Raised in Utah, then trained at BYU, a Pixar animator recalls making ‘Toy Story 4'
Pixar’s Daniel Holland discusses reviving the ‘Toy Story’ franchise — and the pressure that comes with it
SALT LAKE CITY — “You’re definitely worried about making a bad movie, because you can’t end on a bad movie — or a less-good movie.”
When Daniel Holland describes “Toy Story 4,” the weight of his job shows through, albeit subtly. The Brigham Young University graduate, who grew up in Kanab, was the sets art director for Pixar’s newest film, which hits theaters June 20. “Toy Story 4” presented some big challenges — namely, how do you reopen and end a series that already had a perfect ending?
Holland didn’t oversee the script, but he played a big part in how that script looks on screen. As sets art director, he facilitated the film’s character design and set design departments. Holland works with both these departments, as well as the film’s director and head production designer, to keep the film’s aesthetic vision cohesive.
Things get trickier with a franchise like “Toy Story,” which has been around for nearly 25 years. Computer animation is more sophisticated now than it was in 1995. Making “Toy Story 4” means blending this more visually rudimentary past with the present.
“You’re taking this certain language that we’ve seen in Andy’s bedroom, and now we’re applying it to something we’ve never seen in this language before — like a carnival or a road trip or whatever,” Holland said.
“Toy Story” follows Andy’s old toys in their new lives. Now they belong to Bonnie, an inquisitive but shy kindergartener. When Bonnie’s parents take her on a road trip, the toys come with her. But her newest toy, Forky, gets separated from the pack and ends up trapped in an antique store. The antique store is one of Pixar’s most fully realized set pieces. And it demonstrates just how skilled their animators have become.
“Putting this patina of age and wear on everything was really fun,” Holland said. “And for me, I love antique stuff, I love thrift stores and junk stores, and old items. So coming up with all that stuff, and trying to make it feel believable and lived in, and maybe a place that could exist and that people could relate to, was kind of a fun challenge.”
And yeah, the store itself was an antique too. According to Holland, Pixar’s animators wanted to show the store’s many past lives. Maybe it first opened in the 1940s as a new car dealership, then became a furniture store, then a roller rink, and so on.
“A lot of the times you’re in these thrift stores and antique stores, and there’s a history — you can tell in the architecture it’s been 10 or 15 different things over its lifetime,” Holland said, while adding that subtlety was key. “It’s kind of like when someone’s singing onstage: You don’t want to look at the piano player, but you want to feel that it’s there.”
For all of Holland’s work on “Toy Story 4,” he didn’t actually see the finished film till a few weeks ago. It was a relief. Holland admitted that in moments of frustration, he sometimes wondered if making another “Toy Story” was worth it. Had the world of “Toy Story” actually left any stones unturned? As he watched the finished “Toy Story 4,” Holland got his answer.
“And I thought, ‘Oh, this is perfect,’” he recalled. “The ending brings it all together in a way that you realize, ‘Oh, this movie kind of did have to be made.’”