Is it awesome? That is the question that Lightyear director, Angus MacLane would ask himself as well as the crew while completing department reviews for the film. Angus wanted to make a tried-and-true sci-fi film reminiscent of those made during the 1970s-1990s. In his mind (and ours) those decades produced some of the most “awesome,” fun, and iconic sci-fi films to date.
During a recent press event with Pixar Animation Studios, we were able to chat with several of the filmmakers behind Lightyear as well as screen approximately 30 minutes of the film. We’re excited to share what we learned over the next several months as we approach the film’s June 17, 2022 release date (in theaters as well as IMAX).
Lightyear centers around Buzz Lightyear — but, this isn’t the Buzz Lightyear we’ve previously known. This is actually the Buzz-themed action movie that Andy (from the Toy Story universe) saw in theaters that inspired him to ask for the Buzz Lightyear action figure.
Note that the details below will contain some mild spoilers. We won’t share any major plot details, but, if you’re avoiding all spoilers, you’ll probably want to skip this one.
So, what do you need to know? Is the film awesome? From the portion of the film we screened, that answer is a resounding, yes.
Buzz is (as we know) a space ranger who is protecting and exploring the galaxy. But, on a trip to an uncharted planet, Buzz and the crew get stranded on that planet, getting us right into the thick of the film. How do you get off the planet when your ship has crash-landed? You rebuild your ship and keep trying until you either succeed, fail, or adapt.
Time travel or time manipulation is a key element in sci-fi films and Lightyear is no different. In Buzz’s attempts to escape the planet they’ve crashed on, he quickly learns upon his arrival back that he has experienced time dilation — his 4-minute test flight was really four years.
As Buzz completes test flights, he becomes uncomfortable with the ever-changing world around him and he just wants to keep up.
You wouldn’t think Pixar would make something like time dilational up, would you?
In addition to diving into how time dilation works with NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn, they also visited the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas to learn as much as they could about the history and future of space travel.
They explored spacesuit construction, vehicles, aircraft, and dove in with both feet. They even shared a ton of gritty details about buttons, knobs, dials, switches, and more to make sure that the cockpit of Buzz’s ships would look and operate in a realistic way.
A cool fun fact was that the NASA team took one of Pixar’s research trip photos to the International Space Station.
In addition to all of the realistic reference material that the team was able to gather, the crew also wanted the ships to have imaginative elements, too. Being an avid LEGO builder, Angus would occasionally bring a model he built to the team to use as inspiration. Check out this image below that Greg Peltz (Sets Art Director) shared of the progression of one of Angus’ original LEGO ships (the armadillo).
Fran Kalal (Tailoring and Sim Supervisor) shared that one of the most exciting elements of the film was the number of suits they had to create for Buzz. Since Buzz was gone for four years on each of his test flights, the scientists on the planet were able to use that time to continually innovate and develop his suits.
Fran and the Pixar team used inspiration in the design, stitching, and construction of actual NASA spacesuits through history to influence the film’s designs.
Buzz’s final suit (the version that the toy wears) is his Extravehicular Activity or EVA, suit and Fran noted that Pixar really had to push the boundaries of their cloth and hard-surface modeling (in combination with the graphics team) to perfect the look.
Yeah, we were excited about Zurg making a return before and we’re even more excited about seeing him now. I’ll say that the Pixar team did a great job keeping details about Zurg a secret. Outside of his new design and a few moments on screen, we don’t know too much about his appearance yet. We cannot wait though — just look at him.
The crew knew they had to change the look of Zurg to make him a real threat in the film. Zurg exudes power and presence and just looking at him lets you know he’s a legitimate threat to Buzz and the team.
We’ve been wondering for a while, but we did find out that Zurg doesn’t have his trademark cape in this film — it wouldn’t fit with the aesthetic, but, let’s hope that’s explored in a separate film (one can hope).
Also, Galyn Susman (Producer) hinted that we might see Zurg in a zero-gravity fight scene.
The team brought Zurg to life with powerful intensity and there’s no one better to match that intensity than James Brolin who will lend his voice to the character. Who else will be included in the vocal cast?
- Chris Evans will voice Buzz Lightyear
- Uzo Aduba as Alisha Hawthorne (Buzz’s best friend)
- Keke Palmer as Izzy Hawthorne
- Isiah Whitlock Jr. as Commander Burnside
- Taika Waititi as Mo Morrison
- Dale Soules as Darby Steel
- James Brolin as Zurg
- Mary McDonald-Lewis is the voice of IVAN (Internal Voice Activated Navigator). The fun fact here is that Mary is also the real-life voice of OnStar, the familiar voice in General Motors vehicles. So, she fits right in as the voice command inside Buzz’s ship.
- Peter Sohn as SOX (Buzz’s cat companion robot)
So, why does Buzz have SOX, his personal companion robot, who is also a cat? As Buzz time travels, Star Command realizes that he may need something/someone to talk to that doesn’t age (like the humans around him).
Angus also noted that he loves cats but also wanted to introduce a cute protagonist sidekick character. SOX not only serves the role of an adorable sidekick (e.g., R2D2, Baby Yoda/Grogu, Chewie/Goose) but is also Buzz’s “constant” through time.
SOX’s limited animation (something Angus finds endearing in characters) adds to his humor throughout the film. SOX isn’t all comedic relief though — he is outfitted with at least 17 features (from the list they showed us) that make him formidable even though he’s small and cute.
We were thrilled with Angus and Galyn answered our question about having Peter Sohn voice SOX. Angus noted that they used him for scratch (temporary) vocals and his performance was so funny they just couldn’t replace him. Angus noted that Peter’s voice is perfect because it projects intelligence but also has a naive innocence, to it as well.
Note: if Pete’s voice sounds familiar, it’s because he has voiced several Pixar characters previously — Emile in Ratatouille, Squishy in Monsters University, Transitron in Toy Story of TERROR! and several others.
Lightyear will be Pixar’s first film produced in the full IMAX 1.43:1 aspect ratio.
What’s really interesting is that Pixar had a dual pipeline when producing the film where they could view a shot in a 1.43:1 ratio and then switch over to the anamorphic widescreen format (2.39:1 ratio) to view the shot in the more narrow format.
Jeremy Lasky (Director of Photography) noted that they actually used different virtual lenses when staging the film for each format (to take full advantage of each native ratio). So, watching Lightyear in both formats will provide slightly different viewing experiences. My mind was blown and I loved it!
Bonus fun fact — we were thrilled to hear that Andrew Stanton was the Executive Producer of Lightyear as we haven’t heard about other projects he’s been involved with at Pixar for a little while now.
Be sure to stay tuned as we’ll be posting much more from the Lightyear press event including posts about the planet they land on, the overall design stylization for the film, culturally accurate hairstyles, and some filmmaker video interviews.