NYCC: Interview With Pete Docter And Jonas Rivera
I'm not a geek for anything that was featured at Comic Con-- not comics, not video games, not Terminator or Joss Whedon. Nothing except Pixar. The moment Pete Docter and Jonas Rivera walked into the IGN Theater to present clips from Up, I wished to God I had worn my Wall-E T-shirt, and had tracked down the stuffed Sulley I had in high school for Docter to sign.
But I got the next best thing instead-- a chance to sit down with Docter and Rivera for about 20 minutes, myself and four other journalists invited to pick their brains about the magic of Pixar, John Lasseter's taste in T-shirts and whatever else we wanted. No one asked about Lasseter's fashion sense, sadly, but we did have lots of questions about the footage we had just seen from Up, the experience of working as part of Pixar's stable of geniuses, and getting away with having talking dogs in Up.
I'll write more about seeing Up later, but in the meantime, check out the interview below. Docter is the co-director and co-writer of Up (with Bob Peterson), and Rivera is the producer.
So what was the initial germ of an idea for this?
Pete Docter: It kind of started with the idea of escaping, of getting away from everything. Sometimes the world is just, ugh, I've had way too much of this. [Co-director and co-writer] Bob Peterson and I started thinking about that and came up with this image of a house floating in the sky with balloons, and we thought, wow, that's really intriguing. Somehow that encapsulated the idea of escape. And we also wanted to do something with an old man. There's been a lot of great humor possibilities that we've explored with a grouchy old guy. So then we though, OK, how did the old man get into the floating house? That thought experiment was kind of what led to the film.
When you're doing one of these experiments, and you start putting ideas together and running with them, how long does it take to figure out if it that makes a film?
Docter: Some of them, they sort of hit these road blocks, and you think, 'Ah, that's a dead end,' and you put it up on a shelf and it's not until a couple of years later. Wall-E I developed in '96, '97, and we sort of hit a wall and came back many years later. So your never know. At first it can be just an intriguing idea-- floating house, whatever. But then ultimately, you really need some emotional hook, something that is relatable to people. Toy Story we found, sorta by accident, because we didn't know what we were doing, the idea of being replaced by somebody. Everybody has that fear, or encounters this jealousy at some point. For me I was the new hot-shot young animator at Pixar, and then we hired some new guys who were younger than me and even more talented. i tried to remain cool and everything, but you sense a little bit of jealousy. So it seemed like something that everybody can relate to. Monsters, everybody has the thought of monsters in your closet as a kid, and more importantly, the idea of becoming a parent. We're always kind of looking for those emotional nuggets. They're always at the heart of the story.
The dynamic between the older guy and the younger kid in this movie wouldn't usually seem like an easy sell to a broader audience. Do you worry about that at all when you're developing the film?
Jonas Rivera: When you first told me about it, and I came on board, and I saw the first rough, assembled piece-- I wasn't worried. It is sometimes hard to explain what the story is. But as soon as I saw it, and I saw where he was going, I knew it was going to be special and worth telling. It had an emotional core. It was the spine of the movie, all the different elements. We just feel like all that stuff will fall into place.
Every time a new Pixar movie comes out, everyone talks about the studio being on a winning streak, and it seems like they're waiting for one to fail. Does that ever cross your mind when you're working on it, or is it only when people like me bring it up?
Docter: In a sense, each one of the movies did fail at some point. We made really lousy movies, and then we fixed them. Every one of the movies has been crappy at some point, and then we polish it up. That has been, so far, the key to our success. You're surrounded by other great filmmakers who do not want anything less than great out there. Each one of the films get built up and strengthened and reinforced, and we're not afraid to rip stuff out and redo it until we feel it's worthy of the Pixar name.
One of the best things about Pixar movies is that they're for children and adults. When you're writing it, do you consciously make sure it's a balance?
Docter: We're writing them for ourselves, basically.
So you're not even writing for children, really.
Docter: No. But each of us-- this sounds kinda corny-- but each of us has a kid left in him. You go around the room, and there's animators with toys stacked up. It's the same as the crowd here. People that have a firm footing still in childhood to some degree.
Rivera: It's Andrew Stanton who said that animation, what we do, isn't a genre-- it's a medium. We think of them just as films. Even looking back at the old Disney films, Bambi and Dumbo, those to us are really emotionally sophisticated. Children love them, families love them, but those hold up as any dramatic live-action picture.
Docter: Walt Disney wasn't making films for kids. Neither were the Muppets. A lot of the great, really cool films, they weren't making them for kids.
Rivera: Family film is the way we think of it. We want everyone to enjoy it.
With so many creative people under one roof, and so many projects stacked up, how do you choose what comes out and what doesn't?
Rivera: It really comes form the top, John Lasseter and Ed Catmull, kind of lining up the aircrafts to land on the airfield. It's a whole combination of timing, when people are coming off of projects, getting back in the hopper for development, working it out for Disney. I think the best thing about it is there's enough variation to move things around. The final decision really comes from John and Ed.
Digital 3D is obviously what the industry is pushing. Is the future of animation at Pixar going to be 3D, or is that just going to be an element of what you guys are doing?
Docter: I don't know, I guess that's up to the audience. Our concern has always been to just tell great stories. It's like John said, at the beginning of CG, when we were starting Toy Story. The wow factor is only going to hold you in your seats for about five minutes. After that, you have to have a good story to keep people from just leaving. We're looking at it the same way with 3D. It's another crayon in the crayon box, another tool to tell stories. But that doesn't really change us as filmmakers in our approach very much.
Were there any technical innovations that came into play in Up? I remember in Monsters, Inc. the thing was fur.
Docter: The big one that comes to mind is the sense of caricature, which might not sound like a technical thing. But given Carl's weird proportions, he's such an odd bird, and we were looking for a sense of simplicity for a lot of the things. It was actually really hard to figure out. We have these great technical directors who model everything, who really think about physics and real life. They're pulling a lot of these simulations based on how cloth would behave in real life, or balloons. And we're going to them and saying, OK, yeah, that's great, but what I want is caricature. How do we turn this up, or simplify the cloth behavior so there's not as many folds and wrinkles. How do you do that? how do you capture using a computer the things that people draw? So that's been hard to do.
Rivera: That's the only time that I've seen those guy, the technical directors at Pixar, stumped. We have gone to them over the year about fur, or reflections, and they lean forward, they're craving it. And Pete goes "Caricature" and you see them [face falls].
Docter: So we made them cry.
Rivera: Art and computer science collide, and we try to push it to see where it goes.
There seem to be some messages in Up, much like there were in Wall-E. Is that something that you think about in the writing process?
Docter: I don't like to think of it as a lecture. If I ever, as a moviegoer, feel that someone is trying to put forth an agenda, I tune out-- even if I agree with it. It's more just observations.
Is it difficult to find the right balance with your characters? You've got the cranky old man and the annoying boy scout kid-- either of these characters alone would be annoying, but when you put them together, they seem to bring out the best in each other. Do you have to find the right level between those two characters?
Docter: To me that's what makes film or theater really work, when you have two characters who start sparking off each other. We found that almost by accident on Toy Story, with Buzz and Woody. In Monsters we initially had just Sulley, and he brought in this little girl. And it wasn't until we got the suggestion to put in a friend, mike, that Sulley started to develop. By putting these characters together you start to find out more about each one of them. It was a little tricky at first to find out what it was about this kid that would push the old man's buttons. Tenacity, for sure. He won't take no for an answer, no matter how many times he slams the door on him.
How does the story develop around that initial concept of the house with the balloons?
Docter: Trial and error. I wanted something from a plot standpoint that would be very simple and gettable. The visual of, they're dumped off here, and they want to get there. Finding that early on was nice, because you can just get the plot out of the way, and use the travel, the journey, to find out more about the characters. There's a lot of rewrites. There are some sequences we've re-boarded 30 or 40 times. You never know on first glance what's going to be hard or easy.
With the talking dogs, this seems to be the first time you've had animals who are able to talk to humans. And talking dogs are sometimes shorthand for "bad kid's movie." How did you avoid using them and not making them a cliche?
Docter: I don't know if you guys do this, but we always put words in our dogs mouths, coming up with dialogue of what the dogs are saying. "Are you going to eat this?" When we kind of hit on that idea, that it's not a dog that the lips move, it's translating the direct thoughts of the dog. It's getting to know why do dogs sniff butts, or pee on trees. I wanted to hear it from the dog's point of view. Then it became kind of a fresh point of view.
When you're working on a film like this for 4 or 5 years, are there plateaus in creativity, where you just don't want to look at the stuff any more? How do you maintain that high level of interest all the way through?
Docter: There are definitely some times where you hit a wall. This one sequence, we hit a wall so many times, and it's just so painful to drag yourself off the floor and write it again. You know you have to do it, if you're going to finish the movie. The other thing that keeps me inspired is seeing all the amazing artists that we have. Every film, these artists just get better and better at what they do. You walk into the animation dailies and there's stuff that makes your hairs tingle. These guys just know what they're doing, and it's great.
Rivera: You go into a couple of dark ages. The other thing that's sort of cool, there's so many other great directors working on great films, sometimes when you're out of gas, it's time to go look at Toy Story 3. And you see someone else's movie, and you start riffing on that, that I've seen recharge you guys.
Docter: It's funny because you don't generally want to go over there. 'Oh, my movie's a mess, I don't have time to go look at Toy Story 3>!' You end up going over there, and it kind of frees your head.
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