Pixar’s NASA Research Trip Helped Influence the Look and Feel of ‘Lightyear’

In 1995, Disney•Pixar would release the first of four Toy Story films, not to mention countless other shorts and TV specials, making them the premier animation studio. And throughout these films, we’ve seen Woody and Buzz in all sorts of adventures. Though we’ve seen glimpses of “Woody’s Roundup,” the show that inspired the cowboy doll Andy played with, Buzz’s story remained untold. That is until Pixar decided to make Lightyear, an all-new Sci-Fi epic adventure that would be the movie Andy watched in 1995.

A NEED FOR HYPERSPEED – In Disney and Pixar’s “Lightyear,” Buzz Lightyear (voice of Chris Evans), after being marooned on a hostile planet, attempts multiple test flights in an effort to reach hyperspeed and return home. Directed by Angus MacLane (co-director “Finding Dory”) and produced by Galyn Susman (“Toy Story That Time Forgot”), the sci-fi action-adventure opens in U.S. theaters on June 17, 2022. © 2022 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

The Nerds of Color joined their fellow journalists for a sneak preview of the upcoming film, scheduled for release in theaters later this July. During the presentation, we heard from director Angus MacLane (co-director of Finding Dory) and producer Galyn Susman, as well as Greg Peltz (Sets Art Director), Fran Kalal (Tailoring and Simulation Supervisor), Jane Yen (Visual Effects Supervisor), and Jeremy Lasky (Director of Photography).

Lightyear is not a spinoff about the specific toy that we all know and love. So instead of making a spinoff about the toy character, McLean pitched Lightyear as a Sci-Fi epic movie that Andy watched in 1995. “Buzz is not a toy. He’s a human,” MacLane said. “This is the real Buzz Lightyear.” Of course, with no definitive back story, this gave the director the chance to shape the character that would eventually become the toy that would redefine playtime as we know it.

Of course, movie fans are familiar with Sci-Fi epics and have a few titles in mind if asked to name their favorite ones. But Lightyear was presented with a unique way to tell the story of Buzz and be connected to the Toy Story films. So MacLane went about making a movie that underscored Buzz’s constant odds with his surroundings. In Toy Story, Buzz denied he was a toy and believed he was a space ranger. In Toy Story 2, he found himself at odds with another version of himself who was under the same denial. In Toy Story 3, we saw him revert to his original factory settings. And so on.

LIGHTYEAR – Concept Art by Tim Evatt and Ian Megibben. © 2022 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

But because Lightyear is a movie about the character and not so much the toy itself, MacLane needed to find a way to tell a story that stayed true to the spirit of Pixar’s storytelling while being something new for the character’s mythology. So, he settled on the theme of time because time is the universal truth that everyone has to face.

MacLane proceeded to show images of a Pixar lobby in a constant state of flux, never stopping and always reflective of the film on the verge of release while also harboring the ghosts of the past that honor the joys, triumphs, and setbacks.

Using that as the basis of the story, MacLean dug a little deeper and found that his hometown of Portland, Oregon was also a city that changed steadily throughout the years starting as a provincial city and turning into something he no longer recognizes. “And I wish I could go back and visit all these people in places that are gone. But I know I can never go back,” he said. “And I suspect I’m just glorifying the good aspects of that era and ignoring the bad parts.”

MacLane recognizes that the draw of nostalgia is strong. And as such, he put a twist on revisiting your past self and turned it forward. Here Buzz was nostalgic for the past while rapidly jumping into the future. “It’s like a Rip Van Winkle trapped in the future. He doesn’t recognize desperately trying to get back to the past to correct the mistake of his youth, a hero out of his own time,” he said. “So we really worked hard to nerd out and make this the best Buzz Lightyear film. And we could build Buzz’s world out in a way that we’ve always wanted to see it.”

LIGHTYEAR – Concept Art by Calum Alexander Watt. © 2022 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Lightyear means there will be a lot of robots and a ton of space exploration. And to obtain that “to infinity and beyond” look, producer Galyn Susman researched with the best people to achieve the look and feel of space. Having already worked with MacLane, Susman knew that whatever he was going to direct, she wanted to produce it. But, of course, since Lightyear takes place in space, she would need to take her research to the stars.

With help from Turning Red producer Lindsay Collins, Susman took a research trip to NASA and was introduced to Tom Marshburn, a veteran NASA astronaut with three spaceflights to the ISS under his belt. “So we tend to be a bit obsessive about research at Pixar,” she said. “The goal is to take your key creatives and expose them to the people, environments, experiences, all the stuff that will impact the design and the language of the film.”

The comprehensive multi-day exploration of the Johnson Space Center in Houston included learning about spacesuit construction, buttons and switches, knobs and dials, and badges, and replicas of the International Space Station, capsules, and more. But the research trip wasn’t just about getting to know how the ship works, the team also had some hands-on training, which included the training pool for the spacewalk and posing with astronauts wearing 350 lbs of gear. They even got to wear some of it. Some of the earlier equipment wasn’t meant for women or anyone with facial hair.

LIGHTYEAR – Concept Art by Garrett Taylor. © 2022 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

So Lightyear’s visual language is inspired by all of Pixar’s research at NASA. But since it’s been over 27 years since Toy Story was first released, MacLane needed to find a way “to adhere to the visual language established with the buzz character, but I also wanted to take advantage of all the technical and artistic advances in the last quarter-century.” For that, MacLane designed Lightyear to look like a movie. To achieve that cinematic look, the director embedded a vision to a graphic image that would utilize a high contrast atmosphere inspired by the look of a 1970s film. The approach meant Lightyear would mark a bit of a departure from the earlier films by using different lenses and lighting techniques.

Working in conjunction with NASA proved to be invaluable to Pixar as they were able to capture some of the nuances that come with space exploration and the mission control team dynamics. “Tom Marshburn, who’s been available to us all through the process, he got on Zoom for a launch that he wasn’t a part of, and basically explained to the team, all of the back talk that that was happening and what would be what would be happening, like what would the person be experiencing in that rocket as they’re waiting and how they’re positioned and what is hooked up and what isn’t hooked up,” Susman said.

These exchanges weren’t so much about the science of it all, but the personal experiences that come with being someone working at NASA. “He explained it to us while we were talking about space station and a subset of subsequent email, like, here’s what I got wrong,” MacLane said. “It was a very dense email, I did not understand most of it. It was awesome.”

“We’d build a believable tangible world, and then we throw it away using shadow and atmosphere. We’d have bold lighting, emphasizing the graphic and letting the detail fall away, drawing the viewer into a rich world of a tangible alien landscape,” MacLane said. “So I wanted the film to be cinematic, which can be a challenge when you’re making a film on a computer CG tends to look cold and flimsy.”

LIGHTYEAR – Concept Art by Bill Zahn. © 2022 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Another quality MacLane wanted to have in the film was chunk. The original Buzz had a healthy dose of chunk as it was inspired by the look and feel of the NASA spacesuits of the past and a few anime influences. But astral gear wasn’t the only thing that needed to be visualized. “I wanted the technology to be a push button world of inefficiency, a celebration of early 1970s and 1980s vision of the future,” he said. “So we tried a variety of shapes and textures to explore the design possibility of this Neo retro-future.”

So, MacLane brought concept designer Calum Watt to explore the technology of push button inefficiency and a celebration of early 1970s and 1980s vision of the future. As a result, they settled on a clear design ethos, a rugged military aerospace design, and combined it with the 1980s consumer electronics. Watt’s designs would later inform the visual language of the ground vehicles, spaceships, and the rest of the set pieces.

Though Lightyear is being billed as a Sci-Fi epic, its grounded in reality doesn’t make the film a “really hard Sci-Fi” or “fantasy Sci-Fi” according to MacLane. “It’s like a soft boiled sci fi,” he said. “So there are elements that seem seem sciency and then there’s a lot of hand waving.”

And MacLane would be in constant contact with Marshburn to talk about the science and how it ties to the themes of the film. “Of course, we took a lot of liberties, as you do in filmmaking, but the truth of it, there is a lot of truth to it, and he has attempted to explain the science of time dilation to us with a lot of various examples,” he said.

As always, storytelling is a top priority for Pixar. But none of that will matter without the research that help ground their films in a sense of reality. And judging by this long lead, MacLane, Susman, and the creative team behind Lightyear has done plenty of it during their five-year production. So that take all of what they learned during their research trips and conversations with Marshburn and then apply it to their film creates for a unique kind of Sci-Fi epic that centers on our favorite space ranger.

Lightyear opens in theaters on June 17, 2022.