‘Toy Story 4’ Director Says the Key to the Hit Film Wasn’t Woody or Buzz

TheWrap Oscar magazine: “The code name for this movie internally was ‘Peep,'” Josh Cooley says

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This story about “Toy Story 4” first appeared in the Oscar Nominations Preview issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.

For director Josh Cooley, the first question to answer before he got to work on “Toy Story 4” wasn’t, “What should happen to Woody and Buzz?” or “How much time should have elapsed since the events of ‘Toy Story 3’?”

Instead, he said, it was an existential question: “What is the reason this movie exists?”

“These characters are so important to people, and to me, that I wanted to make sure this didn’t feel like we were tacking something onto the ‘Toy Story’ world,” said Cooley, who began the project as co-director to Pixar chief John Lasseter and ended up as the sole director when Lasseter left the project (and shortly thereafter, the company) amid accusations of misconduct.

The story, he said, changed dramatically throughout the development process. “We had a lot of different physical location and character ideas,” he said. “I think you can either approach a story from the fun of the world and the characters, or the protagonist’s point of view and their character arc. With this one, early on it was, ‘We know these characters, we know the world, let’s just play around and see what happens.’ But that was the tough part — we’ve been with Woody for three films, what’s next for him?”

But even as the story changed through Pixar’s exacting development process, Cooley said one constant was the character of Bo Peep (voiced by Annie Potts), who would come back into the life of Woody (Tom Hanks) as more than just a love interest.

“The code name for this movie internally was ‘Peep,'” he said. “Her return was always a part of it — but how she returned and what she was like when she returned was always changing. We had versions where she was more of a villain, not completely on the up-and-up. We tried to make how she comes back into the picture really interesting, so she became the very thing Woody was always afraid of: She’s a lost toy, and she’s loving it.”

Toy Story 4

ANATOMY OF A SCENE: (1) Initial storyboard by Aphton Corbin (2) concept art by John Lee (3) sets drawn during computer modeling and shading (4) layout using a virtual camera (5) animation done by Pixar Animation Department (6) lighting to place virtual light sources within the image (7) effects and final image (Pixar)

The character of Bo Peep, he added, had a special team of female Pixar employees looking out for her. “We have so many different departments at work on a single character,” he said. “And in this case, there were key people in each one of those departments that pulled themselves together and called themselves Team Bo, who said, ‘We’re gonna make this character the best she can be, and not fall into tropes or stereotypes.

“It helped me pull back to focus on the big picture. It felt like having another whole brain working on Bo.”

Many of the key sequences in the film take place in a cluttered antique store secretly ruled by a sinister doll (Christina Hendricks) and her evil henchmen. At one point, Woody and Bo venture into the store on a rescue mission, and she leads him into a pinball machine that turns out to be a nightclub for toys on the inside.

“The detail you can achieve now is insane,” Cooley said. “I was able to do toys from all different eras: old iron toys, tin soldiers, plastic windup toys … To me, that makes the ‘Toy Story’ world feel bigger.”

Of course, the real pinball machine wouldn’t be quite big enough for all those toys, so Cooley and his crew fudged things. “One of the challenges was, ‘How many characters can we get into this pinball machine?'” he said. “In live-action films you can cheat the exterior and have a different set for the interior, and we did the same thing in the computer.

“We scaled up the pinball machine a ton, because what you see would never actually fit inside the machine. We wanted it to be like a nightclub, and to have Bo be our version of Norm from ‘Cheers.’ Everybody knows her name, she’s at home there, and Woody is the fish out of water.”

Read more of the Oscar Nominations Preview issue here.

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