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How Pixar's Lee Unkrich went from attending USC to directing "TS3"

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How Pixar's Lee Unkrich went from attending USC to directing "TS3"

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So what's the very best way to break into the biz? Does going to some four year school like Emerson College or CalArts (which specializes in Communications and the performing arts) really give you an advantage? Or would it better in the long run to just hook up with some outfit like pabootcamp and then get some practical show business experience there?

To hear Lee Unkrich (i.e. the director of "Toy Story 3." Which -- FYI -- makes its Blu-ray & DVD debut tomorrow) talk, getting ahead in the entertainment industry can be something of a crapshoot. Sometimes you just have to be the right guy in the right place with the right skills at the right time.

"To be honest, I kind of owe my career at Pixar to the fact that - when they were gearing up to make the original "Toy Story " - the Studio decided that they should use Avid technology so that they could then take a non-linear approach toward the editing of this movie. And since there were so few folks in the early 1990s who were familiar with how those particular editing machines worked and because I had lots of experience with Avid at that point ...," Unkrich explained. "Well, that's why I got that phone call."


"Toy Story 3" director Lee Unkrich. Photo by Deborah Coleman
Copyright 2010 Disney / Pixar. All rights reserved

Now you have to understand that film students typically don't go from graduating from USC in 1991 to then editing full-length animated films in just three years time. But in Lee's case, this actually happened because - in his final semester at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts - Avid came on campus and began offering training sessions in their new editing system.

"I took part in Avid's very first training session and immediately got how their software worked. I immediately saw the possibilities in this new non-linear approach toward film & TV editing," Unkrich continued. "And because I showed a real aptitude for working with their machines, right out of school I got hired to work on 'Renegade' and 'Silk Stalkings.' Which were the first two episodic TV series to be edited on the Avid."

Now again this is not the typical career path that one takes when they are striving to become a full-fledged film editor. There are usually long years of struggle involved here, where one slowly climbs the ladder by first becoming an apprentice film editor then moving to assistant to - if one's lucky - a full-blown film editor. But Lee was able to collapse all of that into a single three year span because - just as he was officially entering the biz - there was this technological change that led to sudden opportunities in the industry.


Lee Unkrich and John Lasseter at the 2009 Venice Film Festival
Copyright 2009 Disney / Pixar. All rights reserved

Of course, what also helped here is that - once he arrived at Point Richmond - Unkrich found that he shared a storytelling sensibility with John Lasseter.

"When I took this assignment, John told me that he didn't want 'Toy Story' to be cut like it was a cartoon. He wanted Pixar's first full-length animated feature to be edited just like it was a live-action film. With the same sort of drama & energy & urgency." Lee said. "Which absolutely thrilled me. Because - prior to taking on 'Toy Story' - I looked at a lot of animated features. And to be honest, I wasn't happy with the way a lot of those films were constructed."

So - again - you can see the huge role that luck plays in Lee Unkrich's career path. That he'd have just the right set of technical skills that this fledgling animation studio would be looking for. More importantly, that this recent USC graduate would share John Lasseter's storytelling sensibility.  That these two - along with the rest of the crew at Pixar - shared a vision when it came to what an animated feature could be. The different types of stories that Pixar Animation Studios could tell.


(L to R) Lee Unkrich, Darla K. Anderson and Pete Docter back in their
"Monsters, Inc." days. Copyright Disney / Pixar. All rights reserved

And because Unkrich was so good at bringing that vision to life, he quickly began moving up the food chain at Pixar. Going from being the editor on "Toy Story" and "A Bug's Life" to becoming the co-director on "Toy Story 2," "Monsters, Inc." and "Finding Nemo." And even though it was Lee' s practiced eye as an editor that helped make those three  Pixar productions some of the highest grossing  films of all time, Unkrich still isn't the type to hog credit and/or steal the spotlight.

"What we do here at Pixar really is a team effort. These films that we make here take years to produce with hundreds of people contributing. I'm just one of many when it comes to these movies. And we all work hard here," Unkrich insisted.

But even so, when the decision was made in early 2006 to go forward with production of "Toy Story 3," it was Lee that John entrusted with shepherding this long-awaiting sequel to the screen. Which was really something of a challenge, given "Toy Story 2" 's audience-satisfying conclusion.


Copyright 1999 Disney / Pixar. All rights reserved

"That - I think - was the biggest challenge that we initially faced with 'Toy Story 3.' That we had ended 'Toy Story 2' so well, with Woody having made his peace with the idea that Andy was going to grow up someday and leave his toys behind," Unkrich explained. "So how do we now take that healthy feeling and undo it? In a way that honored and didn't undermine the movie that came before it."

What Lee and the "TS3" story team initially started to do was develop a very different story idea for this "Toy Story" sequel. One that - while it was very clever and much more high concept that the movie that bowed in theaters this past June - lacked "Toy Story 3" 's emotional component.

Mind you, when I asked Unkrich last week to reveal what "TS3" 's original story idea was, he politely demurred. Insisting that - given the way things work at Pixar - story ideas that initially don't work and are then abandoned sometimes wind up being folded into future projects. Which is Lee remained tightlipped about this high concept idea for "Toy Story 3."


Copyright 2010 Disney / Pixar. All rights reserved

"What we opted to do instead was explore the differences between Woody making his peace with the idea that Andy would leave his toys behind someday and the very real stresses & anxieties  that these characters would deal with during those days just before Andy left for college," Unkrich said. "We knew that - at the end of this movie - we wanted Andy to give his toys to a special little girl. So that - when we left them again - these characters would then be in a place where they'd be safe and they'd be loved and played with again. But beyond that, we just had a bare bones idea of what we wanted to do with this movie."

Thus began a four year odyssey where Lee - working with veteran Pixar producer Darla K. Anderson - moved "Toy Story 3" through the production process. Where Unkrich & Anderson always strove to strike just the right balance. Making sure that this new "Toy Story" film had the exact same tone as the two films that had come before it, that it was always faithful to the way that these characters had previously been portrayed. But - at the same time - making sure that "TS3" could stand on its own. That this "Toy Story" sequel was a good movie all in its own right.

"You know, the other day, I was adding up the time that I've spent in the 'Toy Story' universe. And between the four years that I've spent on 'Toy Story 3' and the three years I spent editing and then co-directing the original 'Toy Story' and 'Toy Story 2,' that's seven years total that I've spent with these characters. Seven years in Andy's bedroom," Lee laughed.


Copyright 2010 Disney / Pixar. All rights reserved

Of course, what's kind of ironic about all this is ... Well, "Toy Story 3" ends with Andy heading off to college. And Lee's career at Pixar never would have even begun if - in his senior year at USC, during his final semester at that school - Unkrich had opted to blow off that Avid training session. Play hooky instead.

So to bring today's story full circle ... Yes, luck (as in: being in the right place at the right time) did play an awful big part in Lee Unkrich's career at Pixar Animation Studios. But it's also important to note the role that hard work played in all this.

That if Lee hadn't really applied himself at those initially Avid training sessions (which then led to the opportunity to edit "Renegade" and "Silk Stalkings." Which is what gave Unkrich the work experience that he needed to be the best possible candidate for that "Toy Story" editing gig), this guy wouldn't be where he is today. Which is - after making sure that the Blu-ray & DVD versions of "Toy Story 3" are properly promoted and/or getting to the other side of awards season - taking a very well deserved break. Whereupon Lee & Darla will team up again to work on a yet-to-be-named future project for Pixar Animation Studios.


"Toy Story 3" director Lee Unkrich. Photo by Deborah Coleman
Copyright 2010 Disney / Pixar. All rights reserved

So long story short: if you want to get ahead in the entertainment industry, you have to do what Lee Unkrich did. Whether you're just the PA who's in charge of the crafts services table on some reality TV show and / or a soon-to-be-graduating  senior at some prestigious film school, you have to take advantage of any & all opportunities that come your way. Because you just never know - at least when it comes to show business - what it is that's going to kick open the door for you.

Because -- in some cases, anyway -- it can be something small. Something seemingly inconsequential. Like a Listerine commercial.

But to hear that story (and how it relates to Darla K. Anderson's career at Pixar), you're going to have to come back to JHM on Thursday.

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  • To see Emerson next to CalArts is like a dream. Great interview. Incredible film.

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