Despite expectations that Pixar’s Lightyear will offer an origin story for everyone’s favorite Space Ranger, director Angus MacLane and producer Galyn Susman first and foremost wanted to deliver a rollicking and original sci-fi adventure. The second Lightyear trailer, which premiered this week, hints at how the filmmakers have built around the foundational elements of Buzz, including his spacesuit and his robot-nemesis Zurg, to take the character into new territory and expand the Toy Story universe.
Ahead of the trailer’s release, MacLane and Susman spoke to The A.V. Club about their emotionally resonant vision for Lightyear, and also revealed how they worked with NASA to combine science and fiction in a way that prioritized the latter without disregarding the former, particularly when it comes to the film’s cornerstone concept of time dilation.
AVC: Working with NASA on this project must have been very cool. How committed were you to accurately portraying the science in the film?
Galyn Susman: Well, note that the “sci-fi” is with a small “s” and a big “F” in this sci-fi universe. But that being said, [NASA has] been extraordinarily helpful. And in particular Thomas Marshburn, who’s been available to us through the process, got on Zoom for a launch that he wasn’t a part of, and basically explained it to our team as that was happening. Like, what would the [astronaut] be experiencing in that rocket as they’re waiting? How are they positioned, what is and isn’t hooked up? Just to walk us through, so that we had a sense of how things really work. Because obviously, we were not gonna be able to do that ourselves. And since he’s had so many flights, he had a lot of personal experience to draw from. It’s really fascinating.
Angus MacLane: To add to what Galyn said about the sci-fi of it, this isn’t really hard sci-fi. And it’s not really fantasy sci-fi. It’s like a soft-boiled sci-fi. So there are elements that seem science-y, and then there’s a lot of hand waving. But our relationship with Tom was pretty constant throughout production. And it continues—
GS: To this day.
AM: We did speak to him last week on the space station! We check in with him, and he’s excited about the movie. Of course, we took a lot of liberties, as you do in filmmaking. But 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. And we—okay, I—have not really figured it out. But he explained it to us while we were talking to him on the space station, and then he sent a subsequent email, like, “Here’s what I got wrong.” And it was a very dense email. I did not understand most of it. It was awesome.
AVC: Given how long it takes to create a Pixar film, how much has the story or other aspects of the film changed since you began the process?
GS: Our process is that we write it, we board it, we put it up on reels, everybody hacks at it, and then you go back, and you do it again.
AM: So we’re always evolving our stories up until, or even through, production—which is what makes a producer absolutely nuts. [This story] changed a lot. I mean, the core elements were Buzz, this hero, who Buzz is fundamentally; that was all the same. But, you know, what will be his challenges? What is he gonna have to solve? What is gonna be his arc? That definitely changed multiple times. But the idea of time dilation, wanting to have time dilation and being it somehow [related to] nostalgia, this draw to the past, that, we knew he would have. And then we knew in the second act he was gonna be connected with a group that he was not familiar with. So you have a list of—What’s the obligatory scene for the movie? And I think the obligatory scene for the movie is Buzz fighting Zurg. We knew we needed that. And so you kind of build around that: What’s the genre of the film you’re working on? What are the expectations? How can you change those things? What will fit within the narrative of the film, and what’s enjoyable for the audience to watch? And a lot of times, that’s trial and error.
AVC: So that time dilation idea of Buzz jumping ahead in time—where did that come from?
AM: The whole reason why there’s a time jump of four years is because that’s how long it generally takes us to make a movie. [Laughs.] Like, that was born from the idea of the challenges of production, of making an animated film. You kind of write what you know, so that’s where that idea came from. And it kinda cracked us up. We were like, Okay, what would that be like? How could we engineer a story using that concept? Because that idea of missing your life or jumping forward in time seems so tragic and poignant and interesting. The why of it became the challenge.
GS: You said it beautifully. I know that, for me, I was very attracted to this notion that one makes choices, decisions, sometimes mistakes, that can shadow large chunks of your life. And you can wake up a decade later and go, “Why was I so obsessed with”—fill in the blank, right? That resonates with me very much, and I was very excited to try to tell that story in particular with an aspirational character like Buzz. Because it helps keep you on the positive side of that discussion. Because in the end, he’s gonna do the right thing. He’s our hero. He’s gonna take the next step, move forward, and appreciate what he has in the present.
AVC: Right, Buzz is both relatable and aspirational. In this case, which came first, the scientific fact of time dilation? Or the abstract concept and its storytelling possibilities?
AM: The abstract of time travel in one direction, being misaligned in time, was the first [inspiration]. Then whatever the concepts of time dilation itself are, the specifics of how that might be explained is secondary to, “Oh well, that would be kind of cool.” It was more starting from an emotion, of feeling untethered from reality.
AVC: What sort of things do you look to mine for inspiration? Science? Culture? History? Everything?
GS: We definitely mine everything. I think that we couldn’t let the science drive this story. But you can’t help, when speaking with somebody who’s about to go and spend six months up on the ISS, but think about that isolation. And looking at the space you’re in and thinking about being in that space for six months, it’s just—you can’t help but have an emotion, an emotional reaction to that. And that emotional reaction, I think, does make its way back into the film.