After 20 years, Pixar is still one of the industry’s biggest success stories, and “Inside Out,” the biggest original box office opener in history, certainly belongs in the top-tier of the studio’s animated features. Pete Docter explores childhood and emotions and memories and growing up, but from an adult perspective. He even proclaims that it’s not only okay to be sad, but that it’s essential to our maturity and emotional well-being.
Who cares if most of the pop psych humor flies over the heads of young kids? Judging by my eight-year-old daughter, at least, they intuitively grasp the essence of the movie and are thoroughly entertained. She had no idea what deja vu was but kept the memory of Bing Bong alive long after the movie was over. So, as we head into the second weekend and start considering “Inside Out”‘s awards potential (including a Best Picture nom), here are 10 essential takeaways:
1. It’s really two movies in one. Thus, Pixar came up with different aesthetics for the outside world (San Francisco and Minnesota) and the world of Riley’s mind. For instance, San Francisco is dull, gray and foggy because of Riley’s unhappiness while it’s candy-colored and cartoony perfection inside her mind. That is, until things go horribly wrong.
2. It was an especially tough story to crack. In fact, after more than three years in production, Docter scrapped the notion of Fear (Bill Hader) being the antagonist and switched to Sadness (Phyllis Smith). Initially, it made sense that an 11-year-old would be consumed by fear and it was very entertaining. But during a long, introspective walk, Docter came to the realization that Sadness was a more profound choice to make the journey with Joy (Amy Poehler), especially if you stepped back and told the story from an adult’s perspective with more wisdom. Thus, John Lasseter and Ed Catmull gave Docter the time he needed to tweak the story.
3. It’s Joy’s story. Even though it’s about Riley and her unhappiness moving from Minnesota to San Francisco, the story focuses on Joy and her co-existence with the other four emotions. But she fails to understand the importance of Sadness and stifles her participation. The lesson Joy learns is that Sadness is an essential member of the team: You can’t be happy 24/7.
4. Lighting Joy took special care. Pixar wanted Joy to shine brightest and be her own source of illumination. But how do you light a light bulb? The lighting team not only came up with a special lighting rig but also needed an elegant solution. It just so happened that the Pixar RenderMan team was working on a geometry light that would solve the problem (by turning a model into a light source), except it wouldn’t be ready in time. But they accelerated their schedule, tested the geolight and made it happen.
5. The inside of the mind began with Ralph Eggleston’s theatrical production design. Inspired by Francis Ford Coppola’s “One From the Heart,” the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and David Hockney’s theatrical work, Eggleston came up with a theatrical lighting approach that spotlighted the five emotions and pushed Pixar to new aesthetic places. This included the initial inspiration for lighting Joy. His pastel drawing shaped Joy with color because she was was too bright to have the typical value range.
6. The layout and cinematography of the mind were modeled after “Casablanca.” Pixar looked at classical Hollywood movies for very controlled, mechanical camera movements, using dollies, tracks, booms or cranes. They even devised “moving master shots” to combine several actions in one sequence (the longest of which is 48 seconds or 1,200 frames).
7. Everything revolves around the early Dinner scene. Riley displays her unhappiness in San Francisco at the dinner table, which allows us to compare and contrast the inner and outer worlds of Riley and her parents. Docter said it was the first scene that really worked and got the best response from an early test screening. It not only became the earliest approved scene in Pixar history but also guided the rest of the story.
8. Sadness is crucial. Smith helps portray Sadness as smart and likable. She’s the key to restoring order inside Riley’s mind so she can be happy again. And once Joy realizes that Sadness can lead them back to headquarters, she stops being over-controlling.
9. Bing Bong’s the secret weapon. Riley’s imaginary friend, Bing Bong (Richard Kind), who was kept under wraps until the movie opened, helps Joy understand the importance of letting go of childhood and growing up. At the same time, he represents the spirit of childhood we never forget. When Joy observes Sadness consoling Bing Bong, she begins to realize her cathartic importance.
10. Pixar movies are always about growing up. Docter said they always struggle with growing up at Pixar and inevitably gravitate toward that theme. Which is why their best movies are so powerful. For Docter, his three movies have been personal journeys: “Monsters, Inc.” was about the struggle of balancing work and family lives; “Up” was about the need to escape but the importance of connecting with people; and “Inside Out” is about working through negative emotions to connect with people on the deepest level.