INTERVIEW: 20 questions with ‘Up’ director Pete Docter

Posted by · 12:49 pm · May 29th, 2009

Pete DocterPete Docter’s filmmaking career is as tethered to the history of Pixar as it gets.  After all, he was the third animator hired by John Lasseter back in 1990, when the company was a fledgling computer-animation house making it’s name in short films and commercials.  Nineteen years (and 10 features) later, the studio has more than made its mark on the industry, and Docter has just finished helming his second feature film, “Up,” which opens nationwide today.

Docter’s initial crack at a project this size was 2001’s “Monsters, Inc.,” the first Pixar film to be nominated for the animated feature film Oscar.  Eight years later, the pressure is certainly on, especially in the wake of the studio’s most critically acclaimed film to date (2008’s “WALL-E”).  But if early reviews are any indication, Pixar — and Docter — not only have another success on their hands, but one that could potentially eclipse the impact last year’s lovable robot had on the critical community.

I recently spoke with Docter about, among other things, taking the reins on his second feature, what impact 3D technology will have on the medium, the decision to write an Asian-American character into the film and just why the heck no one has cast Delroy Lindo in an animated film until now.  And yes, I asked about that little conversation we’ve been having about the final shot of “Monsters, Inc.”  Keep reading to find out what he had to say.

1) How does Pixar’s trajectory appear to you?  Do you think each film is better than the last or is there a high mark somewhere along the way you’d like to hit once again?

“I think the films have gotten better and better, certainly technically.  This is our 10th film and every film I look at almost every aspect of the process — the lighting, the cinematography, the animation — and it seems to get better and better and better.  I think you’ll find that people have different opinions about what they think the best Pixar film is, but that’s subjective.  I think our key has been to try to find a different personality for each film, that each movie is its own thing.  “WALL-E” is such a different movie than “Up,” than “Cars, you know, they each kind of find their own self.  In that sense hopefully you don’t have to compare them so much as enjoy them.”

2) When do story ideas usually hit you?

“It really depends on a lot of different things.  A lot of times what happens is you end up struggling over something, you’re just trying to find something, and then you bang your head against the wall and then you kind of let it go and give up in a way and move on to something else, and then, BANG, it comes back at you.  I keep a notepad by my bed and I’m usually so exhausted trying to fall asleep at the end of the day and all these ideas pop into my head, so I sit and write them down.  But something about the process of falling asleep, ironically, brings me more in touch with that creative inner voice, I guess.”

3) After the critical acclaim for “WALL-E” last year, are expectations absurdly high for “Up?”

“Certainly people are expecting a lot and that’s good that they’ve come to expect a certain amount of quality.  I think if we can continue to go in different directions so that you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get when you come to the theater it’s going to be something unique.  That’s been one of the best things about people coming out of this film going, ‘Whoa, that is not what I expected it to be.'”

4) Eight years after “Monsters, Inc.,” what was different about being in the director’s chair (so to speak) this time around?

“The actual process was fairly similar but I think now having gone through it once I was able to know more fully when I was going off track or not to take things quite as personally, that there is a certain amount of chaos and uncertainty inherent in tis process and it’s not a failure of me as a storyteller, it’s just the way things happen.  You sort of have to embrace that and move forward.  Embrace the chaos.”

5) In one word, what is the new film about?


Up6) There’s a lot of color in the film.  Was there something thematic you wanted to convey with a bright color palette or was it more aesthetic?

“It was part aesthetic but it was more a reflection of Carl’s emotional state.  When Ellie is in his life, there’s lots of color and saturation.  When she’s gone, it goes drab, down to grays.  Carl is getting ready in the morning to go out and sit on the front porch, everything is grays and browns.  So we tried to use color as the other characters come back into his like — Russell, the bird — those characters are full of color and vibrancy and life, so as the film goes on, you get more of that.”

7) The lead character, Carl Fredricksen, is obviously one of the more complicated Pixar characters, based on his past and his current overall disposition.  Did he become an amalgamation of experiences from those working on the film or was there a single inspiration in mind?

“Absolutely the whole process is a group effort.  We pulled his behavior and what-not from a lot of people in our own lives, our grandparents, movies we’d seen with Spencer Tracy and Walter Matthau, characters like that.  In terms of design, that was largely Ricky Nierva, who’s a production designer on the show.  He works almost like a casting director, but instead of looking at a line-up of real people, he’s creating them.  So he’s really trying to internalize the description that we give him of this guy: he’s stuck in his ways, he has this routine, he’s very structured, he’s a counter-balance to Ellie who’s very free spirited and impetuous and instinctive, and Carl’s the opposite of that.  So Ricky’s just kind of internalizing that and trying to draw what he’s feeling, so a lot of the shape language, the squares, came from that.

“It’s no accident that Ricky is a brutal, sometimes, caricature artist because he’s able to capture more than a likeness but a feeling of a person.  He gets to know someone and then he’ll draw them, not by looking at them but by feeling what they’re all about.  It’s amazing to watch because these drawings, if you look at them next to a photograph, you go, ‘Well, it doesn’t look much like that guy, but it feels exactly like the guy.’  And I think there’s a similar process to designing the characters.”

8) The Russell character is a Wilderness Explorer in “Up.”  Was anyone at Pixar ever a Boy Scout?

“Yeah there’s a number of guys.  Bob Pauley, who designed Buzz Lightyear and worked on ‘Cars,’ he’s an Eagle Scout.  I know there’s a couple other guys.  I didn’t last very long.  I was in Cub Scouts for about a year and it didn’t click for me.  My son is in the Boy Scouts and enjoys it a lot and we kind of watched him early on and picked up on certain things the Boy Scouts have in terms of the badges and what-not and there were a bunch of other organizations as well, the Indian Guides, the Girl Scouts, so we kind of picked and chose what we needed to tell the story.”

9) Did you try to use the Boy Scout name?

“There were enough things we knew we had to change just because of what we needed for the story that unless we would go all the way and get it authentic we figured we were better off doing our own version of that, just because we could tailor it more to the specific needs of our story.”

10) There hasn’t been a lot of discussion in the media about the fact that Russell is an Asian-American, which is probably for the best.  I know the character was based somewhat on Pixar’s Peter Sohn, but considering Disney has clearly pointed out that Tiana from “The Princess and the Frog” is the studio’s first African-American princess, I’m curious why the topic hasn’t come up.

“That’s interesting.  Obviously Anglo characters have dominated most of media for a long time so it seemed to me, obviously there’s more diversity of people out there.  Pete Sohn is such an entertaining character that we thought, let’s just try to grab him and figure out what he was like as a kid, so that’s kind of where that came from and just trying to be specific and different than things we’d done in the past.  We talked early on about making some story point about that but I think by not dealing with it it’s more color blind or accepting or whatever, you just cast that character and move forward.”

11) What is your favorite part of the process?  Working with animators to visually convey the story or working with voice actors to flesh out the characters?

“It’s totally different.  With the voice actors, things happen relatively so fast,  You’re there and within an hour you have an entire sequence working with Christopher Plummer and, BANG, he’s done and off he goes to his next thing and we’re going, ‘Well I hope we got it.’  I’m used to working over the course of a week to get four seconds worth of animation from an animation, but the whole process was really fun.

“There are times when the stress level is a lot higher, early on when things are less nailed down and the story is very open-ended, you don’t know where things are going, there’s no clear right and wrong, those are really anxiety-filled times.  And yet when you finally find something that works, it’s really rewarding, maybe because it’s so full of questions and the unknown.  Then you can get to the process of really polishing and crafting the thing, making sure every cut point works, the lighting, things like the sound design, really plusing everything and making it come to life, that’s a real enjoyable part of the process for me.”

Up12) Which was the most difficult character to cast in “Up?”

“Probably it’d have to be Russell.  We had 450 some kids that came in to read.  It was important to me early on just to make sure that this kid didn’t sound like he was not acting with a capital ‘A.’  That happens often with kids, that they sound kind of forced or phony.  They’ve memorized their lines well but you don’t believe what they’re saying.  So that’s why we did such an exhaustive search to find somebody who just sounded real.  Jordan (Nagai) had a very appealing-sounding voice and we cast him based on that to get some of the lines.  We had to do a lot of various acting exercises and tricks and anything we could think of, sometimes rewriting scenes to make it more believable and truthful.”

13) Why the heck has no one cast Delroy Lindo in an animated film yet?

“Yeah, good question!  I almost feel guilty using him in this film because his part was so small and he’s such a big actor.  He’s got a real strength to him and it was great working with him because, like Christopher Plummer, he just dives in and completely commits to whatever choice he’s doing.  I hope we can work with him again.  We cast him because of his strength and we he speaks, you listen.  The guy has got this force to him and we wanted that to really counter-point any de-fanging we’d done with Alpha with the high squeaky voice.”

14) Why the decision to use 3D in “Up?”  Was it largely an experimental idea at first or is it something the studio is interested in pursuing further?

“We started off just making it traditionally, and of course, Pixar has a long standing fascination with all new toys.  1989, I think it was, right before I started, they did ‘Knick Knack’ in 3D, a short film.  Unfortunately at that time there were only a handful of screenings of it in 3D because in order to get it to work you had to have the two strips of 35mm film getting together, the projectors getting together, with the polarized lenses, so it was technically such a big hurdle presented that it didn’t get seen very much.  It was really the advent of digital projection that allowed for that to be more readily available to the public at large.

“John Lasseter saw some of the work that was being done at Disney and said, ‘Hey, we’d love to do this one in 3D.’  So we really tried to study every available film we could and see what worked and what didn’t, both technically and creatively.  We assembled a pretty small group here headed by Bob Whitehill and we pretty much worked with them like we worked with the art department or the lighting department.  They would take a sequence that was through animation and we’d talk about how we’d use 3D in order to further the storytelling.”

15) There’s a lot of talk about lately, especially with the work Robert Zemeckis has been doing and James Cameron’s “Avatar” coming in the Fall, about 3D technology being the future of cinema.  Do you believe that?

“I think there have got to be certain things that happen for that to take place.  One of them is filmmakers have to use it more invisibly as opposed to using it as a gimmick.  When things poke out at you at your nose, you’re suddenly aware that you’re watching a 3D movie, as opposed to just seamlessly integrating it into the story and letting you get lost in that story the way a good film works.  I think it also has to keep pushing technically.  There are a lot of people who complain about it, and rightly so.  They say it’s too dark, you lose some of the colors.  I’ve seen it get better and better and I have confidence that it will continue to push that way but I think those are things that need to happen for it to really be accepted by everybody.”

16) Have you gone back and re-visited “Monsters, Inc.” lately?

“I haven’t seen that one for a while now.  It was actually ‘Toy Story’ that I saw more recently, because they’re doing that one in 3D.  Initially I was shocked by how primitive it looked, compared to the stuff we’re doing now.  But I haven’t looked at ‘Monsters’ for a while.”

17) Was that a “City Lights” homage in the last shot of the film?  We had some debate about that on the site recently.

“Obviously I’ve seen ‘City Lights’ many times and it’s one of my favorites, but I hadn’t consciously thought that we were paying an homage to it.  I remember we talked a lot about that shot and I actually ended up animating it.  That was a scene that, when we showed it to an audience, it was in storyboard form.  A lot of people said they wanted to see Sully get back together with boo, but I knew in the back of my head that we’d never be able to give people anything as rich as what was going to happen in their own head.  So Tom Schumacher, who was head of Disney at the time, said, ‘Well alright, but that last shot better just be absolutely glowing.’  So I took it on myself and I feel like, in a way, the story does most of the work, it kind of leads you to this place and all he needs to do is just smile.”

Monsters, Inc.18) What was your reaction to losing the introductory animated feature film category to “Shrek” in 2001?

Yeah, that hurt.  I felt like we’d poured our all into the movie and it would have been nice, but what can you do?  Looking back at the time you go, “Ow,” but really the joy of being in this business is making the movies.  That’s where the fun is, not necessarily winning the awards, although that’s always nice gravy.  I think we’re pretty lucky guys to be able to get paid to do the work that we do.

19) Do awards mean anything to the Pixar crew?

It’s definitely very nice, and obviously what it represents is the fact that people like it.  We almost act as we’re making these movies like this is brain surgery or something.  We pay a lot of attention and we really pour our lives into these and, in part, that’s what we get out of it, just the joy of doing that.  But when people recognize them as films that they enjoy and honor with awards I think that it does mean a lot to us.

20) Where does the studio want to go from here?

“What seems to be happening now is, well, we’ve done 10 of these, and it gets harder to come up with ideas that we haven’t done before.  But that’s definitely what we want to do, we want to keep pushing in different directions and doing things that haven’t been done, and of course balancing that with sequels when they’re appropriate, when we find story ideas that feel like they’re worth doing.  Now more than ever it seems like we have so much going on here.  There’s like five or six films that are stacked up on the runway, taking their turns, ready to take off and a lot of opportunity for new directors and up-and-coming people that are going to be helming these films in years to come, so it’s a pretty exciting time.”

→ 5 Comments Tags: , , , , , | Filed in: Interviews

5 responses so far

  • 1 5-29-2009 at 2:34 pm

    red_wine said...

    The Pixar folks(including Pete Doctor) are getting the Life Time Achievement Gold Bear at Venice this year, and they thoroughly deserve it. Such brilliant and talented people! The Academy is gonna eat its heart out years later when they realize that they never gave Pixar much credence.

  • 2 5-29-2009 at 9:38 pm

    Zac said...

    ^ 4 Animated Feature Oscars is nothing to sneeze at.

  • 3 5-30-2009 at 5:17 pm

    Jess said...

    Up was amazing. Pixars 10 films to date will certainly be remembered years and years from now. The next 10 films have a hell of a lot to live up to. If I’m correct, their next 4 films, Toy Story 3, Cars 2, Newt, and The Bear and the Bow, are all being directed by 1st time directors (not Bird, Stanton, Docter, or Lasseter). I have faith though, if anybody in Hollywood has earned that from me, it’s definitely Pixar.

  • 4 7-05-2009 at 3:58 pm

    Haxn said...

    insightful :)