Pete Docter tests Pixar’s creative limits with Inside Out’s journey into the emotional mind of an 11-year-old girl.
Ellie Docter led a normal, very happy childhood — much to the delight of her father, Pete Docter, director of such hit Pixar movies as Monsters, Inc. and Up. But something changed when she turned 12: Her goofy, fun personality took a turn toward monosyllabic answers with outburst of anger and disgust.
None of which is anything unusual or new for parents to have to deal with, but when Docter thought to himself, “What’s going on in her head?” it ignited an idea that began a demanding five-year journey that ends with the June 19 release of Inside Out.
“I had pretty sparse elements at the very beginning,” says Docter. “I had a concept of a kid and … inside (her head) you’d see the emotions. I didn’t even know which ones were there or what the kid was doing or anything like that. It was just kind of the basic concept, and then from there it grew — and along the way we took a lot of dead end wrong turns. But that’s the usual process.”
Inside Out tells the story of an 11-year-old girl named Riley and the emotions that live inside her mind: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust. When Riley and her parents move from Minnesota to San Francisco, her typically happy outlook begins to change as Joy and Sadness find themselves flung from her mind’s Headquarters to the far corners of her mind and have to find a way back. It’s a journey that takes them through lands like Abstract Thought, the movie-studio confines of Dream Productions, to a trip on the Train of Thought and into the depths of the Subconscious.
Docter — who reunited with producer Jonas Rivera under the ever-present eye of chief creative officer and executive producer John Lasseter — says at the start they looked into a lot of research into how the brain and emotions work and change through a life. What they learned suggested Docter’s instincts were pointed in the right direction.
“Psychologists told us that out of everyone on Earth, there’s no more socially attuned creature than an 11- to 15- or 16-year-old girl,” says Docter, who also wrote the screenplay with Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley. “They’re just so dialed in to all social cues and reactions and so we felt like, it’s based on real life, the science is reinforcing that, I think we’re at the right place. And there must be something for me that I haven’t quite put to bed about growing up and the difficulty of that that makes it still intriguing to me.”
A Difficult Birth
But a concept is not a story, and coming up with one was difficult. It’s a process that had more than one filmmaker at Pixar invoking the word “nervous” when considering how Inside Out might be received when it’s released.
One such crewmember is production designer Ralph Eggleston, who says the extraordinary number of changes the film went through made it difficult to see how everything would fit together.
“The idea itself is so intellectual and I never felt I completely got a footing on the conceit of how the world works because there was so much churn,” he says. “Pete and I would have talks, and he’d be feeling the same thing, and we would just have to say this is the hardest thing we’ve ever done. All we could do was trust that, somehow, through all of this churn, this film would find its own legs and start walking on its own.”
Docter agrees: “They are all more difficult than you expect. I think you have to have a sort of clueless optimism when you go in, kind of like having a baby. If you remember the pain of it, you probably wouldn’t do it again,” he says. “But this one was especially difficult, maybe because we’re still so close to it right now, but I feel like comparing it to say, Monsters, Inc. or Up, this one felt like more work.”
One of the biggest departures for Pixar was the story required giving form to very abstract ideas that have no visual benchmark in the real world to compare to. What does Joy look like? What does the interior of a young girl’s mind look like?
“On Cars — Monsters even — we could refer to real-life things and say, well, let’s model it on a bear or a let’s look at this city and we’re going to monsterfy it and put fangs in instead of roses or whatever,” says Docter. “For the emotions, we wanted them to look like feelings feel to us, so they shouldn’t just be made out of wood or flesh and blood, so how are they going to look? And that’s a challenge. … We thought about it probably way more than we needed to but we went down every alley.”
Pitching Until It Hurts
Co-director Ronnie del Carmen and head of story Josh Cooley said turning Docter’s abstract idea into a concrete story took a lot of work and discussion among the studio’s story team.
“We would sit across the room from each other and tell stories about our kids and our lives,” says del Carmen. “And when we do that, we try to figure out, what would your emotions be doing? What did they do when you were a kid, too? What would you be thinking about? And we’d start drawing characters.”
Story artists would pitch ideas in search of characters, scenes and sequences that worked internally and within the overall idea of the movie. “The tradition here at Pixar — and Disney — is to build movies one sequence at a time and find out: Is it fun? Do you care? Does this moment feel like something you want to be involved in?” says del Carmen.
Character designs get simplified down to their essences through this process as story artists produce hundreds of thousands of storyboards for a typical feature, Cooley says.
“A story artist has to draw about a hundred boards a day, and when you’re done with that you hang it up on the wall or post it digitally and you pitch it to the director and the other story artists to see how it would feel in the finished film,” he says.
Pitching sequences with the story artists doing dialog and even acting out the images in the sequence might seem unnecessary, but is actually extremely useful, del Carmen says. “A lot of times, it doesn’t feel real until you pitch it,” he says.
When enough sequences are done to have a complete draft of the movie, it’s shown as a movie — and then picked apart to find what works. Inside Out took four screenings before it even began to find a story that worked, says Rivera.
Designing the Mind
Eggleston says there were several significant technical challenges in designing the movie’s ever-changing look.
“I once said it was like roller-skating drunk on marbles while spinning plates,” he says of coming up with a color script for the movie. “We probably did 200 designs on Headquarters before we settled on where we were.”
Design, color and texture were key to differentiating the film’s various settings. Minnesota, for example, features pastel colors and patterns. As Riley and her family travel further from Minnesota, the environments become more disconnected, shown via zigzag patterns of train tracks and electric wires.
The biggest technical challenge was creating the effervescent look each of the emotions has in the film. Proposed by art director of characters Albert Lozano, the idea was to give Joy the zip of a sparkler or the bubbly look of glass of a glass of champagne.
“We worked for about eight months to get that idea working, and we got it to work but we were literally on the verge of not being able to do it because it was too expensive,” says Eggleston. “We didn’t plan to have it on any of the other characters out the door because of that. We got it to work, and we showed it to John Lasseter and the first words out of his mouth were: ‘Great! Put it on all the characters!’ And you could hear – thud, thud – the poor technical guys hitting the ground.”
Casting was a key element, with Docter’s instincts leading toward the emotions being a comedy ensemble. “If you have Anger, who feels like you should go out and hit people, and Fear just wants to run away, this is a great way for characters to really bump up against each other in opposition, which is what comedy seems to be largely about,” says Docter.
The process started with simple moviemaking concepts: actors who fit the characters and didn’t sound too much alike. Docter says he had proposed casting comedian Lewis Black as Anger as an example of what he was thinking — only to have Black agree to do the role. Former Saturday Night Live star Bill Hader was the first to be cast, as Fear. And former The Office actress Phyllis Smith was cast as Sadness based on a suggestion from Rivera, who had liked her in Bad Teacher.
“That was a key to unlocking that character,” says Docter. “Up to then, we had thought of her as ‘wah, wah!’ —kind of on the nose. And thinking about her as more insecure instead of straight up sad, ended up being a real turning point for us.”
Settling an internal debate about whether Disgust should be disgusting or act disgusted led to casting Mindy Kaling, and Amy Poehler perfectly personified for the animators the idea for Joy.
“Once we got Amy Poehler’s voice in there it really solidified who this character was,” says supervising animator Shawn Krause. “Pete had been saying, ‘I see her as kind of Bugs Bunny and I see her as rascally.’ I was treating her at first more like Peter Pan, as spritely and kind of lighter than air. No, she’s grounded, she’s rambunctious, she’s devilish. They didn’t want her to feel like happiness; she’s more infectious and inspires fun and joy.”
Krause personified this in a walk cycle test for Joy in which the character stomped around with enthusiasm and a bit of mischief instead of floating along blissfully.
“It was surprising but also sort of perfect because she was earthy and grounded,” says Docter. “Those kinds of moments are what keep you going on a project for five years.”
Other cast members include Kaitlyn Dias as Riley, with Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan playing her parents.
Ideas in Motion
Krause says one or two animators were assigned at the beginning of production to each character to develop a style for them to move.
“For a lot of the characters, the design told us what to do,” says supervising animator Victor Navone. “Like when you look at Anger, he’s like this brick, and so you want to treat him like that brick. You don’t want him to be too flexible in his torso
Joy’s eyes required a special rig for her eyebrows that could be customized as needed to deliver a calligraphic line. “It was a real struggle to do something in CG that’s so simple to do with a couple of hand drawn lines,” says Krause.
A sequence in which Joy and Sadness enter Riley’s realm of Abstract Thought distorted the characters into — what else — abstract images more in line with a 2D style of animation that required its own team of animators, says Navone.
“That was kind of like a movie in a movie,” he says. “We kind of broke off a whole separate team to take that and research and develop it for six months. … It was an obstacle to overcome, but it was a place we could be playful in that world.”
Riley was a particularly challenging character, as her movements had to show her at an awkward stage in life but also keep her appealing.
“We had to build some new facial controls for her to get some of the really subtle emotions that we needed to get out of her and just try to find what’s the appeal of the humans in this movie versus what is the appeal of the mind characters,” says Navone. “It’s two different styles of character design and how do we make each one nice to look at and what’s the style of movement.”
The pressure on the film has been higher than usual, due to the studio releasing no feature in 2014 after having pushed back the release of The Good Dinosaur. There also has been criticism that Pixar’s last three films — Cars 2, Brave and Monsters University — didn’t quite live up to the studio’s normally high standards.
“I don’t think we felt any more or less pressure than on any of the other films until maybe the last year,” says Docter. “I think that was compounded by having to move (The Good Dinosaur) and so suddenly there was a gap and we were the next ones up and there’s a full year of nothing before it comes to us. That’s when we started to feel it a little more.”
The final result is one that took hundreds of people to make yet feels very personal to Docter.
“I don’t really look at personal as being a goal unto itself. It’s a good place to start because it’s truthful and it’s meaningful to me so that will probably leech onto the screen in some way,” he says. “Everyone who works on the show has something to contribute emotionally about that character or about that story point, so the closer they can get in tune with what’s happening on the screen, the more likely what they’ll contribute will be on target and effective to the audience.”