Lightyear is not exactly what you’d call a prequel. Its opening exposition tells us it is based on the toy that Andy got as a gift for his birthday, and that it was from his favorite movie. So for the first time, audiences everywhere will get to see the title space ranger’s origins story.
The Nerds of Color joined their fellow journalists for the Lightyear press conference. There, they got to talk to director Angus MacLane and producer Gayln Susman about the film, the 1980s inspiration, and the toy’s price tag.
As to why bother making a film about the sci-fi action hero that inspired the toy, well MacLane has a simple answer for that. “Well, the idea came to me as I’ve always wanted to tell or know about the backstory of the space rangers and star command and Buzz Lightyear,” he explained. “And so I also wanted to make something that was fun to make after doing Finding Dory, which was fun, but it was really challenging when you have a protagonist that’s always forgetting about what they want. Why don’t we just make that movie like a cool sci fi movie and a pitch to just like that? Like, what was the movie The Andy saw that made them want to Buzz Lightyear figure, why don’t we just make that movie, just make something awesome and simple like that, with all of the nerdy, geeky, like sci fi goodness that we want to see in the movie, just make the Buzz Lightyear movie make one adventure of that”
In terms of finding that inspiration, producer Galyn Susman says Lightyear is an amalgamation of 1980s sci-fi inspirations we grew up with. “There’s such an immersive, tactile, interesting feeling about those films. Star Wars absolutely going all the way until aliens,” she said. “We just really, those are the films that that we’ve watched dozens and dozens of times, or in his case, hundreds, and they really speak to us and we were you can’t help it reference them when you watch them that much.”
“We focused at the beginning and looking at thrillers and what made thrillers work at sci fi is often just like a mayonnaise that spread over the film. It’s not a specific genre,” MacLane said. “The point is, it’s a condiment. You can’t base a meal around mustard or mayonnaise. You can but it just tends to fall apart.”
“The idea was we looked at genre, the genre of thrillers and try to figure out what made them work. But to start the Buzz Lightyear movie in the same way that Raiders of the Lost Ark was thought of as a series of set pieces,” MacLane said. “We were working on the set pieces that would be cool to see in the movie, and what the emotional hook would be for movie make me care about Buzz Lightyear his journey. And those are really the two things we did to start working on the movie.”
But Lightyear is so much more than just a love letter to the classic sci-fi films. The film is also a turning point for authentic depictions of gay affection in Pixar animation. So keeping a kiss between Alicia Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) and her wife was very important according to Susman. “The whole relationship is about showing Buzz, what he doesn’t have,” she said. “We really just wanted to show a loving, meaningful relationship. And having a kiss as part of that. And we were really, really happy that we could do that.”
“The representation was something we were excited about. But more than anything, it’s a reflection of the reality of the world that we live in,” MacLane added. “And we feel like science fiction was always my entree into a more diverse society. Star Trek, at the time, was very diverse for a movie for a show of its era. And so it’s in that spirit that we take from Star Trek of trying to find the most diversity we can in our cast.”
Of course, one of the other biggest questions surrounding this film is the decision behind recasting Tim Allen with Chris Evans for the voice role of Buzz Lightyear. “Tim Allen is Buzz Lightyear the toy, and he’s the embodiment of Buzz Lightyear the toy. We weren’t making a Toy Story movie, we’re making a Lightyear movie. And so the first and foremost, we just needed to have a different person playing that lightyear you’re separating from the toy,” Susman said. “Then you’re looking at taking a side character and making them the protagonist of his own movie. So you need somebody who’s going to be very well rounded, you need somebody who can do drama and comedy that doesn’t undercut the stakes of the character, you need somebody who can express pathos and have genuine concern for their, their own safety and experiencing conflict and guilt.”
“And also, its because the character is different. It’s like having a different voice does differentiate is two different tracks. And when you see the movie, like, okay, yeah, I get it. And it makes a lot more sense. And you see how the tone of this film is different than the character in Toy Story,” MacLane added. “And then it’s a little more well-rounded. He’s a little bit smarter, because he’s not the comic relief. He has to be funny, but not too goofy.”
Since Lightyear is about the toy from Andy’s favorite movie, the film isn’t so much a prequel as it is a sci-fi blockbuster that Andy watched as a kid in 1995. And MacLane confirms Lightyear is a live-action film. “We got asked yesterday, who were the filmmakers who made the film? And then we realized we’re the filmmakers. Like, because the credits have our names on it,” he said. “I think there’s an in-universe version of each of us that we are now Disney characters.
But one character that everyone who watches Lightyear will be talking about is Sox the cat. Voiced by fellow Pixar vet Peter Sohn, Sox is a cute and cuddly multiple purpose emotional robot feline with an assortment of tools that proves to be very helpful during certain situations. “I always imagined Sox was something Matt Aldrich and I developed early on as an antithesis to all the things going on in the film. He was very low tech and he was very clunky, where Buzz was going to look very sleek, and was going to move very believably in a way that this would be like a cat that was fooling no one,” MacLane said about early concepts of Sox. “Like it doesn’t it looks like a cat. But it’s not the limited robotic movement like the kind of animation. I think is based around say like a pigeon. It has very few moving parts going on inside of it. And that’s really funny to me. And that’s what I’ve always tried to do as an animator. You think about Ken in Toy Story 3, you think about Wall-E in Wall-e. These are characters that don’t move that much. But every time they move, there’s an appeal to them. There’s a clarity and a simplicity. There’s no place in motion to hide.”
So, for MacLane, Sox represents that clunkiness in motion because this is a movie kind of made in the ‘80s. “Disneyland had a lot of these. It was never clear to me if they thought kids were supposed to think they were alive, but they have their own kind of goofy charm for their limitation. And that’s what Sox was. He was a completely limited cat flocked character that we that was good natured and was always there for Buzz.
And as to why Andy’s mom never got him a Socks cat to go with the Buzz Lightyear toy he got for his birthday. Well, there’s a simple answer for that. “That’s an expensive toy. They it was like, it would have been like worlds of wonder or Tiger Electronic. It would have been like a kind of a fancy like a $70 toy.”
Composer Michael Giachhino compared Sox’s absence in any of the Toy Story films to the toy that he never got as a kid. “I wish someone would go back into my childhood and inject the the AT-AT Walker,” he said. “Yeah, Jimmy was across the street had it”
“They didn’t even appreciate that they had the AT-AT,” MacLane added. “We don’t think about it that much. You know, back then. 42 years ago.”
Lightyear is also the first time that Pixar is releasing a film in theaters. As such, it deserves a release that is appropriate for the theatrical experience. And what better way to do that then to release it in IMAX. “I knew that this film was going to be that needed to be a theatrical experience. And as part of the theatrical experience, like animation oftentimes is seen as like a kid’s table, like like less than an IMAX is a format. That is it celebrates the cinematic experience,” MacLane said. “And by doing a film in IMAX, you’re kind of signifying, this is a movie that’s big. And by doing it from the beginning and in IMAX, you’re really saying like this is something we believe in, the company believes in, IMAX believes in, to give you a Premium Format experience.”
Susman credits MacLane for pitching the IMAX idea early enough to president of Pixar, Jim Morrison, so that they could build the tools change the pipeline and make it so that doing IMAX wasn’t twice the work. “Jeremy Lasky, our cinematographer, really just dove right in and embraced the format and started to pitch ideas about how we could use it as another storytelling tool. And that was that was really one when it took off for us,” she said.
“Going in and out of the IMAX, that was really fun, MacLane said. But those screenings in San Francisco at the Metreon were more than just to see a film in IMAX and catch up. It was also a chance for everyone to geek on the technology of giving an animated film the ultimate theatrical experience. “When the IMAX technicians are calling are saying like this is really cool, like they see everything,” MacLane said. “And that was probably the earliest best compliment was when the the IMAX folks were nerding out about the movie and the experience they were getting.”
Lightyear opens in theaters on June 17, 2022.