We chat to animation wizard Lee Unkrich about the challenges of directing Toy Story 3, one of the most eagerly anticipated movie follow-ups for years.
Pixar looks like the coolest place on Earth to work - is it as much fun as it looks?
Lee Unkrich: It's pretty great - at the end of the day it's still a job, but it is an enormously fun place to work. That's all about the people - I mean, the building's all that, but at the end of the day it's the people you work with.The most awesome part of it I guess is that you're working with talented people who are so passionate about the work that they do.
Do you find that people who come to work for Pixar decide they want to stay for good?
Lee Unkrich: Pretty much so, yeah. We've started giving out these statues, awards, to people - a bronze Buzz for people who've been here 10 years, and a bronze Woody for people who've been here 20 years. We had to play catch-up and had one big ceremony to honour the people who have been here 10, 20 years, and it was a very large percentage of the company... I was shocked. Some people leave, sure, here and there, but by and large once people are here, they're here to stay, because if they're smart, they know there's no other studio on the planet like Pixar, and that any experience you have anywhere else may be great - but it's not gonna be the same as working at Pixar.I think part of Pixar's success, part of the vibe, is that we're not down in Hollywood, so we get to have all the fun of making movies but we don't have to eat and breathe the film industry when we go home - down in LA you go out to eat and you can rest assured that your waiter is an actor who has their resumé in the back waiting to give it to you - that's just the way it is down there, it's an industry city.
The 3D effects in Toy Story 3 are fairly restrained, not the "arrows flying out of the screen" gimmicky type...
Lee Unkrich: Absolutely - I mean, we love 3D, we love the look of 3D and we think it's a really cool way to watch a movie, but we're not into the gimmickry of it. In my mind, as a film-maker, the moment an audience is paying attention to the 3D effects, I've failed miserably as a film-maker and a storyteller. My job is to get people completely engrossed in the story that I'm telling so that they forget they're watching a movie.You do run the risk with 3D of adding an extra layer of distraction, so we use it in a very understated way. I try to think of the screen as being a window into a world, seeing it in 3D as we experience life, and leave the gimmicks to other people.
So it's more like watching a show on stage?
Lee Unkrich: Yeah, and I think in Toy Story it's especially effective because we're telling a story from a different perspective, not a human perspective; we're down below, being a toy in a human world that towers over us.
You've been working on Toy Story 3 for four years, how do you feel now that you've come to the end of the project?
Lee Unkrich: Great - I'm very happy to be done with it. Every movie's kind of the same - I think actors who are in stage shows have the same feeling, where the work itself is really, really hard but you have to love it. We tell stories that we're passionate about - you have to be to work on it for four years - and these are just great experiences that we wouldn't trade for anything, but we're always happy when they're done because they're always such gargantuan projects that we're exhausted by the end, and you're always waiting for that light at the end of the tunnel.
The technology has moved on greatly since the first Toy Story - but do you now have to put more man hours into the movie, considering all the extra detail involved?
Lee Unkrich: I don't think so, I think it's about the same amount of effort as it's always been. I think the crews have gotten somewhat bigger over the years because we've been a little more demanding with the level of detail we want in the film, but not that much, the experience is very much the same.We do have an ever-more voracious appetite for what we want to put up on screen now, just because there is so much more potential, because the computers are so fast and we have great tools and great artists here. We're always trying to push and not repeat ourselves... and outdo ourselves.
What's the next step forward, technology-wise?
Lee Unkrich: I don't know, every film has some unique aspect to it, which forces us into research and development and try to tackle something which hasn't been done before. On this film, we have all these scenes at the trash dump at the end of the film - all that trash on the conveyor belts, that was a huge amount of work to develop all that.The other big challenge on this film was that I knew the human characters needed to look really fantastic, they had to be believable as humans. Not that they needed to look like real people, but they needed to feel like they were flesh and blood and had souls inside them - we worked very, very hard to achieve that.
The new character Lotso seems to be quite a bitter and twisted little plush toy - how do you think kids are going to look at their merchandising version after they've seen the film?
Lee Unkrich: I really don't know! That'll be interesting! [Laughs] I think Lotso's a really fun guy, you see a lot of different aspects of his character in the film, and he's a really great character. He's definitely cuddly... but in terms of after people have seen the film, I don't know - we've been doing a really good job of keeping Lotso's true character under wraps, so that will be very interesting to see!
Are you happy with the reaction to the film so far?
Lee Unkrich: Yeah, I've been thrilled with it. All I ever wanted was to make a film worthy of sitting alongside the first two, and so to have people telling me how strongly they've reacted to it, how much they've enjoyed it, just thrills me.
Interview: Mark Appleby
Photos: Walt Disney/Rex