‘To Infinity and Beyond’ holds special meaning for UNLV alumnus Samantha Gruwell, who earned a bachelor’s degree in filmmaking in 2005 and now works as a department head in the feature-length production division. footage from Pixar Animation Studios.
Since 2011, Gruwell has been a member of Pixar’s production management team, contributing to various projects. Most recently, the Tucson, Arizona native was responsible for set, camera and direction for the new “Toy Story” spin-off “Lightyear,” which hits theaters this weekend.
The sci-fi action adventure that made Andy fall in love with his Buzz Lightyear toy follows the heroic Space Ranger after he’s stranded on an alien planet 4.2 million light years away of Earth alongside its commander and crew. Voiced by Chris Evans, Buzz must find a way home with the help of budding recruits and his trusty robot cat, Sox, as they battle Zurg, a mysterious presence with an army of ruthless robots.
The film also features the voices of Uzo Aduba, Peter John, Keke Palmer, Taika Waititi and Dale Soules.
Review-Journal: What prompted you to make cinema a career?
Samantha Gruwell: Well, I think it all goes back to seeing “Toy Story” in theaters in 1985. When I was 11, I was already interested in art and animation when I was a kid and I was growing up with “The Lion King” and “Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin” and those movies, just wanting to be around animation if I could.
What made you choose UNLV?
It sounds funny. I had visited Las Vegas a lot as a kid, growing up there on family trips. I had seen the Blue Man Group, and that was a big reason I wanted to move to Vegas because I wanted to work for them – which eventually happened while I was in college. And, you know, just the idea of being in a city where there was more activity and just more theater productions and fun things to do.
What attracted you to Pixar?
Originally it was the fact that they were innovators at the time. They were doing something that no other place really did. And that was when “Toy Story” first came out. I was like, ‘Oh, there are artists and there are people who are good with technology and they come together to create this whole new form of art, and it’s so cool and different and unique, and they tell great stories, and who doesn’t want to be part of that?”
Describe your work experience on “Lightyear”?
It’s an experience unlike anything we’ve had before at Pixar, in that we’ve had to do it mostly from home. We were always like, “OK, how can we do a review? How do we look at each other’s work? How can we have team meetings, like, in this environment? “We had to come up with a lot of things from scratch. It really brought everyone together in such a unique way, and we were able to participate in conversations and reviews that we otherwise wouldn’t have been able to do if we were in the studio. By opening them up virtually, we could have as many people as they wanted in the conversation, so it was a lot more collaborative.
Were there any challenges working on the set of “Lightyear”?
The sets for this film were so challenging in that there was a lot of modeling to do. There were a lot of sets and a lot of spaceships that we had to model. Everything you see on screen has been modeled in some way.
What do you keep in mind when working as a cameraman and stage manager?
We work very closely with the animation department, the lighting department, and the effects department to really make decisions together as a unit, and we spent a lot of time doing that on this movie. We’re constantly thinking about how to make it more dynamic, more interesting, more cinematic, and in this particular film, more sci-fi.
What do you like most about the character of Buzz?
He’s a character we all know and love, he’s endearing in “Toy Story,” so it was really fun to see him take shape as a human. You know, he wears a few different outfits – he’s not just in the Buzz Lightyear Space Ranger costume – so it was fun then to see him evolve as a character.
What made working on “Lightyear” different from other projects?
This was my first time managing the camera and directing departments and being part of those earlier conversations, exploring character and settings and how it all comes together and how the scenes take shape. It was really fascinating to me. And I fell in love with that part of the pipeline and that process, just being able to participate in conversations that I otherwise wouldn’t have participated in if I had been in another department.