The team from the storied animation studio go behind the making of its first made-for-the-really-big-screen movie
The inspiration behind Pixar’s first made-for-Imax movie, “Lightyear,” actually originated with 2011’s “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.”
The look of “Lightyear,” which imagines the movie that inspired the space-age toy that Andy (and now Bonnie) love so dearly in Pixar’s beloved “Toy Story” franchise, is something of a throwback. Its design aesthetic is intentionally chunky — co-writer and director Angus MacLane told TheWrap that the movie could have been made in the late 1970s or early 1980s and that he was inspired as much by consumer electronics from the time as well as movies like “The Black Hole” or “Alien.”
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But the film’s presentation, which includes specially designed footage for Imax, drew inspiration from elsewhere: Tom Cruise’s live-action blockbuster 2011 “Mission: Impossible” sequel “Ghost Protocol.” So while most Pixar movies are big, “Lightyear” is going to be really big.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it
MacLane originated the idea to use Imax, inspired by the way that Imax was utilized for “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” which served as the live-action debut of MacLane’s Pixar colleague Brad Bird. (“Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” also features a brief vocal performance from Pixar stalwart Teddy Newton, who voices a program that gives Ethan Hunt and his team their mission.)
“We all saw ‘Ghost Protocol’ like a week before it opened. It was like, ‘We should do something like that.’ When they go out to the Burj Khalifa and then there’s the crane shot that goes around,” MacLane said, referring to the “curtain raiser” moment in “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” when the camera moves toward the outside of the Dubai skyscraper (then the tallest building in the world), via an open window, and the aspect ratio expands to become so immersive, one needs to lean out of one’s seat.
The Pixar movies released between “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” and now are a typically varied bunch and it’s easy to imagine some of them taking advantage of the large format and boxier aspect ratio (including Bird’s own 2018 blockbuster “Incredibles 2”). But whether it was technical limitation or lack of filmmaker interest, none of those Pixar movies were specially designed for Imax. (A few didn’t even land a traditional theatrical release.)
So why did “Lightyear” get to be Pixar’s first made-for-Imax movie? “We wanted ‘Lightyear’ to be a big, bold film that felt like the sci-fi action adventure movies we all grew up with,” a Pixar spokesperson told us. “The incredibly immersive experience of seeing a film in Imax raises the excitement and intensity of Buzz’s mission to a whole new level.”
It ended up being MacLane’s mission (and he chose to accept it). MacLane and his producer Galyn Susman pitched the Imax idea to Jim Morris, Pixar’s president and general manager and his response was simple: “Yeah, we want to do that.” With Morris’ sign-off, “Lightyear” was ready to take off.
The box office mothership
“Lightyear” is the first feature-length spinoff of the core “Toy Story” franchise.
The first “Toy Story,” released back in 1995, generated nearly $395 million worldwide and kicked off a franchise (and a merchandising bonanza). The second film, released in 1999, was originally meant to be part of Disney’s line of then-lucrative direct-to-video sequels. But the quality of the sequel was too great; “Cinderella III: A Twist in Time” this was not. Released theatrically, it grossed $497 million worldwide. After Disney fully acquired Pixar in 2006, plans for a third movie were set into motion. “Toy Story 3” was released in 2010 and took in $1.1 billion. It was also nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award. In 2019, “Toy Story 4” made its unlikely debut in theaters to the tune of $1.1 billion. At the end of the fourth film, Buzz and Woody go their separate ways.
It was seemingly the end (or at the very least the dramatic pause) of a franchise that also included two television holiday specials (“Toy Story of Terror!,” a Halloween special, was also directed by MacLane), multiple short films (including three “Toy Story Toons”) and theme park attractions at every major Disney park around the world.
MacLane and his collaborators found a workaround. What if they made the movie that Andy watched that made him fall in love with the Buzz Lightyear character? (The toy he receives, MacLane admitted, is probably based on an animated spinoff of the original movie. A real animated spinoff, called “Buzz Lightyear of Star Command,” ran for 62 episodes in 2000 and 2001 on UPN and ABC.) Now you get to watch the movie that Andy saw. You get to fall in love with Buzz Lightyear the way Andy did. It’s unclear how many millions (or billions) of dollars that will equal at the box office.
According to “Lightyear” cinematographer Jeremy Lasky, about a third of the film (around 30 minutes) was formatted for Imax. The aspect ratio will change from 2.39:1, with Pixar using digital approximations of anamorphic lenses (again to give it that widescreen feeling of ’70s and ’80s sci-fi movies), to the full Imax ratio of 1.43:1. “We wanted to really do justice to the Imax format, even though it’s all made up,” Lasky said.
Lasky and his team also took inspiration (at MacLane’s guidance), from the sequence from “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.” “That feels intentional. That was Brad saying, ‘Oh, you want Imax? Here you go,’” Lasky said. “And for me, it’s we’re very specific about which scenes in our film are in Imax to try to get the most out of it. It wasn’t just a random calculation.”
Instead of using a 35mm camera, which they approximated for most of the movie, for the Imax sequences the filmmakers used a 65mm camera, which Lasky said “is similar to live action.” They also used a bigger “sensor” for their virtual camera.
“The way depth works in those shots feels different than in the 35mm,” Lasky explained. “It’s a little more sculptural. It almost has a 3D effect to it when you see it in 2D film. And then we’re at 1.43 aspect ratio and we’re using spherical lenses instead of anamorphic. In Imax, those shots feel different in terms of distortion, in terms of depth of field, in terms of visual space, and in terms of lens flare.”
To make the 2.39:1 scenes play effectively even though they were shots specifically designed for Imax, Lasky said they are “center cropping” the image. “What that means is we are simultaneously composing for 2.39 and Imax, knowing that all essential information needs to fit in the 2.39 frame for two reasons,” Lasky said. “One, because that’s the crop that’s going to go out into theaters with everything else, with all the anamorphic stuff in it. And watching it on Imax on that giant screen, I don’t want important stuff to be way up there and way down there. I don’t want to have to move my head that much. It’s all immersive rather than informative.”
This approach made it so that the Imax images didn’t totally disrupt the Pixar pipeline (“Lightyear” is the Emery, Calif.-based animation studio’s 26th feature). “It gives you the treat of seeing something in Imax, but the pipeline was designed in such a way that we’re making one movie. We’re really making one set of images. We’re just taking something out of the Imax for the half hour we’re in Imax,” Lasky said.
The filmmaker also explained that “Lightyear” also avoids the problem that bedeviled Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises,” which clumsily cut back-and-forth between Imax and 35mm footage (an issue especially apparent on the home video version).
“We try not to jump the audience back and forth too much and we try to really make it seamless when we go in and out of it,” Lasky said. “You’re not taken out of the movie while you’re watching it. I don’t want you to notice.”
Arguably the closest thing that Pixar has attempted to the Imax-ing of “Lightyear” was when the studio reframed its sophomore feature, “A Bug’s Life,” so that it could play on VHS just as dynamically as it did in theaters. In changing the widescreen movie to pan-and-scan, the filmmakers re-animated key scenes. A sequence where two ants are having a discussion at opposite ends of the frame was re-conceived, for example. “We went back into the scene and moved them closer together and readjusted their eyes and recomputed the frame,” former Pixar executive (and “A Bug’s Life” director) John Lasseter told the L.A. Times at the time. “Sometimes we wanted to maintain the edge [of the screen] — the side of the wide frame — so we just computed in what you weren’t seeing above and below the frame.” (Lasky worked on that project too.)
Not only will these Imax sequences add some dramatic and visual oomph to “Lightyear,” Lasky hopes they will underscore how the movie is meant to be experienced in theaters. This is especially important given that the last three Pixar movies (“Soul,” “Luca” and “Turning Red”) all debuted exclusively on Disney+, forgoing traditional theatrical releases. (“Luca” and “Turning Red” ran for a limited engagement at the Disney-owned El Capitan theater in Hollywood.) Seeing “Lightyear” in a theater is exciting enough, but seeing it in an Imax theater makes a true mark for Pixar’s return to theaters.