Inside Pixar’s ‘Inside Out’ and that Pesky Plot Hole with Director Pete Docter

Pixar’s Inside Out enjoyed the largest opening weekend for an original property, animated, live-action or otherwise, this past weekend and before the film was ever released I had a chance to sit down with director and screenwriter Pete Docter and the film’s producer Jonas Rivera to largely discuss the ins and outs of turning this movie from a seedling of an idea Docter had back in 2009 to the feature film audiences are eating up in theaters right now.

How does a movie go from merely being a story about the emotions inside the head of an 11-year-old girl to being the complex, yet simply understood, logic machine Docter and his team of story writers, animators, artists and technical advisors conceived? What was the thinking behind the fluffy skin of the animated emotions? How did hand-drawn animation actually help the CG production? And I have a question about a pesky little plot hole that bothered me while watching that we get to at the very end, which is probably the only thing close to a spoiler you’re going to get from this interview.

I hope you enjoy…

It was eight years from Toy Story to Monsters, Inc., six years from Monsters, Inc. to Up and another six from Up to Inside Out. How does it start compared to where it ends?

Pete Docter (PD): Well it usually starts just with a concept. In this case it was an idea I had back in ’09. We pitched it, but didn’t really get to start on it until halfway through 2010.

Jonas Rivera (JR): Yeah, Up was just finished.

PD: So kind of from beginning to end it’s about five years of work. I was talking to Dan Scanlan who directed Monsters University and he said, “Yeah, we really are working in glazes.” Like, very thin, layers that get laid down over and over and over, and you build up plot and character and humor and all these things. We have a great story team, amazing writers that we get to work with and it’s up to me to steer and guide that whole process and use their amazing brains to find the film.

So what was the concept to start with?

PD: I think I pitched you, basically, what if we have an 11-year-old girl, but she’s not the protagonist, she’s the setting because inside her head are her emotions that help guide her through, even a day at school, and I think I had a little scene written about how she’s struggling to raise her hand to answer the question because Fear is like, “No, they’ll make fun of us.” That was all I had.

JR: Could we personify emotions and tell a story? Which I thought was such a cool idea, but even zooming out of that you were coming with this observation of your daughter, which I also thought was very cool. So you kind of married those two didn’t you?

What was the observation?

PD: She was eleven… I don’t know if you saw Up, but she was the voice of young Ellie at the beginning of that and she was kind of like that character, spinning around in circles and talking to people, just acting goofy. Then, when she turned 11, we’d start to hear from her teacher, “Well, Ellie’s a quiet child,” and we were like, “She is?! What’s going on?” You know? So that change in watching that come home — It’s all normal and nothing traumatic, but as a parent you sort of mourn the loss of sitting on the floor and playing with trains and stuff. That’s not going to happen anymore.

I actually thought it was interesting reading your interpretations of the film as being from the parents’ perspective. And I get what you’re saying, but at the same time, I have a really hard time looking at it that way, or at least processing it in those terms. Can you expand on that idea? Do you see yourselves in this film?

JR: I almost wonder if we see ourselves in the emotions.

PD: Right.

JR: Because, it’s not a movie for parents, but it’s a movie by parents and I think we hooked into it on a personal level — at least I did when you pitched it — because my kid was young as he was pitching it and I got to thinking, Man, I’m going to be heading into that direction as well. So, personally, as we were making the film I remember thinking the characters, as we’re talking about them, are sort of representative of how I’m feeling about my kids. As a parent you try to do your best to steer your kids and guide them and kind of tell them what to do, but you can’t totally because they’re in control at some point and there’s a certain amount of letting go you have to do. With Joy, I think that’s exactly what Joy is doing. She’s literally driving, but realizing she doesn’t have all the power she once did and thought she did, and that just felt personal.

PD: Ronnie (co-director Ronaldo Del Carmen) had found this description of the job of emotions — “Emotions help guide and protect the organism as they go through life” — and we just thought if you just swap out the word “parent” instead of “emotion”, it’s the job of the parent to help guid and steer the kid through their life.

It’s interesting to hear you talk about the making of the movie in comparison to reading about it. I have a hard time figuring out how the story comes together.

PD: So do we. [laughing]

I read about all the people you’re talking to in terms of doing research, the scientists and psychologists. Elements of those conversations must find their way into the film, but not in the most literal of senses. So when you talk to them, how much does that change the story or is the story even “the story” at that point?

PD: At the point we brought them in we had the basics of the story, but we’re not looking for story device from them at all. We’d have questions like, “How is it that memories are formed?” and “How are they recalled?” and [we’d] talk a little about nuts and bolts things such as “How many emotions are there?” and “What’s their function and how does it work?”

Learning all that stuff, then, as you go back to the keyboard to write you have that as ammunition to work from. One guy told us memories during the non-REM sleep are transferred from short term to long term memories so we put that in the film, as Riley goes to sleep Joy sends those memories out, which also worked for our story.

JR: The research informs the storytelling as opposed to basing it on anything. To me the biggest thing was when we talked with Dr. Paul Ekman and Dacher Keltner, two guys we really hooked into the most, as defining emotions and how many there are and that there’s even debate on that list, but the fact they have clinical definitions and they have a role started turning into they have a “job” and if they have a job we can hook into that in the writing — try to do a good job, etc. That discussion with them started to unlock it, like Anger’s job is to keep things fair, and that’s actually funny, we could play that. So we just would aggregate all that stuff, take it into the story room and the story artists would draw things or Pete would write things and it was all informed from that. It started to help give it shape.

Looking at the emotions I can basically understand Joy, Anger, Sadness and Fear, but with so many others to choose from how was it Disgust became that fifth emotion?

PD: A lot of people ask that and other people we meet say, “Disgust is my favorite, I totally love her.” It’s really interesting, I don’t know what that says, but…

JR: I felt that too, I remember at the very beginning thinking that was always a reaction, not an emotion. Then, when they started telling us about it’s job it actually makes sense.

PD: Yeah, it protects you from being poisoned, Darwin wrote about it in his book in the late 1800s, talked about how if you feed a baby something bitter it will go like [makes a face] and spit the food out, and it’s that same sort of face we make for being disgusted with the taste, but also physically, socially, we’ll go “Ew! Look what she’s wearing” or “What is that person doing over there?” It’s the same disgust face and I think that’s true for a lot of emotions, they grew out of more physically based things and as we evolved into more social creatures they became more dual purposed.

JR: When we heard that definition I started to think of the character as you were trying to draw her and I was thinking she could be a little like Ferris Bueller’s sister.

So when you guys are creating a story I highly doubt you’re thinking specifically of whether this is going to be for children or for adults. You’re trying to make a movie for everybody… I’m imagining…

PD: Yup.

But at the same time I think you have to think about who your audience is and how you can appeal to both sides. Is that true or is this going to be the answer where you say, “Oh, we just try and make a good movie and hope everybody likes it”?

PD: It’s kind of going to be that answer I think. It’s funny, I read something Kurt Vonnegut talked about. He said when he’s writing he would try to pick a person and then write that story for them — like his mom or whatever — I don’t feel like that at all. I feel like we’re just trying to entertain each other… I guess in some sense, I’m not targeting John Lasseter specifically, but I know we have to entertain him and Andrew [Stanton] and myself. We all kind of grew out of that same primordial ooze of Toy Story that we were developing our kind of sensibility together.

JR: We don’t ever sit in a story room though and say, “Think about kids” or “think about adults”, we do say, “Okay, we’re going to screen this in front of our crew, what’s going to be entertaining?”

PD: …kids are getting bored…

JR: Yeah, it’s more about clarity. I think our tastes are just cut from that… we grew up on Disney movies, maybe like even the Spielberg movies of the ’80s, we talk about those a lot. Maybe they tried, but I remember my dad loving that as much as I did and that was pretty rare, and pretty cool. We make family films, it’s probably just naturally where we go, but we don’t really discuss it.

John Lasseter’s thing is that our rules are to make movies that we would want to go see. I think the thought there is that if you do that you’re not going to over-think it, or think about the market, or “Frozen was big” and “Lego Movie was fun” and you just put all that away and ask, “What do you want to go to the movies and see next summer? Let’s try and do that.”

Also, from the time you come up with this idea to the time it’s actually finished, you’re working on other things. It seems like everyone at Pixar always has their hands in other things. Do some of those other things ever help or influence what you’re working on?

PD: It ends up probably a day or half-a-day a week where we end up on other stuff, and usually it’s “I don’t want to go screen this other movie” and then you go there and as you help them you realize “What I’m saying to them I need to do on mine”. Sometimes you get lost in the weeds a little bit. It really ends up helping our own stuff a lot.

JR: It’s a very good community there. Everyone is there trying to help each other’s films.

PD: That grew out of this notion that we wanted the characters to look the way our emotions feel to us. I didn’t want them to be fabric or skin or something. That launched a large, exploratory effort with our art and technical teams. At first we were playing with this vaporous [idea] and they looked a little too much like ghosts. So the way it ended up we modeled them normally, but instead of the surface, they filled it with fog and then mixed in with that are these frontwards-facing discs that have got just a little bit of movement to them. So, no matter where you’re looking, those discs orient to camera. It ends up feeling like atoms or movement of energy, which, to me, really accomplishes the idea.

JR: I think it was Ralph Eggleston, our production designer, or you, but “energy” felt like something of a key word and a believable building material. Even the walls in Headquarters and tables would be like this compression of energy.

Then I was reading about the work Tony Fucile did on the project, serving as an animation sketch artist and bringing hand-drawn animation to the film. The industry has obviously gone away from hand-drawn, so how do you see the marriage of those two and what are the limitations of one versus the other that, in this case keeps hand-drawn animation alive even if the audience might not know it.

PD: As we came up with this idea I began thinking about how caricature, like if you look at Al Hirschfeld or any of these caricature artists, if they’re really good they can sometimes make a person look more like them than a photograph because they’re distilling out anything nonessential to that likeness., they’re focusing in on the big nose or whatever it is. Movement, I think, can do that as well and animation can really embody that.

[We at Pixar], from our history, approached things almost scientifically. Of course we all came from hand-drawn, but I think on Toy Story, just for example, as we were building Buzz’s face or some of the humans, we looked at musculature, human musculature, just to understand how the sub-orbital and the smile muscle connects here, and pulls that way, etc. So we were thinking pretty realistically. On this film, because it was about emotions, we thought, “Man, we can throw the ball the other way. We can go look at all the great stuff we grew up on — Tex Avery and Chuck Jones.” So, Tony is such a great artist, he has an instinctive sense, sometimes when you’re drawing I don’t think you can fully explain why you’re doing something, it just kind of comes out of the pencil, and only later can you say, “Of course, I’m breaking the elbow in a way that it couldn’t just to emphasize the stretch or the intention of the pose.”

So he would draw over almost every scene, breaking down key poses and push things further, especially in the emotions.

JR: Yeah, we have a Cintiq that you can draw on as the shot is looping and people can pause it on a frame and start talking and Tony would start drawing over it. You can just see it —

PD: –getting stronger, yeah.

So that obviously influences the CG animation.

PD: Yeah, so the animators then take those drawings back to their desk and even though it wouldn’t instinctively occur to them to dislocate the shoulder, they can do that just to get the necessary stretch, to really exaggerate things.

So would this movie work as a 2D, hand-drawn animated feature?

PD: Yeah, I think it could.

So why have we lost that? Is it a matter of audiences are just used to the new thing now and they wouldn’t show up to watch a hand-drawn feature?

JR: Character animation-wise, the movie would work beautifully in 2D, but one of the things I like is we’ve got these dimensional screens and memories in space that I really think benefit from CG. Having applied space, I love having that screen and that shot-within-a-shot. I think in 2D that might not be as lush.

PD: Yeah, that’s true, but the idea would still be there and there would probably be other advantages to 2D that we didn’t even get in 3D, but you’re right there is a dimensionality, a lushness and textural things that you don’t get in 2D.

Then, last year you had The Blue Umbrella, which was photo-realistic animation, do you see that becoming a “thing” or is that something that should largely be reserved for inanimate objects? Basically, are you defeating the purpose of animation by doing photo-realistic animation?

PD: I think it really depends on what the story asks for. For example, with Inside Out, since it’s a made up space and we’re talking about emotions and feelings, we really wanted to exaggerate in caricature. Outside, we needed to make this feel like it was more or less believable and realistic, so it’s pushed that way, obviously it’s not photo-real, the characters are pretty cartoon still. But, relative to each other, there are story reasons that might ask for a treatment to be pushed a certain way or another.

‘m more interested in caricature. I think most of the stuff we do leans that way.

It’s there a large sense of pressure working at Pixar? Number one, you look at a DVD or Blu-ray and there aren’t a ton of deleted scenes and you look at a movie like Toy Story 3 that is said to have been made for $250 million, which just goes to show how expensive every second of footage actually is, nothing an be left on the cutting room floor. So you don’t really have the ability to cut something as easily as you would with a live action feature considering how thought out every thing is in advance.

PD: That’s true.

JR: It’s a lot of pressure. The movies are big, they take a long time, this is the fifteenth one and they’ve all been received pretty warmly. There’s not a ton of pressure from the studio other than “make it great”, we show Disney, we have screenings —

PD: There’s pressure when it’s not working out. [laughing]

JR: And that’s to be expected when you’re doing this job.

PD: The other nice thing, to go backwards on what I just said, it’s expected that it’s not going to work for quite a while. Whereas, I think if you’re showing this at a lot of studios in Hollywood, and you’re putting yourself out there, there’d be a lot of scrutiny, a lot of nervousness, because people may or may not understand the process by which you make things. With us everybody knows we’ve made 15 of these now, our executive is a guy who’s making his own film over there, so everybody kind of knows it’s going to suck for a while.

So I’m assuming as you’re screening it it’s in various forms of doneness, or not at all finished.

JR: Right, we screen it in various stages. The first screening is all storyboards and temporary voices. Each screening, maybe every three or four months, there’s a little more done. It probably takes about three or four screenings before there’s even built to be laid out. So every time you see it you’re seeing less storyboards and more animation, so obviously the deeper you get the higher stakes the notes get. We always, with every screening, try and scale down the notes. Screening one or two you know you’re going to hear like, “I don’t understand this” or “Who’s the main character?” or “I don’t like her”. Then screening four or five you’re hoping you hear “That gag should be funnier” or “That shot feels too long”.

PD: Jonas has this great diagram idea that the movies starts from a single point of origin, in this case that was me, and then it expands outward with more and more potential and ideas, and you’re getting wider and wider and at some point Jonas says his job is to make sure we bring it back to end at a single point.

In that process at what point do you bring children in to watch a movie like this then? They’re not going to understand storyboards —

JR: Even adult audiences don’t understand storyboards.

PD: You know what, we showed it two years ago, because we were worried, particularly on this film, that it was a little complex. So we brought in audiences and I swear, kids, within a couple minutes, they totally get it. Adults struggled.

JR: Yeah, it’s really hard to show the movie, and you have to do this, unfinished. For example, the movie Up, one of the most expensive things in our business is the clothes, so we have to render this old man in this body suit, and animate it and you show it half-baked and everyone is laughing at the sad parts and no one gets it. So you get this misreads. So we’ll draw over things and try to simulate the motion picture.

But in this movie, we were worried about kids less about will they get it emotionally, but will they understand it operationally? That’s even hard to show in drawings. It was tricky, but we were surprised. We brought in our kids, friends and family, and we sat to the side and watched them watch it. It was pretty deep [into the process], we had some animation in there, and they seemed to really get it.

PD: We did a Q&A after and some of the kids explained back all of the memories, the islands of personality, and they totally got it.

So that’s got to be nice when an adult might tell you they’re not getting it and you have a few children explain it to them.

PD: Yeah, yeah, we’ve had a weird experience on this one where adults… you have a story about Italy.

JR: When it was done Disney sent us around to some countries to test it in international markets for marketing and so forth. In Italy I’m sitting aside with this translator and listening to this Q&A after, there are three rows of kids and three rows of adults, and I can kind of tell “That’s her dad” and so forth, and it was like a five or six-year-old girl who stands up, in Italian, and she like pitches the movie back to the moderator. It was like the most beautiful retelling I’d heard. I was so moved, she deeply got it, she understood Bing-Bong, she understood the islands, that made her sad, she really deeply got it.

Anyway, the conversation goes on and a couple of the parents said, “Well, we might hesitate in bringing our young kids” and they called on this one gentleman who was the little girl’s dad and they asked him why. And he said, “Well, I don’t know if five or six year olds are going to get it.” I couldn’t say anything, but in my head I’m like, “Dude, your kid just pitched it to me beautifully!” So I almost wonder if there’s some denial from parents almost.

Was there anything that you wish could have remained in the film, but it just didn’t fit and had to be scrapped?

PD: The one, and it’s very hard to describe, but there was a very surreal scene that kind of took the place of Joy in the memory pit where she actually swum down into the unconscious. It was a very different kind of organization of the mind, we didn’t have the unconscious as the cave it was underwater and she —

It was Inception.

JR: Kind of…

PD: Not exactly, but kind of, a very ethereal feel. That was cool.

JR: Yeah, the memories were kind of like the ocean. I remember that.

PD: We had some other things, such as music.

JR: I was going to say the stream of consciousness, we had some drawing of things, it was like a river down there.

Okay, I do have to ask one thing. When it came to the core memories, why didn’t she just push those through the hole and send them back up to headquarters the way they were doing with that commercial they kept throwing on a loop?

PD: Ah ha! We discussed that along the way and it was one of those things where we kind of boxed ourselves in a corner a little bit. We added the recall thing later, when they were doing the song that got stuck in her head. Our argument was that Joy wouldn’t trust the memories would be fine on their own, she needed to be up there too.

Yeah, I was watching and just thinking to myself well she should just toss those things in there too and be done with it.

PD: Yeah, well then we wouldn’t have a third act. [laughing]


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