Editor's Note: This interviewwas published in the June issue of Bay Area Parent, a member of the Parenthood.com network.
Pixar director makes Toy Story 3 a family affair
By Janine DeFao
Pixar Animation Studios is like the Bay Area’s own version of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Few outsiders ever set foot inside the gates of the Emeryville dream factory, and most of us are amazed at the steady stream of delightfully creative and technically mindboggling treats it cranks out.
It may not have its own chocolate river, but if there’s a secret ingredient for making movies that are critically acclaimed hits, someone must be spiking Pixar’s water.
This month, Pixar will release the highly anticipated Toy Story 3, the long-awaited successor to 1995’s Toy Story – the first completely computer-generated full-length film ever made and the studio’s first full-length movie – and Toy Story 2 four years later.
In honor of Father’s Day, and the movie’s release two days earlier on June 18, Toy Story 3 Director Lee Unkrich spoke with Bay Area Parent. Unkrich, 42, got his start at Pixar as a film editor on Toy Story and co-directed Toy Story 2. He also co-directed Monsters, Inc., and Finding Nemo, which won the 2003 Academy Award for best animated feature film.
Unkrich lives in Marin County, CA, with his wife, Laura, and children, Max, 5, Alice, 10, and Hannah, 13, who is the voice of toy owner Andy’s little sister, Molly, in Toy Story 2 and the current film.
Bay Area Parent: How do your kids influence your work?
Lee Unkrich: Part of what drives me is I know my kids are going to be seeing the movies I make, and I hope to make them proud.
My oldest daughter, Hannah, when she was very little – I think she was 3 or so when we made Toy Story 2 –was the voice of Molly. We have a flashback scene in Toy Story 3, so I went back to the sound recordings. It was heartbreaking to hear those crisp recordings, like it was yesterday when it was 10 years ago.
My kids provided a lot of things in Toy Story 3. A section of the film takes place in a day care center. We put out a call to all Pixar employees for their kids’ drawings. We scanned all that artwork and used it as the basis to create the artwork hanging on the walls of the day care center.
I also needed kids’ handwriting and had my kids provide all the writing for the movie.
We had to create a lot of new toys for this movie. It helps to have three kids in the house and dig through their big bins. There’s a new character called Big Baby, and my middle daughter, Alice, had a baby doll that definitely influenced that character.
How long did the film take to make?
Just over four years. I was talking to my kids this morning. Hannah just turned 13, and she was 8 years old when I started.
It has been interesting over the years. I gauge my three children by what film I was making when each was born.
A lot of people ask me about what my kids think about what I do. On one level, they think it’s cool that I make movies at Pixar. But at end of the day, I’m just Dad, who is someone they’d rather have home with them than at work.
On a project like this, you’ve probably been at work a lot.
Now that I’m directing full-time, it’s a huge amount of responsibility and time.
The good thing about Pixar is that so many of us have families. Our producers and people running the company have families. They’ve always done well to structure schedules so people can have lives. When it takes four years to make a movie, you can pace yourself so you can have a life and have it both ways.
The fact that we’re making movies in the Bay Area makes a huge difference. I really appreciate the luxury of living in the Bay Area.
You’re a dad, but in the Toy Story movies, Andy’s dad is conspicuously absent. Where is he?
Andy doesn’t have a dad. We’ve never specifically said where he is.
All of us have different ideas. Because we all have narratives in our mind, we’ve never said anything official and left that vague.
As a father yourself, does that bother you?
No. I was a child of divorce. My dad’s not gone, but was gone from my life in a big way from age 10 on. Everyone has their own experience. I don’t think you can rate one being better than any other.
What’s the best thing about working at Pixar?
It’s an honor to be a part of making these movies that will be around long after we’re gone. So much entertainment made in Hollywood is very disposable. We work very, very hard to make these movies and often have to make a lot of sacrifices in our personal lives. It does take some of the sting away that these movies are so highly regarded on a huge global stage. It’s very rewarding.
Did you always know you wanted to work in animation?
My father was an artist. I grew up in a household that appreciated art. I drew all the time, and thought I would do something in the arts. In high school, I got very fascinated with movies and set off on that path.
What did your parents do to encourage your talents?
My mom supported me in everything I was interested in doing, my artwork, acting at the Cleveland (Ohio) Playhouse. She and my grandmother made sacrifices to get me there after school from way out in the country.
My family has always been very supportive, never tried to push me into anything, never said, ‘You need to get a real degree.’ I’ll be forever grateful to them for supporting me in that way.
What’s the favorite movie you’ve worked on?
It’s like if you asked me which of my three kids is my favorite. I could never choose.
I’ve worked harder on Toy Story 3 because I’m directing. I don’t think I could have cared more about the other films, but this one I have especially cared about. It has been all-consuming in my life.
Why has it been 11 years in the making?
It’s boring, contractual stuff, roadblocks that prevented the movie from being made. But when Disney bought Pixar, those cleared away.
We have been wanting to make it for years. But a funny thing happened along the way, thanks to the fact that we had all those problems. All of us filmmakers have grown up and matured and have been raising kids. And all those kids have been growing up.
We decided to set Toy Story 3 years later. Andy is heading off to college. I don’t think that’s a choice we would have made if we have made Toy Story 3 on the heels of Toy Story 2.
Kids who were little kids then are heading off to college or are in college now. It’s really emotionally resonant. Parents can’t wait to share this story and this world with younger kids who don’t know the other movies.
It’s kind of lucky how things turned out.
Do you have a favorite character?
I can relate to Woody in a lot of ways. He always has the best intentions and tries to be confident in his decisions, but he doesn’t always know what he’s talking about. That’s a very human trait.
How will you celebrate Father’s Day, two days after the movie opens?
I’m sure I will be spending Father’s Day with my children, with fingers crossed that Toy Story 3 will be doing well at the box office. Maybe we’ll even sneak off to a local theater to see it.
Janine DeFao is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent and mother of two.