Out of the Toy Box

Lee Unkrich is one of Pixar's leading lights. He co-directed Toy Story 2 and is also co-director on Monsters, Inc. His newest project is still top secret, but there is a chance it'll feature familiar characters. Elise Harris talked to him.

It's a truism, but sequels can be tricky. Fortunately a lot of people think Toy Story 2 (showing on The Disney Channel this month) is better than the first.

The original, made in 1995, had to provide exposition but by 1999 there were very few people who weren't familiar with the characters (even if you hadn't seen the film you were bound to have seen the lunchboxes). This meant that Woody, Buzz, Rex, Hamm, Mr Potato Head and Slinky the Dog could concentrate on having an adventure away from the relatively cosy confines of Andy's neighbourhood.

The Pixar team didn't come up with the storyline for Toy Story 2 until way after the first one was made.

Lee Unkrich says, 'When we finished Toy Story and it did as well as it did at the box office and critically they came to us about doing a sequel, but frankly we weren't that interested. We had only made the one film at that point and we felt like there were other stories to tell, new stories.'

They put the whole idea on the backburner and started working on what eventually became A Bugs Life.

'At a certain point during A Bugs Life Disney came to us again about doing a sequel to Toy Story. They were doing quite well with their direct-to-video projects so they brought up the idea of doing a sequel to Toy Story that would be direct-to-video and we decided that sounded like a good idea'.

The plot for the movie was developed at a lunch meeting between John Lasseter and Pete Docter, director of Monster Inc. Fortunately the finished production was saved from such ignominy and given the theatrical release it deserved.

A lot of the joy of both films is the unlikely friendship between Buzz and Woody, characterized by the theme song. Lee says, 'By the time of the second film they have a grudging respect of each other. They've made peace with each other but there's still this kinda rivallry between them, they're always trying to outdo each other, jockeying for Andy's attention. But when Woody gets kidnapped Buzz is the one to gather all the toys, and the first one to suggest they should rescue him'.

Lee says there is a backstory that's never made explicit in either film.

'We first came up with the character of Woody back on the first Toy Story film. At that point , even though it's never seen in the movie we came up with the idea that Woody was Andy's father's childhood toy. In the movie there's a suggestion that there's been a divorce, or he's no longer living. We never really say but we've always had the concept that the reason Woody was so near and dear to Andy was that it had been his father's. '

This has the added bonus of placing Woody in a historical context. If he's an old toy, where did he come from?

'We knew it was an older toy, it was a 50s cowboy toy. We basically extrapolated from there and came up with the whole idea that he had actually been a tie-in to a character on a 50s TV show and then over the stages of developing Toy Story 2 we knew there was great potential for developing all sorts of sidekick characters on the show.'

And that's how Bullseye, Stinky Pete the prospector and Jesse eventually came about.

In her earliest incarnation Jesse a cactus named Senorita Cactus,

' She kinda came a long way in becoming the character that she is.' Lee admits.

Joan Cusack, the voice of Jesse, didn't come on board until after Jesse was a cowgirl. It's unlikely she would have agreed to be a talking plant.

Lee says, 'There were so many things in Toy Story 2 that were actually ideas for Toy Story 1 that didn't make the cut. The outer space adventure was in the orginal Toy Story, we knew it was from a Saturday morning TV show'.

The footage can still be seen on the region 1 DVD for Toy Story 2 and Lee says it's interesting to compare the scene with the video game at the start of Toy Story 2. This opening sequence was the last thing shot.

'We'd worked so hard on the movie that at that point it was great to just cut loose and have a great time with this silly over-the-top opening'.

The television cartoon series, Buzz Lightyear Of Star Command, (still showing on the Disney Channel) is something else again.

Pixar isn't involved in the production of the show and the company has nothing to do with writing the scripts. At first Lee was concerned about the cartoon show, believing the traditional, flatter animation wouldn't do justice to Buzz.

'But the great thing about is it doesn't matter it's just a Saturday morning cartoon and the great thing about it is it could actually be the cartoon that Buzz originally came from'.

There were many technological advances between the first and second Toy Story films.

'In the first one there were so many limitations in terms of computer power,' Lee says.

By 1999 films like Final Fantasy were in production and a super-realistic style of animation was just being developed. Although Pixar could take some of these techniques on-board they couldn't take them too far.

'We very much had to stick to the original designs to make it look like the first one. But the technical advances helped with things like the hair on the dog and the texture of skin on human characters like the Chicken Man'.

It was originally intended to make the humans more caricatured, but Lee says he's happier with the way they came out, especially Al 'The Chicken Man' , the greedy owner of the Toy Barn who steals Woody.

On reflection the decision was wise, Final Fantasy: The Spirits within (produced by Japanese-based company Square) was not a commercial or critical success. Audiences weren't at all convinced by 'cyber actors'. The route taken by Pixar is far more appealling.

Lee was not only co-director on Toy Story 2, but editor. He is also credited for additional story material and additional voices. Asked which aspect of film making interests him most he has no hesitation:

'I started as a film editor and that's how I came to Pixar and I edited the first Toy Story and A Bugs Life. I'm an editor at heart I love it.

'I'm really interested in a lot of other aspects of film making and John Lasseter recognised that and I thank him for moving me up to co-direct with him. We compliment each other and I've learned a lot from John over the years and I think he's learned a lot from me and we're at a point now where we're doing our best work.'

Pixar's working style focuses on openess and team-work: ' We're extremely proud of the environment and it's just great. Other places I've worked in the past you can easily feel you're just a cog in the machine, you're just doing your own little project, but at Pixar we really try to promote the feeling that everybody is contributing to the film.

'John Lasseter has a philosophy that the only bad idea is something that somebody doesn't say. So we try to encourage people to be as open as possible, if they have any ideas that could make the film better we'd love to hear about it'.

And so far the approach seems to be working very well indeed.

Toy Story 2 was first shown on The Disney Channel Christmas 2001

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