Initially scared … Peter Sohn, director of The Good Dinosaur. Flipping a boy and his dog story … Arlo and Spot in The Good Dinosaur.
Model: Russell and friends in Up.
With a track record that includes such animated classics as the Toy Story trilogy, Finding Nemo, Cars, Wall-E and Up, the pressure is on for any director making a new Pixar movie.
And Peter Sohn, best known as the model for the helpful Korean-American wilderness scout Russell in Up, admits to having serious doubts when he took over The Good Dinosaur, a family tale about a nervous young dinosaur named Arlo who has to find his way home with a feral caveboy named Spot.
“Like Arlo, our main character in the film, I was kind of doubtful and scared in the beginning,” Sohn says from Pixar HQ in California.
While Sohn had been at Pixar for 15 years, he had worked in the art, animation and story departments on Finding Nemo, The Incredibles and Wall-E. So stepping up to direct a movie was a major development two years ago.
It was made more complicated when Sohn replaced director Bob Peterson in what must have felt like a calamity at Pixar.
The story had to be rewritten while almost 70 Pixar employees were reportedly laid off and the movie’s release was delayed by 18 months. Arlo became younger, which meant ditching the voice cast for little-known Raymond Ochoa as Arlo and Jack Bright as Spot.
“I had no experience in the technical side, [only] a little bit from making a short,” Sohn says. “But what this film needed, I was really nervous about: ‘Boy, I don’t have the kind of knowledge it would take to really push that forward.’ But I knew what I wanted in terms of the film.”
Sohn says producer Denise Ream surrounded him with experienced technical people, which built his confidence.
“I’d ask questions and they taught me a lot about the process.”
When it came to feeling the pressure of keeping Pixar’s remarkable record for success – 15 films without a commercial failure – Sohn says he hardly worried about it.
“There is a pressure,” he says. “It’s always kind of there. But to really sit and think about it, there was no time.
“It was always what’s best for the film? What idea works? How do we keep this thing moving forward? It was a really intense journey getting this done.”
Sohn was surrounded by Pixar’s brightest minds, including studio head John Lasseter (who directed Toy Story, Toy Story 2 and two Cars movies), Lee Unkrich (co-director of Finding Nemo and director of Toy Story 3) and Andrew Stanton (who co-directed A Bug’s Life and Finding Nemo and directed Wall-E) as executive producers.
He kept focussing on what he calls the heart of the story: that The Good Dinosaur was a ”boy and dog story” that they had flipped.
In a world where the meteor missed the earth, dinosaurs are living productive lives as the dominant species, with humans confined to caves.
Sohn had worked for three years on the movie before taking over as director.
“The story got really complicated and there were many storylines,” he says about what went wrong. “It was just hard to crack.
“A lot of these Pixar movies are tough to do. They asked me to do it but I wanted to honour Bob’s original pitch to this thing.
“He was the guy that pitched the idea of taking a boy and dog story and flipping it, where the boy is the dinosaur and the dog is this little human boy. It’s been really trying to capture that.”
So how do you animate a dinosaur so that viewers respond emotionally to him as a character?
“It’s why I got into animation when I was a kid,” Sohn says. “The art of trying to bring something to life has always been the thing to chase.
“With Arlo, he’s an 11-year-old apatosaurus. How do you make him not feel like the animal, like a lot of realistic dinosaur movies that treat them very much like a cow or some animal grazing in a field.
“How do you make him feel like a boy that’s lost in the woods? How do you make him feel vulnerable?
“There’s a lot of stuff that you do with the story department and the art department and the character designer, Matt Nolte, really pushed for this youthful appeal to Arlo.”
The visual cues include giving him knobby knees, big eyes, expressive eyebrows, small chin and a soft muzzle.
“He’s still that growing teenager,” Sohn says. “He’s a little like a stranger in a strange land when you first see him in that natural setting.
“And slowly through the film, hopefully you might feel he’s becoming more integrated into the world. It was always trying to find the human side of the animal.”
Sohn says a genuine dedication to trying to make the best story possible is a reason why Pixar movies succeed so often with audiences.
“This place is run by filmmakers,” he says. “The executives here are all directors on their own movies, so there’s always been that kind of creative understanding underneath all of this. It’s a total group effort in telling this story.
“Working in the story department here, the focus is always trying to put your heart in it, always trying to finding truth to your lives, always trying to dig deeper into your own experiences and the people around you and try to put that in the film. That’s been the guiding philosophy for a long time.”
When an unflattering sketch of Sohn by one of the Pixar artists became the starting point for Russell in Up – he was a bear cub scout growing up in New York – he considered it an honour.
“I just love that there’s an Asian kid in a movie,” he says. “Up really wasn’t about ‘this is an Asian kid’. It was just this colour blind thing that was really cool.”
The Good Dinosaur opens on Boxing Day.
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