Lightyear Filmmakers Pull Back The Curtain On Turning Buzz Into A Sci-Fi Action Hero

Pixar has made a lot of great films since "Toy Story" launched one of the most trusted names in animation (if not all of cinema in general) back in 1995. They've arguably made some of the greatest movies of all time, and have done so by crafting works within a variety of genres. The studio's latest effort, "Lightyear," serves as its first-ever sci-fi action/adventure film. Granted, they've dealt with sci-fi before in "WALL-E" -- but not like this. Not only is this a fun '80s romp of a sci-fi flick as opposed to a thinking man's sci-fi, it is a pretty unique sort of spin-off within the landscape of franchise filmmaking. This is not a movie about the toy Buzz Lightyear. Rather, as director Angus MacLane says, "I've always wondered, what was the movie that Buzz was from? And why couldn't we just make that movie? So, that's what we did."

Indeed, this is intended to be, "The movie that Andy [from 'Toy Story'] saw that changed his life. Andy's Star Wars."

So what does that look like? How does something like this come together? What kind of innovation does it take from some of the greatest minds in animation to bring an action film like this to life? How do you find the balance of staying true to the Buzz people know and love (voiced by Tim Allen) while offering something totally new as we're dealing with the "real" Buzz (voiced by Chris Evans)?

A Sci-Fi Epic Designed To Inspire A New Generation

These movies take years to make, which means the idea for "Lightyear" was seeded years ago. But for MacLane, who previously co-directed "Finding Dory," this goes back to his childhood, really. If you're going to make a good sci-fi film, you've got to love it. And for MacLane, that love started, as it did for so many of us, with "Star Wars."

"After I saw Star Wars in the theater in the Westgate 5, all I wanted to do was play Star Wars. All I wanted to draw was Star Wars. Star Wars was my religion. And that lasted quite a while. But Star Wars was just the beginning of a whole string of science fiction classics that defined my childhood. Every year, it seemed like there was another genre-defining classic."

It would be nearly 20 years later when MacLane would see "Toy Story," yet another movie that ended up changing his life. That movie would plant the seeds for what would go on to become his latest directorial effort, which he ultimately describes as a "fish out of water story" and, more to the point, "a sci-fi epic designed to inspire a new generation."

The Universality Of Time

But a movie needs more than a character from a popular franchise. There must be a story to tell and there must be a theme. For MacLane, he settled on time as the universal truth to anchor the story. MacLane has been working in the same building and with Pixar for around 20 years and he says, "The studio is a bit of a time machine." The nature of time, it turns out, worked to encapsulate everything he was looking to say in this movie.

"That's the truth I wanted to build for Lightyear. Nostalgia for the past while rapidly jumping into the future. So, we have a story where Buzz Lightyear would be traveling rapidly through time, and all because of a job. Because of that, as a result, he's separating himself from society and all of his loved ones... This felt like a natural fit for Buzz as a hero out of time, a well-worn story in the science-fiction drama."

Time is truly something we can all relate to and it's easy to see how that could be an appealing narrative to play with, especially when working within a franchise that has been around for going on 30 years. But director of photography Jeremy Lasky also points out that the filmmakers never lost sight of what they were really trying to do here.

"It was vital to remember that we're making a sci-fi film. This simple statement was a real touchstone for me. Having grown up on a steady diet of sci-fi films, I have a deep love of the genre and wanted to make sure we took advantage of all it has to offer."

And, as any fan of the genre knows, it does indeed have a lot to offer. But it's also important to understand this real version of the character and how time might affect him. MacLane, in doing some soul searching, found that Buzz Lightyear "is a character who is at odds with his surroundings," he explains. "Or to put it another way, Buzz always has a disagreement over the nature of reality. In 'Toy Story,' Buzz thinks he's a space ranger. Woody disagrees. 'Toy Story 2,' Buzz thinks he's the Buzz Lightyear. The other Buzz Lightyear disagrees."

Now, imagine what that might do to someone who is having to deal with some serious spacetime continuum issues? Does reality care if Buzz disagrees with it?

Pixar's Painstaking Attention To Detail

One thing that has always been true of Pixar is that the studio's attention to detail is downright miraculous. Be it little Easter egg callbacks to previous films, or just adding in a feast of visual detail as the technology has gotten better over the years. Producer Galyn Susman, on that topic, actually calls herself a "tech nerd" who went to college as a physics major hoping to be an astronaut. That made her a natural fit for this film and, through the process, she got to live out a little bit of a dream as they went on a research trip to NASA to help nail the details down for the movie.

"We tend to be a bit obsessive about research at Pixar. The goal is to take your key creatives and expose them to the people, the environments, and experiences that will impact the design and the language of the film. And we completely lucked out. Lindsey Collins, the producer for Turning Red, introduced us to Tom Marshburn... He's an astronaut who's currently stationed on the ISS. He, in turn, grabbed his fellow astronaut friend, Kjell Lindgren, and between the two, we were treated to a comprehensive multi-day exploration of the Johnson Space Center in Houston."

Fran Kalal, the tailoring and simulation supervisor on the film, benefited from the experts at NASA and infused some of what she learned into the film. Kalal met with a spacesuit design consultant, looked at reference materials from the Smithsonian, and even got access to a tangible replica. As Kalal explains, the various suits we see in "Lightyear" all actually serve a purpose, and real-world functionality was taken into account in crafting these suits.

"A launch and entry spacesuit is designed to keep a human alive in space or water long enough for a rescue operation. They're structured with layers upon layers of cooling, wires, heavy metal rings, an impermeable outer shell, utility gauges, and instruments. All these layers add structure and change the way a wearer could move. Now, Buzz's first launch and entry suit, the XL-1, takes us back to the early days of human space exploration with function over form. The chest box is bulky and secured with a webbed harness. The oxygen hose is loose and unwieldy. The wrist communicator is strapped right onto the suit. The suit has padded knees, elbows, and shoulders to protect Buzz from jostling in the ship, and to afford mobility. The utility belt is bulky, with large metal buckles. And the boots, gloves, and neck rings all allow for rotation, but are heavy and a bit unwieldy."

The Rules Of The Universe

Sci-fi can take many shapes, with many different ways of interpreting the future. "Star Trek" is more of a grounded (as much as it can be) approach to humans exploring the final frontier. "Star Wars" is straight-up fantasy-influenced, operatic sci-fi. Some things are more grounded and care not about an accurate prediction of what the future might look like, and others try hard to envision the future, even if they miss the mark entirely. In this case, the team wanted to focus on a tactile style, where everything has a purpose and tangible functionality. Here's how sets art director Greg Peltz puts it:

"A basic rule of thumb on our movie, there are no touchscreens or cloud sharing in the world of Lightyear. It's all Zip disks and 20-pound CRTs. In addition to looking cool, there's kind of a toy-like appeal."

This penetrates the film on every level, from the buttons and controls in Buzz's ship, to the new take on the villain Zurg (voiced by James Brolin) who is now a giant robot. These pragmatic thoughts also entered the design of the various ships with Petlz noting that "space launches are a violent, chaotic event, and we wanted the designs of our ships to highlight that sense of danger." To help get the design team there, they actually used old-school, real-world model techniques that might have been used in a '70s or '80s sci-fi film, even though this was a fully computer-animated flick being released in 2022. Peltz explains:

"This was a new approach for Pixar, and there was a lot for us to learn. We even built our own practical model, one of our early concepts to learn from. Really quickly, we discovered the importance of some age-old modeling practices."

Another fun little bit to note is that this practical mindset ended up extending to LEGO, which was mostly thanks to MacLane, who is a bit of a nut for the popular toys. "A bunch of our designs started as sketches that Angus made out of LEGO bricks," Peltz says. MacLane, for his part, had to find a balance between marrying things that felt practical and real with the needs of an animated sci-fi film. Coming from a family of engineers, he seems uniquely qualified to marry those disparate notions together.

"My dad's side of the family, they're engineers. In fact, my dad did the math on the window that Buzz does. He's very much like, things need to make sense and they need to check out. Well, we even erased most of the math because it didn't fit on the window, and because that told a better story. To me, the illusion of legitimacy is very much what filmmaking is."

We've Come A Long Way, Baby

One of the biggest things about "Lightyear" is that it simply isn't a movie that could exist, as it exists, until now. Even if Pixar had wanted to do a spin-off such as this earlier on, it might not have been possible or, at the very least, at all the same. The team even crafted new technology to film it for IMAX. As always, Pixar seems to be pushing what is possible in animation here. Another example of that, as trivial as it may seem to some, is the hair of several characters in the film.

Hawthorne (voiced by Uzo Aduba) is Buzz's fellow Space Ranger and close friend in the film. One major focus for the team was giving her a braided hairstyle that is akin to what a Black woman would wear in the real world. This was not always possible, though, as everything is more complicated than it seems in animation. As Susman explains:

"Grooming is still a developing art form in computer graphics. It's very complicated. It's very information-rich. We worked closely with tools, and we had a woman on our film that had a particular passion for being able to figure out the braids. It was her thing, and she owned it. It was just this stunning masterpiece of working with tools, and her coding, and putting things together. It was a back and forth, it was an iteration. It was an important part of capturing who these characters are. It was worth making the investment to really try to make them feel authentic. I think probably one of the most joyous moments for me was at the preview, when one of the women in the Q&A afterward, she looked and said, 'I love that hairstyle. I could wear that hairstyle. I could see that hairstyle on me.' You couldn't ask for more than that."

Jane Yen, the film's visual effects supervisor, also explained that the hair braids we see in the film were a big challenge. "I'm especially proud of our team's development of new groomed construction techniques," she says. "Our braid system has controls for braid partitioning, curl, and graphic shaping that have allowed us to bring our beautiful characters even further to life." 

It may seem like a small detail, but it's a big detail and just one example of how far Pixar has come. Between all of the moving parts and innovation going on, one thing MacLane didn't want to do is get lost in a needless rabbit hole of deciphering exactly what this movie is, or concerning audiences with that too much.

"We didn't go down the rabbit hole of figuring out who were the in-universe actors playing these characters, mostly because ... it's not a thing that was useful to us. Because I never wanted the end of the film to wrap around and go, 'Remember Toy Story?' So for me, it's more of a departure point. It's an off-ramp to get into a separate universe."

"Lightyear" is set to hit theaters on June 17, 2022.

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