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Immersed in Movies: How Pixar Animated the Dinos from ‘The Good Dinosaur’

Immersed in Movies: How Pixar Animated the Dinos from 'The Good Dinosaur'

Animating dinos was new to Pixar on The Good Dinosaur, with particular emphasis on Arlo, the young Apatosaurus protagonist, as well as the special brand of T-Rexes. Locomotion and efficiency were key, and the animators took their cues from studying elephants. However, for the T-Rexes, director Peter Sohn wanted them to look like cowboys on horseback. Animation director Rob Thompson and animator Kevin O’Hara discuss the challenges.

Bill Desowitz: This gets back to the roots of animation with simple primal struggles, moment to moment.
Rob Thompson: For me, that was a big element of what drew me to the film, the intimacy against this big landscape. But it’s still a boy and his dog survival story. It’s different than anything we’ve done and I like that they wanted to do acting without dialogue also where these scenes could just breathe and you’re in the moment with them and I thought it was really beautiful.
Kevin O’Hara: It’s a really fun challenge and something we all want: just a blank canvas and you can bring what you want to it. One thing that made it special was the fact that Pete trusted us in those quiet moments. He was open if you felt something and brought it to the group you were free to play around with it. And if it wasn’t his vision, he’d tell you.
BD: Can you think of something specific?
RT: I noticed a lot of it with Spot where maybe in the boards we’d see Spot and Arlo looking at each other but we know there’s this connection happening. I remember one of the animators had an expression for Spot that Pete really responded to and we learned that it was something the animator saw his son do — something in the eyes — and he was able to capture that and get it in his animation.
BD: Then there’s the intimate moment about the meaning of family that brings Arlo and Spot closer together.
KOH: That was a great, powerful moment and one of the surviving moments from the old version. 
BD: Talk about the challenge of the T-Rexes and making them cowboys on horseback.
RT: That’s what also drew me to the project. You have this huge dinosaurs and the T-Rexes are done in a certain way and the physicality challenges of that along with these quiet acting moments on the other side is a juicy canvas.
BD: As you explained, the locomotion has to be correct and the look can’t be strange.
KOH: Yeah, it takes a lot of experimenting and we were trusted a lot to figure these things out. And have Pete decide how much of it is correct.
RT: Pete was so inspiring to have whatever you think to this.
KOH: I can think of a moment when Erik Anderson had a shot of one of the Raptors. She’s putting her hands together and does this thing where she whips a hair off her face and he did in a creepy and specific way. The first time he showed it, Pete liked it and put it in there.
BD: Any interesting technical tweaks with the rigging?
KOH: Yeah, Arlo’s neck was a whole new rig that we had never done before. There were a lot of controls in there and took a lot of development to find a place where we could put this technology on the floor for 85 people to use and Pete could figure out how to drive this car. Rob Jensen also wrote this program to help us animate the tails. So we could animate the body of the dinosaur and we could run this script that could give us a really good first pass on the tail. And for a lot of shots, if the dinosaur was just running in a straight line, or doing something that wasn’t overly complicated, you would just the script and that saved us a lot of time.
BD: And the T-Rex mouths must’ve been tough too.
RT: That was always a challenge with the dialogue. What do we do with the teeth? Sometimes we joked about how sometimes when they talked their teeth would get stuck together and pop apart.
KOH: It was fun to play with that stuff. It’s such a big, graphic element. I love how Butch’s teeth almost look like a mustache. I wondered if they designed it to look like Sam Elliott. But it became such an iconic thing that you never want to hide those teeth. It embraces the limitations of having these giant swords sticking out of the mouth. You just work around it.

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