There’s a wonderful simplicity to The Good Dinosaur. The epic landscape beautifully complements the intimate story between Arlo, the Apatosaurus, and the human boy, Spot. And it takes its time, keeping dialogue to a minimum and allowing us to revel in the exquisite visual details while being viscerally immersed in the danger. This was the vision of director Peter Sohn and cinematographer Sharon Calahan, the 20-year Pixar veteran and the first CG director of photography to join the ASC. The Good Dinosaur represents her most naturalistic and nuanced work, and it was her familiarity with the Jackson Hole, Wyoming, landscape that drove the look, which she calls “painterly reality.” Inspired by Carroll Ballard’s The Black Stallion and Never Cry Wolf, it’s a story about loss, isolation, survival, altruism and friendship.
Bill Desowitz: What did The Good Dinosaur offer you?
Sharon Calahan: I like the idea how one event or one act of kindness can turn around a relationship or set a series of events in motion.
BD: When Arlo tries to explain family to Spot and learns more about him, it strengthens their bond. Talk about the lighting and composition.
SC: There’s that the one shot that’s really brief where there’s a close-up on Spot and these out of focus sparkles on the river behind him. That was the first image that flashed into my head early on. And I didn’t even know how we were going to frame it. But I wanted the sparkles in the water to reflect that kind of aching inside of them. It’s hard to describe…it’s not really like tears but it’s an aching poignancy almost too beautiful for words. And then from there it led to how I can use something similar looking in the other directions. That’s where I use the caustics continually moving on the rock wall to continue that feeling. And so we designed the rock wall to capture the caustics in a nice way behind the characters. And then the moon added mist to it so it was this evolution.
BD: And when Arlo fights for his life to get out of the raging river, there’s beauty as well as danger.
SC: It wasn’t enough to just use colored light: I wanted to use a bold color and use it almost monochromatically to create that underwater feeling, the water was almost tinted and to have it be this complete immersion into that strong color. And it was based on memories of what that deep, teal, cold mountain water is.
BD: What was your aesthetic approach?
SC: To keep each scene as unique as I could with a signature moment or a signature color so you could feel the changes from scene to scene. I tried to be bold whenever I could without getting garish.
BD: Talk about the early scenes on the farm with Arlo and his family.
SC: We were going for natural rhythms and life cycles….In some scenes it’s just rain; some scenes are hot, midday; and some scenes are end of day, so it has the feel of going through the years, going through the seasons. You can experience a broader life on the farm. And it mostly revolves around the crops: are they seeding, are they plowing, are they harvesting? It’s mid-summer and the corn is seven-feet tall.
BD: Was there a particular scene that you struggled with more than most?
SC: For me, sunny is hard to be unique and special. I like beginning of day, end of day, low sun angle kind of stuff. It’s like the moodier it is, the easier it is for me.
BD: It’s simpler, performance-driven work.
SC: And a real showcase for the animation team.
BD: And something different for Pixar.
SC: Yeah, we like to mix things up too.
BD: I immediately thought of The Black Stallion, too.
SC: That was a very deliberate influence… that whole style of visual storytelling and pacing and flow of just taking the moment and feeling part of the world instead of rushing by everything. Taking the time to see the raindrops hitting the leaves on the branch, those kinds of things that take you into that world.