Poetry and Symmetry of Storytelling in Toy Story 3

I’ve watched recently Toy Story 3, but this time with audio commentary by director Lee Unkrich and producer Darla Anderson. This blog post was inspired by their commentary and draws heavily from it.

With movies, it’s all about setting it up and paying it off consistently, to create this poetry and symmetry of storytelling.

Saying goodbye is never easy, especially to someone who you’ve known for a long time, some you’ve loved or just deeply cared about.

There is a scene, when Woody is leaving the toys. It gets very emotional, because they have been together for so many years. They get into argument. Both sides have to say things and they are not very nice. It’s a messy break up, because when Buzz extends his hand to Woody, he refuses to shake it.

Toy Story 3 (2010)
Toy Story 3 (2010)

Later in the movie, there is a scene, where the toys are taken to the dump. It’s the biggest fear of a toy. It’s not like getting thrown away or being outgrown by a kid, because that’s not the end of a toy. But heading into inferno of incinerator, that’s the ultimate end.

The toys are trying to climb up the trash, but they very quickly realize, that this is not an option. They are falling into the incinerator and slowly sliding toward their doom. There is no way out, no option, this place is inescapable.

So there is this wonderful and extremely emotional moment, when all toys come together as a family. Buzz reaches out to Woody and this time, he accepts his hand without hesitation. This moment intentionally mirrors the earlier scene, where Woody refused to shake Buzz’s hand. They all hold hands, they bond as a family, close their eyes and face together their doom.

Toy Story 3 (2010)
Toy Story 3 (2010)

It’s extremely emotional, because now we have this “family reunion” to contrast the messy break up in the earlier scene. This is what Darla Anderson meant by “setting it up and paying it off”.

The incinerator scene is extremely emotional even if you only look at the still frames above. It’s not just about creating the symmetry of storytelling (setting it up and paying it off). It works so well, because there are additional layers of meaning.

The toys realized in this scene, that the most important thing is that they have each other… is there anything more important?

Back light in Toy Story 3

Toy Story 3 (2010)
Toy Story 3 (2010)

One of the most basic, and at the same time, most effective way to light a character or object in a scene, is using a three-point lighting setup.  This setup is used extensively by photographers, filmmakers or CGI artists. But as you’ll see in this example, creative use of the three-point lighting method can be used also as a storytelling device.

Three-point lighting

Three-point lighting
Three-point lighting

Let’s quickly describe, what the three-point lighting method is all about.  As the name suggests, we’ll be using three lights: key light, fill light and back light. Let’s start with the key light.

Key light
Key light

Key light is our main source of light. It is the brightest light, which defines the overall direction, angle, color and strength of light and shadows in the scene.

Fill light
Fill light

Fill light shines at the subject from the same side, but at a different angle. It has lower intensity than the key light and its main function is to “fill in” the harsh shadows, created by the key light.

Back light
Back light

Back light, a.k.a. rim light, shines at the subject from behind, creating a light wrap around character/object’s contours, helping thus separate the character/object from the background.

It is also clearly visible, that back light, due to its position, hides the character/object in shadows.

Emotional meaning of shadows:

Everybody will associate different meanings and assign different values to that word, so in the following sentences, I’ll try to describe, what it means to me.

  • The first association is something dark, something bad and evil. The dark side of your personality, that nobody should know about.
  • Secondly, it may represent your wrongdoings, or demons haunting you for the bad things, you did in your past.
  • Next, shadows are kind of mystery, they impose more questions than answers.
  • And lastly, shadows may portray evil intentions or plans.

Buzz versus Lotso

Toy Story 3 (2010)
Toy Story 3 (2010)

The scene starts, when the daycare closes. (Notice the lighting in the scene, telling us that it’s a late afternoon!) Andy’s toys are tired, exhausted and frustrated, because their first playtime in the daycare was a lot different from what they were looking for.

Therefore, Buzz decides to go to visit Lotso (local boss) and talk with him about moving him and his friends to the other room, where they’ll be treated much better.

Toy Story 3 (2010)
Toy Story 3 (2010)

On his way to Lotso, he has to pass several obstacles and guards. Now, notice the long shadows of the guards in the picture above, caused by the back light. I don’t know what exactly they mean, but on emotional level, it tells me, that these guys are bad.

Continuing on the way, Buzz enters the vending machine, but gets caught later by a big doll baby. He is then moved to the library, when he finally meets Lotso. They have a short argument, after which Lotso decides to reset Buzz, by switching him from the play to demo mode.

Toy Story 3 (2010)
Toy Story 3 (2010)

In the picture above, we can see Lotso reading the manual, searching for instructions, how to reset Buzz Lightyear to the original factory settings.

What is really exciting here, is the lighting of the scene, primarily the lighting of Lotso. The back light creates nice light wrap (rim) around his contours, but most importantly, because of the missing key and fill light, Lotso’s face is in the shadow.

Again, emotionally, it really works for me. It shows the dark side of his character and his bad intentions with Buzz.

I can’t wait to watch the movie again and search for other examples of cinematic storytelling. I love you Pixar!


Other examples:

South Park, Season 10 - Episode 7
South Park, Season 10 – Episode 7
The Iron Giant (1999)
The Iron Giant (1999)