An Interview with Up director Pete Docter and Producer Jonas Rivera
With worldwide grosses of nearly 2.5 billion and near universal acclaim Pixar are not only the foremost computer animation company, but also a studio that can be relied upon for thrillingly evocative films that delight both the young and old.
But such success isn’t the doing of just one individual, rather a mutual effort involving a close-knit team. Pixar’s latest film Up, is already a phenomenal success with audiences and critics, and much credit must go to director Pete Docter and producer Jonas Rivera. Both have worked on nearly all of Pixar’s films. Docter began working for Pixar on his first day after college graduation, turning down an offer to work on The Simpsons. He was the tenth person hired by the company, and only their third animator. Since then Docter has been a key personality at Pixar where, as well as his role as an animator, he has contributed to the stories of Wall-e, Toy Story and Toy Story 2 as well as co-directing Monsters, Inc. Jonas Rivera has also been present for Pixar’s ascent. Following college, he took a job as a production office assistant for Toy Story and has since held a number of crucial positions on a number of their films. I sat down with both Up director Pete Doctor and producer Jonas Rivera to discuss Pixar’s present, past and future successes and the making of Up.
Tn2: This film displayed a marked shift from other Pixar movies. The central characters were human, other characters bled and were shot at and the film included subjects such as divorce, loneliness, infertility, aging, death etc Was such a drastic change intentional from the beginning or did it develop with the story?
Pete Docter: We didn’t intentionally set out thinking ‘Ok this is the movie were going to talk about infertility’, but Bob Peterson who is the head writer and co-director and myself and I knew where we were going. We developed the bones of the story along with Ronnie Del Carmen, who was our wonderful head of story. We knew we were getting to some pretty wacky stuff like the talking dogs and so we wanted a foundation on which to build so that people were really with our characters, you care about them, you understand why they are making certain decisions. Carl floats his house into the sky and you want to know why that’s such a need for him, you want to know why he has to do that. So we worked hard to build up a real connection with the house, you know that’s really the only connection he has to his wife.
Jonas Rivera: I wouldn’t say it was intentional, but we knew that Carl was not a superhero or a fish and so we knew that because of that he had to have real life experiences. We really wanted to set the stakes of this story in a believable way so that when you fly away with the house to the talking dogs and all these crazy things we suspected the audience would accept it more if it was set up in a believable terms. Because then it would seem more believable when faced with the more fantastic nature of those things. We actually tried playing it in so many different ways with different cuts, you know pulling one or two or all of them out and the movie just didn’t have the immediate punch. So it wasn’t like ‘OK It’s time to grow up lets make a adult Pixar film, instead we just found it was what the story needed. We talked about it a lot. It’s kind of like if you read about something good or bad that happens to somebody, you just think oh that’s news, but if you actually know the person, that’s affecting.
Tn2: The story itself was also wonderful, moving from dark sharp reality to surreal Miyazaki-like fantasy. One minute your watching an old man being forced into a retirement home and the next there are talking dogs and giant birds. Were you worried that such contrasting scenes might throw off a younger audience and who do you consider your audience to be?
Pete Docter: Well we try and make these films for ourselves, so I feel like that if I can get John Lasseter and Brad Bird and everyone to like the movie then I’m probably doing something right. And with the two sorts of zones to the film, that was definitely something we were conscious of, but it wasn’t designed that way. We wanted to make sure it all hung together. It has been a criticism mostly from older people that the film is too different. But we did sort of try to weave certain elements backwards and forwards to connect those scenes, enough threads to hopefully tie it all together. On the other hand I think personally one of the joys of going to the theatre is when you don’t see things coming and your surprised in a good way
Tn2:There were a lot of references in Up to other films like Hell’s Angels and The Wizard of Oz. Were there any movies that influenced the film particularly, or any films that have influenced you in your career?
Pete Docter: Howard Hughes Hell’s Angels defiantly influenced the finale of the film and The Wizard of Oz is sort of like ingrained in our conscious so if anything we tried to get away from too many similarities because structurally it is very similar. There was another one called The Station Agent that we looked at. It’s got a brilliant structure and we were able to bring Tom McCarthy, who wrote that film, to write on this film as well. He brings a wonderful simplicity to his storytelling, it doesn’t have to be a lot, it’s all in the levels, very deep as opposed to wide.]
Jonas Rivera: Yeah there was a lot. We looked at a lot of Frank Capra, who has that great balance of character, humor and nostalgia. We looked at The Station Agent and we got Tom McCarthy on to run a draft. We looked at everything from Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo to the Muppets. We looked at Raiders of the Lost Ark for staging of action. It’s a strange sort of a montage of influences but as for research, it was fun.
Tn2: It appears that even right from the very beginning Pixar films have always been very collaborative projects and Pixar itself a very collaborative working environment, but always directed by one or two guys. Within such a collaborative framework, do the films develop by team consensus or by the decisions of the director?
Pete Docter: Well it’s a group… actually it’s both of those. Every director works differently. I like to have one or maybe two really close collaborators so that sometimes we work separately. On Up my co-director Bob Peterson and I would both go off and write, then we would work things out together and edit each others work. Once we had the basic bones of the story we would get each sequence working the way we want it. Then you start branching off into other teams, for instance the story guys have these great ideas to do things better than the way we write them. As long as were all clear as to what the goal is, then hopefully your open to all sorts of collaborations. Which is great because when you have 375 people working on a movie and all of them are geniuses, you really want to capture as much of that genius as you can.
Tn2: Pixar’s films have always reveled in little details. But as a director overseeing 375 people, how far do you delve into the film and do you oversee every detail that ends up in the film?
Jonas Rivera: Yeah that’s really important to us. There’s actually this ride in Disney land called Pirates of the Caribbean, it’s a great influence on the way we make films, because this ride is a journey into this world of animatronics from the 60’s. Its so beautiful, we’ve been on it maybe a thousand times through the years and every time we go it we notice something else, there are little animated fireflies, or a bullfrog croaks and you think, wow I’ve never noticed that before. That’s what our movies should do. You should be able to go through them and take things out. So I would really delve as deep as Pete felt was necessary, we really feel like God is in the details”.
Pete Docter: Well just about any scene on any Pixar film we’ll review from twelve different departments. In one department I’m only looking at movement, in another one I’m looking at surface textures, then there’s lighting and simulation, and on and on. So I really end up seeing just about everything. That’s not to say that all those little things you see on the screen are my ideas, most of them come from the great people I work with and my job is just to make sure that it all kind of adds up towards the story. For instance say the animators won’t have knowledge of the whole picture to work from, so once and a while I’ll say ‘Oh we need really need him to do this gesture because he does it later on and it has a meaning, and they might not know that.
Tn2: In terms of story, how did the idea for Up develop? Did the story go through many drafts? And which characters were created first?
Pete Docter: It kind of started with a character. Up really started with Carl and he didn’t really look exactly like he does now. I had done this drawing of this grouchy old man holding a bunch of balloons and there was something kind of funny about that so we started exploring more about him and where he was coming from. We hit on this idea of escaping. This is something I think about quite often, especially at the end of the day, you know I’ll say to myself ‘OK I’ve got to go off by myself now get away to a tropical island or something’. So the floating house was kind of another cornerstone. Once we had those elements then we started asking ourselves questions like ‘where is this guy going?’ ‘Why doesn’t he just take the train or a plane or something’ and ‘what if the house was essential?’ And really it was just sort of answering those questions that led to the story and even led to things like the married life married life sequence. We just sort of backed ourselves in a corner to an extent so that we had to answer ‘what is it that is going to make this guy float his house’.
Tn2: There were also lot of great visual ideas in Pixar Carl appeared very square with his jaw, clothes and glasses while other characters such as Ellie, Dug and Russell were more circular and balloon like. How does the visual process develop and were there key images you worked from?
Pete Docter: The shapes of the characters were something we hit on very early on. It was built again out of the idea that the character of Carl was like a square squidgy guy that is just stuck in his ways and couldn’t tip over easily. We used that as a sort of visual language through the film, even down to details like the rocks when he first lands they are very square and then the closer it gets to the Spirit of Adventure they get more rounded and oddly shaped. That was something we could use the 3D to emphasise in the same way
Tn2: In terms of animation, how do the characters develop from page to screen, would you draw the original characters and have other animators develop them?
Pete Docter: We would start by digitally designing characters and once it’s built in the computer we give it to a couple of key animators who do key tests sequences and start exploring how does he move and how fast can he go, how flexible he is and they just kind of feel it out. I think the whole movie making process is really one of discovery and it’s not like I have all the ideas in my head. Along the way you find all these things that really contribute to making it stronger and better all along the way. So some of that early test animation I look at now and think wow that was some wired decisions we arrived at then but you discover more as you go.
Tn2: Also in terms of humor the film is very funny, but in a different way to other animated children’s films. There weren’t any catchphrases or much toilet humor; instead it came more from characters and visuals. Was that an idea all the way from the start?
Jonas Rivera: Yeah, we tried to do that with all the Pixar movies. I mean we might get a cheap shot in there every now and again but we try to make the humor really character based. We always say story, story, story, but in a way it is more about character. I mean that’s when these movies really start to work. I think right from concept it’s all about these characters and the humor that arises from them interacting. I remember that we had storyboarded the scene where Carl’s dragging Russell while he’s crying “I want to go to the bathroom!” and hearing that dialogue and seeing that cut was like the first time when I said to myself ‘now I’m starting to get this’. It’s about these characters and there’s humor in them so it’s about bringing that out. It really comes down to the writing thought and Bob Peterson who is our writer was so funny, his dialogue was so conversational, that it started to feel real.
Tn2: Pixar always seems to get the voice actors just perfect. Whereas other animated films might go for the big name like Angelina Jolie or Ben Stiller, Pixar tends to go for the voice. At what stage in the development does the casting come, do you cast the voice and then come up with the character or is it the other way around?
Jonas Rivera: It’s all-together, we might design the characters digitally before we have in our minds what the voice will be like. It’s really comes down to who fits the suit, who has the right voice, the right cadence the right delivery. But It has to be funny because sometimes we think someone would be great and the we listen to their voice and think ‘oh that’s not right at all’ so you have to be able to pull away from their faces and realize they aren’t the one on screen. It also comes down to whatever is appropriate to the story, it doesn’t matter if it’s a big name. We might cast some big huge name but that may be because they happen to fit the character and the story.
Tn2: As someone who is very much in the centre of current animation how do see the future of the genre? Is it all going to be CGI and 3D from here on in? Where do you see it going?
Pete Docter: Well I personally hope that there is a great deal of diversity. I know that John Lassester is bringing back 2D animation at Disney, so that’ll be great. I’d love to see the folks at Aardman continue to do clay stuff. I think that it is that rich kid of diversity that keeps it alive and gives it character and as soon as you start to fall into a rut of all films have to look like this, that’s when it will start to die.
Jonas Rivera: Well I hope that it is not all anything; I hope there is always diversity in animation. We at Pixar love so many forms of animation, from sand animation, stop motion, hand drawn to CG. Personally I love hand drawn animation and so glad that it is coming back at Disney under John Lassester. I cannot wait for that. I think that it would get boring if it all looked the same and all cut from the same cloth.
Tn2: Up was also the first Pixar film in Disney Digital 3D. But Up felt different from the other 3D films I had seen, things weren’t pointlessly flying out of the screen and aside from the occasional panorama, you might not notice the film was in 3D at all. Was the idea of shooting in 3D something you always had from the start and how did you approach using 3D in a new way?
Pete Docter: Well it wasn’t something we had from the start. We really only introduced it when John Lasseter came in three years into the process and said ‘hey lets make this is 3d!’ So we looked at as many other films as we could and came up with a list of things we liked and didn’t like and came up with certain rules for the screen. The main one was we wanted to treat it more like a window your looking into instead of one coming out. We wanted to use it subtly and not be gratuitous at all. As a filmmaker I wanted to use 3D for emotional effect, so we tried to deepen the space on screen so that when Carl feels full and alive its obvious and other times we squash the screen when he feels down Hopefully it’s something that the audience feels it, but doesn’t notice.
Jonas Rivera: As far as 3d is concerned I think it has the potential to last forever but only if its used right. I think it’s like any piece of new technology if it starts to get used just to celebrate itself it will die but if it used as a narrative tool to tell stories it will live and so will hopefully find a nice middle ground. We certainly use it as a story telling tool
Tn2: There has arguably never been a bad Pixar film and all your reviews tend to be excellent but would you find that you pay much attention to the reviews?
Jonas Rivera: I suppose we would say that we wouldn’t pay attention to the reviews but to be totally honest with you we do. These films are like family to us, there like your kids and when you raise your kids and send them off to school you really hope to god they get along with everybody and everybody likes them. But you can’t always make that happen and so you do your best, you make the film as good as you can and you send it out into the world and when people like it you really feel it. So when there as bad review from time to time we read it and say ‘Oh well we’ll get em next time’. So I suppose it would ring for a minute but then we move on.
Tn2: This was a film the New York Times said wasn’t going to be very successful. Thankfully they were proved wrong. But with each Pixar film being so financially and critically successful do you feel pressure now to make the next one bigger, bolder and better?
Jonas Rivera: That’s a great question because in some ways the success means were freed from that and so we don’t sit and think about what people want to see and how does it stack up. But we do worry about if people are going to really enjoy this one and we have to make sure that people really enjoy it. I remember seeing Wall-e with Pete and going ‘wow, this is so wonderful’, but then going ‘uh-oh, it’s really good and were next, we follow this’. So it’s good for us because it keeps us on our toes and keeps us working the best and hardest we can.
Tn2: Finally why do you think Pixar is so special and successful?
Jonas Rivera: I think it’s the people. I think it’s from the top down and for whatever reason Pixar have been able to accumulate a group of people who think the same way and see the world in the same way in terms of cinema and passion for telling stories. It’s like this great collision of computer science and art. We just all sort of speak the same language, it really sort of strange and I don’t know how it happened or if it will ever happen again, or if it will last forever but I don’t take it for granted, I feel like the luckiest person in the world.