"In 1995, Andy got a toy from his favorite movie. This is that movie."
So Lightyear explains in its opening moments, which is exactly how director Angus MacLane conceived of the movie: This is the sci-fi blockbuster that spawned the Buzz Lightyear action figure that Andy receives as a birthday present at the beginning of Toy Story. How's that for a meta-narrative? "To be totally frank, I just wanted to make a sci-fi movie that was awesome," says MacLane, who has been animating the space ranger since 1999's Toy Story 2.
In conversation with A.frame, MacLane and producer Galyn Susman (who was a lighting supervisor and modeling artist on the original Toy Story) discuss the lasting legacy of the franchise and the future beyond Lightyear. And Sox. Because how could you talk about Lightyear without talking about Sox?
A.frame: What do you think it is about Toy Story and Buzz that still resonates more than 25 years later?
Susman: We love watching Buzz, because he's a little goofy, he's a little out of step with reality, but he's also so earnest. He tries so hard. Buzz is an aspirational character, right? He always means well, and it's an enjoyable combination of things to watch, for sure.
MacLane: We really enjoy the confidence in the face of adversity, even when that confidence is often misplaced. The movie [Toy Story] is a well-executed narrative, but I think the meta idea that toys are alive is a very fertile idea and a very gettable concept. It's actually quite horrifying when you think about it. If the nature of stories is to tell [them to] other human beings, to expand upon potentially dangerous situations around the campfire, like, "Watch out for the bear. There was a bear that attacked and I narrowly escaped, and I fought for my life. But here I am to tell you the story!" I think there's a direct line from that kind of storytelling to Toy Story, because, fortunately, we have managed to escape the bear of prehensile toys.
We are in a post-Toy Story 4 world. Why do you think now is the right time to venture beyond what we know of the franchise?
MacLane: To be totally frank, I just wanted to make a sci-fi movie that was awesome. I was obsessed with Buzz, having worked on the character for so long. And, after finishing Finding Dory, it was like, "Well, what would be fun to work on?" These movies take so long, you have to really love everything about it. You have to really be obsessed with it. And I was still obsessed with Buzz, and I liked the world of space, and I feel we'd done a romantic sci-fi movie in WALL-E, but I'd always wanted to see an action sci-fi. So, this was a chance to do that.
Susman: I'm just glad we didn't try earlier, because I don't think we would've been able to come up with the visual spectacle, for lack of a better word, that we were able to do on this film. We've finally matured both in our technologies and as filmmakers to be able to really approach doing a cinematic thriller in space in a way that we wouldn't have been able to do sometime earlier.
Galyn, you've been there since the very first movie and have seen how the technology used to make these movies has evolved. What is the biggest difference now that makes something like Lightyear possible? And in what way is it still the same?
Susman: Some of the process is the same. The focus on story and the level of iteration that we do — putting up story reels and getting everybody's feedback and rewriting and reiterating — that process is the same. It used to be on paper and we used to have to sit there and scan it all, and now we do it on computer. We still build characters, and we build in the ability for them to be articulated, then hand them off to animation, and animation makes them move. All of that is the same. Everything else is completely different. All the tools are different. And the raw computer power. I mean, your phone is probably 10 times more powerful than the computers we used to render Toy Story.
Now, we're spending 80 hours rendering a frame on massively high-end, high-speed computers, and that's considered normal! The amount of crunch going into making one of these films is beyond anything we could have imagined when we were making Toy Story. I think the biggest change is when we started, a lot of the people involved in the film had to have technical acumen. You had to be technologists, because so many of the parts of the pipeline had to be programmed. Now, the tools are such that artists can approach them and it's just a different paintbrush. It's not technology, per se, that confronts them. So, we can hire a much broader range of artistry to make the films that we make, which is, I think, why you see such spectacular stuff on the screen.
It's impossible to overstate how challenging the animation was to do in this film.
MacLane: The animation of this film is more difficult than anything Pixar's done, because of the subtlety required and because of the production design of the film. Speaking as an animator, it's really daunting to do this much work just so you feel like the characters are alive. That's the first thing. And then you have to make them feel as if they're having thoughts and communicating ideas. And then you have to make them feel as if they're concerned for their safety. And in all of that, you need to make them feel physical in a world where there is no physicality and with objects that look realistic and suggest to the audience a certain level of weight. And that weight takes time.
It's impossible to overstate how challenging the animation was to do in this film. But it's not something that animators do for recognition, because no one cares. [Laughs] But they'll care if it doesn't look right! So, I'm really proud of the work that everyone did to make the movie feel cohesive, both in animation and in asset creation, to make it all feel like one world. There is a reason why it looks so good and then it feels so complete, and that's the result of hundreds of people over many years.
You have a post, post, post-credits scene on this movie. I've never seen a scene that far post the credits. Does that mean you have more story to tell here? Is this the start of a franchise within a franchise?
MacLane: I think there are more stories to be told, whether or not we will pursue them is unclear. It's a movie I've always wanted to see. So, naturally, I was going to take the time to figure out what happens next. If nothing else, so that I knew. So, I'm excited about where it goes. Whether or not I'll share that remains to be seen.
Obviously Sox is such a breakout star so, like Groot and Olaf before him, I would like to formally pitch a Disney+ series of shorts of Sox doing, well, whatever Sox wants to do.
MacLane: Well, I'm pleased that Sox has resonated externally as well as he has internally [at Pixar]. I'd often wonder what he was doing to keep his mind limber while Buzz was away. Maybe there's something to that.
Are there different gizmos and gadgets and uses for Sox that you explored but that didn't make it into the movie?
MacLane: There was an idea about him having rolling feet. He would pop up and roll around like a desk chair. If you look carefully on his feet, he has these single spherical pads, like a cat but also like a trackball on a computer mouse. We never used that. There was even discussion of him having a single wheel under his stomach that he could flatten and drive around on. There was a point where it felt that he could do too much, and we wanted to hold back a little bit.
For example, all of his movement and his gadgetry feels ridiculous, but there's a limit to it. Like, his ears don't rotate, his head rotates. Most of his actions and the things that he does are really around one or two points of rotation or translation. He's not ambidextrous. He doesn't have opposable thumbs. We wanted to have him be like a Swiss Army knife, but to extend the blade of a Swiss Army knife, you have to rotate it out and it clicks into place. It's really one axis of rotation. If you had a Swiss Army knife where the blade ejected like a stiletto, you would start to doubt that it could do all those other things because that takes a level of mechanical thickness that would not be possible.
Susman: He thinks about things in ridiculous detail.
Well, you have created the most adorable Swiss Army knife in history.
MacLane: Thank you, thank you, thank you.
By John Boone