It’s been over two decades since the first Toy Story movie premiered and many of us (myself included) feel as if it’s been a friend we’ve grown up with. The final chapter in the saga of Woody and Buzz provided a hilarious and bitter sweet end, feeling very much like the end of an era.
Toy Story 4, available today on Blu-ray and DVD, did a beautiful job of giving us one last journey with our favorites, and introducing us to some great new characters. One of the great storytellers of the movie, Supervising Animator Scott Clark, was kind enough to spend some time talking about the journey to getting this movie made, why it is so special, and why Forky was more than just a side character.
(Interview has been edited for length.)
What has been the biggest change that you’ve seen at Pixar over the years?
Having worked through three Toy Story (movies) at this point, I’ve just seen a lot of people come and go. I’ve been here since 1996, so I think when I started as an intern with 120 people at the company and now we’ve probably got 150 people or so in the animation department alone.
One of my favorite parts of Toy Story 4 was the animation on the cat in the antique shop. Can you talk about the realness of the cat?
Computer animation works really well to give you realistic motion and with the lighting we have these days, the feeling that you’re looking at something real. The cat had a lot of things going for it. It was very well modeled with the skeletal structure and articulation that allowed us to get real emotion out of it. The hair on the cat would act like hair on a cat — we would even try to do things with the fat layer on the animal. We do research on every character, and try to get the essence of what that thing is.
So if it’s a cat, we’d go for funny cat videos. One of our animators Priscila Vertamatti is a fantastic observer of cats, and so she helped articulate and animate the cat. A lot of my job is to task the animators to their strengths. So if you’re a dog person, you’re going to animate the dog. If you’re a funny person, you’re going to animate comedy. If you’re a good actor, you’re going to get a very quiet scene where you really looking at the eyes of the character.
Obviously there is quite a difference in the way the lighting is done with the characters from the first Toy Story to the newest — we particularly liked the lighting on Bo Peep, as it had a real classic movie vibe. Can you tell us more about that?
I’m not in the lighting department but I am familiar with the differences. In the first movie, the limitations of the medium made everything look plastic, even the things that were supposed to look porcelain. By the time we get to Toy Story 4, we can actually do the subsurface scattering. We can do the little cracking that gives her that porcelain look. Even her eyebrows look painted on like a glaze. She was literally rendered to look like the material she was intended.
Of course you’re right about the other part of the lighting. The lighting department is trying to get a certain feel or look to a movie. And I think Casablanca was one of the films that was an inspiration for that.
My favorite character in the movie was Forky because I too have existential crises. What was yours?
Forky! I like these new characters because we can just explore new things. Forky to me represents a kind of why to make a Toy Story film. For me, these movies aren’t just cute cartoons. When you watch any of these movies, you’re dealing with friendship, betrayal, what it means to be jealous, what it means to be redeemed. All of these really tough philosophical, emotional human themes are being told through a very safe candy coating shell of Toy Story. Forky seems to be a crude character, but I really appreciate how profound he was. He kinda holds the mirror up to Woody and allows him to realize what is important at this point in his life. And Woody makes this different decision that he wouldn’t have made in the first movie because of everything that has gone on.
I was happy that Forky didn’t end up just being a funny side character. He also ended up being a key for the protagonists and antagonists in the movie. He was kinda central to both of them.
What are you the most proud of from Toy Story 4?
I’m proud we pulled it off! I worked on this movie for a long time, and it was a big deal for me. And I’m just like everybody else, you know, all of us have doubts. We say, why are we doing this? Why are we making this movie? And we want to always believe that every day when we come to work and we go to school or whatever we’re doing, that we’re doing it because it makes a difference in the world. I wanted to make sure we were making a movie that wouldn’t just be fun, but it would be fulfilling and it would mean something. It was hard to get there! I think it was harder than Toy Story 3 was. So I’m really, really, really genuinely, earnestly so proud of this film because it took a lot of work for us to dig deep enough to find something that was worth it.
You’ve been a part of teams that tackled underwater (in Finding Nemo), monster fur (in Monster’s Inc) and chrome (in Cars). What do you hope Pixar tackles next?
A lot of all the things you mentioned are more technical achievements and I think they are features of what makes computer animation so believable. But for me as an animator, I was always drawn to the storytelling and being drawn into the movie. And so whether it’s really a realistic or cartoony, the principles that we’re doing in our animation at the studio are the same one they’ve been doing since the very first animated film. I just hope that we continue to make movies that have stories that teach people how to live and, and entertain them profoundly. I want people to feel good about the world.
What advice would you give to animators that are just starting out, and wanting to break into a place like Pixar?
It sounds cheesy but hard work and enthusiasm and taking advantage of luck and if you don’t want any of those three you’re not going to make it in anything. One of our animators was a former Texas cop that just pushed and pushed and pushed, and he was an animator on Toy Story 4. So if you can dream it, and you can work hard enough, it is possible. Of course, some people aren’t as lucky as the next person and some people are born with more advantages than others. I know some people have to work harder — don’t give up! Take advantage of every bit of the luck that passes your way.
Toy Story 4 is out now on DVD and Blu-ray, with hours of extra features and deleted scenes!