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Toy Story 3 interview with Lee Unkrich

Toy Story 3
20 July 2010

As Pixar’s newly released Toy Story 3 enchants audiences across the globe, its the makers of the film we must give great thanks once again to so we caught up with Director Lee Unkrick to find out all the behind the scenes goss…

Why the big gap between Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3?

Well, we wanted to make a Toy Story 3 directly after Toy Story 2.  I remember john Lasseter (Pixar’s Chief Creative Office) taking me aside and saying “come on let’s do it”.  We got all the models  built to make another movie.  But as it turned out we couldn’t make another movie because of contractual problems with Disney and finally when Disney bought us, just over 4 years ago, that freed us up.

The interesting thing was that the idea that we had that we thought was going to be Toy Story 3 almost immediately was completely abandoned. We thought, you know, it’s a good concept, but it’s not really a film.

That must have been heart wrenching for you when another studio started playing around with all those characters you’d created.  It must have felt like they were stealing your children.

Yeah when Disney started to make their own version of Toy Story 3 without us, that was horrlble.  That was the darkest time in Pixar’s history but luckily that future never came to pass.

You been involved with Toy Story from the beginning: as an Editor on the first one and co-directing the second one.  How does it feel to be finally let off the leash to do one on your own?

It’s great; it was incredibly stressful and very difficult.   I was very worried about being the guy to go down in history as the guy who made the crappy sequel to the Toy Story series.  I was at John’s side from the beginning, in this case I had to take on the responsibility of every aspect of the film but it was great fun too, I just surrounded myself with really talented people.


That moment when John gave you the go ahead to work on the film must have been great.

Yeah, when he gave me the keys to his shiny sports car, and I promised not to scratch it!  It was great.  When he first told me he wanted to do it, I was flattered and excited and then I wanted to throw up.  Seriously.  I just realised the enormity of the road ahead and the enormity of it.  There were times when it was hard to get up in the morning because it just seemed  like I was trying to do something so completely impossible.

How long were you working on the project for?  Was it difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel?

Well, that’s how long the movies take so in my 16 years at Pixar, I’ve gotten used to working to that time frame and if you look at each film, it’s so rich with detail, it just takes time.  It’s like running a marathon; you say four years and it seems like long time but in actuality it’s not enough time while you’re making it, that every day’s a race.

John Lasseter once said, “We never finish films, we just release them”

It’s true, it’s because we’re constantly noodling with them.  Anything that’s not being animated is fair game to be rewritten or reworked.

Did you do a lot of prep work for the movie?  Did you visit a lot of day care, awatch a lot of prison movies?

All of the above.  I think I saw every prison movie that’s ever been mad and several of them influence the film directly, most notably Cool Hand Luke – there’s a lot of references in that movie there.  We visited a lot of day care centres, watched kids play, visited a couple of prison – spent some time on Alcatraz, visited San Quentin and it was very interesting to us to see the similarities between day care and prisons – they’re actually more similar than you’d think. 

Day care centres usually have these murals hanging up but if you strip those away, you find that they’re actually quite institutional – very much like prisons.  You see security cameras and walled exercise areas in the back – they’re so similar, so we tried to have fun playing with that.


I bet the prisons didn’t have the horror of a cymbal-playing monkey running the show.

I love that.  I put that in because I’ve always loved monkeys, ever since I was a little kid.  But I was really afraid of that toy when I was a kid.  But the thing that’s interesting to me is that that’s an actual toy.  That’s a real toy, a real thing that’s been around for decade.  And it’s so funny to me that someone thought it was a good idea to make a toy like that that was for children.  So we tried to remain as true to that as possible.

Actually, Big Baby scared me quite a lot in this movie too.  What’s your thing about babies?!  You had Babyhead in the first one which was really creepy too.

I don’t know. You’re setting a film in the toy world; you want to be true to that.  Baby dolls are part of that world and I think a lot of people find them really creepy. 

After 15 years of working with Toy Story, was it really difficult to say good bye to those characters after all that time?

Yeah it was. You know the last scene in the film was always very emotional for us.  Here’s the interesting thing, when we were making the film, we found that last scene very emotional because we were kind of saying goodbye to the characters, but I don’t think that’s why the audience finds it so emotional. It’s not just about Woody and Buzz and saying goodbye to them, it’s about so much more than that.

The film does really feel like it has a sense of closure for all the characters.

Yeah, I really wanted it to feel like the end and we don’t have any plans for Toy Story 4.  There was never any mandate to end it in a way so that we could continue the story.  From the very first day, we came up with Toy Story 3, we knew how it was going to end, it felt like the right ending for the toys and gave them that future.

There’s that wonderful scene near the end where Buzz reaches over and holds Jesse’s hand and you think that maybe they won’t make it and it’s one of the only kids’ films that evokes that kind of fear.

Well, we were trying to be truthful to that moment and I know it’s very intense.