Anything is possible in animated storytelling, particularly for a futuristic science-fiction project like Pixar’s upcoming Lightyear. The film, which imagines the action-packed adventures of a time-jumping Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Chris Evans), boasts rocket launches inspired by actual NASA science, robots that shoot lasers, and zero-gravity fights. While much of that can be brought to the screen through CGI, the filmmakers behind Lightyear say the real challenge with all their technological capabilities is knowing where to begin when it comes to telling the story.
Ahead of Lightyear’s June 17 release, three members of the Pixar team—director Angus MacLane, producer Galyn Susman, and director of photography Jeremy Lasky—spoke to The A.V. Club about animation versus live-action filmmaking, how they learn from one to inform the other, and the philosophical secrets to Pixar’s success. Turns out “the sky’s the limit” has more than one meaning when you’re talking about filming sci-fi.
AVC: When it comes to a sci-fi action-adventure project like Lightyear, what can animated films do that live-action films can’t? What are the differences, especially when it comes to staging action?
Jeremy Lasky: I’m sure what Angus would tell you is that you can pick apart every single frame and make adjustments to every single frame, in terms of spacing action across a scene. You are really creating it from scratch, so you can get your timing perfect. Angus will spend a lot of time on those scenes, making sure the audience is not distracted by motion blur that happens in a weird spot, or any little thing that will draw you out of the movie. And all that can be controlled to an infinitesimal degree. I think for me, in terms of staging it, obviously, there’s no stunt person. So whatever we want to do, we can do, and these characters don’t get hurt. So there’s that freedom—but it has to feel believable. There have to be stakes. When you watch live action, even though you know it’s not real, you feel like it’s happening. Great fight scenes feel like somebody’s actually got hurt. Hopefully they didn’t. But if you know it’s a CG film and you’re watching things that don’t exist, and nothing in the shot is real, what are the consequences like? That character’s not really going to get hurt...I tend to fall asleep when movies get too action-heavy, where it just becomes this boring punching. I kind of check out because when we’re done, I’m not getting any information. There’s nothing new happening. So Angus and I, we really try to avoid fighting for fighting’s sake. We’re just like, Why is this important? Why is this here?
Angus MacLane: Well, there’s a unified sense of physics in animation where you can control the image. But I think there’s a lot of stuff the animation doesn’t do well. There’s a sense when you see a live-action movie, and specifically when you see a movie where the actor is putting themselves in danger, like Jackie Chan or Tom Cruise or something like that, you feel that sense of palpable danger. You don’t get that automatically with animation, you have to work overtime to make it work. Peril, fighting—it can be really boring in any format unless it’s about something. But [in animation] that becomes, I think, especially tedious if you have prolonged fighting because you’re so aware that it’s not real. So it really needs to be about something. One of the things that The Incredibles has, for example, is the battle with the robot—they’re fighting to get the remote control. So it gives them a clear goal in that action. And so with any of the action scenes, we try to make sure that there is an understandable and gettable goal so the audience understands when the scene can be over. And I don’t know if that’s limited to animation. It’s just, that’s the strength of it, that it can do kind of whatever. The negative is that you have to work overtime to make the audience care.
Galyn Susman: We have a zero-[gravity] fight, and that’s definitely easier in animation. But it’s only going to be successful if we’ve convinced everybody, before that zero-G fight, that our characters are real, that they’re solid, that they have weight. Things can be easily very floaty.
JL: Part of what [Lightyear] does is help make things feel real. Not photo-real. But by having a world that feels lived in, by having things in shadow, by taking away the CGI perfection of everything—when there’s an action scene, you’re more able to buy into, “I can’t believe Buzz did that,” instead of, “Oh, well, you pushed a few buttons and moved a few things around in your cartoon.” [We want to add] that weight to it.
AVC: We want to avoid any spoilers here, but Jeremy, as director of photography, how do you approach staging a zero-G fight? Does that present its own problems?
JL: Some of it’s a little movie magic in that, it’s zero-G, but if you’re really in zero-G, there’s probably other things that we’re not exactly considering. But zero-G fights are slow. You’re not able to run at someone, or you can’t throw a punch in the same way because everything is slowed down. So how do you make that interesting? How do you stage it in such a way that you still feel stakes and it doesn’t feel like this weird underwater ballet, right? Because that’s what it often does. And I think one thing we do in that circumstance is we cut back and forth to other things. So you’re with it for a little bit, and then you go to something else, and then you’re with it a little more. I feel like that’s just on the edge of spoilers! But yes, it is definitely more challenging and much more about involving the animators figuring out how to make that choreography from a motion standpoint, from a physicality standpoint.
AVC: Going off of that, it seems that every Pixar film presents new challenges, forcing you all to up your game and innovate. Jeremy, for example, gave an interview about WALL-E in 2008 explaining one such innovation was staging first with a live-action camera. Was that a change that then became incorporated into every Pixar endeavor going forward?
JL: It was. Yeah, that was a research project where we said, OK, we want to make this film anamorphic. What does that mean? Let’s look at an anamorphic camera and a set of lenses for Wall-E. And [producer] Jim Morris was a big influence on that, before he became the president of [Pixar] studio. He was producing Wall-E, and because of his background coming from live action and special effects, he was like, “OK, let’s just grab some cameras! We can do it.” We said, “OK, great, no one’s ever offered [that].” So that research kicked off the current wave of our digital camera package, meaning we [did] it on WALL-E, it worked, now it’s just math. So we can do it for any kind of lens we want. We can do it for any kind of camera we want.
For example, on Lightyear, we’re shooting in IMAX for about a third of the movie. And we have two sets of lenses and two cameras to replicate that difference. We are going with a larger sensor, a 65-millimeter-equivalent sensor, on the IMAX version of the film. Shooting with a bigger “piece of film,” if you will, or a bigger sensor, gives you a different feel to the imagery. And you certainly see that in a ton of movies where it just feels different. I think it feels a little more three-dimensional. There’s something about it, it’s just more sculptural, it can be really beautiful. And pairing that with a set of lenses designed for that kind of camera versus our anamorphic lens set, which is an update of what we used on WALL-E, you get these different looks. If you’re watching the film in a regular theater, you may not notice. But when you see the film in IMAX, those shots are actually shot “in IMAX,” for lack of a better word. Listen, we’re all nerds. We just went that extra mile—“This should feel authentic. When else am I going to get to shoot an IMAX movie?” But yeah, all of that stuff started back on WALL-E, and each film has kind of had its own version. Like, how do we want to shoot this film? What’s the aspect ratio? What do we want the feel of it to be from the lens? And it all sounds like kind of small, little things. But they all add up. Turning Red looks the way it does because of how it’s shot. And the art direction and the animation, all those things, it’s 180 degrees from how Lightyear looks. But it’s the same computers.
AVC: So you’re really inventing new solutions on every project—or coping with unforeseen challenges, like working remotely in a pandemic for Lightyear. Could you talk about that “sky’s the limit” approach to creativity?
GS: Well, it’s not random. It is all in service of the story that you’re telling. So you are focusing your efforts, inventing in a direction that supports your story and supports the aesthetic of the story. So that in and of itself is a ton of boundaries because it really is much more focused than just, “Let’s make shit!” Oh, we’re not supposed to say that. [Laughs.] You can see I’m comfortable with you, I’m swearing.
AM: To reiterate: “Let’s make shit!” No, I don’t think about it as far as potential—there are so many limitations. And I think it’s really useful. Especially sci-fi, it can be about everything, so where do we begin? So you have to make bold choices and decisions early on because the clock is already ticking for your movie coming out. And so it’s like, how much are you going to get onto the screen? How much are you going to communicate? How are you going to allocate the resources that you have to the movie? And it’s totally always finite because the crew has to move on to another movie, we have only so much time. But I think that that pressure produces diamonds. And certainly the pressure of COVID did produce diamonds for us on this film.
AVC: So at Pixar, it’s almost like limitations are key to unlimited, uninhibited creativity?
JL: Oh, it’s inhibited. Or I mean, it’s uninhibited but to a point. We’re all here because we want to make movies and we want to make great movies. Everyone’s an overachiever. That is just who shows up here...There was a real nervousness [working on Lightyear] because the first scene we made is Buzz’s first spaceflight. And it looked great. And then it was like, “But that took us a long time. So how can we keep that going for all of these other scenes—that are more complex than this one?” Well, we needed to figure that out. So, yeah, the sky’s the limit—but then you kind of have to figure out how to reorganize yourself to hit that limit every time, right? Because the movie comes out when the movie comes out and you have a deadline. [And we ended] up with a movie that feels like we didn’t make any compromises. And that’s the hope, right?