Watch a teaser for Lightyear
The things we see on the silver screen feel so impossibly big these days. Superheroes shooting energy pulses out of their palms. Dogfighting spaceships twirling around each other like butterflies. How is an animation studio like Pixar even meant to compete against the titans of Marvel, DC, and Star Wars?
Well, with Lightyear, we'll soon see. Luca and Turning Red may have both relished the power of small-scale, deeply personal stories, but the studio has now taken a bold swing in the opposite direction.
Lightyear follows a Chris Evans-voiced iteration of Buzz Lightyear, as he mans death-defying missions across space and time, while battling his most vicious nemesis, Zurg.
There is, also, as producer Galyn Susman excitedly teases to Yahoo, a 'zero-G fight'. "Wait until you see," she adds, a wry smile crossing her lips. "There's a whole Zero-G… it’s fantastic."
But, wait! What do you mean Buzz Lightyear is voiced by Chris Evans? Is this not the Buzz Lightyear we know and love from the Toy Story franchise? It's a little confusing, sure, but the team at Pixar have carefully prepared their pitch.
And it goes like this: in 1995's Toy Story, Andy has a birthday party. And, on that birthday, he receives a toy based on a character he loves, named Buzz Lightyear the Space Ranger.
Read more: 1995 was the greatest year for movies
"I've always wondered what movie was Buzz from," director-screenwriter Angus MacLane explains. "Why couldn’t we just make that movie? So that's what we did."
Lightyear is "the movie that Andy saw that changed his life… Andy's Star Wars."
When we first meet the "real" Buzz, he's a fully-fledged Space Ranger, fighting under the command of Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba). But after their exploration vessel crashes on a remote and uncharted planet, T'Kani Prime, Buzz and his crew are faced with a tough decision: do they try and make it back home, or do they make do with what they have and build anew?
"For years, live-action films have had animated elements on top of it," MacLane says. "But when you're doing a natively CG film, all of the integration for the characters and the sets is baseline. To make an action film where it’s all unified as one thing? As long as that world feels cohesive, you have tremendous potential."
In fact, one of the biggest challenges of bringing "Andy's Star Wars" to screen was knowing just how big to go. As Greg Peltz, the film’s Sets Art Director, explains: "in live-action, you get certain things for free, because it's a real object that you’re actually filming."
When you're working with an entire world built up from scratch, artists have to actively map out that sense of scale, without it coming off as "cold or detail-less". For spaceships, it all comes down to the addition of tiny, barely visible antennas and flashing lights.
Those become the small touches that bring Lightyear to life. Luckily, as director of photography Jeremy Lasky points out, computer animation allows for almost limitless revision. “In live-action, you have to call actors back. You have to do reshoots. The locations change,” he says.
“But, no, I can open up that file again. And we can play with it. It’s obviously not that easy, but… it’s pretty easy.”
Disney already has its fair share of futuristic visions — Star Wars, for one, as well as the Tomorrowland of its theme parks, which feature their own Buzz Lightyear-themed, shooting gallery-style ride.
But MacLane actively wanted to shift away from the "50s tailfin Cadillac design", "kind of Jetsons-y future" that defines that more familiar image of Buzz.
Read more: How many Pixar films can you name?
"It doesn't quite feel real, and it doesn't quite feel dangerous," the director says. "It's always very consciously designed. I wanted it to feel a little more real-world functional, for believability's sake."
Lightyear, the film, is influenced more by the history of NASA, by anime like Gundam or Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, or by old mechanical designs.
While you'll see Buzz in his recognisable Space Ranger costume, he — as Tailoring & Simulation Supervisor Fran Kalal points out — also sports a number of spacesuits that bear a striking resemblance to those worn during the Apollo missions and Project Mercury.
That's what the Pixar team kept coming back to: how do you take an almost universally beloved character like Buzz Lightyear, and place him in an aesthetically new environment without robbing him of the things that feel, well, intrinsically Buzz about him?
"We have the toy as reference," Kalal says. "We want to keep the silhouette in mind. And we want to put it on a human with human proportions."
Once that was figured out, with animators first building up the character from a few, simple pieces of geometry, the layers could be added on top – the manufacturing seams, the layers of grime, the scratches, the little graphics reading "this side up" and "do not cover".
But, for all that Pixar's animators may have poured into matching these franchise blockbusters in scale and scope, one of the most significant choices Lightyear makes is the very thing that separates it from the pack.
Back in March, the studio's LGBTQ employees and allies released a joint statement claiming that Disney executives had censored "overtly gay affection" in its films.
A week later, Variety reported that a kiss between two women in Lightyear had been cut – only to be restored following the uproar surrounding Pixar's claims. It was still there in the footage shown to journalists.
Disney’s donations to the legislators who drafted Florida's "Dontt Say Gay" law, which prohibits the discussion of "sexual orientation or gender identity" in school classes, had placed a very sudden and intense spotlight on the company’s historic lack of LGBTQ representation on screen – especially when CEO Bob Chapek asserted in a company-wide memo that the "biggest impact" Disney could make, as one of the world's biggest corporations, "is through the inspiring content we produce".
He later conceded that not enough had been done to oppose the law, while pledging that Disney would "combat similar legislation in other states."
In reaction, the company has been faced with protests from right-wing groups, who are currently spreading anti-LGBTQ conspiracy theories like wildfire. "We see the outpouring of support, we also see the outpouring of vitriol," Susman says.
"I think a lot of what it is, is that we see how much it means to the people that we're working with, all the people that we're surrounded by. Everybody wants to see themselves in these pictures. And so being able to do that for the people that are around us and see how meaningful it is to them, that's really what's important.
Read more: Buzz Lightyear concept art revealed
Lightyear is also the first Pixar film to open in cinemas since the pandemic began, a decision that Susman attributes almost solely to straightforward, practical reasons.
“It's really a COVID decision,” she says. "Theatres are finally opening up here. And so it's really just the first time that we could be in a theatre. We've always made our films with the intent of being in a theatre and then the pandemic happened."
In fact, everyone at Pixar seems keen to stress that Lightyear’s scale doesn’t privilege it over the likes of Luca or Turning Red – as Lasky adds: "what I love is that Pixar is releasing two movies this year that look entirely different from one another. And, in my opinion, they're both great movies. I don't think we're stepping in one direction or another."
Lightyear is something new, packaged inside of something familiar. But, at its core, it's still as Pixar as you can get.
Lightyear hits cinemas on 17 June.