I get excited when I get to talk to the talent behind Disney Pixar animations like The Good Dinosaur. When I saw that Director Peter Sohn and Producer Denise Ream were on the list of people we would get to interview, I already had my questions ready. I think once you read a little bit of the background of how Pete got involved with the project, you too will be fascinated with the process.
“The Good Dinosaur” asks the question: What if the asteroid that forever changed life on Earth missed the planet completely and giant dinosaurs never became extinct? Pixar Animation Studios takes you on an epic journey into the world of dinosaurs where an Apatosaurus named Arlo (voice of Raymond Ochoa) makes an unlikely human friend. While traveling through a harsh and mysterious landscape, Arlo learns the power of confronting his fears and discovers what he is truly capable of.
The Good Dinosaur Director Peter Sohn and Producer Denise Ream Interview
You have done lots of jobs at Pixar (i.e. story-boarding, voices, and now director). What led you to directing this time?
Peter Sohn : What’s interesting was this show was pitched by original director Bob Peterson in 2009 and then he asked me to come help develop the project. During the development I was doing story and designs for him and then he asked me to be his co-director. From that we were trying to wrestle the story and it was tough. A lot of these Pixar films go through that kind of place where you put every answer and you go in every direction. We had the boy and the dog story. We had a father-son story. We had a trying to change community story and then it was hard to kind of end it all.
They asked me to become the director from there because I had known all the paths that we have gone through and I basically, simplified it to Bob’s original pitch. I love Bob and he’s a great friend and I just loved that original idea. It was really Bob who got me developing into that co-director position. To your point, I learned a lot from working with the other departments, too. That’s nothing like the director job. There’s so much I didn’t know.
I was scared and Denise Ream, our producer, surrounded me with a lot of experienced people to help out with that. Everyone was just like ‘Here’s our hearts. Let’s do it.”
The realism in the animation is mind blowing. It’s amazing. Was there any special technology or animation advancement that was used?
Peter Sohn : It’s not new technology, but we ended up basically using Google maps to create a lot of the locations. It’s called USGS topological survey maps. We started with that and got us a long ways toward kind of getting the big scope that we wanted. Then the trick was populating that terrain with the trees that we had modeled, the leaves, the mulch, the rocks, all of the vegetation.
Denise Ream: That was a special tool that we wrote. This was the first time we used 3-D clouds, what we call volumetric clouds throughout the entire film. Usually we map paint our clouds. We did a lot of water shots. Again, it’s not new technology but we did many, many more water shots than we’ve typically done in a Pixar movie. In terms of the actual process we just had a slightly different workflow process for the animators.
When you’re under the gun to get the show done, you dole out shots individually and instead we gave each animator a run of shots that we felt would make a more consistent performance. That was a very different workflow for the animation department and they actually really, really loved it.
Peter Sohn : All of it was in service to the story. We did a lot of research. Denise, when we started this project, she took us out. She said let’s go get lost. I’m from New York where we would go into the wilderness and The Rockies and I had never been before. So, going out there it was just so dang gorgeous. Horizon lines in New York was from McDonald’s to Subway and then going out there it was just so awe inspiring that you could go from there and see 500 miles down that way [to the left] and see the other 500 miles down that way [to the right].
It was just full of clouds and it went forever and it was so soul enriching. It is something we wanted to capture. That’s why all this technology was just like, if we want to do that we have to do this.
Denise Ream : Because originally the story took place in a different part of the country. It wasn’t really our intention to set up where we did. But then we got there and we thought, it makes so much sense because that’s where you find dinosaur bones and it was very inspirational to use.
Once you decided it was going to be set in the West, is that when you decided to bring in a lot of the Western elements?
Peter Sohn : It started off with the kind of idea of like doing a frontier story but where we would do it was just a little, like it could’ve been in the south, like a Southwest kind of look, even though Monument Valley is in Utah but there was that kind of a thing. But I grew up on the Western and it’s all I did was watch these movies. Shane was one of my favorite movies and in the opening of that film was this farm in front of the Teton Valley. It was the Grand Tetons and I was like let’s go there. And so that’s where we started everything.
And then it was lucky that there was a Snake River that went through there that we were like oh, my goodness, this is exactly what we need for this story. And so the whole idea like when you go out there all you ever think about is how did people survive out here? How did they get across these mountains with nothing? How did they do that? Growing up in New York my dad had a grocery store and so it was a small family. All of us in this little grocery store trying to survive in a city. And then all the research that we would do in meeting farmers and ranchers out there it hit me so hard that these were the same types of families surviving but on thousands of acres each member of that family was an integral part for the survival of that thing.
And so it was a universal thing all of a sudden like, oh, my God I totally connected. Look at these people. They’re living in love and working together and up here in this really beautiful yet tough landscape. So it was really inspiring for us to try and say you know what, let’s have our little dinosaur, be a part of this family and he already feels like– I can’t contribute. I want to. Everyone has to do something for the survival of the family. And so a lot of the Western movies are about survival and when we first started doing this story board it became a cliché.
So who is this frontier-like family?
Yeah, the McKay’s, this ranching family that we met in Oregon. When we first started with the original, I mean when we re-started the version of this film that was so much like a parody, we had these T-rexes but they were like cowhands and it was JR, JW and JL, you know. And it was so silly. And they were like ding, dang and it was like just a big cliché. They were kind of like running with coconut noises. And when we watched them we were like what am I doing? This is like such — we’re just making fun of it. I hate this. And then when we went to do some research we met this family, the McKay’s, and they have a ranch, a large ranch out in Oregon, right on the border of Idaho and Oregon. And it’s this really unique family. There is the mom and dad, both white and then they adopted five black Haitian kids. And so when you get there it was like whoa, this is like a whole unique kind of family here. But they would change my life. The way that family lived in love really blew me away.
And I’ve realized as a parent how much of like a helicopter parent I am with my kids where I’m like oh, you can’t do it? Let me do that for you. Let me help you. Oh, I’m so sorry. I’ll help you. And dad was just like I’m going to tell you this once and you’re going to learn to do it, all right. He treated us like he would treat his children and I was so blown away — and it was all love. When you shake his hand, my hands are like marshmallows. This guy’s hand was like a tree and he would just like tell you how to do everything.
But oh boy, I can’t tell you how much that inspiration of that family was where we were like you know what, I want to honor — let’s not make them clowns. Let’s make them a family. And it’ll also parallel what Arlo’s family is going through. It’ll help Arlo’s journey.
We have had an opportunity to meet the young men who voiced Arlo, Spot and Buck. They were also very complementary of the direction you provided them. They said was very inspiring to them.
Oh, that’s very nice. I love those guys you know. What’s funny is that I do scratch voice at work. I do a lot of temporary voices and I’d been through like all the directors at Pixar and how they like kind of direct you. Sometimes it can be tough, and so every director has their tools. And I learned a lot from that. And so when I’m getting to work with these kids it was always like you know what, I’ve been in those shoes. This is all going to be about trust. If we don’t get through the lines don’t worry about it you know. Like, we’ll have some fun and whatever– and very observant.
And sometimes you have to be very emotional and I would be uncomfortable like if I’m in front of you guys and I’m like okay you have to cry now in this scene. And then sometimes we’re like let’s turn out the lights, don’t worry about it. It’s always just try to find a secure place where you can be vulnerable. Those kids are such pros. They were so amazing, all of them.
You use the word trust a lot. You gave them a lot of trust.
Yeah, well, I did. I really trusted them.
What type of direction did you give them specifically with Spot? He didn’t say a lot and with Arlo.
Yeah, there were two different things. Spot was mainly like painting the situation for him and explaining that like there were rules to Spot’s world where we didn’t want to go into kind of like a primate world because there was Tarzan and there was all that kind of stuff. We really wanted to stay in this kind of canine world. I would just say like you come as a character that’s brave, strong and tenacious and you know, Jack, I already know you are like that.
But, as we grow we’re going to kind of take some of the layers away and find, the little boy that Spot is and then he would understand that. And then it would be basically like okay, we’re in the woods. It’s raining. You’ve just pulled some animal out of the woods and I need some breathing down so let’s get into it. And so it’s just about painting a picture with Spot until we got to the emotional places. With Jack he would always be okay, let’s start, like you howl now, you’re teaching or learning how to mourn and it’s almost like you’re telling your buddy you know, it’s okay. Can you give me a mourn or howl like that? And then we’d play and experiment with that.
But with Raymond he can get into emotions so fast. You know, you paint the picture then you sit with him and you go okay, Raymond — and you would save some of the emotional stuff for in the middle because if you save it for the end of his voice would be tired but if you go to early then you may not be able to get to the emotion real quick. So you would do some fun stuff in the beginning and then let the story play out until we get to the mid part.
And then once we hit this one, I’ll start painting the picture again and then feel where Raymond’s at but Raymond would go okay, I’ve got it. Let’s do it. I’m like okay, are you sure you’re in this thing right now? Like you know, you’re talking about loss here you know, your father — I mean your father just appeared in front of you. You’re sure you’re okay? Yeah, let’s do it. Come on. And it’s like okay. And then he would go and he immediately go from like this like okay, you ready? And he would just like jump into this like performance and you’re like oh my goodness. And then he’d be like dad and then okay, was that good? And you’re like yes you were incredible. How did you do that you know? But it would just be, yeah, each performance it’s so different and so you’re just listening to what did they like or you know jumping around. Like Jack is such a sports guy and so you’re like what was the last game man? What did you do?
(And I had to ask!)You’ve done a lot of voice work yourself and in this film you got to be the collector which is hilarious. Give us a little bit of background on doing your voice work and why did you choose that character?
Peter Sohn : I didn’t choose it really.
Denise Ream : It was funny, first when we were developing that sequence, like Pete said, we end up using a lot of people at Pixar to do the scratch voices that we used to cut the scenes against. And I was like Pete, we don’t have time to go audition for this so you’re going to have to do it. And–.
Peter Sohn : And I was like, we’ll find an actor. We’re going to find a real actor–.
Denise Ream : Yeah, you didn’t even want to do scratch.
Peter Sohn : Oh right, right, that’s right.
Denise Ream : Right, you were really reluctant to that. I was like Pete, please we don’t have time. And then you did the scratch and then we were just working on the scene. But then when Pete pitched the scene to John, John was like you’re going to be the pet collector. He was like no, no, no I really want to go and get an actor. You’re going to be the pet collector. There is no–. And so then John actually ended up directing the scene, which I thought was really fun.
Peter Sohn : Yeah, and he would push because he’s just like lower your voice. And you’re like okay, lower [LAUGHTER]. Lower it here. Okay. And then just keep low. Okay, now say that. And then he would go lower, lower. And I’m like I can’t, I can’t get lower than that. But yeah, yeah it was really fun. I had never been directed by John.
Denise Ream : That was the one director that hasn’t directed you… That was a voice you kind of, was a character from Cal Arts right?
Peter Sohn : Yes, that’s right. This is so silly. But in a school like I made this thing with a friend a fake Moosehead and it was all because of Disneyland. Do you remember the country bear? We’d have those like talking guys that would say like hey Drufus or whatever it was.
I had a little guy up there that I had a tape recorder that would loop and so every like, 15 minutes I would say you smell like McDonald’s. And the next 15 minutes later, I can see you. So that I could find a test machine so when you’re flipping and you’re shooting something you would hear this head every 15 minutes go, can you see me? Where is that coming from? It was so silly.
So, what are the chances of a sequel to The Good Dinosaur?
Peter Sohn : We have been talking about it. We literally finished this film two weeks ago. When we started we only had under two years to make this and most animated films take from 4 to 5. And so our schedule was just like really jammed. I had two kids born through the production from 2009. My daughter is five and my son Sam was three and the last two years my wife is a superhero because I haven’t been around so like more than any other project it’s just like after this is done it is like I owe my wife a huge life thing here.
Disney•Pixar’s “The Good Dinosaur” opens in theaters on Nov. 25, 2015.
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