Breathing life into toys is hard work

Woody, Buzz and gang are back and here’s the story behind the tale this time.


As the company’s first feature film, Toy Story has always held a special place in the hearts of the people who work at Pixar Animation Studios. After all, it’s the movie that made it the studio for 3D animated films.

“When we were making Toy Story, we had no idea that we would be making a sequel. We felt lucky to just be making a movie!” said Lee Unkrich, who served as the editor of Toy Story, co-directed Toy Story 2 and is the director of Toy Story 3.

Of course, Toy Story, released in 1995, turned out to be a massive success and it was not long before a sequel was discussed.

According to Unkrich, while Pixar’s initial stance was that the company was not interested in making sequels, the deal was that Disney would have the option of making more Toy Story films, and an idea was mooted for a direct-to-video film.

Unkrich and the team at Pixar decided to make the sequel because they had a good idea for a second movie and thought it would be fun to revisit the characters.

However, partway into ­production, the ­executives decided to turn the film into a full-length ­theatrical release instead and Toy Story 2 had to be significantly reworked in both story and ­animation ­quality.

The problem was having to throw out months of work and start anew meant that there was a shorter amount of time to work on Toy Story 2 and on top of that, most of the animators were then busy working on A Bug’s Life.

Nevertheless, the film was completed and Toy Story 2 also turned out to be a massive success for the company and again, there was talk of yet another sequel.

Going for thirds

According to Unkrich, director John Lasseter came up to him right after Toy Story 2 and said: “What do you think about a Toy Story 3, eh? Let’s do this! You ready to go?”

However, Pixar’s contractual issues with Disney at the time kept the company from making Toy Story 3 and Pixar spent the next few years sitting on the idea that they had for the second sequel.

The problems were all cleared up when Pixar was bought by Disney and the team was immediately excited about getting down to making Toy Story 3.

However, the initial idea for that sequel was jettisoned within 20 minutes of discussion and so began three years of story ­development.

With such a long lead time, Unkrich and the rest of the team at Pixar had time to really refine the story in a way that was not possible with Toy Story 2.

“We are very hard on ourselves,” said Jason Katz, who worked as a story artist on Toy Story 2 and is head of story on the Toy Story 3 team. “We’re also very sarcastic, very opinionated and we hold ourselves to very high standards. We work and rework everything until we’re totally satisfied with the product.”

Toy Story 3 was shaped into the polished gem that it is now during the three-year story development process, with Unkrich, Katz and a relatively small team of story ­developers meeting practically from nine-to-five every day to bang out the details and to argue the finer points of the story.

For Katz, making yet another sequel to Toy Story was that much more difficult because historically, there haven’t been many third-films in a film series that have been any good.

“Name a third movie that you like — it’s impossible. There’s one exception; that’s Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, but ­waittaminute, that doesn’t count because they took one story and divided it up into three movies,” he said.

That was when Katz and the team had an epiphany of sorts. While there were a lot of good ideas to warrant making Toy Story 3, what would buy it into existence for the writers was that someone should be able to watch all three Toy Story films together and feel as if each was part of a single, cohesive story.

“The themes are the same, the moments are the same; you’re ­building off of the original. That was our goal. The new movie is part of one large theme, which is about what it would be like to be a toy and to be there for a child,” Katz explained.

In Toy Story, the theme was about potential change — what’s going to happen when Andy, the owner of the toys, gets Buzz Lightyear that can potentially replace Woody as his favourite plaything.

In Toy Story 2, the theme was again about potential change — Andy’s family is moving house and holds a garage sale. The toys have to deal with the possibility that Andy may not want them anymore.

“So in Toy Story 3, we recognised that we had to take it there — the part of the story that hasn’t been told yet — what happens when Andy goes to college (and is too old for toys),” Katz said.

Same, but different

For Bobby Podesta and Mike Venturini, supervising animators for Toy Story 3, recreating the world and characters from the first two films was an added challenge, since the majority of animators working on Toy Story 3 had never worked on the previous films.

So even before the actual ­animation work began, the ­supervising animators had to prepare the animators by making a number of resources available to them, such as making a “best-of” reel of the previous Toy Story films to give them an idea how each character should be animated.

On top of that, people involved in the first two films, such as director John Lasseter and writer Pete Docter, were interviewed on camera, talking about the design, animation and story choices they made for the films.

They even went as far as ­recording interviews with people who had worked on the second film but not the first — just to get their input on how the experience was.

“We recorded Brad Bird (director of The Incredibles) who hadn’t worked on any Toy Story film, just to give us input as a third-party looking at the films,” Podesta added.

Once that was done, the ­animators were encouraged to throw it all out of the window and make the characters their own while still respecting the originals.

Podesta and Venturini liken the process to one where an actor takes over a role made famous by another actor — the actor taking over the role has to put his own spin on the character or risk failing as an actor in his own right if he just apes what the previous actor has done.

Technically, animation has improved by leaps and bounds since the first two films. The ­animators initially found it difficult to adapt to the limited movements of the toys in Toy Story 3 and still be able to convey the emotions that human characters would be able to achieve.

And beyond the challenges of animating the toys, the team at Pixar needed to update the look of Toy Story 3, to keep it on par with modern animated films, and yet maintain the “feel” of the previous films.

“The first and second films were so groundbreaking that we ­remember them as being this rich and lush environment,” said Venturini. “But it wasn’t till we went back and studied them again that we realised they were crude films by today’s standards.

“So we had to recreate the world we remember and put in the details that we thought were already there,” he said.

In Toy Story 3, the technology of today has allowed the animators to enhance the film in three areas.

The most obvious to the viewer would be the human characters. Modern advancements in ­technology meant that the ­animators could make the humans in the film even more detailed and realistic than ever, especially the character models for Andy and his mother, which feature more detail and more realistic skin.

Pliable objects are also something new in Toy Story 3. According to Podesta and Venturini, the ­character of Lots-o-Huggin Bear was ­something the animators probably couldn’t have pulled off in the previous films but with the ­technology available now, the team was able to model a soft, squishy and cuddly toy with fur.

And finally, progressions in ­technology for lighting objects and environments has made Toy Story 3 “stunning to look at,” Podesta ­pointed out.

Related Stories: To infinity and beyond

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