Interviews Movies

Hair, Space and Beyond – Lightyear’s Tailoring and Simulation Put Costumes at Front Center

Buzz Lightyear is Pixar’s biggest hero—a big-screen phenomenon that inspired a successful line of toys from the geniuses of Pixar Animation Studios’ 1995 feature film Toy Story. That story placed Buzz Lightyear—the toy in this case—center stage as the brand-new, highly sought-after toy that gives vintage pull-string Sheriff Woody a run for his money as Andy’s favorite toy. Fast forward 21 years, and director Angus MacLane found himself asking: What movie inspired Andy to beg for a fancy action figure with lasers, karate chop action and aerodynamic space wings?

Welcome to Lightyear, a sci-fi action adventure and the definitive origin story of Buzz Lightyear, the hero who inspired the toy. Lightyear follows the legendary Space Ranger after he’s marooned on a hostile planet 4.2 million light-years from Earth alongside his commander and his crew. As Buzz tries to find a way back home through space and time, he’s joined by a group of ambitious recruits and his charming robot companion cat, Sox. Complicating matters and threatening the mission is the arrival of Zurg, an imposing presence with an army of ruthless robots and a mysterious agenda.  

Despite being roughly 2 months away from the release of Lightyear, The Koalition had an opportunity to talk to Lightyear’s Tailoring and Simulation Supervisor Fran Kalal to learn more about the technical aspects of creating the movie, how a visit to NASA influenced the movie, spacesuits and a topic only recently seen in animation, realistic looking African American hairstyles.

While this most buzzed about Toy Story spinoff is not the first time, we’ve seen Lightyear in his own adventure (2000’s Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins, and his own series,) this is based on the character from Andy’s favorite movie Lightyear, which is the reason why Andy wanted the Buzz Lightyear toy.

As Pixar’s tailoring and simulation supervisor for the movie Lightyear, Fran leads a team that takes what’s already known about art and fashion to make the costumes, and what’s known about physics and computer science to perform with those characters’ outfits and hairstyles.

“I’ve worked on a lot of great Pixar films, and after Incredibles 2, I was so excited to work on another film where costumes were front and center. [In the movie we’ll see that Lightyear has a lot of super cool costumes we’re so proud of, [including] spacesuits, because they’re cool. And not only did we have to design one suit, but we also had to design several that advanced over time. So, each time Buzz returns from a test flight, Star Command has years to plan the next chip and suit in hopes of supporting Buzz to complete his mission.

But what is a spacesuit? What does it do? And how would a spacesuit design evolve over time? In order to figure that out, Fran and her team dove into research.

“We went on a research trip to NASA, met with a spacesuit design consultant, looked at reference materials from the Smithsonian, found inspiration in cinema, and finally, got access to a tangible replica. A launch and entry spacesuit are designed to keep a human alive in space or water long enough for a rescue operation. They’re structured with layers upon layers of cooling, wires, heavy metal rings, an impermeable outer shell, utility gauges, and instruments. And all these layers add structure and change the way a wearer could move.”

“Buzz’s first launch and entry suit, the XL-1, takes us back to the early days of human space exploration with function over form. The chest box is bulky and secured with a webbed harness. The oxygen hose is loose and unwieldy. The wrist communicator is strapped right on to the suit. The suit has padded knees, elbows, and shoulders to protect Buzz from jostling in the ship, and to afford mobility. The utility belt is bulky, with large metal buckles. And the boots, gloves, and neck rings all allow for rotation, but are heavy and a bit unwieldy. Next, a montage takes us through an exciting progression of the ships and suits. Our experiences align with Buzz, observing decades of change in minutes.”

“Each mission has its own mission patch, much like the NASA Missions. Try to spot the mission numbers on the ships and the suit the next time you watch the montage. Now, the 14th suit is sleeker, has better mobility, a more integrated mech, and life support with echoes of the space ranger suit. The chest box is now integrated into a central upper torso backpack with environmental controls. And the hose is now integrated into the chest box. The eject harness’s straps mimic the silhouette of the space ranger costume.”  

“The risk communicator is now integrated with the wrist ring. The leg grooves offer sleep support and protection. And there’s a magnet on the back that securely wears-securely fastens the wearer into any compatible chair. And finally, Buzz makes his way back to the space ranger suit. This suit is an EVA, or extra-vehicular activity suit. Buzz can perform demanding physical tasks outside a spaceship in this suit. Most of the soft fabric is replaced by well-articulated hard surface pieces that afford both mobility and maximum protection.”

“This suit fits a Buzz of human proportions. And to achieve this look, our model rig and animation are designed interactively to give the broad strokes of the silhouette we recognize in a more realistic human Buzz Lightyear.”

“The level of detail in this suit is a new achievement for our hard surface modeling at Pixar. The cloth texturing and stitching on the gloves brings a new look of realism to this costume. And the graphic design and integration brings a new level of believability to this suit. Now, these complex costumes required extreme collaboration between art, modeling, rigging, tailoring, shading, tools, animation, shot simulation, lighting artists, and so many more. We achieved new levels of technical and look complexity to deliver these costumes.”

One of the most standout aspects of Lightyear, not including the remarkable storytelling and cinematic visuals that makes the movie unlike any other Pixar movie seen before, is the inclusion of natural African American hairstyles ranging from braids to afro puffs; all with beautifully filled in edges and curls which until recently, hasn’t been represented in animation. While the hairstyles are never mentioned nor the focal point of a scene, it felt personal and represented a positive image, that even in space, all people are included, even if that means bringing in and learning about new technology for authenticity.  

“It was so exciting we got to work with a woman named Sophia on our project who was really excited about changing our technology and writing new technology to make sure we could have authentic braids and to make sure we could have really gorgeous, authentic natural curls. It was so great to see her bring her perspective to the team and to share what is authentic, what is accurate and what is awesome. On top of all of that, to build out these amazing hairstyles for Commander Hawthorne, I can’t wait for fans to see them.”

To learn more about the movie, check out our full interview with Fran in the video above. Lightyear will release in theaters on June 17th.

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