Much like the prehistoric creatures in the alternate world of “The Good Dinosaur,” Pixar’s new comedy adventure had a brush with extinction when its earliest incarnations ran into creative dead ends.
But then first-time feature director Peter Sohn, a longtime Pixar story artist and production artist, and the filmmaker behind the studio’s short “Partly Cloudy,” stepped in with producer Denise Ream (“Up,” “Cars 2) to help the project dodge that asteroid.
The two filmmakers recently sat down with the press to reflect on the evolution of “The Good Dinosaur,” and the new directions that finally brought it to life on the big screen.
On landing on the story and theme for the film after other filmmakers had started and stalled on the project:
Peter Sohn: Being a first-time director at a place like Pixar – boy, that bar is raised so high. It’s terrifying, as an artist and as a person trying to find yourself in this kind of a job. It is overwhelming, but at the same time, through these obstacles and the support from people like Denise and other directors at Pixar, you begin to find strength. And it’s all through love. It’s a very simple concept.
We were moving so fast, because of the shortened timeline, we’re just going, going, going. Through osmosis, I’m sure, a lot of it just started filtering through it. Then once it hit, it was just cement-like. There are days that are so dark that you’re just like, “Why am I doing this?” Then you remember that how much you love the people around you. You love these characters, and you love the message that this is in there.
I mean, it sounds sappy, but I’m telling you, in those days finding that heart of like, “That is what Arlo learned when we talked about it. You can’t beat fear, but you can find ways to survive it. You can’t beat nature. Mother Nature is one of the biggest, most powerful things in our world, but you can learn to survive it, because it has its beauties too. Arlo would find all those things, because of his love for Spot. That nature becomes something, hopefully, on an emotional level, the fear of what he lost in his life – and by the end, what he doesn’t want to lose. Can he face those things? That love for Spot gets him through.
I had two kids during the production of this movie. Vivian is five, and my son Sam is three. Boy, I would love it if Vivian could get the idea of “Even when I’m scared, love can pull me through,” as sincere as we can say that.
On following the Pixar tradition of embedding deep emotional moments into the story – in this case, often through purely visual means rather than through dialogue:
Sohn: Animation is something that I loved from a very young age. My mother used to take me to the movies all the time, because she loved them. She was born in Korea; she came here in the ‘70s. I was a honeymoon baby; I was born in New York, very soon after. My dad had a grocery store. Every time we had a little bit of money, she would take me to the movies. But she didn’t understand the movies, because they were in English. So she’d always ask me in Korean, like, “What are they saying?” I’d be like, “She said that the Maltese Falcon is …” whatever it was. She wouldn’t get it.
Then, there were these animated movies that we saw, like “Dumbo” or “Bambi,” that were so truthful. I remember in “Bambi” when he loses his mother, my mom was just feeling this, without any translation. She wasn’t asking anything. There were so much universal things going on without any language whatsoever, and it really, really moved me. At the time as a kid, it wasn’t like, “Oh, my God, this is the thing …” I’m just saying I remember that.
Studying animation, understanding that it’s a very visual form, growing up in a place where everyone spoke a different language, you learn to observe other people: “OK, this person is either concerned, or there’s something I’m reading off of that …” All the animators at Pixar are in that same vein, where they have studied and observed life in a certain way, where they love pantomiming. These animators, me included, you make a flip book, it’s all silent. There’s just this little magic of life coming together like, “Whoa!” in this silent way. So it was kind of at the heart of it. So with these characters, making Arlo speak and Spot not speak was something that really excited everyone.
Denise Ream: Yeah. That was a decision made really early on. I was so inspired to be able to do a movie like this. I mean, honestly, I wasn’t sure if we would be able to actually get all the way here and do it. It was just, I still feel so lucky that we got to do a film like this. It was largely because of movies by Carroll Ballard, and “Bambi” and “Dumbo” that, I don’t know, I’m grateful.
On the evolution of the film’s visual landscape:
Sohn: What’s so funny is that when we first came up with the project, it was kind of Western-infused, so we started down that route and the evolution of this film. But when we had the saloon owner, we had, like, miners and all this kind of like … it just didn’t work. It felt like we were making fun of Westerns. I grew up on the American Northwest, these movies that raised me. I felt like we were just making fun of it. For example, the T. rexes, they would run and look like Monty Python and those coconut things. What are we doing?
So I asked the guys, “Let’s keep pulling back and try to find, ‘What are we saying about the frontier?'” So the more about that we looked in was the idea of surviving out there. When we did the research; there are so many times you’re like, “People made it across here! American people made it across this tough country, to kind of learn to survive,” and everything like that.
I grew up in New York. I didn’t really witness that type of world. So my parents had a grocery store where we were a family unit, like, surviving in a city working all together for that. When we actually met these farmers out there and these ranchers in the Northwest, they had the same thing. They were families surviving on thousands of acres of land but on a whole different thing. But still that family unit.
So it was like, “OK, that’s something I feel is universal, versus making fun of something – let’s continue to focus on what that would be in the world.” So it’s more like “Old Yeller.” Did you ever see that movie? It’s not like a western, but it’s set in the frontier life, and you can feel like that survival aspect of it.
On the contribution of director of cinematography Sharon Calahan, previously a key landscape artist and lighting supervisor at Pixar:
Sohn: The opening of the film was shot in the Teton Valley in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Sharon was brought in, and she’s like, “I’m from that area. It was very quick. I remember the research was just, like, she’s from that area, I knew her work on “Ratatouille.” It was so exciting to work with her about that. I have her paintings – I bought her paintings from that area. They hang in my house.
She said, “We should go now up there if you’re even thinking about it; let’s plan a trip.” And Denise was just like, “Let’s get lost out there, and let’s just do it.” Sharon was born in Washington and lives in Oregon, but she literally painted all through that Snake River going through Oregon, Idaho and Wyoming. She had a plan for hitting some of the places that she painted because the season that we would go was almost close to now where the aspens were all changing. The leaves were all changing. She knew that and said “We have to go now if you want to catch some of that.”
So when we went out there, she really taught me a lot about that world, about how beautiful it was. She was so influential because she’s brilliant in both sides of her brain. She’s creatively, artistically beautiful, then logically, the physics breakdown of how things work, she is incredible as well. When you go out there, she’d tell you “Look at the river. Do you know why it’s this color? The rocks underneath have a certain thing growing on them and that reflects the light in a certain way. Also, the weather: if you don’t like it, in ten minutes it’s going to change.”
She just understood every aspect of that world and everywhere we’d go. She would talk about the aspen and the flickering leaves and how it all kind of came to life. So that inspired us to try and make a movie where “What if our antagonist was more nature?” Everywhere we’d go, she would point out the beauty, but then our guides would point out: “That’s a landslide area right there. There’s danger here.” So it was like beauty and then life and death situations. That was kind of the marriage of what nature would be.
So our story artist would draw a situation, knowing that there wasn’t a lot of dialogue, that we would kind of rely on the background in the world, just to draw something rough. Then Sharon would take those board drawings and start painting over them what she knew of the world. Then we would talk about areas from Oregon Buttes to Idaho and some of the red desert of Wyoming. We would just talk about locations – Yellowstone, she knew all of it. She was kind of our guide artistically through the lighting and all of that.
Ream: Just from a practical point of view, we fought pretty hard to get her on the film because when we restarted the film, we had a very, very condensed schedule. I knew that, we needed Pete just to focus on the story with the story team, and the writer and the editorial. I knew that Sharon could sort of help the back half so to speak of actually executing the movie. We trust her implicitly. She has impeccable taste.
On Sohn voicing the film’s Pet Collector dinosaur:
Ream: He didn’t want to, but when he pitched the sequence, John was like, “You’re going to be the Pet Collector.” John Lasseter. There was no discussion there. Pete was like, “I don’t want …”
Sohn: “We’ll find a real actor.” “No, you’re doing it.” “But we could find–” “You’re awesome at it.” Then he would direct me. He’s like, “Lower. Lower. Lower. Lower – Come on, lower.” “This is as low as I can go!”
Pixar’s “The Good Dinosaur” opens today nationwide.
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