There is no doubt that the Toy Story franchise established Pixar as an animation powerhouse and gave creditability to computer animation. Director Angus MacLane expanded the franchise’s iconic four-installment legacy by exploring the reason behind why lead character Andy Davis wanted to own a Buzz Lightyear action figure. He came up with a cinematic answer in the form of
“This is meant to be a self-contained adventure,” states MacLane. “In the original Star Wars, you get this feeling that there is a larger universe outside. It was always the intention to have the film feel big, but you can’t show everything because you only have so much time and money. For me, movies where you immediately go super cosmic and there are millions of races of aliens that nobody seems to blink an eye at it, that’s hard to get your head around. The sci-fi I’ve enjoyed always had an element of relatability.”
In the fall of 2017, the idea for Lightyear was approved.
“We wanted to build into the story structure a way where Buzz [voiced by Chris Evans] could be out of step with reality so that you would have that entertaining premise from Toy Story ,” notes producer Galyn Susman. “He and his compatriots are stranded on a planet and need to develop a fuel that will help them reach hyperspeed so they can get back to Earth. Every time Buzz goes on a test flight — because he’s approaching the speed of light — time passes slowly for him. His disconnect with reality is that he’s frozen in time while everybody else on the planet is moving on with their lives. You can’t have a sci-fi action epic adventure movie if you don’t feel like you have real stakes.”
Lightyear is epic in scope.
“Angus worked hard to reduce where he could,” Susman explains. “For example, the entire second act is basically Buzz and the four companions that he’s with. Space is big. There is a whole planet that we’re portraying. We knew that there would be a ton of effects and we’re not an effects house. We had to do a lot of rethinking about how to approach effects on this film.”
Effects supervisor Bill Watral referenced anime and SpaceX footage when creating launch plumes for the film.
“You try to find this happy balance between the level of detail that feels right and makes you believe that this is the phenomenon you’re witnessing, but not so much detail that your eye goes there and you’re starting to scrutinize it in relationship to all of the other work around you,” explains Watral.
Creating reflections and refractions in space helmet visors was hellish.
“We find it to be most efficient to split our volumes out on a separate layer, do our matting in render time, and then put things back together in compositing. What we focus on are the things that give off light, and we try to find a way to get in the reflections and refractions. For something like the planet with the clouds and the deceleration rings, the ship goes through a ring and hits a blue effect that pops out like the Hawaiian Punch guy. Both of those things, the clouds on the planet and the deceleration rings, we set up so they would reflect, refract and illuminate the ship and ring so you would feel like that was really in the same world. We created a little LED set for our background render.”
“The physicality of the animation is something that was important to me and is a tremendous struggle,” notes MacLane. “It’s easy to animate things that are fun and appealing, but for me, with animation, you want each shot to say something true. The physicality of that is the truth of that moment. Comedy comes from the mundane truth of things.”
The effects had to fit within the level of stylization.
“Oftentimes the character animators will work closely with the effects team to make sure all of that stuff is working in harmony, and the emotion for both the character animation and effects are supporting each other,” MacLane continues. “We have an amazing effects team and they have a lot of effects in the film, and you’ve got to find a way to balance it. Some of the effects are small, just to connect the objects together by adding dust. It’s not entertaining for me to highlight effects to show off the prowess of the technical aspect. It’s the same with character animation. I’m not interested in character animation that draws attention to the acting. Everything is about the overall film with the intent of making the audience feel that it was awesome.”
It was important for everything to feel tactile, rather than digital.
“Angus liked the warmth that you see in the practicals of a Star Wars film, so we hired someone who had built the practicals for Star Wars prequels — John Duncan,” reveals Susman. “He built us a model spaceship and then we constructed the same spaceship from the same design digitally. Then we did a side-by-side comparison and asked, ‘Why does this one have more warmth than the traditional CG one?’ There are no straight lines. There are curves. The attention to thickness of edges. Basically, our language for the visuals of the film was to try to land more of the warmth that you get from practicals. Generally, CG feels colder than that.”
There were no distinctions made between the character design and production design.
“We didn’t want the feeling of a cartoon character with a photorealistic background. That is part of the ‘chunkification’ of the background, and the animation style is much more reserved. We’re trying to bring those two worlds together so that the characters feel like they belong.”
Color, shape and lighting were all essential storytelling elements.
“When Buzz feels happy that he is part of the Space Ranger club, he is able to belong, but then there is a portion of the film where it is taken away from him,” states production designer Tim Evatt. “How do you progress that story, where he is trying to belong again? We could do that with shape, color and light.”
The action unfolds on the planet of T’Kani Prime.
“The planet is lunar locked,” says Evatt. “One side is all in dark and the other side has an area of life, but then there is an area that is like a Goldilocks Zone and other areas are more hostile to live in.”
Evatt wanted to avoid relying upon the Pixar library, nicknamed the “backlot.”
“I knew that in order for Lightyear to have its own language, we had to make our own backlot. That was the strength of having a modeling art department; we were able to replenish our pieces and make a new movie.”
Extensive graphics were required.
“If you go onto a battleship or warship or military tank and look around, all of the decals tell information,” says Evatt. “There are caution signs. It’s all meant to give a believability that these buttons do everything. [Art director] Paul Conrad and his team were able to go in and give that life. If the decals are not there, it feels like something is missing.”
Ian Megibben and Jeremy Lasky shared cinematography duties for the film.
“I would work closely with the layout department and Jeremy Lasky, and would set up lighting kits for them while they were blocking both with characters and their camera moves,” remarks Megibben. “The first thing for us was to figure out was how far we were going to lean into the realism of how physics and light react. But at the end of the day, we veered more to the side of photorealistic, but at the same time, with an illustrative and stylized bent to it. Once we got out into outer space, we had to have more lighting cues that were localized to Buzz, such as the instrument panel that is illuminated with self-illuminated buttons.”
None of the camera shakes and lens flares were accidental.
“Chia-Chi Hu, my compositing supervisor, and I got a lens package and a camera, and went onto a sound stage to shoot different lens tests,” Megibben explains. “We talked about what we liked about different lenses and actually came up with our procedural lens flare package inside of our compositing software, Nuke.”
When Buzz flies around the sun, it was important to convey a sense of peril and heat.
“We tended to overexpose those shots from a lighting standpoint,” states Megibben. “We’re throwing away information because the exposure and the dynamic range is so crushed you can’t see Buzz clearly all of the time; that actually heightens the sense of danger.”
Watral and the effects team made a handshake deal with the lighting artists.
“We said to them, ‘We have these simulations that can be cached out to a regular-speed, half-speed, quarter-speed or a static version. You can choose any one of those versions you want on this pull-down in Katana. You pick the silhouette you want and the speed for the scale, then place it in the scene and dress it around. We originally explored ways, maybe at render time, of re-rasterizing these grids into voxels [units of graphic information in three-dimensional space] that are larger and further away while the closeup voxels are not. But in the end, what we found is if we let RenderMan do its thing. It was mostly okay as long as we had these layers split out on a separate layer and lighting had control over it. We could iterate on those independently and had enough time.”
The film pays homage to the original Space Ranger uniform worn by Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story.
“We definitely wanted the Buzz suit to reflect the toy, but we also thought of the manufacturing,” states Evatt. “If the toy was manufactured from a third-party company, it would not have gotten the details right, or maybe they were restricted in the manufacturing of the toy. NASA let us walk through to see their suits, as we wanted to add some realism to them.”
The proper silhouette and poses for the hard suit were not easy to achieve.
Animation supervisor David DeVan recalls, “We would be in pre-production and say, ‘Buzz can’t raise his arms. What are we going to do?’ We had to accept the limitations. You cheat when you have to cheat it. Part of it is accepting that he is in this big barrel thing and that’s part of how he moves. We wanted to incorporate that into the motion and feeling of things. He dives and rolls in a fight scene. Those shots are exciting because they incorporate the limitations and physicality of what’s there.”
Heightening the danger factor of antagonist Zurg (voiced by James Brolin) and his robot army did not require them to be in constant motion.
“We always talk about how Yoda doesn’t have to do anything,” reveals DeVan. “The harder you show them working, the less powerful he must be. You’re trying to make characters that have the highest status or danger do as little as possible; it will still be menacing. The camera and cutting help you.”
Sox, a feline companion robot belonging to Buzz Lightyear, has received much love from fans and critics.
“It took a little bit of time to figure out what was successful,” explains MacLane. “I’ve gravitated towards robotic characters as an animator. If it was a realistic cat, it wouldn’t be as interesting. There is something charming about that limitation. It felt like something that would be funny to see in the movie.”
Animalistic traits were taken into consideration for the character.
“We went through the gambit of: ‘How cat-like is he and does he do cat stuff?’ It gets boiled down to what’s funny,” says DeVan. “Only move a part of the toy that moves. The challenge with Sox early on was it had to have rotational joints on a complex shape, and it took some time to figure out how it was going to work.”
Much has been made of Tim Allen being replaced by Chris Evans as the voice of Buzz Lightyear.
“We knew that we needed to go with somebody different because there would be confusion as it is,” explains Susman. “This is the voice of the character in the movie. We still needed to have a strong rich voice because you can’t go in a totally different vocal direction altogether. We needed to look for somebody who could pull off that superhero thing but also have a level of sensitivity to be able to carry off the emotional moments. As soon as we defined what was needed, Chris Evans was the clear winner.”
Sustaining the emotion over a wide variety of action set pieces was the biggest challenge.
“We have a lot of action keeping you not just entertained, but also caring about the characters,” notes MacLane. “That’s always a challenge because there’s so much going on. Trying to get a cohesive, non-episodic emotional journey has been difficult. Making a movie in COVID-19 was hard, but we were fortunate to have a creative team that knew each other quite well, trusted each other and worked to support the movie. There are a lot of design aesthetics and retro tech that are going to be the film’s trademark. We have a robot cat operating a computer, which is ridiculous but charming!”