The Motion/Captured Interview: Pete Docter talks about directing Pixar's 'Up'
Plus working with Ed Asner, directing kids, and the Pixar process
I've already reviewed Pixar's new film "Up," but I have a feeling I'll have more to say about it as the year wears on. Seeing it a second time just cemented how much I liked it and how impressed I am by the storytelling. It's a gentle, smart, soulful film and the sheer visual communication going on in some of its sequences blows my mind. As much as Andrew Stanton was praised for this silent-movie techniques, Docter deserves to be praised for telling complex emotional stories in dialogue-free scenes that say so much with so little.
This is great filmmaking. Period. Forget about trying to sort out if it's for kids or for adults. It's just great filmmaking, and so when I got the chance to talk to Pete Docter, the director of the film, I was pleased. Even when the interview got rescheduled a few times, I kept on it because I was looking forward to the chat, which I present here in its entirety.
PETE DOCTER: Hey, Drew. How's it going?
MOTION/CAPTURED: Hey, sir. How are you?
PD: Good, thanks. What's going on?
M/C: Well, I just saw the film again for the second time, and it hit me great the first time, but it really grew on me the second time. Like there's a lot of really subtle work in it.
PD: Oh, thanks.
[more after the jump]
M/C: I think it feels like one of the most... and I don't want to say grown-up of the Pixar films... but there's a real quiet confidence about the storytelling. And it's maybe the most original of the Pixar films in terms of concept. I've heard Stanton talk about where "Finding Nemo" came from and some of the films seem like they have that sort of lightening bolt idea. This is kind of harder to get your hands around. Can you talk about sort of the evolution of where the story started?
PD: Well, I think that sort of idea of trying to get your hands around it is reflected in the development. It started very sort of... sort of a feeling of wanting to escape the world, you know? And we visualized that in a couple of different ways before actually kind of settling on this floating house. And then answering the questions of where the house is going? Who's in it and why is he going and all that that led to the story but it was a very kind of meandering, messy process.
M/C: I love some of the... especially in the second half of the film... some of the just crazy sort of left turn inventions in the movie. Whose idea were the dogs?
PD: Well, that was between Bob Peterson... mainly Bob and myself. The two of us were developing this project and a couple others before it, and the dogs kind of grew out of a previous project that we abandoned. We really liked the character of these dogs and the collar idea, which we adapted to this picture. It allowed us to focus on dogs as real dogs, you know, and try to visualize what's important to dogs. You know... things like food and sniffing and squirrels... things that real dogs would be focused on.
M/C: That's what I love about the characterization... although they talk, they are absolutely, in terms of performance, real dogs... like everything about them.
PD: We took tons of video, and a lot of the animators who did the scenes are dog owners, so they really know these dog behaviors. We were able to put a lot of those little manners into the performances, like, say, the way dogs... when they look left and right... their eyebrows work kind of opposite of people, you know? Just kind of the mechanics of the face are different, so just a lot of little observations, we were able to put into these guys.
M/C: I especially loved the first...I'm not exactly sure how long it is, but the first 10 minutes or so of the film, the story of Carl and Ellie. And it works almost as a mini movie... like when it's done, you've gotten one complete experience and then the movie sort of follows up on that. How did you guys build that sequence and was that an early part of the story development or was that something that came in later?
PD: Yeah, well, thanks. I'm glad you liked it. That was probably the scene I'm most proud of in the film.
M/C: Oh, it's gorgeous.
PD: It came into play pretty early as we developed the story of this guy floating away, and we figured there was some sort of loss or unfulfilled dream that he was trying to make right, and so we came up with this whole sort of back-story of him and his wife. We initially constructed it almost more like a compressed series of small short scenes with dialogue and very little snippets of life. It went a little bit longer at that point and Ronnie Delcarmen was starting at the storyboard, so this was early on. It was just written and we pitched it verbally and then as we started to develop it visually, Ronnie really felt like it would be nice to reduce it, simplify it, and take the dialogue out. And we looked at it like Super 8 movies of ourselves and of other people who post their stuff on YouTube and whatnot. There's something really emotional about not having any sound. That allows, I think, the audience to participate more actively and kind of imagine what are they talking about there? Or what happened right before this moment? And that was, I think, all part of kind of what went into that scene... these really little beautiful real-life moments showing the highs and lows of full life.
M/C: Well, especially I think the...because we had seen the rough-cut of it at Butt-Numb-A-Thon this year... but to see it finished with Giacchino's score... his score is devastating in this film, and I think it's the best thing he's done since "The Incredibles". Can you talk about how you worked with Michael in particular? Are there notes you gave him, or do you just sort of give him the film and then he comes back to you with his ideas?
PD: Well, we started out talking through the film sort of more conceptually and the things I would point out where we were trying to kind of not pay homage to the films of the 40's and 50's, the Disney films as well as Frank Capra and films like that, but we wanted to evoke that kind of a feel. And then we went through sequences shot by shot sometimes and talked about the construction of the scenes as they existed and what I was hoping to achieve musically, not necessarily like arrangements or anything like that, but more like, "Okay, it should start really low here, sneak in, and then build to this point. That's a twisting point in the scene so we want to turn somehow here." Kind of talk more emotionally like that and then leave it to him to write the music. And he's such a collaborator, you know? He would play us these demos and we'd look at them via teleconference, and anytime we'd have thoughts or suggestions, he would do changes, sometimes right on the spot. He was very open to whatever the film needed, you know? He's such a filmmaker. Really thinks about the storytelling and how music communicates to people.
M/C: It's funny because he's got range that a lot of film composers either don't have or don't utilize. Like Michael seems to really do a little bit of everything. His "Ratatouille" score doesn't sound anything like the "Up" score which doesn't sound anything like "The Incredibles".
PD: And I just saw "Star Trek" last week and I was like who wrote the music for that? It wasn't the same guy who did our movie. It was totally different.
M/C: Yeah. He really seems like he, like you said, I think he does come across as a real collaborator and a filmmaker. He has a sensibility that shifts depending on the project as opposed to guys who sound the same in every film.
PD: Right, right. He really tries to get his head into what the film is and let that drive what he's doing.
M/C: I wanted to talk to you about... I love your work with young actors. I thought the work you guys did with the actress who played Boo in "Monsters, Inc." was brilliant in terms of the way you captured a very real kid and it never felt like scenes that were built with her. It just seemed like you got her to play.
PD: Yeah. That's very true. That's how we got it. We were initially thinking that she would stand in front of a mike and say the lines or we'd pretend or whatever, but she wouldn't stand still so we just got a boom mic and followed her around the room and I would trick her into doing stuff, which is kind of similar to Jordan, although he was at least able to stand in one place.
M/C: And I was going to say, with Jordan's performance, there's a lot you don't say in the film about his backstory and what's going on with his parents, but still there's a very rounded characterization that ends up emerging. Part of it is how it's written, but part of it is also how Jordan plays it. Can you talk about working with him?
PD: Yeah, yeah. He was a really smart kid. We cast him based on what I wanted story-wise for this character... to feel very believable and real and it really like makes my teeth hurt when you hear child actors that are acting with such... when you feel like they're acting, you know what I mean?
M/C: Oh, yeah.
PD: I wanted a sense of believability and a genuine approach, so we cast the role based on Jordan's innocent sound. And his voice is just funny. He was talking about nothing to do with the film when he was auditioning and we were laughing just based on his voice. And so getting him to some of these emotional places, since he was not an actor, we relied on a lot of varied tricks. Sometimes if he was supposed to be struggling, I would, say, hold his arms down at his side and say, "All right, as you say the line, see if you can get your arms free," so at the same time he's saying the line, you know, he's struggling, he's doing physical stuff. Or if he had to be excited and energetic, I'd make him run around first before he'd say the line. Or sometimes there was some laughing he had to do, so I held him upside down and tickled him. So really kind of whatever it took to get the lines and of course that's the benefit of animation. We didn't have to worry about what we're seeing. We could cheat a lot of stuff.
M/C: Now I talked with... it's funny because right now obviously there's a real push by the studios to embrace 3D, and I know part of it is because it encourages people towards a theatrical experience and part of it is also just there's an investment being made in the cameras and in the projectors and they really feel like if they're going to put the money in then they want to make sure they have a constant stream of material that they can release that way. You guys did not start the process for "Up" in 3D, did you?
PD: No, we focused just on the story and the characters initially and it was maybe a year or two in that John Lasseter came to us and said, "Hey, there are some really cool new developments that have happened with 3D," and of course Pixar's had a long history of interest in 3D, John being one of the prime cheerleaders. He shot pictures of his own wedding in 3D, as well as doing... you've probably seen "Knick-Knack," which is in 3D as well.
PD: The short film done in '89. So we tried to use 3D, but I wanted... as we did research early on looking at all the films we could, I wanted to use it in a more subtle way. It wasn't selling 3D primarily. It was selling the story and then the 3D was just another of the devices used to communicate the emotion of the scene, you know, in the same way you'd use color, lighting, cinematography.
M/C: Well, see... I've actually had this conversation with a couple of people, and I really think that the only two narrative films I've seen out of this new wave that get it right are this film and "Coraline," and I think Selick used it to dislocate you in space and really make you feel like there was an oppressive nature to things, whereas you play with vertigo in a way that... I have a fairly acute sense of acrophobia and, man, did you play with it in that film. There are so many scenes where I almost had to look down.
PD: Oh yeah? That's great. That's great. Yeah, we tried to look at it almost more like a window looking in as opposed to things popping out at you and somehow that's less distracting. It doesn't pop the sort of illusion of that dream state you're in as you're watching the movie.
M/C: I think the whole point is immersion, and that seems to be what "Up" does very well... it immerses you and it makes you feel more like the world is something that is substantial.
PD: Yeah, absolutely. And we tried to use it that way so that when the scenes are calm or, say for example Carl, at the beginning of the film after the loss of his wife, or even later as he comes back to the house and it's sort of anticlimactic and empty to him... we tried to use space and squash it and make it flat and claustrophobic. And then later when we need triumph or as he's getting away from the nurses at the beginning of the film, we really tried to emphasize depth to get a nice contrast and really underline the emotion of the thing.
M/C: I have to ask... Ed Asner. Legend. I mean, this is a guy who did work with the Second City and has had a huge television career and is sort of beloved and iconic. How was he as a collaborator on this?
PD: It was really intimidating going in just because of that history. We all grew up with Lou Grant and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," and so that's kind of like, as Bob says, it's running through our veins, you know, that comedy. So we were nervous, but he was such an easy guy to work with and would do anything we asked him, and he would give us a hard time about them but that was part of the fun.
M/C: And now is this one of his first major feature voice roles? Because I'm trying to wrack my brain and think... has he done much other animation?
PD: Well if you look at IMDB he's done a ton of voice work, but mostly television.
M/C: Oh okay.
PD: He's really done a ton of voice work, so he certainly had experience doing it. I think it was a little unusual for him on this film since we really tried to steer him away for affecting a voice at all. I think he's sort of gotten used to almost exaggerating himself to some degree, and we really tried to just step back and say okay, just be yourself. Just relax and do it the way you'd do it, and that's the way we worked on it.
M/C: And I was a Boy Scout, so obviously I'm well aware of the storied history of the snipe.
PD: (laughs) Oh, yeah.
M/C: And I love that you guys actually find and catch the snipe in this movie. Was that something that came out of your experience as a kid? Were you a scout? Did you have any history with snipe hunts and that sort of thing?
PD: Oh yeah. We've done a ton of snipe hunting as well. A friend of ours and my family were in New York with our kids and they were younger at the time and getting very restless. My friend Bob said... this isn't Bob Peterson, it's actually Bob Pauley who designed Buzz Lightyear and whatnot... and the kids were getting antsy and they said "Let's go on a snipe hunt!" and we thought that will take care of them for awhile. And they said, "Hey, look, there's a snipe." And it was a rat. So it's definitely something we all grew up with and got fooled with and we're passing it on to the younger generation.
M/C: I love that with "Cars," Lasseter paid tribute obviously to the whole Route 66 culture that's gone and you guys don't really seem to talk down to the interests of what we're told kids like today. Like your films really are based on your interests and based on the things that you grew up with, and in a way that seems like you're passing traditions down.
PD: Yeah, and I think it's important for the filmmaker to know what it is they're talking about as opposed to trying to just grab whatever is hip or new or whatever. You want to have an understanding and a love of it in some way, I think, but at least some relationship to it, whether it that's love or hate.
M/C: Now obviously, "Toy Story 3" is the next major release from you guys. Are there any other properties that you guys were talking about maybe revisiting? Are there other stories that you're starting to think, "Wow, I wouldn't mind going back to that, or maybe I have something else to say with those characters?"
PD: Well, I mean, we're certainly open to the possibilities. At this point, you know, keeping open to pretty much everything and I think, for me, I'm probably going back into another original film but it's nothing I'm really ready to talk about yet. It's pretty vague and vaporous.
M/C: Well it's a long process for you guys to sort of pin these things down, right? You spend a while sort of exploring ideas first.
PD: Yeah, yeah. For sure. And you want to keep your options open and not really curse it by talking about it too much at the beginning. You want to just kind of feel it out and see. Ed Catmull, the president of Pixar, had this great... instead of just pitching one idea for most of us, he asks us to do two or three and that way you're not putting all your eggs in one basket, and you're kind of exploring a bunch of different things. And sometimes you find... like we were talking about, the dogs came from a different project. It was something that we really liked and we were able to kind of parlay into this one so it's a good approach.
M/C: And in the meantime while you're exploring these other ideas, do you guys ever sit in and do story work on the pictures that are in progress?
PD: Do we ever what? Sorry. You broke up just a little bit.
M/C: I was going to say, do you guys ever sit in and do story work on some of the other pictures that are in progress? Like as they're doing story breakdowns on, say, "Toy Story 3" and things. Do you guys ever sit in and just sort of contribute and add ideas or...?
PD: Yeah, absolutely. We have these regular check-ins for every film. That's sort of mandated by the studio that we show the film, in whatever form it is at that time, for everybody else that's working on the other films. And that ends up being a great benefit to everybody. Not only to the person who's showing, because of course you get these great ideas from the likes of Brad Bird and John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton and all the other amazing people that we get to work with. But also for the people that are giving the ideas. It just gets your brain off the show you're on and shakes you up a little bit, so it's a cool process.
M/C: Yeah, you guys need to hire some smart people up there. Because it's not a giant brain trust right now or anything. No, when I visited, and I've been up I think twice now, I understand why the process works there. It's not even so much that it's this mysterious thing. It's that you guys have really built the environment in a way that encourages that sort of cross-collaboration. And it just seems to me like the best workspace I've ever visited.
PD: It is. Well, these films are hard to make even in the best of circumstances, you know? You struggle against the chaos of story and it is a messy process. It's not always very linear even. It's just kind of a big mess in some ways and you sort of have to embrace that and move forward. And if you're struggling against politics or struggling against people who have other agendas or pushing different things, it's just that much harder to do anything good.
M/C: Yeah. I just picked up the "Bugs Life" BluRay and was watching it with my oldest
M/C: And I'm amazed at how... it's almost, what, a decade old now, or over a decade old? And it's still just gorgeous.
PD: Yeah, it was a pretty formative film. That was a big jump from "Toy Story" to that one.
M/C: Yeah, well, in terms of style chances, it seems like you guys took bigger risks on that one even. And then I know "Monsters Inc" is coming out on BluRay in a few weeks. Have you seen the BluRay version yet?
PD: Yeah, it's fantastic.
M/C: I can only imagine. Like that's such a...
PD: Yeah it's really...
M/C: And it seems like you kind of upped the stakes. I would argue that the great action sequence at the end of "Monsters Inc" was kind of one of the high-water marks for Pixar before now, and I really feel like you upped the scale this time in terms of the play on top of the zeppelin and the way you play with space in this one. When you're building a sequence like that, is it all about the gains? Do you think of gags first? How do you sort of break down building something like that?
PD: Yeah, that's a good question. With something like that you know kind of where you're heading towards, you know, with the sort of grand climax of the thing is going to be it's involving the house and the airplanes and the zeppelin. And then getting there, we just kind of made a list of cool things that would be fun to play with and the story guys would explore, and it's again kind of like what we were talking about the married life sequence. Building something that was way too long and then finding ways... you know, we picked out our favorite bits, things that get laughs, and then getting rid of the other parts, and it's just working it.
M/C: And I love that Christopher Plummer is so unrepentantly bad towards the end. Like you really understand how he's gotten to that place, but he's just plain terrifying towards the end of that picture.
PD: Yeah, well, you know, after 50 years he's not going to just change and give up.
M/C: I think it's the scene with the helmets and the goggles where you start to realize just how deeply unbalanced he is.
PD: Yeah, that was a fun scene. It was a really hard one, but we realized the fun of this is bringing him in thinking, "Oh, it's like going to dinner with Walt Disney or something... you know, your grandfather, all warm and inviting." And then suddenly you start to get the feeling that this is not all that it seems to be.
M/C: Well I like... although it's Christopher Plummer recognizably with the voice, boy, he looks like Kirk Douglas in the film.
PD: You know it's funny, you're not the first person to point that out, but we actually were modeling it largely off of... oh, shoot, I've forgotten his name again... he's got a pencil-thin mustache from the 30's... Errol Flynn.
M/C: Oh, yeah. I can see that, too. I think there was just a look that is very particular to that era of Hollywood, and he really seems to embody that.
PD: Yeah, yeah. He's also got the little dimpled chin which is maybe why people think of Kirk Douglas.
M/C: Well, I want to thank you very much, Pete. And really... it's sensational, and it's one of those movies that is so hard to categorize. I really loved it. In a summer where things were dominated by remakes and reboots and sequels and revisits, I love that there's something out there that I can take my kid to that is utterly unlike anything else that he'll see this year. So, thank you guys.
PD: Yeah, good. I hope people will embrace that idea of just "I want to be surprised. I want to go to the theatre and not know where this is going to go other than hopefully it will be good," you know?
M/C: There's a huge value to that, and I think it's a potent reminder every summer when something comes out from you guys.
PD: Cool, thanks.
M/C: Thank you very much, and Pete, have a great holiday weekend, man.
Seems like that half-hour flew right by, but I appreciate him taking the time on the way to the airport to chat with me, and remember... "Up" hits theaters this coming weekend, and I'm encouraging you to go, whether you've got kids or not.
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