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"Toy Story 3" Virtual Roundtable – Director Lee Unkrich & Producer Darla K. Anderson

by on November 2, 2010

Darla AndersonIn the run-up to the release of Toy Story 3 on DVD and Blu-ray disc, Toonzone News was able to sit in on a virtual roundtable with the movie’s director Lee Unkrich and producer Darla K. Anderson. Both are longtime veterans of Pixar Animation Studios, with Anderson joining the studio in 1993 and Unkrich joining in 1994, and have credits on movies stretching all the way back to the first Toy Story film. Unkrich co-directed Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc., and Finding Nemo, and served as editor for Cars and Ratatouille. Anderson’s producer credits include A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc., and Cars.

Questions asked by Toonzone News are marked. Note that this roundtable interview contains spoilers for the movie.

Q: I am curious for both Lee and Darla…how long did Toy Story 3 take to make?

DARLA ANDERSON: Four years, three months. People sometimes think that’s a really long time, but for us, that’s just barely enough time. It takes a long time to create these believable worlds and characters. The fact that these characters have back stories and are so real to people doesn’t come easily.

LEE UNKRICH: We spent just over four years creating Toy Story 3. Two-and-a-half years of that was devoted to working on the story, as well as the design of the film.

Q: Where did you get your inspiration to make Toy Story 3?

DARLA ANDERSON: The creators of the first two films – John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, Lee Unkrich, I and some others – went to the same cabin where we cooked up the first Toy Story. Within the two-day retreat we came up with the major story points, including the ending, and then spent four long years fleshing it out. All of us have grown up a lot ourselves in the last 15 years at Pixar, and I think some of that life experience showed up in the film. When we decided to make Andy almost grown up and going off to college, it was something that many of us are experiencing with our own kids. Also, thinking of this film as a third installment in a trilogy and bringing it to a lovely conclusion helped inspire our storytelling.

Q: Darla, do you think growing up in Glendale, CA and being so close to Hollywood had anything to do with becoming a producer?

DARLA ANDERSON: Well probably. I was around entertainment a lot, growing up near the industry, but mostly I fell in love with films and filmmaking. When I saw my first images of computer animation, it was love at first sight. I was immediately attracted to what I thought was the best studio doing the most exciting things, which was Pixar. Certainly being around LA, growing up and seeing films being made all over the city was exciting, and I definitely wanted to be a part of it.

Lee UnkrichQ: Lee, what led you into the field of directing?

LEE UNKRICH: I’ve always loved movies, and grew up watching lots of films. My mother is also a film fan, and she exposed me to many different kinds of films when I was growing up. When I was twelve, I saw Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining, and it ignited a passion for filmmaking that has never abated. I went to the USC School of Cinema to study film, and although I wanted to direct, I ended up specializing in film editing. It was my work in editing that brought me to Pixar, which ultimately gave me the opportunity to start directing again.

Q: Directing a sequel while the original director is looking over your shoulder can be daunting. How involved was John Lasseter during Toy Story 3‘s development?

LEE UNKRICH: It’s true, when John first asked me to direct Toy Story 3 I was simultaneously flattered and intimidated. Luckily, though, I’ve worked closely with John since the very first Toy Story. We very much made Toy Story and Toy Story 2 together. John trusted me to take the reins of Toy Story 3, and made it clear from the very beginning that he wanted this to be my film. That being said, John was involved in the film and contributed creatively throughout the four years of production.

Q: Making a second sequel to Toy Story after all these years must have been a rather big decision. You must have felt some pressure, right? What convinced you to commit to Toy Story 3 in the end?

LEE UNKRICH: It was a HUGE amount of pressure, not only to be making a new Pixar film after an unbroken string of ten hits, but also to make a sequel to two of the most beloved and critically-acclaimed films of all time. However, we love Woody and Buzz and the rest of the gang, and we felt that there was more story to tell. We would never have made another sequel if we didn’t feel like we had a story worth telling. Once we came up with the idea of Andy being grown up, and the toys having to face, head-on, their own obsolescence, we knew we had to make the film. It just had too much rich, emotional potential to pass up.

Q: Lee, you were co-directing for a long time before having the chance of directing your film. Can you tell us how new talent is trained at Pixar, so that they have the possibility one day to direct a feature film?

LEE UNKRICH: Pixar is an amazing place, filled with people from many different backgrounds. I originally came to Pixar from a live-action background, and was one of the few in the company who had worked in that field. I ended up bringing a vital live-action sensibility to the films we were creating and thus, became an indispensable part of the core team. John Lasseter made it clear to me that he wanted me to eventually direct at Pixar. After being given the opportunity to co-direct many films, he finally asked me to direct Toy Story 3 solo. That was my personal path, but the directors at the studio have each had their own individual path. I wouldn’t say folks are groomed to direct, but rather, their singular voices as filmmakers are recognized and nurtured.

Toys Being DonatedQ: What were Michael Arndt’s contributions to Toy Story 3? What was the rationale for bringing him on board?

LEE UNKRICH: I started working with Michael prior to beginning work on Toy Story 3. His film, Little Miss Sunshine, had not yet come out. He proved to be a fantastic collaborator and a brilliant story mind. When John Lasseter asked me to direct Toy Story 3, the first person I turned to was Michael. I asked him to write the screenplay, and thankfully, he accepted. It’s been wonderful, not only having him contribute to Toy Story 3, but also to watch his own personal journey from struggling writer to Academy Award-winning screenwriter. At the beginning of Toy Story 3, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, and I came up with the bare bones beginnings of the story, and then Michael ran full-time with fleshing out the story and helping to bring it to life.

Q: Was there a point that you felt yourself going off-track with this film, and how did you get back on?

LEE UNKRICH: Every single day, especially in the early days. Storytelling is a very messy process, and you often find yourselves heading down blind alleys. However, even a blind alley can yield a little idea or an entertaining moment that you never would have come up with if you hadn’t ventured down that blind alley. Luckily, I’m surrounded by amazing storytellers, and we all help each other find our way through the forest. I’ve been on films that had more troubles than Toy Story 3. It went more smoothly than most. However, that’s not to say it wasn’t difficult.

TOONZONE NEWS: The “Day Care as Toy’s Paradise” was one of the earliest ideas for the first movie. When did you get the idea to turn the paradise into the harsher place the toys see?

LEE UNKRICH: We came up with that idea right away. “Day care as paradise” seemed like the perfect solution to all of the toys’ troubles, but if it actually had been, we wouldn’t have a movie, right? We had to pull the carpet out from under them. We started to realize that day cares were like prisons in a lot of ways, both visually and philosophically, and once we came to that realization, we embraced it and ran with it. We had great fun finding all the parallels between the two.

Q: Pixar films have added progressively darker elements over the past several years. Has this been a planned thing to push the boundaries of what you can get away with in an animated film?

LEE UNKRICH: I wouldn’t say that our films are getting darker, but I would say that we have been exploring more mature ideas. That’s not because of any grand plan. I think it’s because we are all growing up and living life and raising families and we have started to become interested in different things. We do strive, however to balance the heavier emotion with great comedy and entertainment. I think the best films are the films that allow us to feel a lot of different feelings, whether they be laughter or sadness or tension. We like the films to be very well rounded.

Toy Story 3 Art ReviewQ: Years ago, technological advances allowed us to see major changes or advances between one movie and the next, watching more and more realistic and credible elements. Have we already reached the top level in terms of visuals? What have been the main challenges in this direction with Toy Story 3?

LEE UNKRICH: It’s true that for a long time, we were limited in the stories that we could tell by the state of technology. With each new film we created, we had to overcome technological limitations to put the stories we wanted to tell up on screen. After sixteen years of making our movies, we’ve now gotten to the point where just about anything that we can dream up, we can now realize on screen. These are very exciting times. As far as Toy Story 3 is concerned, the biggest breakthroughs we made were in the depiction of the human characters, we spent a great deal of time making the humans as believable and appealing as possible. I knew that the final scene of the film hinged on the performances of humans, and thus, we had to make them great.

DARLA ANDERSON: It’s true that we’ve accomplished so much in our field and conquered many of the areas that were previously impossible for us. It’s no coincidence that the first Toy Story used plastic toys as subject matter, because that was the easiest thing for the computers to handle back in the day. But still on Toy Story 3, we accomplished some things we hadn’t done before. I’m very proud of the humans in this film. It was critical that they be appealing and believable because we always knew what the ending would be and so the characters needed to be able to act beautifully with great nuance.

I wouldn’t say that we’ve reached the top level in terms of visuals. I think it’s very interesting to see what various filmmakers do with these tools, and there’s no limit to the imagination. Toy Story 3‘s particular challenges also had to do with the multiple characters in both the human and toy world, lots of kids, lots of toys, all wearing clothes that are very difficult for the computer to compute.

Q: How have the characters developed from the original film? How are they the same, how are they different?

LEE UNKRICH: That’s always one of the challenges in doing a sequel — finding new ways for the characters to grow, new things for them to learn. On one hand, you want them to remain their entertaining selves, and most of the time, especially with the side characters, they stay the same. With a character like Woody, however, there needs to be growth. Woody has always been fiercely devoted to Andy, and in this film, that faith is really tested. Woody needs to learn how to let go, how to say goodbye, and it’s a very difficult journey for him.

Q: How did you decide on which of Andy’s toys got broken or lost?

LEE UNKRICH: We decided that any of the toys that were not part of the core gang of toys (Woody, Buzz, Potato Heads, etc.) would be unfortunately left behind. Andy is now 17, and it just didn’t seem realistic that all the toys would still be around. It was hard for us to say goodbye to many of the characters, but we felt it was the right thing to do for the story that we were telling.

Toy Story 3 castTOONZONE NEWS: Did you consider dropping Slinky Dog from the movies due to Jim Varney’s passing?

LEE UNKRICH: When Jim passed away right after we made Toy Story 2; I had momentary thoughts about whether we should retire the character. However, John Lasseter pointed out to me that when the original voice of Mickey Mouse died, they didn’t retire Mickey Mouse. The actors are a huge part of creating the characters in the first place, but once they’ve been created, the characters take on a life of their own and live beyond the original creators. We will forever be thankful to Jim for his contribution to Slinky Dog, and are thankful that the world has wanted to see the character live on.

DARLA ANDERSON: Yes, we did consider dropping Slinky out of respect for Jim, but decided that Slinky was an important part of our ensemble and that Jim would want him to live on. We were fortunate to cast Blake Clark, a wonderful actor, in the role of Slinky Dog; he had a wonderful quality to his voice and he was friends with Jim and so that brought an extra level experience and veracity to the performance.

Q: I noticed that Bo Peep was not in the third movie. Why?

LEE UNKRICH: That was a very difficult decision to make. We wanted to show that time had passed in Andy’s room, and that things had necessarily changed. We decided that most of Andy’s peripheral toys would be gone, since he was now 17 and wouldn’t realistically have all of his childhood toys. We also wanted to create an environment of danger — that time was short for the remaining toys, and that any of them might be next to go. We also thought it would be powerful to have one of the central, beloved toys be gone, and to be emblematic of the fact that as we live our lives, change happens and we sometimes lose people in our lives that we love. Bo Peep as a toy was actually part of a nursery lamp. We figured that lamp wouldn’t be around anymore, so we decided to make Bo Peep the main toy that was no longer around. We also felt her absence would give Woody a deep feeling of loss, since she was the love of his life.

TOONZONE NEWS: Did any of the actors in the movie approach you to voice a character in the movie? Do actors approach you for roles in Pixar movies in general?

DARLA ANDERSON: Yes, actors do approach us, but in the case of Toy Story 3, we approached everybody in our film first. All of our actors are so talented and help us imbue so much life and soul into these characters. It doesn’t hurt that most of them have such brilliant comedic timing and colorful voices.

Totoro!Q: In the film we can see Totoro. Was it your decision to have this character appear in the movie? Is this some kind of tribute to Hayao Miyazaki?

LEE UNKRICH: Absolutely. We have all been longtime fans of Miyazaki’s work, and have gotten to be friends with him. We saw the Totoro doll’s inclusion in the film as a perfect nod to the friendship between our studios.

Q: Toy Story 3 has lots of references to genres like thriller, romance, drama, adventure etc., resulting in a more “feature film-like feeling” compared to most other CGI-movies. When and why did you decide to go into that direction?

LEE UNKRICH: We just went where the story told us to go. We decided early on that we wanted the middle of the film to be a kind of “prison break”. As a result, we visited prisons and watched every prison break movie that’s ever been made. We thought it was a fun direction to go with the film. In the end, I strongly believe that the best films are the ones that give us a full experience at the movies — the movies that somehow can make us laugh and cry and be scared and be reminded of the love in our own lives. We really strived to give the audience this same, full experience with Toy Story 3.

Q: Who was the funniest actor/actress to work with on the set?

LEE UNKRICH: You know, they’re all funny. Truly. We are so lucky to get to work with so many incredibly talented, super-funny people. It’s impossible to single out any one of them as my favorite. But I will say that I have many fond memories of laughing REALLY hard at recording sessions with Kristen Schaal, who plays the triceratops Trixie in the film.

DARLA ANDERSON: All of the actors we work with are hilarious!!! We were so lucky to work with people who are so inherently funny and talented. Working with Don Rickles was priceless; each session was like a live performance in Vegas. The range of performances spanned the gamut from watching Michael Keaton work out the character of Ken, or Estelle Harris screaming out her ninja warrior cries (from the first sequence), it would be next to impossible to pick who was the funniest. Truly every actor that we worked with are comedic geniuses. My only issue was trying not to laugh during the recordings so I wouldn’t ruin a take. I think I must have the best job in the world.

Day in the Life of Darla AndersonQ: What are the advantages of having your voice cast work in isolation, instead of bringing them together and having them play off each other?

LEE UNKRICH: Well, there are positives and negatives to that. The negatives are that we have to work very hard to create an illusion of spontaneity, and that the actors are having to work in isolation and don’t have the luxury of working off of another actor. On the flip-side, we are given a great deal of control over the final performances, and the actors are able to really focus on their individual performances rather than their part in the ensemble.

Q: I promised my son, now six, that I’d ask: where is Andy’s dad? While his absence is never addressed in the Toy Story films, do you, as storytellers, keep such things in mind when developing a character like Andy?

LEE UNKRICH: You know, we never really explicitly answer that question. We think it’s better to leave it more vague. I know that each of us at Pixar has our own idea of why Andy’s Dad isn’t around, but we don’t think it’s important for there to be a concrete reason. I think it makes it more interesting to leave that answer to the audience’s imagination.

Q: How was your world tour with each other? Besides the stress, did you have the possibility to see or experience something while visiting other countries and cultures?

DARLA ANDERSON: The world tour was a great adventure. We both brought our families with us and so we were able to experience all kinds of different cultures and visit all kinds of locations that we normally wouldn’t be able to do. I can honestly say that we thoroughly enjoyed every country we went to and it was fascinating to see how much people have taken Buzz and Woody and the gang into their homes, hearts and families.

LEE UNKRICH: I love to travel, so the international promotion of Toy Story 3 was a great opportunity. I actually brought my entire family, including my three children, along for the ride. Despite a lot of work and a lot of interviews, I still managed to see a bit of each country we visited. I considered it a kind of “tasting platter” for future leisure travel. In the end, the most exciting aspect of our travels was the universal love for Toy Story 3. Everybody everywhere seemed to really enjoy the film.

Q: I read a lot about the differences between editing and directing a movie and an animation. Which one do you prefer (if you do prefer one)?

LEE UNKRICH: Not sure if you mean a preference between editing and directing or between animation and live-action. I love all of them. Even though I am now directing, I still edit, and always will. It’s an essential part of filmmaking, and is central to how my mind thinks and problem-solves. Regarding animation vs. live action, I love both. I have been especially attracted to animation these past sixteen years because it affords me a level of control over my work that is just not possible in live-action. And, being at Pixar, I feel completely supported as an artist and am given the room and the time to make the films the best they can possibly be.

Day in the life of Darla AndersonTOONZONE NEWS: Have things like Internet PR and DVD bonus features changed the way you make movies?

LEE UNKRICH: Not really, but we have had to get used to every inch of our lives being documented by the behind-the-scenes crews! Sometime I felt like I was on a reality show. I ultimately got used to them, however, and I think it makes for some great making-of segments on the DVD and Blu-ray.

DARLA ANDERSON: No, we stay intensely focused on the storytelling and filmmaking in all its aspects. What has changed is that we try and document the making of the film as much as we can so that we can show the world our process and behind the scenes. There are a lot of very cool extras that show us in action during the making of the film.

Q: What are you most excited about the DVD release of Toy Story 3? Is it like sharing your hard work with an even bigger audience?

DARLA ANDERSON: Yes, although the film opened so big, I know that there are still a lot of people who haven’t seen the film who will now be introduced to the new story and characters. I’m very excited for more people to experience our movie!!

Q: Did you expect this kind of huge success?

LEE UNKRICH: Has the film done well? They haven’t told me. Seriously, no, we didn’t. Of course, we knew there was a great deal of love for the Toy Story characters, and we knew the film was highly anticipated. But to become the biggest film of the year, both critically and commercially? We didn’t even dare dream that would happen. It’s been an amazing ride.

Q: I think Toy Story 3 is the best of the three films, is this a sign that the job is done right?

LEE UNKRICH: For you, yes! I’ve talked to many people about the film. Some like the first Toy Story the best, some like the second. And many like the third the best. Ultimately, the most important thing as that people feel the three films hang together as a WHOLE. When we conceived of the story for Toy Story 3, it was very important to us that it not be an unnecessary, grafted-on sequel. We wanted the audience to feel like we were telling one large, over-arcing story across the three films. I just tried to make a film that was worthy of sitting alongside the first two, and if people feel like that is the case, then I’ve succeeded.

Q: What’s the secret of Toy Story 3 that has made it the most successful Pixar movie ever?

DARLA ANDERSON: ]I don’t think there’s any particular secret. What I do think is that Toy Story started this whole industry. It was the first film that introduced the world to this new medium of computer animation, and it was such an appealing story with such classic themes that related to people’s childhoods. These characters have become a part of worldwide culture and there’s heartfelt ownership and connection with them and these stories. In that way, there was enormous pressure to make a film that was worthy of people’s expectations.

Q: The impact that Toy Story 3 had all over the world it is amazing, especially here in Mexico where the kids are such fans of the film. What does it mean to you?

LEE UNKRICH: It’s incredibly rewarding to see people all over the world responding to the film like they have. Incredibly rewarding. We work very hard on the films we make, but that’s never any guarantee that they’ll be good or that people will like them. It’s an incredible relief that the world seems to really love and embrace Toy Story 3.

DARLA ANDERSON: I can’t express, as an artist, how rewarding it is for so many people so see the movie we’ve worked so hard to produce. We all realize that we are very fortunate that our movie was so popular in Mexico as well as around the world.

Day in the life of Darla AndersonQ: What is the most important part of your job?

DARLA ANDERSON: I think the most important part of my job is to focus on story. We have such enormously talented teams at Pixar that can only do so much if the story isn’t working, so I do everything I can to provide an environment and focus to make story the priority. After that, the rest of my job is highly detail-oriented. However, things tend to fall into place when we center everything on the story.

LEE UNKRICH: I work with hundreds of talented artists and animators and other creative folks. They are all extremely focused on working on their individual parts of the film. My job is to give them guidance and direction as they do their work, but most importantly, my job requires me to be able to step back and see the film as a whole. I’m the one person who needs to know how all the millions of individual parts will fit together into the final film to form an engaging, emotional, funny, fully entertaining experience for the audience.

Q: What sequence in this film were you most proud of, and why?

DARLA ANDERSON: I would say the last sequence in the film, “Goodbye Andy,” and the reason why is because from the get go it was always a really poignant and emotional touchstone for the movie. I just love how it brings this trilogy to a really amazing conclusion.

LEE UNKRICH: I love the entire film but I guess the sequence that I am most proud of is the scene in the incinerator toward the end of the film. It was very important to me that we handle the moment truthfully and respectfully. The toys are real to us and I wanted to take the moment seriously. They face their end with a quiet dignity and the power of the moment proved to be one of the emotional centerpieces of the film. I think the animation is among the best in the film. I am very proud of the work my animators did in that scene. I believe that the audience forgets in that moment that they are watching an animated film and find themselves fully engrossed in the drama.

Q: This film is great, don’t you feel sorry because the story is over?

LEE UNKRICH: Absolutely. When Andy is giving the toys to Bonnie at the end of the film, and talking about how great each one is, in a way, the scene is an opportunity for all of us to say goodbye to them as well. We hold the characters very close to our hearts, and it was certainly very emotional for us when we completed the film.

DARLA ANDERSON: Yes, there were a lot of mixed emotions in concluding this trilogy. Part of the power of the story is that it came to its inevitable end, but yes, it’s also bittersweet because it’s the end of an era. At the same time, I’m very proud of the trilogy and the courage to tell a story that is so filled with classic themes and that has touched so many people around the world. It’s been a privilege to be part of such an iconic body of work.

Q: What is coming next from Pixar? What projects are you both working on that you can tell us a little about?

LEE UNKRICH: Our next film is Cars 2, coming next summer. The film after that is titled Brave, and is a really fun Scottish period-piece. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you anything about what Darla and I are doing next, other than that we will be working together again at Pixar.

Q: What is your next project? Are you working on a movie?

DARLA ANDERSON: Lee and I enjoyed working with each other so much, that we’re going to work on a new film together at Pixar. It’s so far off in the future, we can’t talk about it! What’s next for the studio is Cars 2 coming out next summer!

Mr. and Mrs. Potato HeadQ: I’ve seen an incredible Toy Story interactive book on iPad. How much are you interested at Pixar in new opportunities of storytelling thru new media? Do you think you’ll always be a film company or that maybe in the future you will develop standalone projects for different media?

DARLA ANDERSON: We’re a film company first and foremost. If we’ve done our job correctly, then people will want a lot of these ancillary products because they fall in love with the characters. There are a lot of people at Pixar with a lot of talent, so they are telling stories in different ways, but what brought us all to Pixar is our immense love of filmmaking.

Q: Tom Hanks has said, “Bring it on” when asked about a possible Toy Story 4, and Tim Allen is under contract for another sequel. Are you planning on making Toy Story 4?

LEE UNKRICH: We don’t currently have any plans to make a Toy Story 4. We tried really hard to bring the story of Andy and his toys to a really nice close. We take it as a great compliment that people are interested in another film, but for now, we’re going to focus on other stories.

DARLA ANDERSON: At this point in time we don’t have plans for Toy Story 4. We worked really hard to conclude this trilogy in a beautiful way.

Q: Darla, any final thoughts on Toy Story 3 as we close this roundtable?

DARLA ANDERSON: I originally came to Pixar over 17 years ago to work on Toy Story, but the company needed me to run another division at the time. So to come full circle and have the privilege to produce this film was very much a dream come true for me. We had a wonderful team, many of them Pixar veterans, and I had so much fun that I didn’t want it to end. I think a lot of the enthusiasm of our team showed up on the screen.

Toonzone News would like to thank Lee Unkrich and Darla K. Anderson for taking the time to talk with us, and all the crew at Click Communications and Disney PR for making it possible. Toy Story 3 is out on DVD and Blu-ray now; check out our review of the Toy Story 3 Blu-ray combo pack, as well as the virtual roundtable session with Toy Story 3 scriptwriter Michael Arndt.

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