It’s been nine years since audiences last caught up with Sheriff Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Jessie, Trixie, Hamm, and the rest of the toys from Andy’s bedroom. Since the 1995 release of John Lasseter’s groundbreaking Toy StoryPixar’s first full-length, animated feature — those toys have become like family, not just to each other, but to a growing fan base around the world.

In Toy Story 3, director Lee Unkrich provided a remarkably satisfying and emotional conclusion to the original trilogy. Almost immediately upon hearing that a fourth installment was in development, many wondered why the toy box was opening again.

Quite simply, when Andy passed his toys on to Bonnie, Toy Story 3 was the conclusion to Andy’s arc.

“There’s a saying here at Pixar that if there’s a story worth telling, we’re gonna tell it,” says director Josh Cooley, a 15-year studio vet who began his career doing storyboards on The Incredibles (2004). “We found our story.”

According to producer Mark Neilsen, “Andrew Stanton (co-writer of all four Toy Story films) thought of the first three films as a complete, three-volume set. With Toy Story 4, it’s a new beginning in a new room.”

Of course, sometimes you have to look to the past in order to find the future. At a preview screening at Pixar Animation Studios, Cooley and Neilsen introduced the first 20 minutes of the film in its nearly finished form — and the footage is absolutely stunning. There’s always a jump in quality between Pixar films, but this — a flashback to a rainstorm at night, in which RC is trapped in a muddy gutter, desperately awaiting rescue — is an achievement on all levels. You can feel the urgency of the characters, in what becomes a truly edge-of-your-seat moment. “Pixar has a bigger toolbox and more powerful tools to tell the story,” says production designer Bob Pauley, who joined the company in 1993 and served as a concept artist on the first film.

Director Josh Cooley reviews footage as Toy Story 4 takes shape. Photo: Pixar

Director Josh Cooley reviews footage as Toy Story 4 takes shape. Photo: Pixar

“In the beginning, we used simple shapes and rigging due to the limitations of the software we had,” adds Bill Reeves, global technology supervisor at the studio. “It was all simple textures, but plastic did well, which lent itself to doing toys. The first two films were very similar, but the 11-year gap between Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3 meant a significant improvement in the software. In the nine years since, we have a new version of RenderMan and can add things to the cinematography that we couldn’t do before — depth-of-field and dust. The level of polish is the big jump. Toy Story 4 is in true widescreen for the first time.”

Toy Story Comparison

By the end of the unexpectedly thrilling opening sequence, before the title card even appears or audiences hear the familiar sound of Randy Newman’s “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” we learn what happened to Bo Peep and understand just how close Andy was to losing Woody. Bo went away, but she wasn’t Andy’s toy — Woody was.

Flash forward to present day, and it’s time for Bonnie to head off on a new adventure — kindergarten. The whole crew is there in her room, and Bonnie has no desire to do anything but play. Concerned for her ability to make it through her first day, Woody manages to hitch a ride in Bonnie’s backpack, winding up in the classroom, where he plays a part in Bonnie’s creation of Forky, a plastic spork who insists he’s trash.

“When we first started making our own Forkys, they looked too good,” explains animator Claudio De Oliveira, who helped bring the character to life through the creation of hundreds of real-world crafts. “Forky needed to look like a little girl made him.”

The first 20 minutes is powerful, but to truly show off just how far Pixar storytelling has come, Cooley presents an assortment of scenes from later in the film — scenes that introduce viewers to new locations, new characters, and a whole new level of detail.

Pixar Animator Claudio De Oliveira

Pixar Animator Claudio De Oliveira Photo: Pixar 

“Toy Story has a caricatured world where everything is designed from the toy’s point of view,” Cooley says. “We really wanted to expand the world as much as possible. So, going outside of the tri-county area was huge. And we put the toys in places that they’d never been — places that would have new types of toys that would present new problems.”

The antique store is an incredibly complex set, populated by more than 10,000 individual items, painstakingly grouped and placed into themed departments or “worlds” throughout the shop. It’s here we meet Gabby Gabby, a 1950s pull-string doll inspired by Chatty Cathy, and her henchmen who are voiceless ventriloquist dummies of the vaudeville era. Gabby and her friends are the stuff of nightmares, and what they’ve been seeking, only Woody can offer.

Then there’s Duke Caboom — a 1970s Canadian stuntman inspired by Ideal Toys’ famed Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle. The catch is that Duke can’t achieve all of the fantastic stunts shown in his own toy commercial. Opened to much fanfare, he found himself tossed aside when his kid realized that “truth in advertising” isn’t always what it seems.

The level of detail present in the antique store, the neighboring carnival, and an adjacent playground will take multiple viewings to fully absorb. One shot revealed in a recent TV spot showed a very realistic-looking cat, sparking online chatter about just how far Pixar animation has come.

“In this movie, there are shots that are staggeringly realistic,” Cooley says. “At times we have to pull it back — it’s too real.”

Still, some shots are even more real than they need to be, but it’s a testament to Pixar’s creativity. In addition to advancements in lighting and cinematography, the company wrote a program just to handle dust — something common in an antique shop. Turning the program on full blast is too much, but as it is scaled back, there’s just the right balance.

In the carnival, we see lighting that functions as real lights would. And while many real-life carnivals have switched to LED, the lights in Toy Story 4 have the warmth and glow of incandescent bulbs. Animated, yes, but they’re “wired” to function just as lights on actual rides and midways would, flashing naturally and imperfectly. Even something as simple as a metal grate — on which Buzz finds himself strapped — is not animated as a symmetrical grid. It’s damaged, with imperfections in some of the bars, and unique welds at each joint. It shows the age of a display that’s been moved from town to town.

Perfect imperfection: Pixar adds real-world detail, such as unique welds and bends, to materials, such as steel. Photo: Pixar

Down the street we see a park, and beyond the stray grains of sand that add detail to the suburban playscape, we see that even the toys themselves have evolved. Bo Peep shows cracks in the gloss that covers her hair — a reminder that she’s still a porcelain doll. Combat Carl, who appeared as a 12-inch, ‘70s-style action figure being blown to bits in the first film, would later appear in the made-for-TV Toy Story of Terror reimagined as a modern, muscular hero. Mirroring the Hasbro G.I. Joe figures that inspired him, Combat Carl is back in Toy Story 4 as a 3.75-inch, ‘80s-style figure — right down to this swivel-arm battle grip.

And he’s not the only 3.75-inch figure in the mix. As some eagle-eyed fans noticed in the first full-length teaser trailer, there’s a couple of very familiar characters who pop up: a duo from a long time ago, and a corporate sibling from the Walt Disney family of companies.

Scale is everything. The animators use charts like this to see how the toys would line up in the real world. Photo: Pixar

Scale is everything. The animators use charts like this to see how the toys would line up in the real world. Photo: Pixar

“In the first Toy Story, characters such as Slinky Dog and Mr. Potato Head — those were real toys, and people almost forget that,” Cooley says. “In Toy Story 4, I wanted to see some things that I grew up with, and almost anyone my age grew up playing with Kenner Star Wars action figures.” As the toys get ready to hit the road this summer, it might be too early to begin thinking about what’s next, but one comment from Cooley stands out: “Every ending is a new beginning.”

Toy Story 4 hits theaters on June 21.


This article was originally published in the Pop Insider’s Spring 2019 Issue No. 3, click here to read more! For a further look behind-the-scenes of Toy Story 4, including the evolution of Bo Peep and a look inside the Pixar Archives, visit our sister publication, the Toy Book.