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Interview by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for
March 23, 2010

Since putting Pixar Animation Studios on the map as a powerhouse of creative and innovative filmmaking some 15 years ago, the original Toy Story has grown into one of the most recognizable and beloved franchises in all of animation, often serving as the gold standard by which other CG films are judged. The acclaimed hit spawned a blockbuster sequel in 1999 with Toy Story 2, which took in nearly $250 million at the US box office. A decade later, the two movies were re-released in theaters in 3-D. Now, the franchise is poised for continued success: while Toy Story and Toy Story 2 enjoy their fully loaded special edition Blu-ray debuts, Toy Story 3 is gearing up to hit theaters on June 18, 2010.

To commemorate the Blu-ray release of the first two films, Disney held a special day of activities for the kids of the Hollywood chapter of the Boys and Girls Club, where a Toy Story mural made of LEGO bricks was unveiled, along with LEGO statues of Woody and Buzz Lightyear. While attending the event, we had the opportunity to speak to one of Pixar's creative minds, Jason Katz, who serves as story supervisor on Toy Story 3. In this exclusive interview, he talks about working on the highly anticipated third installment of the series, from the origins of the story to the technological advancements that are impacting CG animation today. So much work goes into a Pixar movie even before a single frame is rendered by a computer. How is your team specifically involved with the genesis of the project?

JASON: We're the front line. The best way to think about animation, especially the way we do it, is [that] there's three phases, there's three lives: there's pre-production, there's the actual production, and then the post-production. And the pre-production really is everything from the kernel of the idea ("let's make a movie about two toys in a little boy's room") all the way through writing the script. And then a collaborative group will storyboard the film. You also have the art department that'll come up with the character designs and the look of the film, and you'll have an editorial department that works with us to put the film together. And once you kind of get each scene working where everybody says "we should make that," then it gets booted into production. That's when the animators are working on it, and the layout artists. And that's where you're kind of making it. But in the world of how we do our films, it's about four years on average to make an animated film at Pixar, and about three years of that is that pre-production. That's that front end--it's us working on the story, working on the art, working on the designs. Then when everybody's happy with what we got, then we kick it into the production pipeline, and then it gets made.

Toy Story 3 takes place several years after Toy Story 2, more or less mirroring the time between the release of the two films. How did this interesting take on the story come into play?

When we decided we're going to make Toy Story 3 and had the opportunity to make it, there's a bunch of ideas. And what happened was a lot of the key creative individuals that were around from the very first movie went to a place that they went to, actually, before the beginning of Toy Story and passed around ideas: "What can we make this movie about?" And I think the one thing that rose out of that occasion was, "You know, it's been a long time since these first two movies. Why don't we just own that?" As far as the storytelling is concerned, our initial goal from the very beginning was [that] you start Toy Story, watch it all the way through, you pick up the disc and you watch Toy Story 2, [and] that Toy Story 3 would just slot right in--it would feel like one continuous movie. And that was really our goal from the beginning. Because there's not a lot of good third movies of a trilogy out there. It traditionally tends to be one of the weaker, right? And we said, "What third movie is good out there?" And we went around the room, and the only one that we could agree on was Return of the King. And then someone raises their hand, like, "Well that's kind of cheating, it's just one story." And then basically the lightbulb went on. "All right, well then that's what we need to do. We need to make it feel like Toy Story 3 is a continuation of one story." There's a sidetrack and we're doing different things, we're meeting new characters, but fundamentally, it's one complete story. And hopefully we're successful at that.

How to Train Your Dragon has recently accomplished some amazing visual feats with their rendering of textures, hair, and fire. What are some technical advancements we can expect from the CG animation of Toy Story 3?

Well, you know, the interesting thing, especially about Toy Story, is that the world is pretty well defined, and the characters are well defined. I think the technical advances in the third movie are going to be subtle at times--you know, just the look of the characters. The characters kind of went through a little bit of a rebirth where we got to update them. Nothing that'll feel weird--it still looks like Woody, it still looks like Buzz--but there's things about them that are going to feel just a little bit more real. And the one thing that we found out is that when you'd sit in meetings and everybody goes, "Here's what Woody's shirt looks like now, and here's the stitching," everybody thought that that's what Woody already looked like from the second movie and the first one. And it's not till you put up a frame of the first movie and a frame of the second movie and then the frame of the third one [that] you go, "Oh yeah, he's kind of gotten a little bit of an upgrade." So I think the uber-goal of the third movie is for you to feel that it's the same world, nothing's out of place. It's not like all of a sudden the technology has vastly improved, the world has vastly improved. You're just going to feel a little sense of a richness.

What are some ways in which advancements in technology have made your jobs as filmmakers easier?

At times, there are certain things that we can do now that are a lot easier than back in 1995: the amount of characters we can have on screen, the amount of variety within these characters. You know, one of the things about Toy Story 3 that I loved is I feel like the lighting is beautiful--just very specific. It's got a lot of bite to it, you know? And it's really great in enhancing the storytelling. And I think that's one thing that we're noticing, actually, in animated films right now. And I can't wait to see How to Train Your Dragon, because [visual consultant Roger Deakins]...If you're going to study lighting and you're going to study a DP, there's nobody better than Deakins. And there's nobody better at doing lighting that is antithetical to CG, which is practical--and he uses candles, and he uses natural light, and he's all about bringing the organic into filmmaking. And I think that's something that the technology now allows us to do.

How do you feel about the growing popularity of 3-D?

I think 3-D is great. 3-D's another tool. It's another way to enjoy a movie, it's another way to enjoy the experience. But I do believe that good 3-D movies are just good movies, and 3-D will not save a bad story. 3-D will not save a bad movie. I think what I've enjoyed in 3-D I would have enjoyed in 2-D as well. I think a good staged movie makes a great 3-D movie--understanding depth and understanding what just makes good framing. I think you could take any of Steven Spielberg's movies--or a good amount of Steven Spielberg movies--and translate them to 3-D films, and they would make great 3-D films because he stages in depth like nobody can. And so I feel like [James] Cameron already made good 3-D movies before Avatar. Avatar is now embracing the technology and it's there in front of us. And it's the same reason why when I saw Toy Story and Toy Story 2 in 3-D, they worked. And they worked because we, not knowing that in the future we were going to be releasing these in 3-D, intentionally wanted to stage these movies well--stage them in depth, consider foreground and middle ground and background, and really use that space in a three dimensional way. That makes good 3-D movies as well. So it's a byproduct: good filmmaking will make good 3-D movies.

Toy Story has its share of both adult and kid fans. Of the two groups, which are more frenzied and rabid?

[laughs] You know what's funny? It's probably an even mix. I think I've had more adults come up to me and tell me how much they love the films and how much they remember having those toys when they were kids. The thing that I love is the kids will know the specifics of the movie way more than the adults. They'll know all the lines, they'll know all the characters. But the adults will seem to be a lot more affected by the films--you know, they will really talk about "This movie made me feel this..." or "I remember..." And that's what I love about what we do. I love being able to work on something that will connect with so many different people in so many different ways. And there's not a lot of things in this world that are like that.

Jason, thanks for your time, and continued success on Toy Story...

My pleasure. Thank you very much.

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