It was the perfect goodbye. Backing away in his college-bound car, Andy Davis looks back one last time—he looks back at a porch, he looks back at his childhood, and he looks back at Woody, the toy that will forever color his memories of growing up. Then Andy says thank you before moving on, bequeathing these plastic friends to a little girl named Bonnie. This was the closing curtain of Toy Story 3, and it is also the challenge that Toy Story 4 has spent the better part of a decade preparing to clear. Director Josh Cooley, who before Toy Story 4 co-wrote and was a story supervisor on Inside Out, even tells a room full of journalists that figuring out how you build on top of that is “the question of all questions.”
Judging from the several days we spent at Pixar Animation Studios studying the making of Toy Story 4, it is undeniable the studio is meeting that question with the kind focused, Herculean effort that only the House of Buzz and Woody could manage. Along Pixar’s famed atrium and decorating its stairwells is a cornucopia of art depicting not just a new adventure in the Toy Story universe, but a new chapter in its most central protagonist’s life. Andy might have said goodbye, but Woody still has a life to live… perhaps even begin.
It’s a little bit like a saying Cooley had for all of the animators and filmmakers working on Toy Story 4: “Our purpose in life is a moving target, the only constant is change.” And the times are a-changin’ for the pint-sized sheriff in significant and original ways.
Having viewed roughly 40 minutes of Toy Story 4, we can safely say that more than even the original film, this is Woody’s story. Well, his and an old friend we haven’t seen in a very long time. While the first movie was something of a buddy flick between Woody and Buzz Lightyear, all in service of pleasing Andy by being the best toys they could be (perhaps first by accepting that status), Toy Story 4 finds Woody in a unique position. No longer grappling to be top dog with anybody, life in Bonnie’s closet has left Woody more or less with the dust bunnies. He sits at the bottom of a heap of forgotten toys, watching with yearning as Bonnie plays with her favorites which might include old reliables like Jessie and Buzz, but as a whole looks quite different from the Toy Story hierarchy that we’re used to.
However, Woody is mostly fine with this. Unlike his needier, younger self in the first film, he’s mostly accepted he is no longer the law, no matter what his badge says, and will do whatever is best for Bonnie—including accidentally helping her create life. In what is sure to be the comic scene-stealer of the film, Forky (voiced perfectly by Tony Hale) is a wild Frankenstein’s abomination of garbage and a willful child’s imagination. Literally created by whatever spare pieces Woody could carry out of a kindergarten class’ trash can to a lonely and isolated Bonnie on the first day of school, Woody gives Bonnie the tools to create her favorite toy out of a spork—even if said toy has no desire to be alive or anything other than in the trash.
It’s a humorous setup that leads to a familiar situation of Woody and a child’s new favorite plaything finding themselves lost in the wilderness, which in Toy Story 4 includes an antique shop (run like a porcelain crime syndicate by one vintage baby doll) and an idyllic carnival right next store. However, what really sets the film apart is who the sheriff meets near that carnival. It’s Annie Potts’ long lost Bo Peep, who has always been a fan favorite despite being a background character in Toy Story and Toy Story 2 before being then unceremoniously written out of Toy Story 3 altogether. The latest film actually begins with a flashback of nine years ago (the same amount of time since we last saw the gang in Toy Story 3), and it’s the day Bo left. It was a tender, bittersweet moment of her accepting Molly has given her away, albeit Woody cannot. At the time, she asks if Woody would like to join her on a journey to parts unknown at a secondhand shop, but he declines.
Now, with Woody running into Bo on a playground where she uses her former hoop dress as a cloak and her shepherd’s hook like a martial arts staff, it’s a lot like running into an old flame. And the real intention of Toy Story 4’s new purpose in life becomes clear.
Crediting the turn of phrase to producer Jonas Rivera, Cooley says, “If you were to ask Woody as a character what was the biggest moment of your life, ‘It would be when I met Bo Peep for the second time.’” Toy Story 4 is that big moment.
Bo is Back
It’s fair to say that giving Bo Peep her due was not only an intended highlight of Toy Story 4, but the central conceit. Producer Mark Nielsen even reveals that during the film’s long gestation process its early working title was simply “Peep.” This secretive reverence is likely due to the fact that while Bo has long been a prominent figure in Toy Story lore (as in fact the only major female character other than Andy’s mother in the original 1995 movie), she has also gone frequently ignored.
“She’s the reason to make this movie,” Valerie LaPoint says of why she first was so excited about making a Toy Story 4 and wanting to be on the project. Five years later she is not only a story supervisor on the film but one of the leading members of “Team Bo,” which is comprised of a variety of animators and filmmakers whose job is to essentially recalibrate our collective imagination of Bo Peep from the sidelines to centerfield. This is all the more striking since, as LaPoint notes, if you cut together all her scenes from the first two films, her screentime amounts to a couple of minutes. “She’s not even really a secondary character, she’s kind of a tertiary character in the first two films.”
Yet therein lay the opportunity. Alex Marino, characters shading lead from another department, underlines this potential when he says, “While Buzz and Woody are definitely more tied to their previous version, it’s where a character like Bo Peep is actually really unique. In one sense she is a legacy character, but it’s been a while since we’ve seen her. For an audience member, I think it’s been about 20 years since we saw her. So you might remember what you think she’s supposed to look like, but we kind of take advantage to the fuzziness of that image and see that fuzziness as an opportunity to bring her shading and look into the modern era.” For Marino this meant emphasizing the porcelain quality of Bo Peep, and bringing a shimmering shine to her surface that would’ve been impossible for animators in 1995 or ’99, but it also meant a greater degree of both honoring and creating out of near whole cloth a popular Toy Story character.
In this sense, Tanja Krampfert, a character modeling artist and fellow member of Team Bo, considers working on Bo as the greatest prospect for a fan diving into the past. Noting how there was neither the budget, time, or inclination to preserve the original Bo Peep model from the 1990s, it was still a thrill to lead the reimagining of Bo’s like, beginning by studying an original clay copy of that first Bo Peep model that has survived a quarter-century.
“I was totally geeking out when they brought that thing over from the archive,” Krampfert says. “It was actually a huge honor to recreate my favorite character from that movie.” The result is a Bo Peep better than you remember.
Everyone among Team Bo and throughout Pixar speaks glowingly of the character in the original film, not least of all because of the flirtatious crackle Annie Potts gave her voice. Yet by exploring her as a main character, and why she disappeared from Andy and Molly’s lives, Pixar has discovered a whole new purpose for its Toy Story legacy… as well as a needed one for Woody. Initially considering Bo Peep to possibly embrace her “porcelain” side and enjoy foregoing the lamp and even the sheep—so as to be merely a figurine in an antique shop—the creators eventually veered in the opposite direction and toward a more free-spirited toy who lives for the day and loves the life Woody always feared: the life of a lost toy.
When we meet her, she still has her sheep, but with her hoop dress more of a Robin Hood-styled cloak, she appears like an action figure ready to grapple better than Woody could, as well as far removed from her baby nightlight roots as she zooms around a playground in an RC car that is disguised to look like a skunk.
“We decided she’s a character who didn’t want to sit on a shelf and waited for life to happen,” says Story Artist Carrie Hobson. “She takes chances and is somewhat more unpredictable than Woody, and who doesn’t play by toy rules. So she can literally change her default toy mode, which means when a kid picks her up, she can change what pose she’s locked into, which enables her to be a different toy depending on the kid that’s playing with her.” This also means she isn’t the toy Woody or audiences necessarily remember.
Coming into his life like an old flame, there is a bit of a romantic comedy element about meeting the ex who has had a makeover. She treats her RC car like a new lease on life and tries to instill in Woody an enlightened understanding of what it means to be a toy—not just a child’s toy but a toy for yourself. While the director and producers say they considered the romantic comedy angle before edging away from that in favor of a classic Pixar adventure, they don’t deny there is a Casablanca element of a blast from the past walking into your life. This becomes the emotional crux of Toy Story 4.
‘What if we made [her] his worst fear,” Rivera says. “[Woody] said it all along, which was to be a lost toy. What if she represented something that would challenge his place in the world, and just lean into that?” The result is a film that has Woody considering a new life where he isn’t Andy’s toy or Bonnie’s toy… what if his purpose is to be everyone’s toy? And one for himself.
However, Toy Story 4 promises to be more than just a midlife crisis for Woody after running again into Bo Peep. Indeed, much of the first act we watched at Pixar revolved more or less around Forky, a spork of unusual talents. Comprised of pipe cleaners, feet of literal clay and popsicle sticks, and mismatched googly eyes, he is instantly lovable and easy to duplicate. One of his designers, Animator Claudio De Olivieira, even helped us make our own special Forkys (spoiler: don’t expect him to survive the TSA and living inside a plane’s overhead bin). Yet the real appeal is in the comic relief he provides of a toy who doesn’t want to be a toy.
Throughout the film, his will traverse an arc of accepting that he is more than just disposable. Time and again in the movie’s first act, he will attempt to escape Woody’s supervision or even Bonnie’s loving embrace to throw himself into trash cans, waste baskets, and just about any receptacle that will hasten him back to where he belongs, “The trash!” Hale hollers this fate like a prayer, which adds a slight ripple of dark humor into the Toy Story world, although the creators insist that there is nothing existentially provocative to be found in a spork that repeatedly attempts to end its existence one trash can at a time.
As producer Mark Nielsen surmises, in all the Toy Story films, objects value their purpose. Toys want to be played with by children, just as sporks want to be used once.
“He instinctively knows what he is, we never thought he wanted to die,” Nielsen smiles. Cooley offers a similar point about what Forky thinks he’s good for: “As a spork, [he’s] soup, salad, chilly, single use.” If he goes over as well as we suspect, we bet he’ll be used more than once though.
An Evil Doll’s House
The final big character addition is also a first for Pixar. As Cooley mentions, Gabby Gabby is the first female antagonist in Pixar’s history, hence her appeal. Well that plus the fact that all dolls are creepy, right? It’s implicit even in her introduction. Viewed by journalists from storyboards all the way through early editorial and animation designs before lighting or rendering, the menace was always there before pitch perfect shadows were added. She runs the antique store, see, when the lights are low, a feat that’s underscored when Woody and Forky first meet her. She’s out for a “walk” with one of several henchmen, who are all mute ventriloquist dummies. As if taken from a terrifying Twilight Zone episode, it is only the ventriloquist dummies who cannot speak in Toy Story’s world. Instead they’re mindless muscle, who push Gabby Gabby’s baby stroller like a horseman escorting your coach up to Castle Dracula. It is there she invites Woody and Forky to have a seat.
“I love this character,” Cooley confesses. “We went to a lot of antique stores for reference, and there’s always a creepy doll in the corner, and it never fails that at least two ventriloquist dummies are spread around inside these stores.”
In the finished film, her introduction in the antique store is comprised of 90 shots (we saw how that was parsed down from more than 420 shots the editorial department “filmed” for coverage’s sake), and there is an insidiousness overlaying it all, even before an old record player begins playing a gramophone recording of Coco’s “Remember Me,” as if Miguel got stuck in the Overlook Hotel instead of a colorful Land of the Dead.
“A detail you can keep an eye out for is dust,” says Sets Shade Lead Ling Tu. “This was a detail that we were initially saving for very specific scenes, but we were so successful in enriching the environment that we kind of just put it all over the antique store.” In fact, the whole store is filled with it. After developing new techniques that allow Toy Story 4 to show large depth-of-field, complete with dust particles dancing in the air, there is an eerie affectation in which visible hairs now waltz in the twilight as Gabby Gabby makes her move to borrow Woody’s voice box. It’s a detail that’s come a long way from the original Toy Story that made solid colors stand in for entire heads of hair.
In this vein, every department we visited was able to showcase all the technological detail that went into making Gabby Gabby’s world a visceral nightmare. From the way the dust gathers behind the antique cabinets, piling up in pools of light from the glass vases outside, to the idea that an antique pinball machine becomes the perfect setting for a toy’s idea of a night club, it’s clear these antiques have many secrets left to be revealed. (Not least of which is said night club is lorded over by Keanu Reeves’ Duke Kaboom, a Canadian Burt Reynolds-meets-Evil Knievel action figure).
“Everything here looked old because we took the texture all to the max,” Ling Tu says. Pointing to a rendered piece of faded silver with engravings that have begun to muddy, the animator notes, “This already cues you in to the fact this is a more expensive piece and not something you can just buy at a grocery store. And then to top it off, we try to communicate this is silver, which is a more expensive metal, because of the way silver scratches, it dents, its darkening from how it contacts with dirts and oils. We start to build a space that is intuitively real and familiar.”
That might be, but it also promises to be one of the most sinister locations in Toy Story lore, which appears to be the point. From the way that Gabby Gabby has metallic hair or eyelids falling over her eyes, which is accurate to her 1950s origins but unnerving when given to a character that at least feigns the posture of a human, it all creates an uncanny valley of creepiness. Then again, as Cooley suggests, there are those including actor Christina Hendricks who might favor such faintly more macabre settings. As the director tells it, it wasn’t until after the first recording that Hendricks confided that she always preferred dummies to dolls.
“We met with her and in her first recording session, we pitched her the whole story and she said, ‘This is really great,’” Cooley recalls. “‘I actually didn’t want Barbie dolls when I was a kid, I used to play with ventriloquist dummies.’ We’re like, ‘What?!’ She’s like, ‘Yeah, I have a lot of doll heads in my house right now.’”
Opening Up What a Toy’s Story Can Be
In the end though, Toy Story 4 looks to be a testament to just how much Pixar has changed since its first feature film. Released nearly 25 years ago, the original film was what inspired Cooley to realize 3D animation was more than just a gimmick alternative to 2D animation—it in fact inspired millions around the world for multiple generations. Nonetheless, it was a project that Pixar’s early founders had to fight to finish, even being forced to reshoot large swaths of the movie after unwise notes from executives had led it in the wrong direction.
Two of the remaining old guard at the studio in Emeryville remember those scrappier days well. Production Designer Bob Pauley and Global Technology Supervisor Bill Reeves muse they’re the Old Men on Pixar’s Mountain, fondly recalling how while making the ’95 original, there was no visual feedback on lighting and texturing of the designs. They just had to estimate it looked right and wait until it was rendered to know for sure. Now with RenderMan, a legion of light sources is the difference between Buzz and Woody existing in a cartoonish landscape to one that can be almost scarily photorealistic.
Of course blending those two impulses is key in making Toy Story 4 the most richly designed Toy Story film to date. For folks like Character Shading Lead Alex Marino, that comes from zeroing on the micro-scratches on Woody’s plastic and the puckering stickers on Buzz’s armor, indicators that they’re old toys by way of an added layer of texturing never before seen in the franchise. To Craig Foster, the graphics art director, it means giving detail and even narratives with their own internal logic to all the slogans, advertisements, and T-Shirt logos you’ll see in the film (look out for plenty of easter eggs too). And for folks like the Designs and Sets team, it meant literally building a whole digital carnival, just so editorial could shoot it from any direction.
“What might the carnival look like from the perspective of someone riding a Ferris wheel?” asks Sets Supervisor Thomas Jordan. “What might the carnival look like where all the games are? How many people does it take to feel like a believable carnival?” The result is to populate an entire artificial revelry from top to the very bottom, as Sets Technical Director Rosie Cole relays by explaining how they’d study literally what is underneath each game booth.
“Embarrassingly in our free time, we’re the weirdos lying on the sidewalk next to a large van, geeking out at the irregularity of the tiles,” Set Supervisor Stephen Karski admits.
Yet the end result is a more layered, more diverse, and certainly more technically complicated Tri-State area for Woody to explore than ever before. This of course is only achievable if the story they always wanted to tell matters for those who’ve grown up with these characters. It’s something that Cooley and company have been toying with for more than five years. The culmination of it all is to make something that is not only worthwhile but that expands on Pixar’s beloved Toy Story trilogy by going in a separate direction from it. To prove that the most important day of Woody’s life came after he and Andy said goodbye.
“We love the end of Toy Story 3,” Cooley says. “It ends Woody and Andy’s story perfectly. We realized there was more story to tell, to continue Woody’s story. And once we started going down the path… we hit upon something that was worth telling.”
Thus will begin a fresh toy’s story when Toy Story 4 opens on June 21.