Pixar’s Lee Unkrich on the Toy Story trilogy, animation and how to make a good film

Pixar’s Lee Unkrich on the Toy Story trilogy, animation and how to make a good film

Lee Unkrich is modern animation royalty. Having fallen into the dynamic world of 3D production accidently, Unkrich joined Pixar studios as an editor 20 years ago, and has since worked on the Toy Story trilogy (the final chapter was his directional début and earned him the Oscar for 2011’s Best Animated Film), 1998’s A Bug’s Life, 2001’s Monsters, Inc., the iconic $921 million-grossing Finding Nemo and more. Unkrich hit home shores last week to speak at the Sydney Opera House’s annual Graphic festival, and on the side kindly shared with us his thoughts on what exactly constitutes a ‘good film’, his creative philosophy and Pixar’s plans for the future. Dressed in an understated grey t-shirt, speaking in an extremely personable and engaging manner, Unkrich hardly lived up to the entertainment mogul imagined, which is surprising given that so much of Pixar’s supreme reputation can be credited to his unrelenting commitment to excellence.

How did you initially get into animation? Was it always something you were interested in pursuing?

No! It was a total accident that. I always wanted to make movies, for as long as I can remember. I went to film school, and I started to work professionally in live action – that was almost 20 years ago now – and around that time I got a phone call from Pixar asking me to come up and edit the first Toy Story. And I jumped at the chance because I had seen all the short films John Lasseter [Pixar’s current Chief Creative Officer] had made at the point, and I was a big fan. I knew they were making a feature and I thought it would be fun to be a part of that, but never in a million years did I think I’d be there for the next 20 years. It’s weird because people now think of me as being this kind of big figure in animation, which is so strange to me, because it wasn’t anything I ever tried to become – I mean I liked animation as much as anyone else, but it wasn’t something I was passionate about.

So what kind of films were you hoping to get into?

Certainly not family films! My favourite movie is The Shining [laughs] so I guess that kind of movie. It was so great to be at Pixar because it was fun to be part of something that was new and unlike anything anyone had ever seen before, and then, on top of that, to be somewhere that had such rigorously high standards for storytelling. There aren’t many places like that, so it’s neat to have it all. I really just stumbled into this amazing opportunity and it’s been so great to be part of it all these years.

Having been with Pixar for so long and having worked on such successful films, what is it, do you think, that makes the Toy Story films, Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc. and so on so appealing?

I guess we’ve made enough really good movies over the years that people have grown to trust that if they’re going to see a Pixar movie, they’re going to be seeing something special and worth giving their time to. We try really hard to come up with really fun, unique, original stories and fill them with really great characters. [At the crux of good movies] are things that people care about. There are so many movies out there that are just disposable – they’re like eating candy – but you always remember the ones that made you feel something, that made you feel real genuine emotion or that were intellectually stimulating, that you thought about after you left.   

I think they really strike a chord with adults, sometimes even more so than with children. What do you think the trick is to making films that transcend age limitations?

If there’s any formula to it, it’s that we make movies that we want to see ourselves. We never target our movies at kids or at families. We just make movies, and we make sure they’re appropriate for kids because we know that kids are going to be a big part of our audience. If we ever tried to target what we were doing towards children, I think we’d fail. I fundamentally believe that children don’t have taste – they haven’t lived life yet, and they haven’t seen what’s out there... I look at my own kids as models, and I look at the kind of things I liked when I was a kid and it was all terrible. Anybody who tries to make something that’s specifically targeted towards kids, I think, is destined to make something... if not fail, they’re in for a hard ride. We truly just try to make stories that we would find funny or emotional or scary or whatever and make sure they’re appropriate and that’s kind of been the winning formula.

Where do you source your inspiration from? Do you channel personal experiences or do you look more towards universal human experiences?

It can come from anywhere and everywhere. Sometimes it’s based on things that have happened to us... like in Toy Story 3 there’s a scene where Andy throws his toys away in the garbage bag. That came, because years ago, my wife and I were moving and she had kept all her stuffed animals from when she was a kid, and she put them all in a garbage bag, and I threw them all away. And she’s never forgiven me for it! So there can be moments like that that come from personal experiences... it can come from movies we’ve seen, really, it can come from anywhere.

What about characters? Do you base them on people you know, actors you hope will bring them to life or do you just come up with them from nowhere?

I’ve never based any on friends... usually they just kind of come into being organically. You have a premise for the story – in Monsters Inc., for example, you have this idea that there are monsters that come in from your closet at night and scare you, and that there’s a whole world on the other side. So that’s the premise, and then you start thinking who are the main characters going to be. It often comes from a very story driven direction, and then over time [the characters] start to become real, and then we cast actors to play them, and then they become that much more real. It’s a long, slow process. The only time I can think of where we ever had an actor in mind was Dori in Finding Nemo – Andrew [Stanton] wrote the part for her. As he was writing the screenplay, he very much wanted to have Ellen Degeneres play Dori, so he was very grateful that she accepted.

Can you tell me a bit about your upcoming Day of the Dead film? How did that come to fruition and what’s it about?

Día de los Muertos is a Mexican holiday celebrated every year right after Halloween – but has nothing to do with Halloween – and it’s basically a holiday where every year they remember all the people in their own family and friends that are no longer with them and they build these offerings to them, because they believe that the dead are actually coming back to visit every year. There’s something very interesting to me about there being this yearly family reunion – a family reunion that kind of spans the divide between the living and the dead. That fascinated me, and just the iconography of the holiday – the skeletons, the graphics, the colour and the whole Mexican culture. It’s always been fascinating to me, so we kind of cooked up a movie for that in that world and that’s what we’re working on right now.

Cool! Can you tell me a bit about the plot?

No, not yet! In time...  

What are your plans for the future otherwise?

That’s it! That movie. I’m going to be working on that movie for the next several years because our movies take four to five years to make.

So when do you think it’ll be out?

We don’t have a release date yet, but it’ll be several years from now!

Well I look forward to watching.

Good! Thank you.

Thanks for your time, Lee. 

All gallery images credit to Pixar. 

Lee was also in Australia to celebrate Finding Nemo coming to Blu-ray for the first time ever.

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