Finding Nemo's Productivity Secrets: Lifehacker Interviews Pixar's Lee Unkrich

Lee Unkrich has an impressive Pixar pedigree: working his way up through editing roles at the animation giant, he eventually directed Toy Story 3 and co-directed Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc and Toy Story 2. To celebrate Finding Nemo's re-release in 3D, he chatted with Lifehacker about productivity, decision-making, teamwork and the best things about being a director.

LIFEHACKER: How have improvements in technology changed the way you approach the job of making animated movies?

LEE UNKRICH: If anything, it's just been freeing. At the beginning when we made Toy Story, the technology was really in its infancy. It really limited the kinds of stories we could tell; we had to pick stories that were kind of doable. When we looked at different ideas, we would say 'We can't do justice to that, because it's going to be too hard'. On Toy Story, that was a perfect story to tell in the medium at the time because computers were great at doing reflections and plastic and wood and inorganic things, so it was the perfect place to set the story. If Andrew had come with his idea for Finding Nemo at the beginning, there's no way we'd have ever made that movie.

Over time of course we challenged the technology to let us be able to tell the kind of stories we wanted to tell and we've now gotten to the point where we can really do anything. You look at the state of visual effects in the world and it seems like there's really nothing that people can't do and so that's great for us because now any idea that we can think up we know that we can make.

LIFEHACKER: Technology also enabled 3D, which has led to Finding Nemo being revisited. How do you get back into the mindset of a film you haven't been involved in for a decade.

LEE UNKRICH: Luckily we've got this amazing team of guys at Pixar and all they do is 3D, whether it's doing the 3D on the new movies that we're making or doing these reworkings of the earlier films. The original filmmakers are involved as much as they want to be, but most of the time you can't be that involved because you're making new movies. The team does show us their work along the way at key milestones and we can weigh in, but most of the time honestly we have nothing to say because they do such a good job and it looks really fantastic. If we have any notes they're really minor tweaks.

A lot of people ask whether we change anything. It's not so much a rule, it's just a choice: we want the movies to remain the movies that they were, warts and all. Even the early films which by today's standards can look a little bit crude or rough around the edges, we could fix a lot of that but we don't want to. We want them to be the movies that we made back then, just in 3D. We're not going to suddenly add a new character or put new things in the background.

LIFEHACKER: Animated movies involve the work of hundreds of people. How do you go about keeping that team productive?

LEE UNKRICH: It's all broken down into small teams of people and they all add up in aggregate to being a lot of people Throughout the day, depending on what I'm focusing on at any given moment, whether I'm having a meeting with the editors or meeting with a bunch of the artists who are designing new characters and the sets, I just concentrate on any one little aspect at a time. When I'm in the heat of making a movie my schedule from the moment I walk in the door until I leave at the end of the day is really taken up by lots and lots of meetings, looking at a lot of people's work and making decision. I'm so lucky that I work with so many talented people that it's like being on a shopping spree where everything's free There's all this great stuff and it's just a matter of me making choices that are ultimately going to be in service of telling the story properly.

That said, there are things about making live action films that are way harder than what we do. It does take a lot of people, but it takes far fewer people than it used to take to do traditional hand drawn animation. We made our first few films with a crew of 150-200 people, but a movie like The Lion King had over 800 people working on it. We are able to do things a lot more efficiently.

LIFEHACKER: What's the best thing about being a director?

LEE UNKRICH: It's exciting to bring something into the world that didn't exist; to start from nothing and start with just a few people and an idea and have that blossom into something that does eventually take hundreds of people to create and to create something that is seen all over the world. I feel so lucky to be at Pixar and to be working on the scale where something we quietly create in California goes out to people all over the world and they see our work and they fall in love with it. At the end of the day we really just think of ourselves as artists quietly making something but not everybody gets that opportunity to then have their work seen on a truly global level. The creative work I do gets seen so far and wide.

LIFEHACKER: What are the most impotant skills for a director?

LEE UNKRICH: Decisiveness. Directors are faced with hundreds of choices every single day and the worst thing you can do is be indecisive about anything. There are a lot of times where you don't know what the best choice is to make but you have to make a choice and move ahead and hope that most of the time you're making the right choices.

That's why co-directing can be good. I got to have all the fun of making a movie but I didn't have to have the responsibility of it on my shoulders. If something was going wrong, nobody was looking at me. If you're the director, all the spotlights are shining on you, good or bad.

We all are kind of involved in all the movies, and I think that's part of Pixar's success. We regularly all get together and screen each other's work and we have note sessions that are sometimes pretty brutal, but it's all in service of making the movies better. It's part of what would make it hard for me to work at any other studio, because I don't think there's any other studio which has that kind of system in place.

LIFEHACKER: Pixar movies take a long time to produce. Is that process ever going to get any quicker?

LEE UNKRICH: The technology is not what makes it take so long to make our movie; it's mostly working on the story, and technology is never going to help with that. Crafting a story is a really messy process, and if you want to end up with something truly great you have to give it the room to go on its journey. I think everybody would like us to make them faster — they'd cost less money and we'd be able to make more of them — but I think we've settled into a rhythm which is realistic.

Lifehacker's weekly Streaming column looks at how technology is keeping us entertained.


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