Toy Story 3's creators tried to come up with the most innocent toy they could to play the movie's bad guy. The result? The seemingly lovable bear Lots-O'-Huggin' (voiced by Ned Beatty), who smells like strawberries and runs Sunnyside Daycare Center like a prison.
Toy Story 3's creators tried to come up with the most innocent toy they could to play the movie's bad guy. The result? The seemingly lovable bear Lots-O'-Huggin' (voiced by Ned Beatty), who smells like strawberries and runs Sunnyside Daycare Center like a prison. Disney/Pixar
In the early 1990s, Pixar's animators had a hard time creating lifelike representations of organic material like water, hair and animal fur on their computer screens. So they focused on designing a movie based around items they knew they could render: toys.
"Things that were shiny or plastic or hard — like wood or plastic or metal — those were pretty easy to make. So it's no accident that our first film was about toys made out of plastic and wood and metal," explains Lee Unkrich, a member of Pixar's creative team since 1994. Unkrich, who edited Toy Story, co-directed Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., and Finding Nemo and most recently directed Toy Story 3, says Pixar's animators embraced the computational limitations of their early projects.
"We made the best film that we could [with the original Toy Story] but at the same time, even though it was so groundbreaking and visually so stunning and unlike anything anyone had ever seen before — we always used to joke that we knew [the original] Toy Story was going to be the ugliest movie we'd ever make," Unkrich says.
In the 15 years since Toy Story came out, Pixar has produced 10 more animated features. Four of their films have cracked the top 50 highest-grossing films of all time, and five have won the Academy Award for Best Animated Film. And CGI animation and rendering programs have improved dramatically — allowing Pixar's animators to create visual effects that appear entirely lifelike and organic onscreen.
Both Unkrich and Toy Story 3's screenwriter Michael Arndt join Terry Gross for a wide-ranging discussion about the Toy Story trilogy, which will be released on DVD Nov. 2.
Toys from the first two movies, like Jessie and Buzz Lightyear, are back for the third installment of Toy Story.
Toys from the first two movies, like Jessie and Buzz Lightyear, are back for the third installment of Toy Story. Disney/Pixar
"Ultimately, we wanted to treat this third film like the completion of a saga, as if we had been telling one grand story of the course of the three films," Unkrich says. "So what we arrived at was that it was vital to have Andy grown up and be at that transition where the toys were no longer being needed or wanted or loved."
In the third film, Andy is now a teenager, preparing to leave home and go to college, and his mother tells him he must decide what to do with his childhood toys: take them to college, put them in the attic or throw them out in the garbage. After a series of mishaps, Andy's toys end up in a completely different location — Sunnyside Daycare Center, where a huggable bear named Lotso, voiced by Ned Beatty, calls the shots. (And runs the place more or less like a prison.)
Though the film deals with big themes like death, loss and abandonment, the initial idea for the toys accidentally winding up at Sunnyside, Unkrich says, came from a mistake he made during a move: He accidentally threw out all of his wife's childhood toys.
Courtesy of Pixar
Lee Unkrich was part of the Pixar team that won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature for Finding Nemo in 2003.
Lee Unkrich was part of the Pixar team that won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature for Finding Nemo in 2003. Courtesy of Pixar
"About a month after we moved, she asked me if I had seen her beloved stuffed animals, and I said, 'What box were they in?' And she said, 'They weren't in a box. They were in a garbage bag.' And my blood instantly ran ice cold," he says. "I immediately realized what had happened: I had thrown all of her stuffed animals away in the Dumpster behind our building. I feel terrible to this day that that happened, but I do hope that by immortalizing that moment in the movie, that [her stuffed animals] have somehow been immortalized themselves."
Unkrich started at Pixar in 1994 as a film editor. He has worked on eight animated features, including A Bug's Life, Toy Story 2, Ratatouille and Finding Nemo.
Arndt's first screenplay, Little Miss Sunshine, won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
On speaking to adults and kids at the same time
Michael Arndt: "Your first concern when you take this over is you're just trying to make it all fit together on a basic narrative level. ... We did 60 different drafts of the scene before we got to the final version. ... It was really only after we set up the narrative structure of [toys realizing they're going to serve their careers being played with by children and then 'retire' to the attic] that we realized how emotional it was, and how much it played into people's fears of obsolescence. ... I think everybody feels the way these toys feel — like they've given themselves over to this child, Andy, and given him 100 percent and played with him and given him so much of their lives, and now he's going away. And they don't [really] want to go with him to college; what they really want is acknowledgment, and I think that's a universal thing. I think a lot of people go through life feeling like they work really hard and they're doing a good job and they just want some sort of emotional acknowledgment."
On writing animated features vs. nonanimated features
Arndt: "You can't make any distinction between a live-action character and an animated character. They're all real characters. To me, Buzz Lightyear is as real as Olive Hoover [from Little Miss Sunshine] is. You want to take their problems as seriously as they take them themselves, and you want to be as emotionally honest and intelligent about what they're going through as you can possibly be. But it does put you in these sort of odd situations when you're a writer and suddenly you have to think, 'OK. I'm a little rag doll and I've just been put into a knapsack,' or, 'I'm Mr. Potato Head and I've just lost my parts. How do I feel about that?' There were times when I thought it was funny to be writing scenes like that, but you have to take it seriously. You have to put yourself in that position and think, 'What would I do if I were in that situation?' "
Arndt: "The great thing about animation is you get to see these actors record their lines ... and that does inform how you think and write about the characters. So you can add parts of Tom Hanks' personality or Tim Allen's personality or Don Rickles' personality to the characters. It creates this feedback loop in animation. You get to go watch the actors perform, and then you can go back and write a little bit more incorporating what they've done and then you can record them again."
On writing for toys
Arndt: "When we're in a story meeting and we're trying to figure this stuff out, we usually go to the human analogue. We don't talk about, 'Well, if I were a rag doll,' or, 'If I were a plastic dinosaur,' because you want to get to the emotional truth of this story, and you want to get to the emotional truth of these characters. So you say 'OK. Woody: He's a little bit like a helicopter mom. He's a little bit like a mom who can't let go of her child.' So we always try and figure out the human equivalent of these characters."
Lee Unkrich: "But then the fun thing is, once we have that figured out, we try to figure out ways to make their issues particularly a toy's issue. I mean, Ken [of Ken and Barbie] was a great [example], and we made endless fun of Ken. Ken is a whipping boy. We thought, 'What is it like to be a guy who is a girl's toy?' You're a guy, but you're only played with by little girls. And further, he's just an accessory for Barbie. He doesn't carry equal weight to Barbie. He's really no more important than a pair of shoes or a purse or a belt to her, and we knew that he would have to have a complex."
Arndt: "You go, 'What are going to be the issues of a character like Ken?' What's going to be the stuff that keeps him awake at night? So immediately, you go, 'Maybe he's a bit insecure about the fact that really he's a girl's toy. Maybe he's in denial of that. And then this whole sort of richness opens up."