Derek Adams talks to Lee Unkrich about what it was like making Toy Story 3
Pixar’s frolicsome sequel Toy Story 3 is a rib-tickling, adult-orientated rollercoaster of emotions as good as anything the animated studio has produced. It also marks the first solo directing credit for Cleveland-born Pixar veteran Lee Unkrich. Previously, he honed his filmmaking skills on some of the finest family hits of the last decade, as the co-director of Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc and Finding Nemo.
Did you worry that young audiences might not relate to the idea of a child fleeing their parents’ nest? No, we never worried about that. The story is universally appealing, I think everyone can relate to it in their own way. I think the youngest kids who maybe don’t have a notion of empty nesters or the kid leaving home for college can relate to the toys. The toys don’t know what the future holds and they want Andy to love them. The love of a ‘parent’ [Andy] and the idea that it’s going to come to an end, the toys fretting about what’s going to happen, I think that’s definitely an idea kids can relate to.
The film uses 3D subtly. Are you a fan of the current 3D wave? I don’t like 3D movies that have things popping out of the screen. Firstly, I find it straining on my eyes and, more importantly, it distracts me from the movie. I feel like my job as a storyteller and director is to create an experience where the audience forgets they’re in a cinema and can get lost in the story. Things popping out of the screen call attention to the artifice of what you’re doing, so I use 3D as more of a window into a world behind the screen.
This film introduces some new toys. How did you decide on those? One of the best parts of making these films is coming up with the toys. We’ve always tried to find a mix of new toys that we’ve invented, like Woody and Buzz, but then also toys we remember from our childhoods, like Ken or the Chatter telephone. The Chatter telephone was a toy I wanted to have in the film because I remembered having one of those. For the day care centre we needed to create a lot of pre-school toys and the Chatter telephone is the classic pre-school toy. Then the fun is figuring out what kind of personality it’s going to have. We knew we were making this prison-break sequence and we watched a lot of prison movies and every single one of them seemed to have the old guy who’s been in jail for a long time and knows his way around the place. We decided to make him the telephone.
Does the voice talent have any influence over the script and animation? The actors don’t really have any influence over the script – we pretty much come to them with what we’ve written. Some of the actors like to improvise a little like Michael Keaton [voice of Ken]; in his case he’d take a line that we had written and play with it a bit. Very often what he improvised ended up in the movie just because it was so funny. However, the actors definitely have an influence on the animation because we record all the voices before we animate any frames. So the animators are listening to the performances and that’s their springboard to create the physical performance.
Do you prefer to have your voice cast working together or recorded separately? It’s always individuals. Every once in a while we’ll get a couple of actors together: Tom Hanks and Tim Allen would do five or six recording sessions over the course of a few years. One of my challenges is to get performances from them that feel spontaneous, that feel like they’re talking to somebody else. I’m often acting with them myself and then I have to take all the different voices and combine them in the editing room in a way that makes it feel like they’re really in the room together.
What’s coming up next? Our next feature is Cars 2, which is coming out in about a year. One of the fun things with Cars 2 is that we’re making a really funny short film using the Toy Story characters. Even though we don’t have any plans to make a Toy Story 4 we want to keep the characters alive. Beyond that, the next film after Cars 2 is called Brave; it’s an original film that’s being directed by our first female director at the studio, Brenda Chapman.