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‘Inside Out’ Director Pete Docter on ‘Toy Story,’ Pixar and CalArts

Inside Out” director Pete Docter was barely out of California Institute of the Arts when he got his first mention in Variety in a 1992 ad for Spike & Mike’s Festival of Animation, which included his Student Academy Award-winning short “Next Door.” Docter and his cohorts at upstart computer company Pixar would find their way into Variety again in 1996, this time as Oscar nominees for the “Toy Story” screenplay.

Talk about “Next Door.”

Back in the days before the Internet, there was no place to put a short film, so Mike Gribble and Spike Decker had this festival of animation. My student films got selected. It never occurred to me to enter them for Academy consideration until I started working with John (Lasseter), and he said, “Hey, you should enter that.” So I did. And, what do you know, it won.

What was it like going to school at CalArts?

It was cool. Nobody cared too much if you spilled paint on the carpet or drew on the wall. That was just the environment. Classes were taught by people who had just gotten out of CalArts a couple of years earlier, like Joe Ranft, who went on to work at Pixar. And Chris Buck (“Frozen”) was my animation teacher. Some really topnotch, amazing teachers who were working during the day were teaching there at night. It was an exciting time.

What kind of mischief did you get into?

We’d send letters to Walt (Disney). You’d write a message about something you were hoping for, you’d roll it into a cone, then blow it toward the ceiling. If it stuck, then Walt would answer you.

You went right from graduation to Pixar. How did that come about?

John had seen my stuff and said, “Hey, do you want to work here?” At the time, nobody applied to Pixar because it wasn’t really an animation studio. It was a computer company. Looking back, I don’t know why I agreed, because the logical choice would have been to go to Disney or to “The Simpsons,” which was just starting up. But I really loved Pixar’s short films and the sensibility in them.

Your next Variety mention was in 1996 for “Toy Story.”

It’s hard to believe it was just a few years later. “Toy Story” really felt like just a bunch of guys working in their garage for fun. When it came out and people liked it, it was mind-blowing. So to be nominated for the screenplay, I felt like, “What planet am I on?” The Oscars are for professionals. We’re a bunch of amateurs just doing it for the fun of it. It was pretty wild.

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