Exclusive: Toy Story 4 team reveals truth behind Bo Peep’s feminist transformation

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Helen Bownass
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As Toy Story 4 hits screens this week, Stylist exclusively discovers how Bo Peep was modernised for the 21st century.

When Toy Story was released in 1995, it was celebrated for its groundbreaking innovation (it was the first film made entirely by computer) and humanity (even though its subjects were toys), making over £295 million at the worldwide box office.

But its female characters were a little lacking – there was bossy Mrs Potato Head and Bo Peep, a supporting character who acted largely as a voice of reason to Woody. Twenty-four years later, when Pixar announced the release of the fourth and final film of the franchise, Stylist was thrilled to see that, after being missing in action from 2010’s third installment, Bo has undergone something of a transformation.

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Eager to find out more about how the studio contemporised her, we travelled to Pixar’s San Francisco campus (complete with swimming pool and amphitheatre). There we met four of the nine women on Team Bo: Valerie LaPointe (story supervisor), Mara MacMahon (character modeller), Patty Kihm and Becki Tower (directing animators), who talked through the (up to five) years of work they’d done on Bo and saw sketches of various Bo possibilities including Rosie the Riveter and post-apocalyptic iterations.

“When we’re looking at classic action heroines, a lot tend to be portrayed as masculine or tomboys,” says MacMahon. “We felt like it would be fun to overlay some of these qualities with just being feminine. She is a character who is tired of sitting on a shelf and waiting for life to happen. She has learned to adapt. She takes chances and is unpredictable.”

“We were trying to create a very strong character,” adds Tower. It was very much a team effort: “There are more women in our department, with more [female] voices in the room. We wanted to make her really interesting and dimensional,” says LaPointe. “I’m so glad we have a female character in this universe that now has as much screen time and is on the same level as Buzz and Woody.” In fact, Bo appears in 90% of the film and has embraced life as a lost toy living on the road. So how did she become a very modern action hero?

Her speech

Kihm: Bo Peep always had a great sense of humour but she was quieter. Her dry wit has definitely grown and matured.

LaPointe: Annie Potts [who voices her] has given her a deeper voice, more grit and natural charm.

Her cloak

Tower: I was very protective over it being a cloak, not a cape. A Superman [cape would be] worn back and resting over her shoulders. A Batman [cloak] would come across her arm. This felt more feminine [whereas a cape] felt more like an action hero. We wanted to pull her out of some of the stereotypes and let her be independent and unique.

MacMahon: When we were building Bo Peep, we were thinking about the fact that the cloak used to be a dress and when she puts it around her neck, it would drape in the same way that the dress would around her waist. We worked with tailoring artists, who made an actual dress that would double up as a cloak and turn inside out so we could see how it moved.

Sketching Bo’s transformation 

Her face

The team took a research trip to a doll and porcelain fabrication workshop. They found with the process of firing the porcelain that details soften, and you don’t get sharp edges the way you might with other toys. So they looked at other details they could add in that they couldn’t before: her nostrils and her eyelashes are soft and melted in. It was also important to make her brows look like they were painted on.

Kihm: If you look closely, you’ll see cracking in her hair – this is a subtle but constant reminder to the audience that she’s made of porcelain. To reinforce that idea, we never wanted to see her hair move.

Tower: We had to work closely with lighting because any light you put on Bo Peep, you get really shiny spots. How do you knock that reflection down but keep her porcelain shiny? [It was important] to retain the ability to see her portraying a quiet, sensitive moment without being distracted [by the shine].

Her bandages 

LaPointe: Now Bo Peep has gone through all these trials in life, it has made her into this character who takes chances. She’s like, “Yeah, my arm broke, but we’ll just tape it back up. It’s fine. Let’s keep going.” She’s embracing life along with all its flaws and challenges.

The new Bo is a fighter

Her jumpsuit

Kihm: Previously, Bo was feminine and reserved in her movements, perhaps because of her constraining outfit.

MacMahon: There were a whole bunch of ideas we looked at for Bo’s [new] outfit. But we didn’t want to modify her so much to the point that she felt like a completely different character. It made sense to take the same outfit that she had before, those blue pantaloons under her original dress, and repurpose them. She had to be practical.

Kihm: She’s athletic, and perhaps her new outfit gives her this sense of freedom to express that athleticism.

Bo’s signature bloomers were re-purposed to make her new jumpsuit

Her staff

Tower: This is not just some accessory, this is an extension of who she is. We were likening it to how an electrician might hold a drill. The starting point [for how she might use it] was looking at martial arts, then survival skills like spear throwing.

MacMahon: The material wrapped around the staff came from the idea that a string from her original outer corset came off, so she wrapped it round the staff and used it as a handhold.

LaPointe: Her using it to help her move around the world is a nod to her fragility. She just can’t jump around and move all around, she needs to use this thing to protect herself.

Bo’s staff has become a focal point of her outfit

Her movement

MacMahon: What does it mean to be strong and not necessarily first think of muscle?

Tower: Bo Peep is poised, she’s graceful. If you play graceful in more traditional ways it could be seen as submissive. We looked at film clips [of characters like Rey from Star Wars and The Bride in Kill Bill] and the poses of dancers and gymnasts like Olympian Aly Raisman. Often when we see a woman looking athletic, it’s masculine. This was our chance to flip that on its heels and say no, there are so many more nuanced variations of that.

Kihm: Bo Peep’s material presented an interesting challenge: how do you make a rigid porcelain doll run and jump, but still look porcelain? We ended up animating her stiffer than we would for a human character. We restricted her torso movements and limited the bending in her arms and wrists.

Toy Story 4 is in cinemas on 21 June

Photography: Pixar 

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Helen Bownass

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