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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane Valley’s Mike Stocker helps bring Buzz Lightyear to life

If it weren’t for Mike Stocker, Buzz Lightyear would not be able to travel “to infinity and beyond” during “Lightyear,” the latest action-adventure film produced by Pixar Animation Studios.

The Spokane Valley native, who is a “Lightyear” animator, brought the beloved character to life in the latest Pixar spinoff.

“Animating Buzz is awesome,” Stocker said during a call from his San Francisco home. “ ‘Lightyear’ was a hard movie to make, but it was super satisfying. But it all worked out and any chance I have to animate Buzz or Woody, well, I’m in.

“The first time I animated Buzz was during “Toy Story 3” (in 2010) as a toy. But this was a different experience. I enjoyed working on this film since it was a challenge and it’s not the typical Pixar film.”

“Lightyear” is a feel-good sci-fi adventure. A young Lightyear is stuck on a hostile planet with his commander and crew, who try to figure out how to return home.

“We had to make a whole new Buzz,” Stocker said. “There was some trial and error but we got it right.”

Stocker, 58, revealed that every Pixar film gets ripped apart and reconfigured.

“That’s the way it is,” Stocker said. “What I learned at Pixar is that we are fully prepared to dismantle what was created for a movie if it’s not good enough and then we start the process all over again.

“We want to make great movies. If we have to go back to the drawing board, we do it. The cool thing is that everyone’s opinions matter. We figure out why something isn’t working. It’s a beautiful thing here since the animators can talk to the director.”

Angus MacLane, who co-directed 2016’s “Finding Dory,” made his feature directorial debut with “Lightyear.”

“It’s wonderful communicating with Angus,” Stocker said. “Angus understands the character. He’s a great animator, and to have him drive the boat is pretty awesome. He did an amazing job.”

Stocker, who has been animating with Pixar since 2002 and with Disney a decade prior to that, didn’t dream of such a career while growing up in Spokane Valley.

While coming of age during the late ’70s and early ’80s, it was all about baseball and other sports for Stocker and his brothers Kevin and Steven Stocker.

The former, who resides in Liberty Lake, enjoyed an eight-year career in Major League Baseball as a shortstop. The latter was a minor league catcher who now is a retired law enforcement official living in the Seattle metropolitan area.

“We were very much a sports family,” Stocker said. “I was a second baseman, and when I switched over to shortstop, I asked Kevin to hit me some balls. I’m barely making the throw to first and then Kevin asked me to hit him some balls and he’s (six years) younger and he’s just making every throw looking like a gazelle.

“I remember watching him play in the state championship for Central Valley (basketball) when he was a senior (in 1988). I watched him hit shots with all of that pressure. … And then there is my brother Steve, who is younger and also better than me. He was a catcher, who was physically stronger than me. My brothers were amazing athletes. I love sports but I was going down a different path.”

Stocker, who graduated from Central Valley High School in 1982, started figuring out his professional direction while attending Spokane Falls Community College, where he studied painting, illustration and design.

“The impact there was huge,” Stocker said. “I still remember sitting in my first film class. I remember watching ‘Citizen Kane.’ All of those classes helped me.”

Stocker accepted a job as an illustrator for Boeing in Seattle. After work, Stocker was relaxing in a movie theater and he had an epiphany.

“I was watching a trailer for ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ and I realized that I wanted to do animation,” Stocker said.

Stocker studied at the prestigious California Institute for the Arts. “It was the most well-known animation school at the time,” Stocker said. “I was fortunate to get in there.”

After two years at the school, Stocker interned at Walt Disney World Studios in Orlando, Florida.

“The Lion King” was the first Disney movie I worked on,” Stocker said. “I absolutely loved working on it.”

A generation later, Stocker is working on Pixar’s first episodic streaming series, “Win or Lose,” which is about a little league softball team.

“It’s a unique show that is emotional and I think it will strike a chord,” Stocker said.

“Win or Lose” is scheduled to debut in fall 2023.

Count on Stocker to return to Spokane well before then to visit his brother Kevin to play golf and visit his parents, Chuck and Lu, who live near Newman Lake.

“They’re in their 80s and they’re doing great,” Stocker said. “They play as much golf as they can. … I spent a lot of time at Newman Lake and Liberty Lake, but I really like what Spokane has become. It looks good compared to some of the down times over the years. We went to some nice restaurants and breweries the last time I was in town.”

There apparently is an animation gene in the Stocker family. Ellery Stocker, 20, is studying her father’s art form at Ringling College of Art and Design in Florida.

“My daughter is following in my footsteps with animation,” Stocker said. “And then my son, Hayden, is studying film. He’s headed off to Australia for his final semester. I’m so proud of them and I hope they have a career like mine, which has been wonderful.”

Stocker understands how fortunate he is to work with characters such as Buzz Lightyear and Woody, who have become as iconic as Mel Blanc favorites Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck.

“It’s fascinating how the world responds to Buzz Lightyear and the other characters from Pixar,” Stocker said. “People love Buzz Lightyear. We had pressure to do Buzz justice and make this film memorable. We did the best we could, and I hope people are as happy as we are with ‘Lightyear.’ ”