By LYNN BARKER
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—With the popular “Toy Story 4” arriving on Blu-ray and 4K UHD Tuesday Oct. 8, we wanted to revisit the making of this latest in the tales of Woody and his toy buddies so we contacted Pixar producer Mark Nielsen, who has a long history with the well-known animation studio.
In addition to “Toy Story 4,” Nielsen contributed to popular Pixar films “Monsters Inc.,” “Cars,” “Up” and “Inside Out.”
The animator/producer rose through the Pixar ranks, starting out as a modeling and shading coordinator on the studio’s early film “A Bug’s Life,” moving on to lighting manager, story and crowds’ manager, associate producer and production manager before becoming a full producer. Before joining the celebrated animation studio, the filmmaker was a journalism and English major in college. He worked as a production assistant on commercials, TV movies, music videos and feature films.
Standout newbie toy Forky and the animation of such a very basic toy character proved an interesting challenge for the accomplished Pixar animators. Nielsen basically had to advise them to dumb down the process and get back to basics to make this plastic “spork” believable. We learned about a favorite road trip, what is behind featuring Bo Peep—sort of a supporting character in previous “Toy Story” films— in the “Toy Story 4” storyline, and some extras on the upcoming Blu-ray set. The animated adventure also is available now on digital formats.
Q: Congrats on the great success of “Toy Story 4.” I think people thought you had wrapped it all up with “Toy Story 3.” Was bringing back Bo Peep a good part of the reason to do another one? Woody did have a crush on her.
Nielsen: She was a huge part of the reason. Pixar executive Andrew Stanton wrote the first treatment and draft of the film. He was the executive producer on this film and was part of all the films going back to the beginning. The idea of reuniting Woody and Bo, having Bo and her world view have a massive impact on Woody and really change the way he thought was always part of the story from the very beginning. A lot of things changed about the story over time. It took us, like, five years to film. But that remained true at its core all the way through. You have a working title for the movie at Pixar and we referred to it as “Peep” for the entire time we were making the movie.
Q:Woody and his pals take a road trip that changes them. Did you ever take a road trip with pals or family that really kind of changed your life?
Nielsen: I love a good road trip as much as the next person. Interestingly, through Pixar, we did a road trip. I worked on the first “Cars” movie and with the writer and the story department, we all spent a week or a week and a half on Route 66, driving the Mother Road. I think we started in Oklahoma and ended up in Albuquerque. We heard great stories from people who lived in towns that changed since the interstate went in. The stories were just heartbreaking and beautiful. That trip had a massive impact on that story. That was definitely a road trip to remember.
Q: Forky is just a plastic picnic fork with a few crude additions but you were able to give him life and a personality. How hard was that and what was the key to making this work? Did the animators tend to want to make him less crudely made?
Nielsen: It was really fun. The team had such a great time with Forky. We are used to animating characters that have smooth motion and movement. Humans are in a lot of our films but to give a new challenge to the animators, give ‘um a spork and give it really simple controls. He definitely pushed things to the limits for us. It’s funny to think of technology being pushed to the limits with a plastic character but it kind of was.
We needed to embrace the constraints. He is simply made so his animation should be simple. So, we backed away from real movement and made him a little more stop-motiony and caricatured in the way he was animated so he would feel more crude and more like a child’s craft project. Tony Hale (“Veep”) did the voice. Such a funny guy. He really embraced the insecurity that the character had. Forky didn’t understand why he was alive and what a toy was. He had a lot of big questions about the world so Tony embodied that.
Q: Which voice actors in “Toy Story 4” are just amazing at ad-libbing dialogue and, on this movie, did you ever have to rein in anyone because he or she was just over-the-top or inappropriate?
Nielsen: (laughs) I would say in terms of ad-libbing (lines), Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele who played Ducky and Bunny, they are so funny those guys. They share a brain somehow. They’ve been working together for years and years to the point where they just have it down. They look into each other’s eyes while they are improvising and the come up with crazy, new and interesting stuff. They’re making up songs that Ducky and Bunny are singing. They can sing a long together like a duet that they’ve been working on for five years but they just came up with it on the spot. We made sure to get them together to record for that energy they bring. Yes, they sometimes would go really extreme and so you don’t use it all. You take the best but we laughed a lot in those sessions.
Q: If you have kids or there are kids in your life, which new “Toy Story” character in this film do you find is their overall favorite?
Nielsen: I’ve got four kids and they are the biggest fans of the “Toy Story” movies. I’ve got a daughter who is going to be Bo Peep for Halloween. So, Bo is definitely a favorite among my three girls. My son loves Duke Caboom (voiced by Keanu Reeves). There is something so funny yet heartbreaking about a toy not being able to live up to its commercial. We’ve all seen these commercials that make something look so great and cool and there’s always a big reality check when you get it home and you’re like, “That is not what I thought it was gonna do.” But we love Duke. He’s another favorite.
Q: Who at the studio thinks up new toys for these films? Some are based on actual toys that existed but is there a “think-up-new-toys” meeting or something?
Nielsen: It’s a group effort. I would say the story team has the biggest influence. There’s a writer that comes up with ideas for toys. Then the story team, which is made up of ten men and women, their whole job is really to help come up with ideas to make things entertaining and emotional and they draw up comic book versions of every scene in the movie over and over and redo things and bring new ideas to the table over the whole five years of making a movie. They will have a meeting when there is a story problem and someone will say “What if…?” and that is where they came up with these new characters for “Toy Story 4.”
Q: Were you sad to lose some story development or character action that just didn’t make this film?
Nielsen: Here’s the good thing. The Blu-ray coming out, the home video release of “Toy Story 4” includes a whole bunch of deleted scenes. Those are the favorites. Those are the things that we love that didn’t quite make it in. When you watch them you’ll see why they didn’t make it in. That doesn’t mean that they weren’t really entertaining. Some of them we wished we could have fit in but, at the end of the day, we are telling Woody’s story and it’s a very specific story and if it didn’t support that, we couldn’t afford to devote the screen time to it.
Q: You worked your way up to being an animation producer. What advice do you have for anyone who hopes to one day work in film animation?
Nielsen: I’d say work really hard, really commit yourself to it and give it your all. That is first and foremost but try to do the very best job at the job you’ve been given. Whatever your position is right now, whatever role you’ve got, whatever the task you’ve got to do, try to do it to the very best of your ability and don’t look too far into the future and be looking out for what’s next because, if you do a great job at what you’re doing, those opportunities are going to present themselves. Work hard, be patient and do your very best at the thing that’s right in front of you.
Q: Great advice. Will there be a “Toy Story 5?”
Nielsen: We don’t have plans right now. You never know what the future holds but there is not currently a plan for a 5. There is a series of Forky short films that is coming and a great short film called “Lamp Life” about Bo Peep.