Directed by Angus MacLane (BURN-E),Small Fry serves as the latest addition in the "Toy Story Toons" series. Upcoming Pixar was able to screen the hilarious short in which Buzz gets trapped at a group therapy session for discarded ‘Fun Meal’ toys in preparation for the interview that follows. Naturally, we had quite a few questions for the long-time Pixarian behind the project.
Upcoming Pixar: Can you tell me a little bit about the concept of the short and where it came from?
Angus MacLane: When John Lasseter asked us to figure out what we could do with the "Toy Story Toons", he was really adamant that we should be exploring new areas of ‘toy truths’ in the toy universe. I had wanted to do some sort of group therapy or family therapy with some of the characters, but I couldn’t figure out a good way that didn’t seem forced. We had to figure out what ‘genre’ of toys had yet to be explored just so we didn’t do the same thing over and over again with the universe. I settled on doing Happy Meal toys just because I always enjoyed happy meal toys— in the history of them, a lot of them have been really great toys, inexpensive but of really high quality. For me, you really have to love what you’re working on because it takes so long to make these movies, but it was easy to do it about the fast food toys because I care about them so much as a toy fan.
UP: As the director, how did you balance the established world of Toy Story with your artistic sensibilities?
AM: I have a lot of respect for the Toy Story universe, it’s very personal to me and there’s a lot of importance for me personally in making it appropriate for the universe but at the same time wanting it to be different enough to justify its existence. So, what I tried to do was— if you have a short where it has an arch or a character moment for every single Toy Story character, it’s really hard to do that, it just takes a while. So I wanted to focus on one of the major characters, in this case being Buzz and then giving him something to do. It was just trial and error to see what felt like the right amount of time to spend with each universe. You don’t want to spend too much time away from our Toy Story toys back in Bonnie’s room and it just became a back and forth discovery of seeing what was too much, what wasn’t enough. Hopefully we struck a balance. We did end up cutting out whole scenes here and there because they wouldn’t fit with the amount of time you wanted to be with each group.
UP: What were some unique challenges on this project? Were there any technical and story challenges that you never faced before?
AM: It was a challenge to do— there was a lot of writing in this short. The script was pretty long, like 14-15 pages for a 7-minute short. The big challenge was, as we go from each step, going from story to layout, or layout to animation, to not ‘break’ the jokes because the jokes were so fast and furious on this short that they needed to read at each stage of the process. There’s a sensibility that I like— animation is not a very spontaneous medium— the support group is documentary style, shot like ‘off the cuff’ acting, naturalistic performances, and that’s hard to get into animation so there was a lot of balance there of trying to make sure that it was appropriate for each scene. It was just a question of keeping it funny and not breaking the movie.
UP: How did the process change with the introduction of Pixar Canada?
AM: Well the Pixar Canada group, this was their second film. They were really eager, and understandably nervous, to tackle a Toy Story film. There’s so much history with that. It was really great working with the new crew who was kind of discovering the [Toy Story] world as they went along. I was helping to communicate what it is about Toy Story that makes it Toy Story, so that’s kind of an interesting challenge. But they completely rose to the occasion and I think that the work that they did looks consistent with the other Toy Story films. It’s amazing, it’s just their second movie.
UP: Having previously directed BURN-E, did the process get easier
AM: Well, I don’t know if it got easier, but I kind of knew what to expect with certain things. I will say that BURN-E was a lot easier to do than Small Fry, for a variety of reasons. There’s a ton of speaking roles— I didn’t really have to direct voice talent other than myself for BURN-E and even that was mostly told through pantomime. In general I think [Small Fry] was a much harder film so that there was definitely a feeling that I was learning. It was a great training ground.
UP: What was it like directing the legendary cast and bringing in new voices like Jane Lynch?
AM: The cast knows their characters really, really well. When you record with them, there’s a little bit of anticipation. You’re like, in this story Buzz is going to be in a support group, and you kind of have to sell it to these well respected and accomplished actors and make sure that they get it and aren’t ashamed of it. They were incredibly supportive and wonderful to work with.
When you hear them perform the classic characters, you find a rhythm to it— can you add a “c’mon guys,” when you hear Tom Hanks, to make it sound the most like the character. And they’ll have great suggestions like, maybe this is too wordy for Buzz or Buzz wouldn’t say that, maybe try this. You have things written when you go into the recording sessions, and they’re reading from the script, but sometimes you have to work on the fly to get the best work because they just know the characters and they’ll be able to tell you right away when it doesn’t sound right.
Jane Lynch was my first choice for the role and I’m so glad she did it. She was exactly what I imagined out of the character, this really appealing, saucy, snarky group leader— I’ve just always been a fan of her work— and her acting style was really naturalistic, which I think was really important to anchor the group dynamics in realism.
UP: You’re a big LEGO fan, did that influence the production?
AM: There’s no LEGO in the movie, but I think that the specificity in which I approach building with LEGOs was applied to the construction of the characters and the scrutiny that I had for the modelers to get the characters to be like the drawings or accurate to the scale that they would be. When you make characters that are smaller— they’re a lot smaller than the Toy Story characters— then you see a lot of the imperfections of the toy creation process. You see seam lines, you see mold lines, you see paint imperfections and I’m really proud of the work that they did. When the camera is really close on them, if you look carefully, all of the characters look really well realized.
UP: Where do you see the "Toy Story Toons" series going in the future?
AM: I don’t know, I mean, I think that we’ll be looking for good stories to tell that expand the universe in a tasteful and respectable way. It’s hard to say, I mean there are ideas out there, but it will just take some time to fully flesh out what they are. I’m thankful for the freedom that was afforded me on this film, it’s definitely a movie that I wanted to make and I had the support of the studio and John [Lasseter].
UP: Here at Upcoming Pixar/Pixar Planet we have a lot of fans who want to work in the industry. What would you tell them if asked for advice?
AM: I’ve been out of the job [searching] world for a while and I can say I was lucky to get the opportunities that I did— I started on Toy Story 2 and I was hired out of school as an intern and just given a chance to learn a little bit on the job. So I think the biggest thing for students is to surround yourself with people whose work you admire, other students who are working to do what you want to do and you trust their opinions. The main function of school, in my mind, is to introduce you to other people who can push you to do great things. The people I surrounded myself with in school are all very successful and we all try to help each other be the best artists we can be. It doesn’t happen by mistake, it’s opportunity met with preparation. There’s a certain bit of luck involved— and I was very lucky. But at the same time, once you get the job it’s just the beginning, then you have to produce and grow as an artist. I would encourage people to enjoy the freedom that they have to make whatever they want to make. The difference between now and when I was looking for the job was the internet, which provides a huge opportunity for people to see your work. If it’s good, it’ll rise to the top.
Thanks goes out to Angus MacLane and the Pixar folks who made this interview possible. Please direct comments here.
Small Fry opens with The Muppets in US theaters on November 23.