Lee Unkrich on Toy Story 3 | Interview

Toy Story 3 director Lee Unkrich talks to Time Out.
Lee Unkrich
By Derek Adams |
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Toy Story 3’ 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’, and the editor of the first ‘Toy Story’ and ‘A Bug's Life'.

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.’

The film bears some resemblance to ‘The Brave Little Toaster’, a film John Lasseter once worked on. Was it an inspiration?
‘To be honest it wasn’t at all. We knew John had been a part of that film early on but in coming up with this story it was a complete coincidence that both of those films deal with the idea of a kid growing up. In our case, we just did what we thought was right for our movie and characters.’

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 setting the film at 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.’

And what about the new Spanish-speaking Buzz?
In terms of Spanish Buzz we knew that we were going to have Buzz switched into a mode where he wasn’t acting like himself, where he was going to become a prison guard, and we had to get him back out of that in a fun way. So we were brainstorming one day and somebody came up with the notion of him accidentally getting into a mode where he could only speak Spanish. We ran with that idea and decided to have his whole physicality and personality changed into a Latin lover.’

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.’

Aside from co-writing the story, what other role did ‘Toy Story’ director John Lasseter perform?
‘While he very much would have liked to have directed “Toy Story 3”, he just couldn’t because of his new job duties as head of Disney and Pixar animation. But he did tear himself away and was part of the small team which came up with the story. Beyond that, I checked in with John every few months during the making of the film and kept him in the loop.’

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.'

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