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Toy Story 3 – MSN exclusive Lee Unkrich and Darla K. Anderson interview

by Andy Gibbons

As regular readers of this blog will know, I recently had the chance to pop over to Pixar in California and have a chat with some of the talented folks behind the really rather good Toy Story 3 and now’s the time to share. First up is director Lee Unkrich (LU) and his producing partner Darla K. Anderson (DKA) as they talk about the pressures involved in maintaining the Toy Story legacy, the evolution of technology and how the story came about.

But before you read on, be aware that there are a few mild spoilers lurking within…..


This is the third time back to Toy Story – how much pressure was there on you not to tarnish the Toy Story legacy?

LU – Well huge, as you can imagine. Imagine if any of you were asked to director Toy Story 3 and the pressure you would feel, I mean that’s what I had. I had kind of double pressure too actually ‘cos I was also being asked to direct a new Pixar movie and any director at Pixar who’s up at bat making the next film doesn’t want to make the one that’s a dud. We’ve had this fortunate and unprecedented string of ten hits so there’s a huge amount of pressure on each director but again I had double pressure because I had that pressure but I also had the pressure to make a sequel to two of the most beloved and critically acclaimed films of all time so it was a responsibility I didn’t take at all lightly.

You’ve added a lot of new characters in this film. Was there ever a question of limit to the new characters you could create or were you given free range as far as expanding the cast list?

LU – It was all completely driven by the story we were telling. When we kicked this off, no one ever said ‘You know we need to have a bunch of new characters in this movie. Let’s make ‘em good’. It was driven 100% by the story we had to tell. We knew the toys were going to end up at day care and we did a lot of research at day care centres and there are a ton of toys there and we wanted to be truthful to that and so that meant we had to invent a lot of new toys. And then we had these scenes at Bonnie’s house and we knew she would have to have toys herself so it ended up being one of the big challenges of the movie.

DKA – When you have so many characters and they have a limited amount of screen time, you have to really reduce their performance down to its very essence so you get them immediately.

LU – It’s tricky because when you have a lot of characters and a big ensemble cast you can fall into the trap where no-one gets enough attention and you don’t have a clear though line so we worked very hard and were very disciplined to remember that this is Woody’s story that we’re telling and Woody is the most important person in the film and everyone kind of tapers from there in importance. We want everybody to be engaging, entertaining and appealing but sometimes that means a character can only have five lines in the movie but that’s enough and it’s funny.

Who’s you favourite character?

LU – In Toy Story 3? Of the new characters I have an affinity for Big Baby myself. And of the old ones, I don’t know that I have a favourite. Seriously they are like family and I think of that big crazy collection of toys as my big crazy family.

In the story there seems that a lot of attention is paid to men’s roles and women’s roles being equal – how much time is given to that?

LU – Well this is the female police sitting right next to me (Darla laughs). Seriously there are a lot of men at Pixar and we’re very conscious of wanting to have very strong female parts in the movies and it hasn’t always happened on all of the films. But we worked at it and I’m glad to hear you say that because we worked really hard to find that balance in this film between male and female characters and not only female characters but strong female characters.

DKA – We really wanted Barbie to be strong and grow with the film and come out as really smart so it was fun to play with that.


Speaking of Barbie and Ken, do you as a producer have to deal with Mattel and do they look over your shoulder asking ‘What are you going to do with our characters?’

DKA – Well as you know Barbie was in Toy Story 2 and whenever you have a character who is so important in a film we develop a trusting relationship so we found out from Mattel what was important to them and worked within their parameters but they trusted us so went for a couple of years without showing it to them and when the film was all up reels then we showed it to them, they loved it.

LU – They were involved. They didn’t give us carte blanche to do whatever we wanted but they didn’t have script approval. We pitched them our concept of Ken and why we thought he was funny and how we thought we could use him in the film. And they trusted us that we weren’t going to do anything inappropriate with the character.

When did you first speak to them about using the Ken in the movie?

LU – Well when we’re thinking of taking a pre-existing toy and using them in the movie we start thinking ‘Well what kind of personality would this toy have?’ and we thought we this is a toy who’s a guy but he’s a girls toy. How’s that going to make a toy feel? And then on top of that we knew that Ken doesn’t have equal standing with Barbie – Ken really is an accessory and he’s no more important than a pair of shoes or a purse.

DKA – And that’s something we learned from Mattel. No matter how hard they tried they could never get his price point above $9.99 over all these years.

Where did you arrive at Michael Keaton as Ken’s voice?

LU – Well we thought this is probably going to be a really insecure toy and probably really vain. He’s getting dressed up in clothes a lot. Does he enjoy that? Maybe? There are different ways we could have gone with the character but we decided to make him this very vain, vapid, insecure, shallow character. Michael Keaton’s name came to the table really the first day we started talking about Ken. We were kicking around the names of some people who could maybe pull it off and we started talking about Michael. We’d worked with him previously on Cars – he played the character Chick Hicks – and John Lasseter had an amazing time working with him, he’s really funny, really inventive, very improvisational and so thankfully when we approached him to do Ken he was on board. I think he’s hilarious and a lot of the stuff that’s funny in the movie is stuff that he just kind of improvised in the moment in the recording studio.

The production notes that come with the film say that Toy Story 3 is all about change. How has Pixar changed since the last Toy Story and are there any parallels between the film and the studio?

DKA – Well we’ve all grown up. It’s been eleven years since the last Toy Story film and we’ve gotten married, had kids, we’ve lost some friends along the way and I think some of those parallels have naturally and unconsciously made their way into the film. And Pixar is constantly changing in the best way because we have a constant influx of new energy and new hires and new artists coming in.

LU – A lot of us were in our mid-twenties when we made Toy Story and now I’m 42, John’s even older.

DKA – I’m 21 (laughs)

LU – Are we more mature? I don’t think we take ourselves any more seriously but we think about life differently that we did when we were in our mid-twenties and I think that naturally, when an artist is creating a piece or making a movie, a lot of that ends up in the film so I think the Pixar films have got more mature as they’ve gone on.

How has the technology changed over the same period?

LU – Not a lot is the same as we used way back when. Everything is kind of done differently. You know we’re talking about 15 years of software development that’s gone on since then and now so the fundamentals are very much the same but the software has changed and the computers have got a lot faster too. Just to give you an example, on Toy Story 3 rendering a single, average frame takes hours and hours but when we resurrected the old files from Toy Story and Toy Story 2 and re-rendered them for the 3D versions on our modern computers, the computers are now so fast that the rendering happened almost in real time.

What was the philosophy going into the 3D on this film?

LU – We really didn’t think about it a lot. I didn’t want the fact that we were making a 3D film to inform my decisions as a filmmaker. I just wanted to make a good movie so no matter how people are watching it because people are going to see this in 3D but they are also going to see it in 2D and I just wanted to tell a good story. We learned a lot when we re-did Toy Story and Toy Story 2 in 3D. Those films weren’t designed to be released stereoscopically in 3D but they look fantastic and I just think that peaks for the fact that we were trying to make films that were highly cinematic and staged in depth and did things a lot differently than hand drawn animation was doing at the time.

DKA – And on both of those films Lee was the director of photography in essence.

LU – So since I had done all that on those films and they looked great in 3D I thought ‘Well I just need to make this like I would make any other film’ and trust the process. The 3D team that’s lead by Bob Whitehill is fantastic and he took my work and made it look really, really great and I didn’t really have to be too involved with the process.

Seeing as Toy Story is such a flagship brand for Pixar, will there more from the franchise or has Toy Story 3 bought things to an end?

LU – Well we did announce just last week that we’re making a short, a new short film using Toy Story characters so we want to keep the characters alive. But in the case of Toy Story 3, I very specifically wanted to end the story of these toys and their relationship with Andy. I wanted to tell a complete story, almost as if all three films were part of one grand story we were telling and I think we’ve wrapped it up really nicely. That being said, I think people love the characters and will want to see them doing something, whether it’s short films or another movie someday. We don’t know, we don’t have any plans for that.

DKA – We really just concentrated on this film in the context of a trilogy and also if you hadn’t seen the other two films, it would be a complete movie going experience in its own right.


Is there ever any chance of any characters from one Pixar film crossing over into another franchise?

DKA – Probably not. We just focus on the story and whatever serves the story so if there are elements that are similar in other stories, it just so happened to be that it served the current story as best it could. We have sneaks of other characters as a fun inside thing that we’ve done.

LU – Yeah, anyone’s whose watched our films will know that we have lots of little inside jokes and references to other movies. Lotso (Huggin’ Bear) appeared in Up and we’ve started a little tradition of giving a little sneak peak of a character in our next film in the current one so there is a character from Cars 2 that makes an appearance somewhere in Toy Story 3.

But you didn’t have any toys from the previous Pixar films in the junkyard scene? That would be bad…

LU – That would be really sad.

DKA – No, there are lots of pizza boxes.

LU – But Buzz has Buy And Large brand batteries in his back which is kind of a nod to where the world is heading with Buy And Large leading to the world of Wall-E so we like doing little fun things like that.

As a director, were you there at the beginning of the story? Did you decide that Andy was going to college and that the toys were going to day care?

LU – At the very beginning of this John (Lasseter) asked me to direct the movie and within a couple of weeks we went on an offsite, me and John and Andrew (Stanton) and Darla and Pete (Docter) and a few other folks who has come up with the original Toy Story. And we spent two days hashing out the beginnings of this movie and it was at that two day offsite we decided that Andy was going to be grown up and heading off to college and that the toys were going to end up at day care and a few other details from the movie – we started talking about Lotso at that meeting. So we got a lot of work done in those two and half days but after that it was two and half years of story development after that to flesh out all the details and really work out the story.

DKA – The place that we went to was the same place that we went to when we created Toy Story, it was out brainstorming place for Toy Story.

LU – It’s called Poet’s Loft in Tomales Bay.

Toy Story 3 is in cinemas from July 19th.


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