?

It’s not so much that we resisted sequels; it’s that when our studio was smaller we had to make a choice. Do we make sequels or do we make original films? And we’re now finally at a point where we can do both. I know that there are a lot of people in the world that don’t like sequels, they feel that somehow we’re being less creative. I’m hoping that a film like Toy Story 3 would show them that we lavish just as much attention on a sequel as an original film and we don’t work on it any less. So we know some people don’t want sequels, but for every person that doesn’t want the sequels is a person that does so we’re trying to please both at the same time.

Congratulations on making a trilogy that has three fantastic films in it – that’s a real rarity.

Thank you. For me, I looked at a lot of trilogies to see any to model what we were trying to do and I couldn’t find any myself.

Lord Of The Rings is the only one that springs to mind but that’s more one film in three bits.

See, that’s the thing. I thought the exact same thing and when I thought about that I had an epiphany. We have to think of the third film as the end of one big story as if we had ahad one master plan all those years ago, that we had always intended to tell the one big story in the life of these toys.

What are you working on next personally? A holiday?

I’m going to take a long vacation because I haven’t had one in a long time and then Darla (K Anderson – producer) and I going to work on another film together which you’ll see in four years or so.