Toy Story 3: Interview with Director Lee Unkrich

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Lee Unkrich directs "Toy Story 3," starring Tom Hanks and Tim Allen. The Disney-Pixar film is being released on June 18, 2010.


Unkrich says they’ve continued the Pixar tradition of blending fun with a relatable story. “‘Toy Story 3’ is about change,” says Unkrich. “It’s about embracing transitions in life. It’s about characters being faced with major changes and how they deal with them. Woody and the other toys are facing the monumental fact that Andy has outgrown them Andy is facing becoming an adult and heading off to college. And Andy’s mom is facing the fact that her son has grown up and is heading out into the world. We begin our story at pivotal moments in the characters’ lives.” 


Pulling from the first two films


During the retreat, the participants watched the first two “Toy Story” films in their entirety as a point of reference, and to help immerse them into that world again. “It was of course our goal to make a movie worthy of the first two ‘Toy Story’films,” says Unkrich. “In the history of cinema, there are only a few sequels that are as good as the first, and we really couldn’t think of any excellent third movies. The only one that came to mind was ‘The Return of the King,’ but that was really more like the third part of one giant story. That’s when I had an epiphany: We needed the three ‘Toy Story’ movies to feel like part of one grand story. That notion became the driving force for us in creating ‘Toy Story 3.’” 


“We felt optimistic,” says Unkrich, “because although crafting a worthy sequel was a daunting task, we were the same creative team that had made the first two films. On the second day of the retreat, we came up with the idea of Andy growing up. We also came up with the idea that Woody and the other toys would end up at day care, as well as the concept of Buzz getting switched into demo mode. Andrew drafted a treatment that got everyone excited. It was at that point that Michael Arndt and I started working on the story in earnest.” 


Unkrich recalls that a key plot point of throwing out a bag of toys touched a chord in his family. “Long before we had kids, my wife and I were living in an apartment in West Hollywood, and making a move to Pasadena,” remembers Unkrich. “We were doing all the moving ourselves, packing our own things, and filling garbage bags with stuff that we no longer wanted I was dutifully taking the bags to the dumpster behind the building, including one particularly large bag. A few weeks later, as we were settling into our new place, my wife asked me if I had seen her stuffed animals. She couldn’t find any of the stuffed animals from her childhood, which she had been keeping for years I asked her what box they were in, and she said they weren’t in a box, they were in a garbage bag—a large one. A huge pit formed in my stomach because I knew immediately what had happened and I had to figure out how to break the news to her I couldn’t understand why she had put them in a garbage bag, and she couldn’t understand why I didn’t check to see what I was throwing away. After all these years, she still won’t let me forget that I threw out all of her beloved stuffed animals. So I like to think that the moment in ‘Toy Story 3’ when Andy’s mom takes the garbage bag down to the curb immortalizes the memory of my wife’s toys, and that in some small way, their demise at the landfill was not in vain.” 


A New Character: Ken


According to Unkrich, “The idea of putting Ken in the film just felt rife with comic potential Ken is a guy who is ostensibly a girl’s toy, and he’s also really nothing more than an accessory for Barbie. He is no more important than a pair of shoes or a purse. We figured he had to be pretty insecure about those things, and tried to tap into that as much as possible. He’s really into clothes, being the ultimate fashion maven. He wears a different outfit in every scene in the movie. We thought it would be a nice touch to dress Ken only in real outfits that actually existed, so we consulted with a guy who is the world’s preeminent Ken expert.” 


Recreating Old Characters


“We needed all of the classic ‘Toy Story’ characters to move and behave the way they did in the earlier films,” explains Unkrich. “But the animators have gotten used to much more sophisticated models than we had back then. For example, with the human characters on ‘Ratatouille,’ the animators had exponentially more controls, and were able to create very subtle, nuanced animation. We had to be very careful with ‘Toy Story 3’ that we didn’t make the characters so fluid and sophisticated in terms of expression and movement that they no longer felt like Woody and Buzz. We wanted them to be what we remembered It’s all about embracing the limitations that we used to have and working within those confines."


Unkrich adds, “This story also demanded a degree of subtlety in the human acting that we hadn’t attempted before, so improving the humans was a must.” 




“Our approach tends to use 3D as a window into the world so the audience can experience everything in depth,” says Unkrich. “We recreated and re-rendered ‘Toy Story’ and ‘Toy Story 2’ into 3D, and although neither of those films was designed to be 3D, they felt like they had been. That’s due to the fact that we were already staging in depth within our 2D images For ‘Toy Story 3,’ my goal was to tell the best story that we could, while staging the action as dynamically as possible.”


He adds, “We had an interesting challenge on ‘Toy Story 3’ because the tools and the technology have advanced quite a bit since ‘Toy Story 2.’ Additionally, the level of talent of the artists at the studio has risen dramatically. The films we make now are really gorgeous. 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. I believe we’ve created a film that sits comfortably alongside the first two films, yet looks exponentially better in so many ways.” 


Unkrich likens seeing “Toy Story 3” in 3D to the experience a viewer might have looking through a classic stereo slide viewer. “It’s a way to look through a window or a portal into this world and see everything in dimension,” he says. “The 3D is the icing on the cake and it just makes the movie that much more cool to watch.” 


“We’re in a world where the human objects such as tables, chairs and cars are much larger than life,”says Unkrich. “The 3D really helps cement that illusion of being taken down into the hidden world of toys.” 


Closing Words


“With ‘Toy Story,’ we pioneered the notion of using traditional cinematic grammar to make an animated film,” says Unkrich. “And that’s what everybody does now I was very instrumental in designing the camera work and, of course, cutting the first and second film. So there’s a continuity heading into the third film. From a cinematography perspective, we had an interesting challenge on ‘Toy Story 3’ because the tools and the technology have advanced quite a bit since ‘Toy Story 2,’ and the artists at the studio have gotten so much better. When you look at the first ‘Toy Story’ now, it’s relatively crude. After all, it was the first CG film, and we’ve since made a lot of advances in terms of using depth of field and more sophisticated lighting to help tell our stories. For ‘Toy Story 3,’ I didn’t want the film to feel like it was from a completely different design universe. We wanted it to still feel like a ‘Toy Story’ film, but we also wanted to take advantage of the technology and the artistry that we’re capable of now I believe we’ve created a film that sits nicely alongside those previous films, but it just looks exponentially better in so many ways."