I was up at Pixar last week for a sneak peek of The Good Dinosaur (Nov. 25). Although they screened only 30 minutes, you got a fuller awareness of the danger and intimacy for Arlo and Spot in this boy and his dog reversal adventure. The contrast between the cartoony-looking characters and the “painterly reality” of the Jackson Hole-inspired landscape is something totally new for Pixar. I kick off my extensive coverage with director Peter Sohn (Partly Cloudy), who took over from Bob Peterson and stripped it down to its basic elements with a personal touch.
Bill Desowitz: The research trip to Jackson Hole, spearheaded by cinematographer Sharon Calahan’s familiarity and artistic expertise went beyond inspiration for world building. It became your own City Slickers trip.
Peter Sohn: Absolutely, being out there for the first time. And the people that we’d meet would be so influential in that way, that surprised me. We had different types of characters that remained the same, but that family of guides and what they learned out there was very informative [in terms of defining the role of the T-Rexes], more than just pretty backgrounds or natural disasters.
BD: It really is Shane country and Sharon captured what she calls a “painterly reality.”
PS: Yes, it is absolutely. I grew up on that movie and my mother loves it and I’ve watched it hundreds of times.
BD: When you restarted the movie what was needed? What did you provide?
PS: One of the first things was I made Arlo [the Apatosaurus] a younger character. And then when I was that age (around 11 or 12), what was I like? Sweat pants, turtle-neck kid; didn’t know anything about fashion or style, the culture of the world. I was very sheltered.
BD: It’s interesting that Riley from Inside Out is the same age.
PS: Yeah, I remember Pete talking about that because we had talked to this psychologist about that turning age. And it’s a universal one. Trying to find that universal quality in a dinosaur. He’s cartoony but, at the same time, how do we make that connectible? And also trying to find that hole in Arlo’s life and that need in him…emotionally, externally. What are the steps that he’s missing to become the thing that his father believes he can be.
BD: So you can create an opening for Spot.
PS: Exactly. So that simple equation of this character with this hole and then finding how Spot will fill that. It was real simple to go: He’s weak, he’s strong, he’s scared and he’s brave. But then trying to dig deeper. What is it about Spot — that weird, little human part of him — that can teach Arlo more? There are other little levels that we play with. In that scene [with the sticks] about the understanding of loss, the understanding of mourning, how do you move forward? And that started clicking into the metaphor of the dinosaur: you’re old, you’re a Luddite, you’re incapable of moving forward. Evolution. And then what we learned from the research trips in search of nature. You can’t beat nature — you can’t outrun her — but you can survive her. So that all started linking with Arlo’s fears so we had to backward engineer what Arlo would need to be but still have fun with it.
BD: Is there a literal antagonist or is it nature?
PS: There are literal antagonists — B-level antagonists, for sure — and then there are the big obstacles of what nature throws at him.
BD: There’s a wonderful simplicity. The scope is wide but it’s a very intimate story. And you get to play with animation at its most elastic, watching Arlo struggle to survive moment by moment, stretching his body.
PS: I’m really glad you pointed that out. We had a complicated version of this story, where it was plot heavy and all these kinds of turns, but when it came down to just focusing on that relationship, everyone was excited. “There’s nowhere to hide,” is what John [Lasseter] would say. Because the story is so simple and the mechanics are so pure, you might fall on your face or fine something that’s worth it in there.
BD: It’s so performance-driven.
PS: And it was a big challenge. I remember us all talking about it once we kicked off animation. John and Denise [Ream, the producer] and I told the animators that there’s not much dialogue and this plot has been purposely driven to highlight the performance and the character animation. We’ve gotta raise the bar here. That’s one of the things I’m most excited about: how the animators found the performances, the acting, the back and forth we had. I used to be an animator and you always tried to find a nuanced thing you’d never seen before. A lot of times dialogue dictates what the performance needs to be, the intonations you have to hit when you hear a little bit of the anger, whatever it is. Because there wasn’t a lot of dialogue, a lot of the communication had to be free form. It seems a little invisible, but, boy, there was a lot of work and breaking that down. I love sight gags and broad stuff, but you can get to such a subtle degree, especially with CG animation. As a first-time director, working with these animators as performers, going back to Gertie, we realized that Arlo is this simple, goofy character, and Spot is this simple guy. How do we layer them?
BD: You were inspired by Dumbo and it shows.
PS: Yeah, I went to the archives to see what Dumbo work there was, not for this film, but just for my love of animation. And I couldn’t believe all the artwork the guys had done to find this universal empathy to Dumbo. There was one drawing where they used his ears as a sign: “Eat at Joes!” These guys were continually searching and digging to see what that is.
BD: And that’s what you did.
PS: I didn’t do it alone and that was the biggest thing I learned about this project: I continued to fall in love with the people here and what they have to give.