Lee Unkrich has been a guiding hand at Pixar since the making of Toy Story. The original braintrust of the company consisted of the five men responsible for shaping that film: John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, Joe Ranft and Lee Unkrich.
Unkrich was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1967 and has loved movies all his life (his favorite film is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, but he also loves David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch–Drunk Love). He even acted as a child at a regional theater company called the Cleveland Play House.
He went to the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts (the same school of such filmmakers as George Lucas, Robert Zemeckis, Ron Howard, Joe Johnston, and Rian Johnson) and was hooked on learning how to edit films.
When he graduated in 1990, he got editing jobs on TV series like Silk Stalkings and Stephen J. Cannell’s Renegade as well as various TV films before he got the fateful call from Pixar, which he joined in 1994 to help edit Toy Story for John Lasseter, who Unkrich was a fan of.
He had a hand in many of Pixar’s feature films since then, not only as an editor but as co-director alongside John Lasseter, Pete Docter, and Andrew Stanton on the films Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo.
He was initially going to co-direct Toy Story 3 with Lasseter again, but Lasseter was busy directing Cars 2, leaving Unkrich with a sole directing credit and the pressure to avoid being responsible for Pixar’s first dud. Fortunately, many people call Toy Story 3 one of Pixar’s best films, and it was one of two Pixar films to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, the third animated movie in history to get the honor.
Coco is the first Pixar film to come directly from Unkrich’s own imagination. He first pitched the idea for the film in 2010 the same year Toy Story 3 was released, and it has been stuck in development for a long time until animation finally began in 2016, the same year Pixar artist Adrian Molina had been promoted to co-director. The film has gotten good reviews so far, and it is highly likely Unkrich’s directing career has only just begun.
Unkrich has also been known to have small acting roles in Pixar’s films, my favorite of which is easily the red Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robot in this scene from Toy Story 2 (John Lasseter played the blue one).