The Creation and Evolution of Buzz Lightyear by Pixar
June 10, 2022
“To infinity… and beyond!” For so many of us, these words are emblazoned in our memories as the catchphrase of beloved Pixar Character Buzz Lightyear. Buzz’s bravery, determination and heroism (and yes, his silly moments, too) have endeared him to generations of Toy Story fans.
And this summer, we’ll get to learn more about Buzz’s backstory in Lightyear, the all-new Disney and Pixar movie arriving in theaters June 17. The film will introduce us to the (fictional) human Space Ranger that inspired the toy version we know. And the upcoming release is the perfect opportunity to bring out the whole family and redeem your Disney Rewards Dollars toward tickets on AMCTheatres.com or on the AMC Theatres Mobile App.1
So how was the Toy Story Buzz Lightyear created—and how did he evolve over the years and why? We had the chance to ask Pixar Production Designer Bob Pauley, who worked on Buzz’s Character in all four Toy Story films, and Dean Heezen, a Pixar Character Designer who worked on human Buzz in Lightyear.
The Pixar Character Design Process: Buzz Lightyear as a Toy
Back in 1993, Pixar started work on a Character who would eventually become Buzz. Pauley and his fellow Pixar Character designers grew up in an era with plenty of action figure toys, and they drew inspiration from childhood memories of playing with those toys when they began designing Buzz. Pauley also integrated elements of contemporary toys, studying every aspect of their construction during the Character design process.
Diving into the details of the toy experience was important, right down to the literal nuts and bolts. It was important for Buzz to give viewers the same feelings as the toys they’d held in their hands as kids. “The details you don’t notice, but you feel, like the little screw connectors, or the seams in which the toy was being put together—those are things you feel and you know when you’re a kid,” Pauley says. “And also, adults remember how these things are made and how they work. So you’re kind of giving a sense of authenticity to it.”
Pauley also took notes from other sources: Buzz’s space suit is reminiscent of American astronaut gear of the era, such as the patches that read “Space Ranger” and “Lightyear.” “Buzz has these little purple fingertips. Well, all the astronauts in the Apollo had these little light blue fingertips on their spacesuits, because you couldn’t grip anything,” Pauley recalls. The Apollo astronauts wore fitted hoods to keep their hair down, which Buzz sports under his domed visor as well. Buzz’s high-tech, contemporary look also served the storyline: It set him up as the shiny newcomer and foil to Woody’s soft body and wind-up act.
Buzz Lightyear and Woody
As it turns out, Buzz and Woody had to be developed as Characters in tandem with each other, because their physical contrasts were important to the film. “I mean, it’s a buddy film, so they’re opposites. And the Western old cowboy, that’s a soft toy, and then you got this kind of hard plastic action figure that’s space.”
Some of the earlier versions of Buzz, including a “swashbuckler” called Lunar Larry, were more organic and busier. But somehow, that just wasn’t right. “And they weren’t true to the Character,” Pauley says. “You know who he is, like: ‘I’m a space guy. We got to get the aliens.’”
Since Woody was being developed at the same time as Buzz, the designers didn’t initially have a clear Woody to contrast with. But little by little, they nudged the designs in the right direction. “And then we got to the final drawings, Buzz next to Woody works in a way,” Pauley recalls. “They look different, but they work well as buddies, together.”
Buzz Lightyear as a Human
They say that life imitates art—in Lightyear, you could say that life imitates art imitating life (or something like that). Lightyear features the human version of Buzz that the action figure Buzz is based on. Human Buzz’s designers faced the unique task of recreating a human based on a beloved toy.
“It was like reverse engineering of what your typical approach to design would be,” says Heezen, a Character Designer at Pixar who worked on the newest version of Buzz. Typically, Heezen explains, he’ll draw from life and then caricature the form from there, simplifying and exaggerating features. “Whereas for this film, finding human Buzz, it was the complete opposite of that where you had this caricature, simplified plastic mold of whoever this human being would be. And then you had to find a more realistic face that stayed true to the proportions of the toy.”
One of the biggest challenges? Buzz’s chin.
Anyone acquainted with the action figure Buzz knows that his proportions are exaggerated—in particular, his comically large chin. Heezen says they had to figure out how to get that trapezoidal face shape with an emphasis on the chin, but without making it “too bulbous or grotesque.”
This deliberation over the chin is a perfect example of the challenges the team faced in creating a Character that was true to the new film’s storyline. Human Buzz needed to be more, well, human. “Buzz the toy is a caricature of Lightyear. He’s supposed to be that really campy, over-the-top hero. Whereas in Lightyear, he’s going through a little bit more of an existential experience where it provokes more opportunity for personal emotions, opposed to the very exaggerated facial expression that the toy has,” Heezen explains.
“I’m very excited to see what people think of this classic, iconic hero,” Heezen says. And as for the takeaways viewers will have from the new Buzz? “’Behind any hero is just a regular person’ is probably the best thing I could say without revealing too much.”
Pauley remembers the thrill of seeing a kid at the airport with Buzz and Woody toys, shortly after Toy Story came out. To him, Buzz is more than just a Character—he’s family. “I really love that family. Because the Toy Story family is very sweet,” he explains. “But also, it reminds me of all the people I’ve worked with over the years. And that’s kind of my family at work. So, it’s very near and dear to me.”
And he’s excited for fans to meet the new Buzz in Lightyear: “Probably the best thing to say is, get ready for a wild ride. Just like Toy Story, right? It’s a different ride. But it should be wild.”
And if you’re interested to learn even more about Buzz’s evolution, check out the documentary Beyond Infinity: Buzz and the Journey to Lightyear, now streaming on Disney+.