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October 2014
Issue: July 1, 2010

DIRECTOR'S CHAIR: LEE UNKRICH DISCUSSES 'TOY STORY 3'

By: Iain Blair
HOLLYWOOD — Hard to believe but it’s been 11 long years since Woody, Buzz, Mr. Potato Head and the rest of the gang hit the theaters in Toy Story 2. In Disney/Pixar’s Toy Story 3, the toys’ owner, Andy, is going off to college and the toys have been donated to a daycare center where they meet Ken, Lotso-Huggin’ Bear and some other new toys.

Meanwhile, the franchise continues to dazzle the eyes while exploring weighty themes of change and growing up.

Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, director Lee Unkrich (co-director of Toy Story 2 and Finding Nemo) talks about making the film, the challenges involved and the CG tools  that made it all possible.

POST: You’ve been on Toy Story since editing the first one back in 1995. Do you feel like you’ve also grown up with the project?
LEE UNKRICH: “Yes, definitely. I was in my mid-20s when I edited the first one. I’m 42 now, and I’ve got kids. All that percolated into this one.”

POST: What sort of film did you set out to make, and what were the challenges you faced in producing an animated film of this scale?
UNKRICH: “The first challenge was to make a film worthy of the other two, which are very beloved — we didn’t want to disappoint anyone. I think it was important to set it this many years after the last one, with Andy heading off to college, as that put the toys in a real crisis.
“From a design standpoint, I really wanted to take advantage of the current state of technology and artistry. We’re able to make really beautiful films now, as evidenced by Ratatouille and Up, and I wanted this to look just as great, but it had to still feel like Toy Story. So we spent a lot of time on how to achieve that and make it as visually rich as possible.”

POST: When did you decide to do it in 3D,  and how did that affect the whole approach?
UNKRICH: “We knew from the get-go it’d be in 3D. We released Up in 3D, and the plan is for all our films now to be released in 3D, but that choice didn’t affect my filmmaking — nor Pete Docter’s on Up.
“In both cases we just tried to make great films and applied the same vigorous visual style to them that we would whether it’s 2D or 3D. We’re not interested in 3D gimmickry and stuff flying out of the screen. For us, it’s just a window into a dimensional world; we never want the 3D aspect of it to take away or overshadow the story in any way.”

POST: Don’t you animate in 2D and then have to re-render for 3D?
UNKRICH: “Yes, we don’t make it in 3D. We make it in 2D and then we have a whole team that creates the 3D version. For live-action 3D, you have to shoot with 3D rigs on the set and make a lot of choices on the set. We’re so lucky since our whole world is virtual and malleable. So it’s just a matter of setting up a second camera on the same set for the 3D, and while there are variables that need to be tweaked, it’s not much more complicated than that. That’s why we could resurrect the data and create 3D versions of the first two Toy Story films that we released last year, even though we never had any intention of doing them in 3D.”

POST: Obviously, this all required a very complicated digital pipeline. Can you describe how that worked?
UNKRICH: “It all began with working very closely with Michael Arndt, our screenwriter. In animation, the screenplay is just the jumping off point, and you do a lot of story development using story reels. I have a whole story department of guys who draw very elaborate storyboards, not as previs, but as a rough draft.
“Then we edit those together with temp music and dialogue on the Avid [Media Composer] to create a story reel. That gives us a rough version we can watch, and we spent two-and-a-half years writing and rewriting and re-storyboarding it until we were happy with it. At the same time, we have a lot of very talented artists and production designers designing the world and look of the film, and all the different sets.”

POST: Is it tricky meshing the two processes?
UNKRICH: “Yes, as you don’t want to over-design something if you’re not sure it’s going to be in the final film. Since our story process is so iterative, over two years and more, you run a lot of risks that you’re expending creative effort for nothing. Luckily on this, it was a very efficient process and we didn’t throw out any major ideas.
“So we’d design all the characters and colors and textures and costumes and sets and props, and once all those models are built in the computer and articulated — and the technical directors put all the controls into the models for the animators to use — and after we’ve recorded the final actors’ voices with Tom Hanks and Tim Allen and the rest of the cast, all the animators finally start their work. That’s when the film comes to life. We had about 80 animators and they did over 90 minutes of animation.”

POST: In a sense, it seems like one big post process, with the editor at the center?
UNKRICH: “It kind of is in that the editor is one of the first on the crew and is one of the very last to leave. That’s true of live action too, but the editor in an animated film is much more deeply and creatively involved in the initial story development.”

POST: Tell us about the editing process.
UNKRICH: “The film is edited by Ken Schretzmann, with whom I’d worked with first when I co-directed Monsters, Inc. He went on to edit Cars with John Lasseter, and I asked him to do this. I’ve continued to edit myself on every film from the start, and I think of myself first and foremost as an editor. Even though I did direct this, ever since USC film school I’ve seen myself as an editor. That’s my true passion, and I love the process.
“In live action, the editor is reactive. He’s given all the footage from the set and has to swim through it and make sense of it all and bring out the best. In animation, there’s some of that too, but there’s also a lot of work that happens before we even create the images. The editor’s very involved in helping to shape the structure and pacing of the film before we do the animation, and because the animation’s so expensive and time consuming we need to be sure we know exactly what we need for every single frame before we even start animating.”

POST: All the technology has progressed a great deal since you did the first Toy Story.
UNKRICH: “There have been huge advances. The first Toy Story was 1995, and I’ve used the Avid since way before that. I was the assistant editor on Silk Stalkings, the first network TV show to cut on Avid [Media Composer], so over the past two decades I’ve seen the full gamut of change in terms of nonlinear editing. But the basic technology hasn’t changed that much, although it’s changed to accommodate new formats such as HD and 3D now, but at its core, the system’s very similar to what it was 20 years ago.
“The big change is in storage capability. There were limitations back then, since we could only listen to a few soundtracks at a time, now that’s all changed for the better. The other huge change is that computers are now so much faster, and that’s allowed us to have much more dense visual detail and do far more complicated images. In fact, if you compare scenes from the first and third Toy Story films, the original almost looks like a videogame. We always used to joke back then that, ‘This is the ugliest film we’ll ever make,’ since we knew all the technology would only get better, and it has. Toy Story 3 is really gorgeous visually, although at the same time we hope people feel it fits into the design world of the first two films.”

POST: Is most of the technology you use proprietary?
UNKRICH: “Mostly. Our animation software package MENV was developed years and years ago for John Lasseter to animate his Pixar short films, and over time it’s become very complicated software. All our lighting tools, animation and rendering tools are proprietary. The tools we use that aren’t are things like Photoshop and After Effects. We use Maya quite a lot now for previs, so we use a lot of off-the-shelf software when it’s the smartest thing to do, but when it comes down to the heavy lifting of actually making our films we’ve developed the software that does exactly what we want and which gives us the control we need.”

POST: This will also be out in IMAX 3D. Does that entail anything different in terms of post?
UNKRICH: “No, as we’re keeping the same aspect ratio. They have their own specific needs for their projection and screens, so I think there’s some degree of image processing that’s going on, but other than that they’re just showing our film.”

POST: How important is the music and all the sound effects?
UNKRICH: “Extremely important, as with any film. When we do our story reels we do very expensive soundtracks using library sound effects or our own that we record, coupled with temp music.
“I try to use as much Randy Newman music as possible, as we knew he’d be the composer, and most of the temp soundtrack was created using his music, which really helped him when it came time to actually spot the music. The same holds true for the sound design. We did all the temp work in-house at Pixar; all the sound design and our final mix was done at Skywalker Ranch.”[See our Audio for Animation feature on page 32 for more on Skywalker and Toy Story 3.]

POST: It seems as if Hollywood has gone 3D-crazy now?
UNKRICH: “Yes, and it seems to be from a marketing and bottom-line perspective. From an artistic perspective, Pixar has always loved 3D, and we’ve done a lot of tests and experimenting over the years. The problem was always exhibition, and digital cinema and 3D exhibition finally got things moving.”

POST: What’s next? Are you going to do number four?
UNKRICH: “It’s very flattering that people want another one. With this one, it was very important to me that we didn’t make a film that just felt like another sequel. I wanted it to be of a piece with the first two, and it brings that whole story to a close. Is there a new story out there? We’ll have to wait and see.”