Pete Docter on making 'Inside Out' work: 'How do I make this resonate?'
My first trip to Pixar’s Emeryville campus was 13 years ago. That alone was enough to give me pause when I was invited to the “Inside Out” press day. I’ve done it. I’ve taken the tour. I’ve seen the campus. I’ve met the artists and I’ve seen their amazing work spaces and I’ve had a chance to walk through pretty much every department. I remember standing outside the server room my first time up, looking in at the brain of this remarkable company, amazed at how those racks of black technology represented this collision of all this amazing human artistry. My other hesitation, honestly, was because we were told that we’d be seeing “part” of the movie. I’ve grown wary over the years of seeing movies in chunks because you can’t really react in any meaningful way since you’re not seeing something that’s complete.
Pixar’s at an interesting moment in their history, though. They’ve never seemed more vulnerable. There was this remarkable streak they had where it seemed like they couldn’t make a false step, and while I think they’ve continued to make good and even very good movies, the last few years have certainly seen a wider variety in quality. The sequel business has been good to them financially, but it has been far less exciting to watch. Even a great sequel like “Toy Story 3” is, at best, a step sideways creatively.
What got me on the plane and up to the Bay Area was the idea that there’s some original work coming, and from some of my favorite people at the company. Pete Docter is a tremendous talent, and he’s got some of the very best people in the business working with him to bring this very emotionally daring film to life.
By now, hopefully you’ve seen the trailers for “Inside Out.” The newest trailer is embedded at the top of this story, and the first time I saw that, I got choked up. Something about the second half of that trailer and watching that little girl wrestle with emotions she was unable to manage that broke my heart as a parent. I suspected that the man who made the whole world cry with the first ten minutes of “Up” was going to do something special with the notion of exploring the inner life of a child.
Now that I’ve seen the first hour of the film, it’s safe to say that they’ve done something very special indeed. Over the course of a long day at the studio, we walked through the lighting, story, cinematography, and design departments, and we spoke to the filmmakers about the entire process. We watched the way they approach every step of things, from the first idea to the final delivery, and it was a reminder of just how much thought goes into every frame of every one of their films. The full film has screened at both CinemaCon and Cannes, both of which happened after our press day, and it sounds like the reactions to the full feature have been incredibly strong, including a review from our own Greg Ellwood.
We also saw “Lava,” the short film that will be playing in front of “Inside Out” when it opens theatrically. “Lava” is a musical love story about a volcanic island who is alone in the middle of the ocean, singing about what he hopes will happen, the love he believes he’ll someday find. It’s one of the most direct and delicate shorts the studio’s ever released, and it seems like a perfect match for a feature film in which emotions are actual characters.
While I wouldn’t review a film based on seeing an hour of it, and I wouldn’t even technically review that hour, I can tell you that my reaction to it was as strong as my reaction to any of Pixar’s films. The main voice cast seems to be perfectly chosen, with Amy Poehler pretty much born to play the personification of Joy. There’s a character who hasn’t really appeared in much of the marketing so far, played by Richard Kind, who I found very sweet and sad. There are some big and bold visual ideas in the film, and some heartbreaking imagery.
There is one subtle touch that we discussed a few times over the course of the event, an interesting thematic detail. When you see the Headquarters inside Riley, the 11-year-old girl who is the main character in the film, it is clear that Joy is the one who is in charge. The other emotions like Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Anger (Lewis Black) all play their parts, but Joy is the one in charge. When we see inside the heads of Riley’s mother (Diane Lane) or Riley’s father (Kyle McLachlan), we see that there are different emotions in charge, and it hit me pretty hard when we see which ones they are.
Much of the film deals with the delicate balance that has to exist between Joy and Sadness for things to work, and what happens when those things are out of balance. Heady stuff for a big summer movie, but by creating the mind as an inner landscape that can be explored, the film feels like an adventure as big and urgent as anything faced by any of this summer’s superheroes.
The main event of the day was when we sat down with Pete Docter and Jonas Rivera, who had the initial idea together. Docter is the co-writer and director of the film, and Rivera’s the producer, and they feel like they share a brain when you talk to them together. Rivera seems perfectly attuned to Docter’s way of thinking, and it was fun to see the interplay at work when we sat down with them in shared workspace between their offices. There were several of us seated together for this interview, including Kara Warner, Devin Faraci, Ed Douglas, Drew Taylor, and Russ Fischer.
PETE DOCTER: … this is where we make the tough decisions about which sequences are ready and where we work out how do we actually do the movie and things like that.
JONAS RIVERA: This is where we do the math of it all.
QUESTION: One the most surprising things from talking to [cinematographer] Patrick Lin about the camera work, the lighting, and how they actually have the physical cameras they're trying using, trying to re-create live action in animation, which is kind of odd because you think inside the mind, you’d be able to go crazy and not deal with physics or anything like that.
JR: They’re using the grammar of it. Yeah.
PD: I think as a medium we're in this sweet spot between the rich tradition of hand-drawn animation and art, but also the cinematography and staging and all the things of live action. As you saw, it's like a set, like a dollhouse. Even back on “Toy Story,” we realized we could have that camera go up the character's nose and fly around and things, and we said, “Let's just limit it to the grammar that we all know from watching films our whole lives. So over the shoulders, two shots, wides, you know... we speak the same language and think the same as you would on a live-action set. As he pointed out, we try to use that grammar to further the storytelling so that the behavior of the camera and the composition is telling you things about the character and the emotions.
JR: It's interesting because even in old classic Disney movies, there was that same kind of attempt with multiplane cameras. I was looking at that shot from “Cinderella,” and I was comparing it to live-action of running through the house, and there was definitely an attempt at camera grammar and space and moving through. As our movies and our mediums evolve from Toy Story on it's like our medium does lean towards realism with lights and shadows and virtual space, as far as the camera is concerned it's real.
All the really great Pixar movies have this incredible sense of world building from “Toy Story” on up, where you kind of walk into a whole world that you feel exists. This has that again and I'm curious sort of how breaking the story works with world building, like which parts come when? Is it the world that comes first and then a story is put into it or did the world grow out of the story that you guys are telling?
PD: That's a really good question, and it was a cyclical thing for us on this. It took us maybe two years to realize this: the interior design of the mind reflected what was at stake in the outside world, and that is Riley's personality. The only thing the emotions can affect are the inside world. They can't make her do something. If we get her in some sort of physical danger, they're out of the story. We needed the interior world to reflect what's going on in Riley as a character. That meant that as we redid the story, the entire world would change multiple times to the point where production was telling us we've got to lock this in. Because you'd change one thing and the islands would have to move around or we'd get rid of islands altogether. We had all sorts of different kind of schemes for the way the place would be laid out.
JR: You're right... in the perfect production world, to continue the live-action analogy, we'd build the sound stage and then we'd come in and shoot the movie, but the movie is being developed, so it's constantly changing. And even after we said, “Okay, done”...
JR: … “this is our set,” huge things would happen. Like what if there were no islands? We'd have to do that exercise and see how it worked, more than any movie I've been on before.
The islands are such a huge visual metaphor, and the scene of Goofball Island falling into the memory dump is, I think, emotionally harrowing. It's a thing that I don't know I've ever seen anybody get at in film before... how you lose pieces of your personality as you get older. At what point did you break that? Was that a giant breakthrough in terms of how the mechanics of everything else worked?
PD: The concept of it came from watching my own daughter and watching a lot of kids really grow and change, and you always feel bad that they would give up something that's so connected to who they are. When we had this in the film originally, people would watch it and it didn’t work. They didn’t care. It wasn't until the last fairly late addition of the flash cuts as you see this island go down, you cut to Joy and it's inferred that it's her remembering these events of Riley acting goofy, so you have some meaning to this thing as it goes down. Once we had that, suddenly it kind of stuck in your heart a little bit more. A lot of times, it's almost like a technique thing, like “How do I make this resonate for people? I know what I'm going for, but it's not working yet.”
I love that photo of you and your daughter sitting together that we saw last night. What did you enjoy most of about going into the mind of a young girl? I don't know if you can consult her or needed to consult her on anything, but how did that work?
PD: The way it worked, I would observe her as opposed to really engage her, because I don't know that even she knew what was going on in there. I know I didn't at that age. You're just experiencing it, and things happen to you, it feels like. In fact, that's one of the big things of growing up, realizing “I have some ownership of this. I'm feeling angry, but that doesn't mean I have to act on it.” So it really came more from observation. A lot of the science study and research we did was helpful, not so much in the layout of the world, because the Personality Islands and things like the core memories, we made that stuff up to support the story. There are other elements, weird things like it's at night that the short-term memories are rerouted into long-term... that was something we read somewhere. That sparked this whole idea of this cool kinetic ball sculpture, and they all go down once she goes to sleep. There's a lot of stuff that was based on research, some stuff that was based on observation, and some stuff we just made up.
What were the little tweaks that came from your personal experience with your crew and their experience with their kids? Like the imaginary boyfriend reference is hilarious.
PD: That one we took some heat for early on. People were like, “That's so stereotypical.” But I asked my daughter, "Do you imagine boyfriends?" She's like, "Oh, yeah." Okay. All right. We're on.
JR: I remember we got a lot of the women together on the show and just picked their brains about the first day of school or starting at a new school. A lot of that scene was not literally written by them but informed by what that feels like.
PD: Yeah. Or even that scene where Riley's coming out with her food and there's nowhere to sit. I remember that and a lot of people have had that experience, so that was something pulled straight out of real life.
JR: One of our story artists, Valerie Lund, did this great little watercolor. It was a little illustration she did of this thing she did with her best friend. Things like putting on a show or I don't know where to sit at lunch and trying on mom's lipstick when they were too young, all of these little tiny vignettes just felt really truthful and believable and they were upping the story, and I thought that was kind of cool.
PD: Stuff like playing hot lava. I remember playing hot lava and seeing my kids play hot lava. There's something fascinating about hot lava.
JR: Lava and quicksand. Quicksand was a big thing.
John Mulaney did that joke about, “I could have sworn from being a kid that you’d really have deal with quicksand all the time.”
Can you talk about the fact that the mom seems to be guided by Sadness and the dad seems to be guided by Anger? It’s pretty great.
PD: We wanted to make a point for Joy that her time is limited and this was stronger in an earlier version when that scene was first written, that Joy is looking down the barrel, that she's only going to be kind of running things for a little amount of time, and she's like, “I'm not going to let that happen.” We wanted to showcase that to the audience as well, that Joy is not running Dad or Mom, it's one of these other characters. We weren't trying to say anything blanket about men or women at all, but I think there are people that we observed that tend to have a temperament. Everybody has a temperament, and though they might be happy sometimes, they'll go back their general sullen temperament or back to being angry. I mean, Louis Black, man, we would be recording and he would get tired and then he would go on a rant about the megamall in Minnesota and he'd be like [ANGRY SOUNDS]. It was almost a healing relaxing thing for him to be angry.
JR: Or he'd do it subdued. But he would also do it insane.
It also feels like they're more balanced when we see the mom and the dad teams together. Like they are in cooperation, they're sitting together, whereas with Riley, it's chaos and it feels like that's a very true emotional thing that you guys did. It's subtle, it doesn't read like you're hammering it, but it's just how they play it.
PD: Good. Yeah, that was based on the way we feel about ourselves. It does seem like as kids you're more Wild West-style and more pure for some reason. And as adults, there's nuance. It's complex, and there's more of that to come in the later part of the film.
JR: Yeah. Everything as a kid is almost an emergency. The food's coming in! Everything is ten. By the time you're older, it's coffee…
PD: I was just going to mention, too, that it was a gag thing to have them all wearing mustaches or the glasses just so we would recognize who they are and what they are. But that also seems truthful. At the beginning, you're really wild all over the map, and then you become more of a single person.
Talking to a bunch of the technicians, they all said how collaborative you guys are. They also seem very smart and really knowledgeable about their departments. How is it you get all these people who are really smart and the smartest guys in the room, because you have to make the final decisions? How is it working with those people who are so knowledgeable?
JR: We never even attempt to try to be the smartest people because you're working with all these computer scientists. You can't out-talk Ralph Eggleston about movies or animation. Everyone is going to know more than we do. It really is this embarrassment of riches and talent here, and we've worked together for so long everyone has just gotten really good at their job. Pete does a great job of not telling the animators how to do it or what to do but why he’s after something. [to Pete] I've observed you doing that, which I think is really effective.
PD: I think that's a good key to leadership. We both try not to have all the answers ourselves but to recognize who will and when to bring whoever it is in. It's almost like a casting thing, like if we got this person and that person, I bet we could solve this pretty quick.
It does not feel like a lot of Hollywood storytelling is emotionally mature. It's big broad colors and that's it. But you seem like you're drawn to things where the entire point is emotional complexity and you're trying to explore more than one idea on these things. What is it that draws you to these ideas? Is it the challenge of that or is that just where you as a storyteller find the most interest?
PD: I think it's just kind of a gut thing. I haven't really analyzed it, but even as I look at other films that I love, they're usually not films with tons of explosions and special effects. They're just simple films with great relationships like “Paper Moon.” I love “Paper Moon.” It's just one of the best films. Or “The Station Agent.” It’s just films where nothing really happens but you watch these characters grow and change and affect each other in deep ways, and that's meaningful to me. If a film with lots of explosions has that, then I'm in, but if it doesn't, I think it has to have some sort of relationship in there and emotional complexity.
For this movie I felt like the concept from the get-go was intriguing because of two things. One, the emotions as characters? I was like, “This is what we do in animation. We can write for these guys in ways that we could never get away with in live-action. Forget what we can bring to life on the screen. I think somehow your brain forgives or you see it in a slightly different way, like these characters can be more broad and caricatured, so that was fun. And then the world that we were going into, I was like, “Oh my gosh, if we can see the train of thought and watch brainwashing,” and some of these things didn't end up in the film, but I was in just for the high concept of it. Then, of course, the next step was developing a deeper bed of what is it we're talking about here? What is this movie really about? That comes slowly over the course of four years.
JR: I think it's also how we think about animation. We also love this medium and respect it,, and this is why we've all sort of bonded. We never thought of animation just for kids, even though, you know, they're family movies and things you take your kids to, but for whatever reason that never became a category to us. Strangely, before going to film school, the two films I saw that launched me into this were “Pulp Fiction” and “The Little Mermaid.” If you put those two in a blender, you'd get Pixar, but they're just movies to us. They happen to be animated and they have dramatic elements and things you'd see in these movies with families and we love that.
What's so wonderful about the abstraction sequence is being able to be pure animation in a way that very few things that you guys get to do are.
JR: It's kind of like “Duck Amuck” by Chuck Jones.
PD: Yeah, that was like one of those things like, “We’ve got to use this because if we don't, when are we going to get to do this again?” That was pretty fun.
We’ll have one more piece before this film comes out in which we dig a little deeper into the storytelling process, and we'll speak with some of the other amazing artists and storytellers who were part of bringing "Inside Out" to the screen.
"Inside Out" is in theaters June 19, 2015.