Posted on Thursday, October 8th, 2015 by Peter Sciretta
In August 2014, we learned that Bob Peterson was removed as director of The Good Dinosaur, and co-director Pete Sohn was appointed the sole director of the project. We’ve heard about just how much of the film has changed under the new direction, and the word “drastic” isn’t at all hyperbolic in this case. Perhaps that’s why my visit to Pixar to preview The Good Dinosaur felt very different from my past trips to Emeryville.
It was very clear during every conversation I had, just how little time the studio had to mount a completely new movie. They threw out much of what they had and were tasked with creating a finished film in just 15 months. That may sound like a long time, but Pixar is used to having a lot more time on their films, sometimes five or six years.
And while this information might suggest a dire situation for the studio, it should be noted that Pixar has replaced the director and revamped the story on films as wonderful as Ratatouille. So no cause for alarm here — from what I’ve seen in the 30 plus minutes of footage that was previewed for me on this trip, we have nothing to worry about.
I’ll be completely honest — the cartoony dinosaur designs in the posters and advertising did not excite me. It wasn’t until I really got to take in some of the movie that I fully understood the vision of this film, and how the cartoony character designs are used as a wonderful contrast to the almost photo real environments.
But all of that is for nothing if there isn’t a good story at the center of it all. And while I can’t be sure of that just yet, I can tell you that one of the scenes that was previewed made me cry, as only a Pixar film can.
But for this article, I wanted to focus on how Pixar was forced to change their process in the time restraints of of the development of The Good Dinosaur.
Near Photo-Real Environments Created With USGS Data
You may have noticed that Pixar usually starts with big, wide establishing shots and then cuts into a smaller enclosed environment. But Pete Sohn was insistent that the story needed expansive environments unlike any other Pixar film ever created. The shrunken production timeline gave Pixar less time to design the film’s locations, and the extreme number of shots would make it impossible to have matte painters create the atmosphere and environment in the skies and distance, as they had in previous films.
The environments in The Good Dinosaur are breathtaking. There are moments in the 30 minutes of the movie I previewed that look no different from live-action footage. And if it looks real, that might be because they used real data to create the locations in the film.
“Everything you see on screen that’s not a special effect, we build and paint in the set department,” explained sets supervisor David Munier.
Pixar doesn’t want to use the word “photo-real,” and instead have coined the term “painterly realism” which means they are “just detailed in a way advanced technology and style decisions allow.” Some members of the team playfully refer to the look as “Sharon Calahan Realism,” in honor of the director of photography-lighting. Calahan is a passionate landscape painter and has spent many hours painting in the very areas that inspired the film’s setting.
Some shots in the movie look out more than 50 miles in the distance. To accomplish this near-impossible task, the set team used actual USGS data of the northwest United States to create the sets in the film.
The United States Geological Survey has satellite photos of all of North America along with typographical data for the height. As a test, Pixar’s set team downloaded the information and took a famous Ansel Adams photo and applied the data to where the photographer would have taken the image. The result was miles and miles of 3D geographic environment. It would take time to texture and populate the environment with vegetation, but the result was a lot of bang for very little buck.
They Researched the Land, Not So Much the Dinosaurs
When traveling to Pixar for The Good Dinosaur, I was expecting to hear a lot about the research that went into the prehistoric period and how what they learned about dinosaurs influenced the story and flavor of the film. Surprisingly, there was little mention of history or even the dinosaur species that are at the core of the story.
Instead, we were treated to campfire tales of research trips director Pete Sohn and his team took to Wyoming, in an effort to capture the look and feel of the wild.
Sohn and crew were inspired by the beautiful yet dangerous environment, which is why they came to the decision of give the characters a very cartoony, stylized look in contrast to the almost photo-real environment.
Pete wanted the environment to be another character in the film, especially considering there isn’t a lot of dialogue — the landscape needed to help. They were also inspired by a family of ranchers they stayed with on one trip — the family became the basis of the T-Rex characters you see in the film.
During their white-water rafting trip down the Snake River, the GoPro camera being used to capture reference footage was dislodged and lost in the river. Thankfully, their river guide was able to actually “read” the lines of the river and figure out just where it would likely come to a rest down stream. The camera was recovered and the team even has footage of its solo journey.
The Digital Story Room: A New Way to Develop a Story
Story supervisor Kelsey Mann, who also worked on Monsters University, explained to us how the shortened timeline of this production made them rethink how they would develop the story of the film.
As with all of Pixar’s movies, The Good Dinosaur was drawn and storyboarded many times, with artists getting notes on how to improve sequences and often times having to rebuild the story over and over again. The goal is to get the story right before they get to the more time-consuming, more expensive, render-intensive part of the process.
Traditionally, story artists will work on their storyboards on Wacom Cintiq tablets in their respective offices. The downside of the equipment is that it isn’t portable, and Mann felt something was lost with this separation of the artists.
Mann decided to develop a new way of working that would allow for more collaboration and a better team atmosphere. His idea was to update the “story room” of the old animation studio days into a new digital story room, which they call “the bullpen.”
The Good Dinosaur story room is a conference room located on the second level of Steve Jobs building, overlooking the atrium from the east side. The idea was to create a safe environment “where you can and should say anything.” They encouraged all the artists to be open and honest about how we experience life as human beings, with the goal to get down to what Mann called “the true feelings.”
They had an open-door policy, so some artists could still work in their office if they needed to focus but would still be encouraged to join the group. The digital story room allowed everyone to be on the same page. Sometimes they would put a movie on the screen for inspiration, but often they would put on music because it was less distracting.
For storyboarding, they would assign the artists to tackle certain sequences of the story. A story artist who was better with funnier material would be cast for a more humorous moment, while a story artist who was better with the subtlety of emotion would be cast for more emotional moments.
A story artist will create at least 300, sometimes up to 1,000 drawings to pitch a story sequence. Imagine something closer to an animatic than what you might picture with traditional storyboards.
The sequences might have as much as a few frames per second. During the pitch, the story artist will do all the voices, narrate the actions of the sequence and maybe even play sound effects with a physical instrument (or in the case of the demo we saw, a squeaker toy) or play music from a computer. It’s more of a performance than a pitch.