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Toy Story 3 – MSN exclusive Bob Whitehill, Michael Stocker and Jason Katz interview

by Andy Gibbons

In the last of my four exclusive interviews from Pixar, Bob Whitehill (3D Stereoscopic Supervisor), Michael Stocker (Directing Animator) and Jason Katz (Story Supervisor) talk about the technical difficulties in bringing Toy Story 3 to life.

image L/R – Bob, Michael and Jason

Every Pixar film brings a new set of challenges. What was the biggest challenge for you in bringing Toy Story 3 to life?

MS – From an animation point of view, just the intimidating work that had been done in the past was kind of a daunting thing. Most of the animation crew hadn’t worked on the first two films and some of them were six years old when the first one came out so they are looking back at these amazing movies which affected their lives and now they have to perform Buzz and Woody with that voice talent and the stakes that are being played out in the movie and pay homage to the work that had been done in the past and yet add their own ideas into that and make it work seamlessly. Forget the technical stuff; that was probably the biggest challenge for most of the crew.

JK – Story wise it was just to buy its existence into the film. To watch the first two movies and know what they mean to us, not just as filmmakers but also what they mean to the world, to do something of that quality, to do something of that level and not only to be respectful of the work that’s been done in the past but also of these characters. Buzz and Woody are just as real as our children and our friends and to create something that is worthy of continuing of their story is something we took very seriously. I think it was definitely a challenge to try to create a film that excited us and that felt like it did take it to another level. You want it to feel like it’s connected to the other two films, like a worthy sequel.

What was important to say in your story?

JK – When we hit upon the idea of Andy growing up and what that means emotionally, what was important to me and what was wonderful to me was to have it so intimately connect with the other two movies and have it feel like one large piece. I feel like sequel in general can play two ways – one can be a way to reunite with the characters in a fun way but they’re just there to give you more. My favourite sequels and the goal for this was it continues the thematic lines through the film, that it’s meditation on what’s been learned through the first two movies and that the emotional lessons Woody and the other characters have gone through, you’re finding new ways to explore or expand on them. It feels like you’re building off tracks you’ve already laid – Woody is so stubborn in this movie because he learned a lot in the previous two films and he’s not going to forget what he’s learned and the experiences he’s had. I feel that’s a good sequel and that buys it into the universe.

Was it always a plan to make a trilogy of Toy Story films?

JK – No, I think John (Lasseter) is an amazing filmmaker and has an amazing scope in his brain and I think early on, at the end of Toy Story 2, he was ready and willing to carry on with these stories and he had ideas but I think a lot of this happens organically and you’re hunting for the best story possible and I think this trilogy is just part of the story telling process. I don’t think in 1993 when they were conceiving Toy Story they were thinking ‘Ok, this is where it’s going to go’. George Lucas didn’t really know what was going to happen in (Return of the) Jedi, he just said he did.


What’s it like animating characters who are 11 years old using much newer technology?

MS – It was a whole lot easier and I feel incredibly lucky. We rebuilt all the characters from scratch with all the new technology. They were faster, easier to use – from a technological point of view that was easy. There was some new stuff added in that changed the movie a little bit but animating those characters was easy, the hard part was moving Woody floppy like they did in the first two films. We had to make sure that this language that was developed for Woody was the same; we could make him run but we had to make him run like a rag doll. The new characters in the film were a lot easier ‘cos we were inventing the language for Ken, we were inventing the language for Lotso.

What was the inspiration behind Lotso?

MS – I think Lotso represents every sort of teddy bear that you had as a kid. We just wanted to make sure that he was squishy and plush. One thing we could do on this movie was that we could squish a character – we couldn’t squish a character on the first two movies, we didn’t have the technology to do that and that’s the hardest thing to do in any computer movie; to have one character grab another and have that other character squish. With Lotso, that’s what he is so when he picks up Buzz and says ‘I’m a hugger’ that’s a thing we could do on this and we really wanted to do, to make him this squishy, lovable teddy bear.


How many people work on the story and how does it evolve?

JK – You know, the story is long so we’re on the story for a good chunk of time. I started in earnest in the summer of 2006 and I didn’t wrap until this year. From a personal perspective, my son was born on May 31st 2006 and he just turned four and I just brought him to see the movie; he turned four maybe two months before I wrapped so it’s a long haul. And we have Lee (Unkrich), Michael Arndt (the screenwriter) and then a story team so I’m put in charge of anything from six to eight artists and we will slam on the story for a good two to three years to try and get it right before it really gets folded into the production pipeline.

What does 3D bring to the film and what does the future hold for Pixar as far as 3D is concerned?

BW – Well the future of Pixar as far as 3D is concerned is all of our upcoming theatrical releases will be in 3D for the foreseeable future and we’re talking about doing the library into 3D and that might come to pass in some future time. 3D for me, it just makes things feel more palpable, it just pulls you in more; it feels more engrossing, it can grab you if it’s projected properly at the right brightness. The choices we make are, I think, graceful and yet rewarding. We really try to find that line between giving the audience a reward for making that effort and spending that money to see it in 3D but on the other hand we don’t want to distract from all the brilliant work that guys like Jason and Michael have done – we don’t want to put a sheen over the work that our colleagues have done or is in any way distracting or, God forbid, creates eye fatigue or headaches or so forth so it’s finding that fine line between reward and comfort and making it pitch perfect. We go into every single shot and it’s like a visual accordion; we can make it as deep as a tunnel or we can make it as flat as can be and [we try to] find the emotional beat of that moment and dial that into the 3D and find where the screen plane will lie because that’s the easiest for the audience to view. Then we just run through the shots and see what we get out the other side and we continue to fine tune it and fine tune it until we feel that every sequence is pitch perfect in 3D.


You mentioned the brightness issue which is one of the issues affecting 3D. Do you think the technology is completely there yet?

BW – The technology is there if it’s working properly, if it’s up to spec as they say. If it’s shown properly, and a lot of theatres do a very good job, it’s going to look brilliant and bright. And actually on home monitors it looks brilliant; you’d be surprised when going from a 45 foot screen to 42 inches, how rewarding it is, it really looks great. So we should be in good shape if your theatre is doing the right job.

The climactic scene in the incinerator is very intense. Was there ever any worry that it may be too intense for younger viewers?

JK – Yeah, I think we’re always sensitive to the films we’re making and abundantly respectful to the audience who see these films so we certainly discussed it. I think the conclusion we came to was that it just felt right for the film and I think that sequence in particular, the way we would talk about that sequence and the intensity of that was that we’re not only providing a climax to Toy Story 3 but we’re also providing a climax to the trilogy and recognising that the first two films had a lot of talk about the potential of being throw away. What if I break? What if I’m replaced? This was an opportunity to take the toys to the end game and to really honestly feel ‘What’s going to happen?’, that this family that we know and love is facing a real dilemma. And it felt like any time we tried soften it and any time we tried something else, you lost that so that was the decision. You know we make these films to be these films and every parent has [to make] their decision.

How did your four year-old react?

JK – He make it through and he’s quite sensitive and he hasn’t seen many movies. But I fully expected if it gets too intense we’ll just up and leave and that’s fine. I think that, again, we respect our audiences but we’re not sitting here going ‘These are kids’ movies’.


The character of Big Baby is quite scary. Can you tell me a bit about the thinking behind him?

MS – The thing we tried to do was thinks ‘It’s a doll so let’s animate as a doll can move’. He’s a baby and he’s a doll so we tried to keep the baby stiff and only move at the head and the joints, that sort of thing. The thing he does that I guess might be bad is he picks up Mr. Potato Head and hauls him off to the box. But he’s innocent; he’s just doing what he’s told.

JK – I feel it you’re looking for a character to sum up Lee (Unkrich), then Big Baby is sort of a direct ‘Lee’. It’s this beautiful, entertaining and somewhat creepy. You know Big Baby is executed in a scary manner and if you think it about, it’s all told from the scale of the toys so from that perspective he’s huge. But Lee’s decision to have him have real baby sounds makes him feel like a heavy and he’s intimidating but there’s an honesty to him and when you see his back story and you see him in his bonnet, all of a sudden in that sequence with Daisy, he’s not that intimidating and he’s quite sweet. That’s what I love.

We’ve never seen Andy’s father in any of the film – where is he?

JK – To create these stories a character has to buy themselves into the film, there has to be a reason to have them there, not just because it’s normal to have a father and mother. There was just never really any reason story-wise to have Andy’s father. We gave Bonnie a Dad ‘cos we were like ‘Ok, we can’t not let anybody have a Dad’. But again there’s no real storytelling need. When you’re watching the film I don’t think you’re really paying any attention to the fact Andy’s Dad isn’t there.

Toy Story 3 is in cinemas now.


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