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Immersed in Movies: Going ‘Inside Out’ with Pete Docter

Immersed in Movies: Going 'Inside Out' with Pete Docter

Last week, I saw the first two-thirds of Inside Out and got the chance to interview Pete Docter and several key  animators, who you will read about in the lead up to the June 19th release. As you’ve witnessed from the trailers (watch below), Pixar is back at the top of its game with one of the most unique, ambitious, and emotionally resonant movies, taking us inside the mind of 11-year-old Riley (Kaitlin Dias), where we explore her five very animated emotions: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Fear (Bill Hader).

Speaking of fear, it’s a major thematic thread in all three of Docter’s movies. In fact, Monsters, Inc. was initially about an accountant whose fears come to life as monsters, and the idea for Up stemmed from his fear that work was becoming too oppressive, and he fantasized about running away. Of course, Up evolved eventually into a story about loss and the fear of never achieving your dream.

What I’ve always admired about the tall, lanky, and good-natured Docter is his willingness to embrace difficult stories, go to very dark places, and maintain his traditional roots. He’s never lost sight of the importance of drawing, and Inside Out represents the ultimate in the interplay between hand-drawn and CG. And you can’t get more abstract and caricatured than venturing off into Imagination Land, Long Term Memory, and Dream Productions.

Bill Desowitz: Last year at the sneak peek you told me that Inside Out is about the balance between Joy and Sadness. 

Pete Docter: You’ll have to see the rest to figure that out.

BD: When did you figure that out?

PD: Well, we knew early on from the first week of development or so that we wanted it to circle around that, but in terms of specifics, it was maybe in year three-and-a-half that I figured it out.
BD: During a memorable hike, I understand, when you faced a major story crisis.
PD: We decided there was so much importance on fear in junior high that maybe we should feature Fear for more entertainment value with Joy and send him along on this journey. So we did a whole pass with that and then I was realizing I don’t really know what it is Joy is going back to do. At the end of the film, without giving it away, she’s going to have to correct the error of her ways, which is the general story structure of most stories. But what is it she’s going to do and how is Fear involved in that? And I realized, well, it’s gotta be Sadness. And, specifically, it got to the point where we’re three-and-a-half years in and we needed story approvals and footage to go forward, and yet I was feeling like, this wasn’t working. What if I get fired? What if I quit? I could just quit….I could run away. You entertain these thoughts… and then what would happen? I’d miss my friends. I’d especially miss the friends that I’ve experienced the greatest joy and sadness and fear and anger with.

And then I realized: Wait a minute — this is key to the story I’m telling right now at work. These emotions are vital to the most important things in our lives. Here I was thinking: if I had nothing in the world, I would want to hold onto my friendships, my relationships. And those relationships are central because of emotion. And so that really jazzed me and I called [my producer] Jonas [Rivera] on Sunday and we met for drinks with Ronnie and we re-conceived the film. We ended up having to stand in front of John [Lasseter] and Ed [Catmull] and say, “We don’t have a film to show you because it wasn’t working. But instead we’re gonna do this…” And we did a verbal pitch. They could’ve said you guys are in big trouble but instead they said it was absolutely the right call — go that way. It was a little scary at the time. We were supposed to be at a point where we were narrowing but we were going in a different direction. Sometimes that happens.

BD: It’s a good thing you found out in time.
PD: Yes!
BD: I remember reading about an early Braintrust meeting in Ed’s book. Creativity, Inc., Andrew Stanton suggested that  it needed a bigger theme: growing up and the inevitability of change. And then Brad Bird added that it would be nice to hold onto childish things. Did this find its way into the movie?
PD: Yeah, in a subtler way. But the thing I was actually going for — and I’ll come back to the Braintrust in a moment — had to do with the sadness of growing up and the loss of childhood, and there is something, as I look back, that is a loss there. I think most of the time when suggestions come up that steer you in another direction, it’s a sign that you’re not being clear about what you’re trying to say. And so you’ll end up talking about all these different things, and, as I’m listening, I’m going, “That’s all very interesting but it’s not what I’m intending to deal with directly.”

In those moments you try not to be defensive but it’s helpful to be clarifying: “What we were going for was this.” And they’ll tell you they didn’t get that idea from the film and will offer suggestions about how to push it that way. Sometimes they’ll push back and say, “Are you sure you really want to do that because I feel like you were onto something else here which could be a lot deeper and more effective.” It’s a very interesting process, but most of the time, everybody tries to get on board with what it is you’re trying to do and help problem solve in that direction. But John and Andrew and Brad certainly have the clout to be able to try and push you in a different direction.

BD: You may have started out wanting to know what was going on in your daughter’s head, but were you able to come to terms with your own conflicts?
PD: Yeah, that’s true. I don’t know if it’s a crucial part of what we do, but it seems to be a big element not just in my films but in all the films that we do here. I’ve never really analyzed it, but in some way I’m still coming to terms with and getting a sense of pretty formative stuff. It’s crucial stuff.
BD: On the surface you’re very sweet and gentle, but you’re uncovering dark areas of the mind that we can all relate to. What happens when everything shuts down?
PD: Any great movie you watch has some element of darkness or loss or some suffering in it. That’s what makes the fun parts fun. I never liked those parts as a kid. You kind of suffer through them waiting for the good parts again. Well, that’s not always true. I remember in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory there was a certain amount of fun in his poverty that Roald Dahl was able to extract some weird fantasy out of having to live with four grandparents in beds. So sometimes suffering is a weird attraction.
BD: Are you pleased with the animation style of the mind and the interplay between hand-drawn and CG?
PD: Yeah, I am. It’s obviously a big attraction for me and I love studying how it worked in that time and how those folks worked together and what they did and how Walt then worked with those directors. All that kind of stuff is fascinating to me. But most of all the work that they produced is so vital. I always thought that with computer graphics we’re self-limited a little bit because the type of work we do is so based on realism. It’s only recently that you can stretch and push things beyond where science has kind of led us. Which, of course, we’ve been reaching for for a long time. We want these guys to act like feelings and how better to represent that than by looking at John Sibley animation and “that feels the way I feel and I’m happy” or whatever. So this was our chance to reach back in awe of Chuck Jones and Tex Avery and all of those great animators and do our spin on that.
BD: Good timing with the 20th anniversary of Toy Story.
PD: Yeah, it’s hard to believe it’s 20 years. But, weirdly, you look back at that film — I don’t know how you feel about it — but I look at it and it’s pretty crude visually. There are certain scenes I’m proud of from an animation standpoint. I don’t know how John feels about it, but we’ve come so far visually. And yet when you watch it, you kind of get sucked into the story and the entertainment, so I guess it still works.
BD: It does. It led you down this path where you now are.
PD: It definitely affected every film that we’ve done after it. 

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