“Inside Out” director Pete Docter talked about the process of making a film at Pixar with film critic Elvis Mitchell and the crowd attending a special screening of the movie at the L.A. Film Festival on June 9.
Docter regaled the crowd with anecdotes about how he became interested in animation, through his college experiences at California Institute of the Arts and his long association with Pixar, making such films as “Toy Story,” “Monsters, Inc.,” “Up” and now “Inside Out,” which he called the most “cartoony” of the Pixar films.
“I grew up as an awkward, kind of quiet kid, and was most happy sitting in my room making cartoons,” he recalled. “One of the things that really kept me going was flip books. I still do them today.”
Docter said he did his first flip book in 3rd grade, but he said he drawing wasn’t his strong suit. “You know, there were always those kids who could draw, and you’d go to them and say, ‘Draw a horse. Draw a dragon.’ That was not me. I wanted to be that guy,” he said. “But as soon as I figured out I could make things move, I was hooked. The drawing was always a means to an end, it was always difficult for me, which is why I love computers. I don’t have to draw.”
Docter began his career at Pixar the day after he graduated from CalArts. While the company was very small at the time, it gave Docter a big opportunity to meet his heroes, such animation greats as Chuck Jones and powerhouse Disney duo, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. “If you’re in animation, you should know these guys,” Docter said of Thomas and Johnston. “Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston wrote ‘The Illusion of Life,’ which is kind of the bible for animators. They focused some on drawing, but mostly on character and personality.”
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After taking putting a spin on the scary monster genre with “Monsters, Inc.,” and stretching the boundaries of who should be animated characters with “Up’s” curmudgeonly Carl Fredericksen, Docter said he wanted to push the boundaries yet again, and that’s when he was inspired by his young daughter, Elie, who was 9 when she did the voice of her namesake character Young Elie in “Up.”
“She was very much like that character. Spirited and goofy, but then she turned 11,” said Docter. “She became a lot more reclusive and quiet. We didn’t literally get eye-rolls, because she knew that would get her in trouble, but she gave off that kind of feeling. And that got me wondering, ‘What’s going on in her head?’ That’s when I thought of emotions as characters. This could be exactly what animation does best. And that’s what led us on this five-year journey.”
Since she was the inspiration, how did Elie Docter like “Inside Out?” Mitchell asked.
“She’s 16 now and she saw the film a couple of months ago. She came out of the theater and went, ‘Humph, good movie, Dad.’ I took that as a compliment,” Docter said. “Since then, she’s seen it a couple more times and has admitted to crying and being moved by it, so that’s pretty cool.”
“Inside Out” gave the crew at Pixar a lot of opportunities to examine why we remember, how songs get stuck inside someone’s head, where dreams come from. “I was really excited because it came from a strong emotional experience that I had watching my daughter grow up and remembering my own childhood as well,” he said.
Making the emotions characters more than one note was important in “Inside Out,” Docter explained. “When Joy was joyful all the time, it was really annoying, so we tried to think of the emotions as people with tendencies toward their jobs. So Anger, he can be kind, he can experience joy and happiness, but he has a tendency to just get pissed off easily.”