Mark Nielsen knows a thing or two about the storytelling process at Pixar.

Nielsen started there in 1996 as a modeling and shading coordinator on A Bug’s Life. He stuck with Pixar, and worked for them again on 1999's Toy Story 2. Then he switched and became lighting manager for Monsters, Inc. Next up, he served as story manager and crowd manager on Cars. Never one to settle, he became production manager on Up and then associate producer on Inside Out. Then, in the middle of production on Toy Story 4, he was promoted to producer.

What does a producer do when it comes to Pixar? What was production like on Toy Story 4? How do they achieve the iconic voice acting in the film, and of course, how does Pixar do what they do? Nielsen sat down with No Film School to talk about all of these things.

No Film School: The voices in the Toy Story series are so recognizable and such an important component of the films. You have familiar voices like Tom Hanks, who has been there from the beginning. But you also have new roles for actors like Keanu Reeves. How do you cast the voices, and how do you capture their performances as those voices?

Nielsen: First, story drives everything. So we're trying to figure out our story by writing scripts and storyboarding. We use our own voices to do all the characters here at Pixar, so that we can put rough draft versions of the movie up on the screen. We can be here and watch it and say, "Yeah, that seems like that's working. Yeah, we really like that character". And then at a certain point, we're like, "Okay, Duke Caboom. That character is going to stick. It's working in the story. I think we should go try to find a voice."

We have a casting department, and it's Kevin and Natalie here at Pixar. We meet with them, show them the scenes and say, "Here's what we're looking for. We want someone that is Canadian, we want a Canadian actor because it's a Canadian toy. They've got to have a lot of bravado, but they're also really insecure and they've got a history of failure." We spell that out and come back a week or two later and they bring a page of maybe 20 actors.

Lately, we do these casting sessions blind. They don't show us pictures of who these actors are or give us their names. They play clips ... say 20 actors ... that they've pulled from interviews. Or they're pulled from movies or pulled from TV shows, just clips of their voice. So we'll look at a picture of Duke Caboom and we'll listen for an hour as they run through all 20 of these voices. And then we just consider, "does this voice that I'm hearing, it doesn't matter who they are, does it fit with this toy and what we're looking to do?"

Then we narrow it down. We circle the favorites and then we go, "Okay, we all circled these three, let's listen to those again". Then we narrow it down [further] and then we're like, "Okay, who is that?" And it's Keanu Reeves. We’re like, "Wait, what? He's Canadian?!" They pick these obscure clips where you can't necessarily even identify who it is or what they're talking about. We were like, "He's huge. I don't know if he's going to say 'yes' to this, but let's give it a shot". Then you reach out to the actor and bring them in. For Keanu, he was like, "I want to know more about the role before I say 'yes'."

NFS: So what was the process there? What happened next?

So he flew to Pixar and met with us for an afternoon. We showed him artwork, we showed him the character, we talked to him and he's like, "So, tell me, what makes this guy tick? What's he all about?" And he really dug deep and wanted to know. It's a pretty small role in the film. But he took it very seriously, and [he] wanted to go as deep as he could with the character. We didn't know he owned his own motorcycle company. We're like, "Wait, what? You own a motorcycle company and you're Canadian?" It was a match made in heaven.  


"Then we narrow it down and then we're like, 'Okay, who is that?' And it's Keanu Reeves. We’re like, 'Wait, what?'

NFS: Walk us through what the voice recording sessions are like.

When you have your first session with an actor, which is amazing, you usually go to where they are. So if they're in LA, we'll fly to LA, and meet with them. You're kind of exploring it first. But I will say that we seek actors out for these parts that are doing their own voice. We want them as them. We didn't get Keanu so he could do a Canadian stunt man voice. We just wanted him to be a Canadian stunt man. You're not really exploring vocal types, you're just exploring character. So you learn a lot in the first session. You go for, say, four hours -- and you record all the lines. Then we take it back, and we cut it in, and then you bring the actors back when you rewrite the script -- which we do all the time. We're constantly rewriting all the way through. You bring them back a bunch of times. So we probably recorded Keanu maybe four or five times over the making of the film, because we kept redoing his lines. And at the end of the day, you’ve hopefully got something that works great.

NFS: So you're rewriting and recording voices, and cutting them in, but you still do all of the animations at the end, or you would be redoing those too?

The last thing you do is animate the scenes. You're hoping against hope you don't have to ever get rid of any of your animation. So, when I say we're watching versions of the movie and we're rewriting, we're mostly iterating on using storyboards. We've got a story department, ten story artists drawing this thing out on Cintiq. They draw it, our editorial department cuts it to the voices -- to sound effects, to music. And then we watch it on a screen. We try to make all our changes in what we call story reels. But once we lock it for animation, hopefully you've got final dialogue from the actors and you know exactly what your shots are. Then they animate it, and that's what you see in the final film.

NFS: You’ve had a lot of different roles with Pixar before. As the producer on Toy Story 4, can you give us a snapshot of what that means for this kind of production?

I started off as an associate producer on Toy Story 4 and I was promoted to producer halfway through the process. That was kind of unique on this film. Usually, you start in one role and you finish in that same role. I've been at the studio [for] 23 years, which has been amazing. And like you said, I've grown up here through the ranks, starting as a coordinator. But your role as producer is to partner with the director, and the director's responsible for the creative vision, the storytelling. You are there as the producer to prop that director up with everything they could possibly need: The right people, the right amount of time, the right actors, the right creative forces, and the right executive producers. You do this in order to allow that director to tell their story in a really clear and concise way. And to tell it on time.

So it's a big, all-encompassing job that is different every day. It involves a ton of communication, management, and organization. You've got to be part cheerleader, because you're trying to keep everybody's spirits up -- even when things are going badly. You have to be part career guidance counselor, a lot of meetings with people along the way to kind of encourage them to do their best work. And then you've got to be accountable to the studio to bring the movie in on time and on budget. There's a lot of different and varied responsibilities within the role. So, it is a tough one to sum up.


"We want everybody on the crew to feel like a filmmaker, to act like a filmmaker, to bring their best ideas..."

NFS: Toy Story and all Pixar films have this great legacy of top of the visual storytelling, where every moment is expertly crafted to motivate the story. Is there any advice that you can give to readers who might be filmmakers or animators, on how you pull that off?

To accomplish the storytelling, there's so many people I would want to credit on this film for that. It's in part the writers, it's part the story department, it's part the director, and it's part the animators who are really creating these performances. So for advice, it's kind of different on what specialty you're bringing to the storytelling, and the visual part of it, too. There are so many creative computer scientists that have made the imagery just stunning for this film, beyond any of the other films. We want people to bring themselves to the table. We bring people that are storytellers at heart into these roles. We want everybody on the crew to feel like a filmmaker, to act like a filmmaker, to bring their best ideas, to bring a lot of the energy and enthusiasm to the table – and to not be afraid to fail.

But you have to go down those roads in order to find your way. So not being afraid of failure is a part of it as well. You’ve got to have thick skin, especially as a story artist. They're constantly bringing ideas to the table that are getting thrown out the window. They'll pour so much of themselves into a scene and it'll be like, "Nope, that doesn't work. That doesn't work." That's tough. Then they're back to the drawing board, having to do something all over again. You do have to have thick skin. You've got to fail a lot and you've got to not quit.

Just know that every failure is just going to make whatever you're doing that much stronger.

Yet another Pixar classic, Toy Story 4 is out on digital today, October 1. It arrives on 4K UHD and Blu-ray Oct. 8.