Josh Cooley and Mark Nielsen during a press roundtable, as seen on the Toy Story 4 Long Lead Press Day, on April 3, 2019 at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif. (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)
To end our day at Pixar Studios, we sat at a roundtable interview featuring various outlets from around the world with Director Josh Cooley and Producer Mark Nielsen who answered a few questions about the film.
What was the intimidation level like going into this film?
Josh Cooley: What’s the highest number you can probably think of? *everyone laughs with someone commenting to Infinity and Beyond” For me, it was extremely intimidating right out the gate. Toy Story is so important not just to the studio but to a lot of people who grew up with it, myself included and so it kinda blew my mind.” He continued, “The great thing is we had so many ppl that we met from the crew and the cast who have worked on all the Toy Story films. We were in good hands at all times.
Mark Nielsen: These characters just mean so much to us at the studio, its like the crown jewel to us. Woody and Buzz are in the fabric of this place and I think the spirit of those characters is kinda infused in all the characters that we put in all of our films. So, to tackle this was a challenge, it was intimidating but also a great pleasure. You know a lot of us have been here a long time and have gotten to work on some of the other films and to go back into that world was exciting and we had animators for example that have grown up with these characters that were showing us pictures of themselves dressed as Buzz Lightyear at Halloween in first grade, that are now getting to open up shots and animate those characters, so it’s special.
So why Toy Story 4, was that always the plan to continue after Toy Story 3?
Josh Cooley: To answer the first question of why Toy Story 4. That was the thing that got me interested in this film, why make another one, I had the same questions but the more we thought about it…well every ending has a new a beginning so we thought, what is next for Woody because there is no way that he is going to be having the same experience in Bonnie’s room that he had in Andy’s room. All of a sudden it started to blossom and all these new ideas kinda started to grow, like how would he handle the situation and that’s always the best kind of scenario to have a character that you know really well but in a situation that you’ve never seen. So it kinda kept growing and growing and to answer the second part of your question, was there always a plan? I think there was always the thought of if there is a story worth telling, we’re going to tell it.
Mark Nielsen: “When we talked to Andrew Stanton at the beginning of this, said he always kind of thought of the first three Toy Story movies as a sort of three volume set that you could put on a shelf, it was life with Andy. So the idea of this also kind of sprung out with the idea of a new beginning, just a new chapter in the life of Woody. We knew there was a lot more Woody could learn and ways he could grow, he’s in a new situation now, he’s in a new room, the toys are all kind of blended from his old room and this new room and so there was a lot of potential for Woody in this.
So I heard that Don Rickles is still voicing Mr. Potato Head, so how is that going to work?
Josh Cooley: He had signed on to do the project before he passed and we were excited about that but after he passed his family contacted us and asked us if there was any possible way, he’s been doing Mr. Potato Head for over 25 years, can you create a performance out of material. So we went back through all of the outtakes from all the films, all the shorts, all the video games, all the ice capade shows, and every possible thing. There is a lot of Don Rickles and so, I wouldn’t say it was easy but there was a lot to work with. So I’m very honored that he is in this film.
Mark Nielsen: It’s an honor to all of us, I mean he is such a big part of these movies and every time you see a Potato Head toy you hear his voice in your head. So the idea of doing this film without him was one we didn’t want to consider and the editorial team did a great job.
As Tom Hanks and Annie Potts have never been in the recording studio at the same time to voice their characters, were there any sparks that really adds to their story?
Josh Cooley: Absolutely, both of them are so funny and quick-witted, it was like watching a boxing match or something where they are right alongside each other. Their first time together was to double check that they had that, you could feel the relationship there and right out the gate, it was like, oh we’re good.
Mark Nielsen: It made a big difference in the performance of both of them in their scenes. Having them being able to interact with each other that way.
Do you think we’ve reached the full potential of animation?
Josh Cooley: Every story is different, it requires a different style of animation. That’s like saying have we’ve seen the best basketball player of all time, I don’t think that’s a thing.
Mark Nielsen: It’s amazing though to see just how better they’ve gotten at their craft over time, you know a lot of these animators have been here for a long time and every film they just blow us away with the subtlety in the acting that they are able to achieve. We are just so thrilled that the animation in this film does feel like the bar is higher than it has been.
Josh Cooley: In fact, I had to pull back on Forky. The first couple of tests he looked beautiful and I said no, he needs to be crappier *everyone laughs* because he is so different from all the other toys in this world. He should have kind of like a handmade quality in the way he moves and I had to keep saying no eye blinks take them out, so it was an interesting challenge.
So what was behind the idea of adding Bo Peep in the movie as a main character in the movie was it a theme or something decided a long time ago?
Josh Cooley: That was decided a long time ago, I’d say that was the foundation of having a fourth film. Bo Peep was always a part of that…
Mark Nielsen: The code name we had for our film we’ve described it internally was Peep, that’s what we called the film for the whole five years we have been working on it. Bo was such a great character in the earlier films but we hadn’t seen her, she wasn’t in [Toy Story] 3, she’s only been in 1 & 2 in very small ways, we hadn’t described what had happened to her. So it was really intriguing to us digging into the story to develop a back story for her, where did she go, what’s it like out there, has she been with a kid, is she living on her own it was just a rich thing to explore, so we really grabbed on to that.
Josh Cooley: We basically got to reinvent her, we went back and looked at the other films and the amount of screen time she had was like 7 minutes in both films and that’s it and that includes every single frame that has her in it. She has character but she wasn’t a protagonist so we had the ability to go in there and build upon what was already there.
What’s more difficult to direct or what’s more difficult for the animators, redoing characters that are established or adding newer characters or updates on a character like Bo Peep.
Josh Cooley: There’s definitely new ground with a new character that nobody has ever animated before, the benefit of having Woody and Buzz is that there are animators here who have done both characters and sort of unlocked them in a sense. They know what you can and can’t do and it makes life a little easier but you also don’t want to tread on the same exact things you’ve done before, so I guess it just depends on the animator and also what the project is.
Mark Nielsen: From a story perspective one of the challenges of having Woody and Buzz is that they have been so established, everyone feels like they have a relationship with them. So when you’re exploring what they can do, what they need to learn or where they need to go people have opinions all around about what that could be or should be. So it was really challenging for us in telling the story of Woody to make sure it felt true to the audience that this is something that Woody would struggle with, this is a journey he would go on, these are the decisions Woody would make.
How excited was Tom Hanks to come back to this character?
Josh Cooley: Well I’ll tell you, the last session we had with him it was pretty emotional at the end. We brought him in for maybe 20 lines, not very much and we said thanks and he said this character means the world to me and my family and I’ve been doing it for almost 30 years…it was really touching.
Mark Nielsen: It was a big deal to him and he was incredibly invested in the story, he really grabbed on to it and really loved it from the start. He was just excited to have another adventure with this character, it was amazing I don’t know how many actors play the same role like this for over 25 years. He was reflecting on the age of his children as it was associated with which film he was working on at the time, Annie Potts as well talked about the birth of her child happening around the time of the first film and so it’s a reflective period for them whenever we would record them.
Josh Cooley: One of the most terrifying moments I had was pitching the story to Tom because he knows that world and that character better than anyone and I wanted to do right by that. So he came in like “All right, what are we doing, what’s going on?” So I started pitching it and we got to the classroom scene and went “All right you got me.” The same thing with Tim [Allen] too once I pitched it to him, he went, “Ok I see what this is” and it gives you the confidence to keep going.
Do you see this as the next Saga for these characters, the Toy Story for this generation?
Josh Cooley: I don’t know what the future holds but I’d like to think that even if no more films are made you’d feel like the story continued.