Meet the Director of ‘The Good Dinosaur’

Pixar’s latest film is the “coming of age story,” The Good Dinosaur. Set in a world in which the meteor missed and dinosaurs evolved to become the dominant species, the Good Dinosaur tells the story of a timid and awkward young apatosaur named Arlo who finds himself lost and alone in the wilderness and has to find a way to survive and make his way home. He is befriended by a wild animal, a feral human child that he names “Spot,” and the two help each other survive in the hostile terrain, becoming friends along the way.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, I had the opportunity to take part in some group discussions with some of the people involved with the film. First up, Director Peter Sohn and Producer Denise Ream.

Producer Denise Ream and Director Peter Sohn attend the The Good Dinosaur Press Day in Los Angeles on November 15, 2015. Photo by Patrick Wymore. ©2015 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.
Producer Denise Ream and Director Peter Sohn attend the The Good Dinosaur Press Day in Los Angeles on November 15, 2015. Photo by Patrick Wymore. ©2015 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Question: The environment of the film is incredible, so photo-realistic.

Peter Sohn: What we found out there was that it was so beautiful and dangerous at the same time, and because this movie is a survival movie, trying to make the world feel threatening, we tried more stylistic trees, and it kind of robbed the idea that Arlo could get really hurt out there, which was necessary to test Arlo for his growth. But at the same time, Arlo is a very stylistic cartoony-looking character. But when we balanced it out, when you have a realistic dinosaur there, you’d just say ‘hey, he can survive out there, y’know, just eat the grass, drink the water,’ so we would really push to find the boy in the dinosaur. That’s something that was from the original intent of that ‘boy and dog’ story, flipping it to where the boy is the dinosaur and the dog is a human boy. When we thrust Arlo out into the wilderness for the same time, maybe you could feel like he’s lost out there and he’s not going to survive and that he was this kind of fragile kid versus the dinosaur at that point, and then hopefully could move you to feeling that he was growing and that he would feel more unified…

Denise Ream: Also, our lighting DP, Sharon Callahan, is a passionate painter, and she spent a lot of time out in that part; that’s essentially why we went there. We weren’t going to set the movie there, but she took us there. She’s done a lot of painting on the Snake River, and we just fell in love with that part of the world. And then you realize, “oh, yeah, they find a lot of dinosaur bones here,” so it sort of seemed like an obvious place.

Q: So it’s 100% animated?

TheGoodDinosaur-posterSohn: Yes, it is animated. It’s something that we’ve been calling “painterly realism,” because it was based off Sharon’s paintings of the world. She’s such a master of understanding that light from that northwestern area, how the water refracts the rocks from underneath, and she just, she has that creative side and then she also has this kind of math side, so she could understand, because water is very difficult to do in CGI light. That’s what’s interesting in these movies, that everything is handmade.

Ream: There were two shots in the film, there’s a shot of the leaves with the rain coming, and then shortly after that, the shot up into the clouds where they cover the sun, they were just magnificently beautiful, they were the first two shots finished, and we were like “holy cow, this is gonna look amazing!” We were all just so excited about them; they were test shots and that’s kind of what we shot for, basically.

Sohn: We were inspired by movies like The Black Stallion and Never Cry Wolf, these Carroll Ballard movies where, y’know, they kind of respected the nature, shot it beautifully but took its time in immersing you into it.

Q: Why did you decide to go more stylized with the characters as opposed to the more realistic environment?

Sohn: It was all in trying to make Arlo feel more like a boy. Like the whole idea of, if you had a realistic dinosaur, it might feel like “you are an animal, you’re kind of like a cow; you should just eat the grass, you can survive out there.” Trying to make his eyes a little bigger so you can kind of feel the boy and that human quality. His knees would be a little bit knobby so you can feel that he’s still growing and he’s still trying to find his way, it was all in trying to find the human side of the guy.

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Ream: We really wanted him to feel, once he got out into nature, like he’s a stranger in a strange land, like he wouldn’t survive, because we really wanted nature to be our antagonist.

Q: What is the biggest challenge in making the movie?

Ream: We re-started the movie a little over two years ago, it ran into pretty big story trouble. There was another director on it, another producer, and the story got stuck. And so Pete came on, and we shut the whole production down, and honestly, just trying to get that story to work was so, it was really the biggest challenge. It’s like I’ve learned this over and over; Pixar can execute anything, and sometimes we act like we’ve never made a movie before, and that’s the one thing I know we can do. Even though it was counter-intuitive to sort of stop and do nothing, from a production point of view…

Sohn: The story wasn’t doing nothing.

Ream: …the story, we literally screened every six weeks, and we basically took a four-year process and shrank it into a two-year process, by screening every six weeks. Fortunately, incrementally, the story got better and better, thanks to Pete and Meg and the story team’s hard work and editing. And so finally it’s like, “okay, we know what we’re doing, now we can start actually making the movie.” Story, story, story… it’s always hard.

So we basically shut the show down in October of 2013 and spent the rest of the year working on the script, and started [story]boarding late December of ’13, and then started the crew back up after our first screening, which would have been March.

Q: How long had the previous team been in production before you guys shut down?

Sohn: It was a couple of years.

Ream: A couple of years, yeah. And that was the thing that was so scary really; it was risky because they had built sets, they had built characters, and we scrapped everything. Because we went on that trip to Wyoming, which so influenced the movie, and Pete simplifying the story was the reason we decided this was the right thing to do. And honestly, this crew that worked on this movie, they were phenomenal. Honestly, everyone just believed in Pete, because Pete was very clear in his vision; I mean, like within two weeks I was like “this guy is a natural.” You would never believe that he was a first-time director. So everyone rallied behind him. It’s not a cliche but they poured their heart and souls into this movie and worked really hard.

Q: I saw a lot of realism in this film; how did you achieve that?

Ream: Because Pete challenged everyone, from the beginning, that he didn’t want, as he called it, ‘the walk in the park,’ it needed to feel epic in scope, and often in a lot of animated movies, you kind of feel that you have this foreground and mid-ground, and then everything kind of falls off, and he said “I want it to feel like he’s in the middle of nowhere.” So we took USGS survey data as a starting point to get, largely in the areas where we were in Wyoming, and use that as a starting point, so that we could literally put the camera anywhere and you would have this epic view. And then we created tools to propagate the topology with our trees and rocks and grass and leaves and mulch and everything. We also used volumetric clouds, which had a huge impact on the look of it, all in service to the story, to make it feel immersive. Because when you watch Never Cry Wolf or Black Stallion, you go out there, and it feels so real and immersive.

Sohn: We wanted to give nature a character. A lot of dinosaur movies… I love them, and with another monster, like a t-rex coming at you… but the ending of this thing… we really tried to respect nature in a way, and make it internal and emotional for Arlo, something for him to get through. And so, trying to make it come alive in ways, like for example, the river; Arlo, when he falls into it, when he wakes up and he’s terrified, the river can be roiling; but when Arlo gets closer to Spot and more comfortable in nature, the river can be peaceful. That’s just an example; on every layer, the wind in the trees, that it could breathe, the smoke that Arlo stops to see, that we would take the time; the world is breathing, it’s alive, but it’s also dangerous, all of that, we would try to affect with the technology so that they could go “okay, you need a river like that, and we’re going to build it modularly,” it was all to support the story.

Ream: We had to be clever; we had to cheat. So we did have these, you know, chunks of the river that we could repurpose and re-use.

Q: Okay, a really important question; I got so caught up in the story I forgot to look for the Pizza Planet truck and the Luxo ball… are they in there?

Sohn: They are in there. You know what? It was a tough one because this movie is 99% outdoors, there’s no real buildings other than that farmhouse; everything’s organic. So where the heck do you hide a truck?

Q: I’m assuming in the rocks, I’m sure there’s a rock that’s shaped like the truck.

Sohn: You know what, you’re very close. We have the truck in there somewhere, we have the Luxo ball in there, we’ve got A113.

Ream: We’ve got an homage to [Finding] Dory, the next show, that one might be the hardest one.

Q: I think I saw it.

Sohn: You did? Don’t say anything.

Ream: There’s the clouds from Partly Cloudy in there somewhere.

Q: The underwater scenes were spectacularly gorgeous.

Sohn: Thank you so much.

Q: This is the first time I’ve seen an animated film that actually has cinematography in it.

Sohn: Oh, right on. You have no idea…

Ream: That, I mean, honestly, Sharon Callahan, we just have to… she is the first person in our industry to be inducted into the ASC. She is immensely talented, and we were extremely grateful; she had a huge influence on the film. And we are going to pass that along to her.

Q: I have to let you know I cried through the whole movie. You guys are so good at that. Like, what is that? Do you guys go into it like…

Sohn: No, we’re not like “they WILL cry!” We would never ever think like that. Honestly, it’s just like trying to find some truths you can connect to; the movies that I love, that I grew up with… you know, my parents were minorities from another country, so that whole thing of how they connect to a movie, even when they don’t understand the language effectively so much, like what are these universal things? At Pixar that’s all they talk about, John Lasseter and all those directors, they’re just like, “no no no, what’s the truth to this? What are you digging at?”

It’s not like there’s some thing about it like that at all, because we’ve been getting asked that, and it’s like “no, it’s not, there’s no, I’m not trying to, like, I’m just trying to feel like…” these films are like kids in a weird way; you start with an idea, and you’re raising it, and it’s just like “you’re going to be a violinist when you grow up, here’s a violin and here are some teachers,” and then it’s growing, becoming bigger, and then it plays its first song and you you’re like “that’s amazing, wow” and then all of a sudden it’s like “I don’t want to play the violin.” “No no no, you’re going to play the violin.” “No, I don’t want to; I like this basketball,” and they’re like “what are you talking about?” and your film is going like, “yeah, I want to play basketball.”

And then what do you do? As a parent, you go “No!” Maybe some Asian parents… Do you go NO, or do you say, like “okay, I’m going to listen to you; let me try to find the best basketball teachers, where’s the best school that you can learn this thing?” And so it starts telling you what it wants.

An Apatosaurus named Arlo makes an unlikely human friend in Disney•Pixar's
An Apatosaurus named Arlo makes an unlikely human friend in Disney•Pixar’s “The Good Dinosaur.” ©2015 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Ream: But not every director will listen. That’s the big difference to what that child wants, and that’s the thing that Pete did so well. Also, it’s like, we use ourselves as the audience; if I’m sitting there watching it, does it feel authentic? You know? It’s like, I lost my father, so when I’m looking at that, does that feel real to me? That’s what I say, and we all chime in and we agree or we don’t agree.

Sohn: And that’s, I’ve been there for fifteen years, and so the thing that I’ve learned there is that everyone there is constantly putting their heart into it. What’s that mean? Like, I’ve been saying it all day, like “put your heart in there,” but it’s literally looking to your life, looking at the things that you do love, and injecting it into the art that you’re making, and what’s tough is that the process is like “no, that’s terrible, it’s not gonna work!” and you’re like “ow, that’s my heart! okay! okay!” And then the decision is “boy, do I put my heart in the next time I do this? Do I do that?”

And what’s amazing is that people love making movies up there so much that they go, that’s the only secret that they know to make a movie that’s truthful, is to put what they know and love into it.

Jim MacQuarrie is a comics and animation geek, a professional cartoonist and graphic designer, professional balloon animal twister, a certified archery instructor (and yes, his arrows are green), former homeless person and occasional gadfly. He has three children who are all grown up, and an incredibly patient wife who is waiting for him to do likewise. Together they co-write the lifestyle blog Blue Collar, Black Tie.