Even if they rely more on computer-generated images and characters than traditional cameras, wardrobe, and set design, it’s safe to say that Pixar Animation Studios is one of the most successful movie studios in history. Forget the massive box office almost guaranteed for each one of their releases – what other studio can expect to see their annual release not just nominated for a Best Picture Oscar (albeit animated), but the likely winner? Alas, things haven’t been so easy for The Good Dinosaur.
On its surface, an adventure starring a young dinosaur and his human pal is a winning formula – which is why the problems that followed the movie’s announcement were so surprising. With the director changed and claims that The Good Dinosaur had been “completely reimagined” from its previous form, it now marches toward a theatrical release. But its change in story and style (and voice cast) doesn’t show signs of its troubled past. And if the filmmakers are to be believed, the right direction for the movie has also meant a complete change in the way Pixar makes movies.
While visiting Pixar recently, we got the chance to hear a bit more about the stops and starts in development, and speak with director Peter Sohn about the new direction, including his inspirations. It’s likely that most young Pixar fans have never heard of directors like John Ford (The Searchers, Rio Grande), Howard Hawks (Rio Bravo, El Dorado), or David Lean (Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia), but according to Sohn, it’s those masterminds of sprawling epics and imposing landscapes which inspired his story… but to do it, the studio had to change the way their stories are told.
It’s hard to tell if the emphasis on nature as an antagonist, boundless digital worlds and cinematography modeled after old Hollywood epics will remain after production wraps. But even if The Good Dinosaur. is a one-off, even older movie fans now have a reason to pay close attention to the film… and it may even help create a new generation of western fans.
I have to start by asking you about the thing that I’m most excited about, and that’s just how many times you mentioned director John Ford when describing your inspiration for this movie. I just have to hear more about that.
Peter Sohn: [laughs] Yeah! Absolutely. When we first started this thing, CG…Well, let me break down CG for when we were developing. In CG you have to render everything, obviously. So what that means is anything that you build takes a lot of computing power to render. So when you wanted a dinosaur in the woods, you’d build it but then you’d cover the background with trees up close so that you didn’t need to render everything beyond those trees. If you had those trees, then you just put a simple kind of matte painting back there. You know what I mean, like The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy would always walk right up to that wall where the Emerald City painting would be. So that’s how we always kinda rendered stuff. But for Arlo’s journey, to make the dinosaur feel like a tiny character in the world, one of the big things I asked for was could we open it up? Could we open up that world so that we could feel that wilderness and feel that frontier?
John Ford is one of my favorite directors, even the non-Western ones, like The Quiet Man… I just loved his breadth of work. But it wasn’t just him either, it was that whole era of that exploring spirit from John Houston [Never Cry Wolf], to William Wyler [Ben-Hur], to Howard Hawks, to George Stevens [Shane], these guys worked with those great studio cinematographers that knew how to capture landscapes. But it wasn’t just America, too. Even Kurosawa [Seven Samurai] and David Lean [Lawrence of Arabia], David Lean’s cinematographer Freddie Young, they just captured big, giant places in such a way.
The specifics of this movie aside (and the fact that lots of Pixar fans may not know those reference points), I’d imagine the technical challenges showed up pretty quickly.
This is my first time. And so, my love for that was one thing. Understanding how they did that was a whole other thing for me. There’s the one shot in Lawrence of Arabia, where Anthony Quinn is like, “You will eat in Wadi Rum!” Cut to “Bong!” Camera push through the mountains. There’s a subtle parallax there with the foreground mountains in the scene, and that tent city out there where the back of your neck is getting goosebumps. You’re like, “Oh, that is huge! 70 millimeter glory! Oh my god!” And John Ford would do the same thing. Even The Searchers, coming out of the door with the mom, and then getting that expanse so that we go from that one little square to, holy cow, that wide landscape of Monument Valley…or I don’t remember exactly where that farm was shot. But you would try to learn that.
So in our movie, I said, “Please let’s take down those trees. And is there any way we can expand that out there?” You’ll talk to some of the tech guys about that. What they literally did was pull USGS data from some of the places that we were inspired by. Shane is my favorite movie, so I knew that opening was shot at the Grand Tetons. I just want to go visit there and get that feeling. I’d never been out there. I grew up with the West in movies, just sitting in front of the TV or in the theaters. The western movies that I grew up with were movies like Silverado or Dances with Wolves. And Dances with Wolves was another movie that, growing up, you’re just like, “Wow. They figured out a way to capture that land with the John Berry score…”
But that was the big intent from all those types of movies. It was just trying to figure out a way… not to try to rip off the western, not to do anything like that, but understand it. Once we went out there that was the first thing of like, “OK. That’s the feeling.” When you slightly move your head, you get these subtle parallaxes with the clouds and everything. So they took the USGS data, the Google data and put it in the computer, set trees on there and then put clouds in there. Then you’d move the camera and you’re like, “There’s that feeling! There’s that feeling. OK. Can we render this out?”
That landscape and sense of scale eventually became such a character in those movies, that the stories almost ended up being defined by the environment.
Peter Sohn: Yeah, totally.
Lastly, I have to point out that after watching the footage, it occurred to me that if I find myself thinking “When I have a kid, I want them to love westerns,” this is going to be the first movie I show them, whether it was the campfire talks or just the open ranges and landscape. It almost felt like Pixar’s First Western, or crack at one, at least.
Peter Sohn: Yeah. And you know, it’s funny you say that, because I’ve been calling it a frontier movie as much as Old Yeller or Jeremiah Johnson would be. Jeremiah Johnson, it is kind of a western because it’s shot out there, but it doesn’t have those tropes.
You mean the western tropes that became the most iconic or referenced…
Peter Sohn: Yes, exactly. But at the same time… So that’s what I mean by the frontier movie. Because we start on the farm and we talk about that survival, it’s one thing. But then, there are aspects that dip into that western world of movies, but we try to keep that really sincere and not a parody. But, at the same time, it’s shot out there. And there are characters…. Like, Sam Elliott is one of the coolest people to ever work with. I could not believe how fun that guy was. And he’s got an amazing heart. And it’s so genuine. So you’re just like, “You’re the real deal. Whoa. OK.”
Like “this really is the kind of movie we’re making.”
Peter Sohn: [Laughs] Yeah, yeah exactly.
The Good Dinosaur opens in U.S. theaters on November 25th, 2015. Stay tuned for more coverage and interviews from the production team!