When Lee Unkrich graduated from USC film school and became an editor, he couldn’t imagine that his solo directing debut would be a 3D-animated feature that would break B.O. records and generate Oscar buzz.
But 16 years after taking a four-week editing gig at Pixar, Unkrich scored a smash directing “Toy Story 3.”
“I’m the only director at the studio who’s not an animator,” he explains, “but CG films are bound more by the conventions of live-action than traditional animation, and I brought those instincts to the table.”
Beyond editing several Pixar hits, Unkrich co-directed “Toy Story 2,” “Monsters, Inc.” and “Finding Nemo.”
“My co-director credit was a way of legitimizing my role,” he says. “Pixar has a co-director only if a director wants to be shored up. John Lasseter encouraged me not to have a co-director on ‘Toy Story 3’ because I’d never gotten any of the glory,” Unkrich laughs. “Trusting me with these characters was like being handed the keys to John’s expensive sports car.”
Because Unkrich had edited the first two “Toy Story” films, he understood the characters well.
“Tom Hanks knows how to play Woody and Tim Allen knows how to play Buzz Lightyear, but it’s been 11 years since they played those parts,” he says. “It was my job to be the keeper of the flame and guide them back. One of the big challenges was making ‘Toy Story 3’ feel like it belonged with the first two. We didn’t want the characters to change too much and look like they’d had bad plastic surgery. The choices we made were things that we would have done earlier if we’d had the technology.”
Simply staging an outdoor chase was technically daunting in the original “Toy Story,” while the latest film has a climatic scene in a city dump with thousands of moving parts.
“Which is not to say it’s easy,” Unkrich recalls. “I think we have technical directors who feel post-traumatic stress every time they pull out a trash bag.”
Unkrich plans to direct another Pixar film, but for the moment he’s savoring the success of the studio’s 11th-consecutive hit.
“I did feel a lot pressure,” he admits. “So many people said, ‘This is my childhood you’re messing with. Don’t screw it up.’ ”