“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 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.
Disney Pixar has done it again with The Good Dinosaur, this time with Executive Producer Denise Ream and Director Peter Sohn at the helm. Peter Sohn is known for his work in such films like Ratatouille, The Incredibles and Monsters University. Denise Ream is known for working on Pixar films like Up, Cars 2 and the upcoming Cars 3 in addition to The Good Dinosaur.
Director Peter Sohn was asked about what led him into becoming a director for The Good Dinosaur.
You know, 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. And then during the development I was doing story and designs for him and then he asked me to be his co-director. And so 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 like the boy and dog story. We had a father-son story. We had like a trying to change community story and then just got — it was hard to kind of end it all.
So they asked me to become the director from there because I had known all the paths that we have gone through and so I went basically, simplified it to Bob’s original pitch. I love Bob and he’s a great friend and so I just loved that original idea. So it was really Bob who got me kind of developing into that co-director position so overseeing a lot of that. I learned a lot from working with the other departments too. But that’s nothing like the directing job. There’s so much I didn’t know.
I was scared and I’m surrounded with a lot of experienced people to help out with that. And everyone was just like – here’s our hearts. Let’s do it. I’m like, oh, okay. Let’s do it.
The realism of the gorgeous landscape and the animation was amazing so Denise was asked if any sort of new technology was used for The Good Dinosaur.
It’s not new technology but we ended up using basically Google maps to create a lot of the locations. It’s called USGS topological survey maps. So we started with that and that was — that got us a long ways to kind of getting the big scope that we wanted and then the trick was populating that terrain with our — the trees that we had modeled, the leaves, the mulch, the rocks, sort of all of the vegetation.
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. It’s not new technology but we did many, many more water shots then we’ve typically done in a Pixar movie. And then just 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 sort of dole out shots individually and instead we gave each animator sort of a run of shots that we felt would kind of make a more consistent performance. So that was a very different workflow for the animation department and they actually really, really loved it.
Once you see The Good Dinosaur, you’re going to fully appreciate the animation of the landscape. Peter and Denise shared the research that went into making The Good Dinosaur.
Peter Sohn shared,
We did a lot of research. When we restarted this project, she took us out. She said let’s go get lost. And you know, I’m from New York where we would go into the wilderness and the Rockies and I had never been before. And so going out there it was just so dang gorgeous – horizon lines in New York was like McDonald’s to Subway you know and then going out there it was just like so awe inspiring that you could go from there and see 500 miles down that way and see the other 500 miles down that way.
And it was just full of clouds and it went forever and it was so soul enriching it is something we wanted to capture. And so that’s why all this technology was just like okay, if we want to do that we have to do this.
It started off with the kind of idea of like doing a frontier story but it could’ve been in the south, ike 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. And you know, 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.
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. 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? And you know, like 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.
Peter and Denise shared that they met a family of ranchers named the McKay’s who lived in Oregon. Meeting this family really helped shape the film into what it is now.
The first version of this movie was literally like Sheriff, let’s go into a saloon and find us a Lunasaur or whatever it was. It just felt like we were making fun of it. And then once we started meeting the family and doing the research and all these people out there it was just like no, I want to honor this. I’m American and born in this country. I love that people fought to live through this.
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 like with coconut noises. When we watched them we were like what am I doing? We’re just making fun of it.
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. 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 you know, I’m going to tell you this once and you’re going to learn to do it, all right. I’ve never been out there and he would do the same thing with — he treated us like he would treat his children and I was so blown away by how — and it was all love.
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.
Director Peter Sohn also shared what it was like working with the young cast of The Good Dinosaur and how much trust he put into them.
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 because you’re just like you know, the line is elbow macaroni. Elbow macaroni. Do it again like this. Elbow macaroni. And then you go elbow macaroni. No, no, like this, elbow macaroni. Okay, elbow macaroni. No, no, you’re not listening to me. Elbow macaroni.
And then like on the 15th take you’re like I don’t know what you’re looking for. Or some other directors are like imagine that you are, you had cereal and then like the milk is all the way up to the top of the bowl and you have to carry it like this and make noises would you make. And you’re like oh, I don’t want to spill you know, 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.
So when you know, sometimes you know, 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 and you have to cry now in this scene. Like–. And then you know sometimes we’re like let’s turn out the lights you know, 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.
He also shared with us the kind of direction he gave to the actors.
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. But his arc, I would just say like you come as a character that’s brave, strong and tenacious and 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 you know, 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’re howl now, you’re teaching or low 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, it’s so funny, he can get into emotions like so fast. You know, you paint the picture that 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.
We go, let’s go to the sequence. I know you’ve been — we’ve been doing a lot of stuff. 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.
You might know Peter Sohn as the voice of Squishy in Monsters University, but he also voices a character in The Good Dinosaur – The Pet Collector! Denise shared with us how they got Peter to do a voice in the movie.
It was funny, first when we were developing that sequence of you know, 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. I was like Pete, please we don’t have time. And then, so then you did the scratch and then we were just working on the scene. But then when Pete pitched the scene to John Lasseter, 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. And so then John actually ended up directing the scene you know, which I thought was really fun.
Peter chimed in,
Yeah, and he would push because he’s just like lower your voice. And you’re like okay, lower. 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 you know, I can’t get lower than that. But yeah, yeah it was really fun. I had never been directed by John.
As the interview wrapped up, Peter told us how amazing his wife had been while they worked on The Good Dinosaur. He wanted to do something nice for her and asked our advice. Our overwhelming answer was take her away and let her sleep!
I had such a great time chatting with Peter Sohn and Denise Ream – they did an amazing job with The Good Dinosaur. You can follow Peter Sohn on Twitter and don’t forget that The Good Dinosaur is in theaters on November 25th, 2015!
Disclosure: Disney provided an all expenses paid trip to Los Angeles including travel, accommodations and activities. All thoughts and opinions are my own.