Posted on Tuesday, May 26th, 2015 by Russ Fischer
Filmmaking often comes down to one thing: guiding the audience. What do we see, and when, and why? With Pixar, which has the power to create all its images from nothing, there’s always a process of guiding the audience eye to settle on one particular part of the image, no matter how many appealing details may color the margins.
That image control is part of storytelling guidance, too, and often a cover for the real heart of the matter. Pixar’s films use big concepts — toys that have their own lives we never see, a rat who loves to cook, an adventure in a flying house — as a portal to concepts that are much more difficult to capture in a single image or marketing push.
Inside Out has had a very specifically guided path. We know the film is about the five emotions, Joy, Anger, Sadness, Disgust, and Fear, who guide the responses a young girl named Riley has to her changing world. We know Joy is in the lead, but trailers for the film already show us that the core of the movie has Joy and Sadness literally going to the center of their own world — Riley’s mind — on a journey of discovery.
Six weeks ago I went up to Pixar’s campus in Emeryville, CA, to join a few other editors to sit in on sessions with department heads who worked on Inside Out. Our last session was with director Pete Docter and producer Jonas Rivera. The pair discussed the creation of the film, but
Note: Prior to this interview, Pixar screened the first hour of the film for those attending — essentially the first two acts. So there are no true spoilers here, because I hadn’t seen the end of the film. Anything that comes close to spoiler territory has been marked as such.
We’ve heard about the advances made on the technological front here at Pixar, and in some ways, it sounds like you’re getting closer and closer to the mechanics of live-action filmmaking.
Pete Docter: I think as a medium we’re in this really sweet spot between the rich tradition of hand drawn animation and art, but also the cinematography and staging and all the things of live action. Because as you saw it’s like a set, like a dollhouse. Even back on Toy Story we realized we could have that camera go up the character’s nose and fly around. We said “let’s just limit it to the grammar that we all know from watching films our whole lives.” So two shots, wides, we speak the same language and think the same as you would on a live-action set. We try to use that grammar to further the storytelling so that you have the behavior of the camera and the composition is telling you things about the character and the emotional place they’re at and all that kind of stuff.
Jonas Rivera: As our movies and our mediums evolve from Toy Story on, it’s like our medium does lean towards realism with lights and shadows and virtual space, as far as the camera is concerned it’s real.
When you’re creating a film like this, does the world building come first, or is the story the first thing?
Pete Docter: It was a cyclical thing for us on this. It took us maybe two years to realize the interior design of the mind reflected what was at stake in the outside world. And that is: Riley’s personality. So the only thing the emotions can effect are the inside world. They can’t like make her do something. So if we get her in some sort of physical danger they’re kind of out of the story. So we needed the interior world to reflect what’s going on in Riley as a character. So that then meant that as we redid the story the entire world would change multiple times to the point where production was telling us we’ve got to lock this in because you’d change one thing and [sets would change, or go away].
Jonas Rivera: In the perfect production world, to continue the live action analogy, we’d build the sound stage and then we’d come in and shoot the movie. But as this movie is being developed, it’s constantly changing. And even after we said “okay done, this is our set,” huge things would happen. We’d have to exercise [that new idea] and see how it worked, but it was really, more than any movie I’ve been on before here, a cyclical thing.
You based this film in part on your own daughter’s growth; did you consult with her?
Pete Docter: Well the way it kind of worked I would just kind of like observe her as opposed to really engage her. Because I don’t know that even she knew kind of what was going on in there. I know I didn’t at that age, you know, you’re just kind of experiencing it and things happen to you it almost feels. In fact that’s one of the big things of growing up I think is realizing I have some ownership of this. I’m feeling angry, that doesn’t mean I have to act on it. So it really came more from observation. A lot of the science study and research we did was helpful, not so much in the layout of the world. The Personality islands, things like core memories, we just kind of made that stuff to support the story. There are other elements like even weird things, like it’s at night that the short-term memories are rerouted into long-term. That was something we read somewhere. That sparked this whole idea of this cool like kinetic ball sculpture, you know, they all go down once she goes to sleep. So there’s a lot of stuff that was based on research, some stuff that was based on observation and some stuff we just made up.