SDCC 2009: Disney Animation Round Four – Lee Unkrich

08.19.09 8 years ago

Walt Disney/Pixar

One of the highlights of the Disney animation panel was when Lee Unkrich introduced Ken, played by Michael Keaton, from “Toy Story 3.”  Makes sense, right?  After all, Barbie was a big part of “Toy Story 2,” and evidently plays a much larger part this time out.  The Ken that Keaton plays is very touchy about his identity as a Barbie accessory instead of his own man, and it’s a great riff on a pop culture icon that’s been mercilessly satirized for decades now.

Unkrich is an active user of Twitter, constantly talking about who is recording voices, how the production’s going… basically, anything except story spoilers, and that’s fine.  I’d much rather read someone’s Twitter feed for a sense of the day-to-day life on a picture than just to try and piece together story on something I plan to see anyway.  That’s why I started the last of the four roundtables (you can look back at the Miyazaki/Lasseter article, the Ron Musker/John Clements article, and the Kirk Wise article if you want) with the following greeting:

Drew McWeeny:  You, sir, are an exceptionally good user of Twitter.

Lee Unkrich:  I wouldn’t call myself exceptionally good, but…

Drew McWeeny:  Your teases are very frustrating, but in the right way.

[more after the jump]

I’m trying to Tweet without getting fired.

Drew McWeeny:  Yes.  You walk the fine line.  Like when people have come in and done voice sessions and stuff, it’s just exciting to know what work is going on.

Yeah.  Well, you’re going to start seeing more because, as John mentioned during the panel, we have an initiative now to be much more pro-active, and he was talking about the Internet.  What he meant to say was social networking. Twitter, Facebook.  We’re going to be much more active in putting stuff out there in a really fun, casual way.

Question:  Is there going to be designs or trailers or new content or…

It could be anything.

Drew McWeeny:  In “Toy Story 2,” the musical number, that Sarah MacLaughlan song, I would argue is one of the most heart-wrenching sequences I’ve ever seen in a movie, and it just destroyed audiences when they saw it.  Just listening to what the theme of part 3 is, are we in for like 95 minutes of that basically?

Well, you’re not in for 95 minutes of it, but hopefully there will be some of that.  I mean, we always try to give the audiences a rich, full experience when they go to see a movie.  And that involves laughing and sometimes crying.

Well, just the premise for this one is… it’s a rough moment as we transition out childhood, permanently abandoning it for adulthood.

Well, you know, we’ve all… I’ve been at Pixar fifteen years and I’ve worked on all three “Toy Story” films.  When I made the first “Toy Story,” I had just gotten married.  I had no kids yet.  And over the course of making a bunch of films, I’ve had three children.  They’re growing up.  My daughter is turning thirteen next year.  John, when we made “Toy Story,” he had four really little boys that would come and climb into his lap during reviews at Pixar.  They could all fit in his lap. And now he’s sent, I think two of them or maybe three now, off to college. So, yes, it’s emotionally a really hot button for us, and it’s interesting to look at specifically the “Toy Story” world and how it mirrors what a lot of us have experienced in our own lives.  So, yeah, the emotion in the movie is not made up.  It’s going to be from a very real place.

Question:  How, in a general sense, are you building on the world wide audience and the fantastic emotional depth of the first two movies and what are you doing that’s different?  Or are you just continuing in a similar way?

Well, we’re trying to… hopefully we’ve concocted a story that’s just as surprising and funny and entertaining and emotional as what we’ve done in the past.   It’s a lot to live up to.  Those are big shoes to fill.  When we decided to make “Toy Story 2,” we looked at the sequels out there, the second films, and tried to see how many of them were any good and it’s a very, very short list.  We looked at “The Godfather Part 2”, “Empire Strikes Back”, and beyond that, the list quickly falls off a cliff.  So we knew that we were going against great odds to make a sequel that was going to be any good, but you can’t let that pressure stop you from trying.  I mean, we loved this world and these characters, and with “Toy Story 2,” we had come up with a storyline that we thought was worthy of making.  So when the film finally came out and in the press we found ourselves compared to those other films in terms of having successfully pulled it off, we were very heartened.  When we hit “Toy Story 3” eleven years later and decided to make a film, we found ourselves at that point yet again.  How many good third films are there?

Drew McWeeny: That’s a much shorter list.

A much shorter list.  Frankly, I couldn’t come up with any initially that I thought were in that list of being as good as if not better than the original.  The only thing I could land on was “Return of the King,” but I realized that wasn’t a very fair description because that’s really just part of a larger story.  For me, it was a bit of an epiphany to think about that because I realized, well, that’s what we need to do here.  We need to come up with a story that feels like part of a larger story.  So when people watch these three movies, there’s a completeness to it emotionally, and that’s what we really strived to do, and hopefully we’ve pulled it off.

Drew McWeeny:  If you’re a Pixar fan, obviously you guys hide easter eggs in your movies, like advanced looks at characters from the next project down the road.  Now the rumor is there’s a pink teddy bear in “Up” hiding under the bed in the little girl’s room as the balloons go by, and that he is a featured character in “Toy Story 3”.  Is that…?

Yes, I know that rumor is out there. (laughter)

Drew McWeeny: And that’s all the comment you can give?


Drew McWeeny: Okay.  Fair enough

Question:  In these movies, the toys are forced to play a role that they don’t really understand.  Are we going to see elements like that in the third movie where….?

You know, that’s the kind of thing that’s easy to analyze after the fact and find those similarities. With both of those films that wasn’t something we were setting out to do. I can see how they’re there, but no in 3 we’re not actively trying to explore any specific sci-fi themes or ideas. We’re just trying to tell a fun story and I’m sure the comparisons will be there.

Question: I mean visually is it going to be very similar to the first 2 films in terms of the look of the animation and the characters?

We couldn’t make a “3” that looked completely different than the first two; however, as a studio and both technologically and artistically, we’ve made great strides over the last fifteen years.  I mean, you look at “Ratatouille,” it’s just a gorgeous, gorgeous film.  And so you want to take advantage of that, but at the same time, you want the world to feel familiar, so that was one of our big challenges at the beginning, working… luckily I had Bob Pauley who was the original production designer for the first “Toy Story”.  He designed Buzz Lightyear.  He’s my production designer on this film.  We all worked very hard to have the world… and it’s a constant challenge to have the world feel familiar, but to take advantage of what we can do now artistically.  So if you look at “Toy Story” and then “Toy Story 2,” there was a big leap in the look of the film.  You know, just to be geeky, we were able to use depth of fields, which is something we couldn’t do on the first film at all.  Suddenly we could use focus and depth to augment our visuals.  We’ve made even more exponential leaps doing “3”.  We had to rebuild everything.  It’s not like these characters were sitting on a disk somewhere waiting to be used again.  We had to rebuild them completely from scratch, and along the way we were able to give them more sophistication in their look and in their controls.  But the other thing is that the animators at our studio have gotten… they’re just phenomenally talented.  They’ve gotten so much better than they were on the earlier films.  But I have to restrain them because Woody needs to behave like Woody.  Buzz needs to behave like Buzz.  I can’t have them suddenly feel like a little human, you know, come alive.  So it’s a… yeah, it’s a constant battle.  It’s a fun challenge to have it feel like “Toy Story.” but have it look really kick-ass.

Question:  Do you make a conscious decision to make films that people will watch, say, 20 years and 30 years down the road, unlike some of your compadres and people in other studios who tend to make more timely films, meaning tied into the zeitgeist at that time?  Do you think people will still watch 20 or 30 years from now?

You know, we do.  Not to make any comment to what anybody else is doing, but we’ve always felt that putting topical humor in our films, it’s not something we want to do.  One, because a lot of us think it’s an easy laugh.  It’s a cheap laugh.  It’s not a laugh that we’ve earned.  It’s not coming out of the character, which are always the more satisfying laughs I think.  But to your point, yes, we also want the films to be watchable 10, 20, 30 years from now and just as enjoyable.  So you’ll see topical things here and there.  They pop up, but they’re the exception not the rule.

Question: So what about a hot concept one-liner from “Toy Story 3”?

Well, there’s really nothing more than other than what’s out there.  You know?  Andy’s heading off to college at the beginning of the movie.  What are the toys going to do?

Drew McWeeny: In your world, your Toy Story world, the toys don’t talk in front of humans ever.

Right.  We spent a lot of time when we were making the first “Toy Story” trying to figure out what the rules were.  We put a lot of details and things into the movie that ultimately we realized didn’t matter.  The thing we finally ended up arriving at, which made sense to us, was that… especially we had to figure this out because of Buzz, because Buzz in the first movie didn’t know he was a toy, right?  So how do you have a toy behave like a toy if he doesn’t know he’s a toy?  We finally decided that there was some innate instinctive thing in toys that prevented them from being alive in front of humans, even if they wanted to.  It’s like a kill-switch.  And that’s kind of the logic of our world.

Drew McWeeny: Woody does talk to Sid at the end of Toy Story, so I guess they can do it.  Is it just a choice that they make?

I don’t know.  I guess if you look at “Toy Story” as an example, that was a rare exception.  That was something we needed to do at that moment.

Drew McWeeny:  All right. Thank you very much.


The reason for the last couple of questions is because if I see a scene in “Toy Story 3” where Woody finally breaks down and speaks to Andy, begging him not to go, I will never stop crying.  Ever.

If you want to get an advanced look at “Toy Story” and “Toy Story 2” in 3D, you might want to visit the D23 expo in September.  There’s also going to be a “Toy Story 3” presentation there and a ton of other programming along with those screenings of the first two films.  You can see full details here.

“Toy Story 3” will be in theaters June 18, 2010.

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