Since joining Pixar Animation Studios in 1990—where he began by animating and directing television commercials—quadruple Academy Award-nominated moviemaker Pete Docter has enjoyed a prestigious career as one of the leading creative minds in the field. From supervising animator (and story/character developer) on the benchmark computer-generated feature Toy Story, to directing the global hit—and Best Animated Feature Film Oscar nominee—Monsters, Inc., Docter continues to bring his Midas touch to every project on which he works. Next for Docter is Disney-Pixar’s Up, which he directs and also serves as co-screenwriter.
MovieMaker Magazine (MM): You’ve been with Pixar since the beginning. What has that been like?
Pete Docter (PD): I think one of the keys to our success is that we grew up together as artists, working on the various commercials we did and then Toy Story. John Lasseter [chief creative officer of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios and principal creative advisor at Walt Disney Imagineering], Andrew Stanton [writer/director of WALL•E] and Joe Ranft [writer/co-director of Cars], who has since passed away—we all got to work with each other early on, and now that we’re split up, we still check in with each other. We speak a common language, we know each other’s strengths and so on. That collaboration has been really key.
MM: Tell me about the genesis of Up.
PD: Looking back, I’m not even really sure where the idea came from—it was a very organic process. Bob Peterson (co-writer and co-director) and I came up with this concept of a floating house, and that was something that spoke to me. I’m really not much of an extrovert. As a director, by the end of the day I’m exhausted from just talking to people. So there’s this great temptation just to escape and get away from everything and everyone… and it seemed really appealing to be able to float your house off into the sky. So we started thinking, ‘Who would be in there? Why are they doing it? Where are they going?’ And it was answering questions like that that led us to this film.
MM: Up is the first release from Disney-Pixar authored in 3-D, and you’d just come off of directing the huge 2-D hit, Monsters, Inc. How different was the process for you?
PD: Well, 3-D was not figured in from the beginning. We came up with the story first and 3-D got introduced along the way. I wanted to make sure that the 3-D did not get in the way for an audience. A lot of times you go to a 3-D movie and there are things flying at you and the whole audience is going, “Whoooooaaa! Look, it’s 3-D!” And when that happens, you get taken out of the story—you’re more aware of the medium than the story. Our goal was to draw you into this world, to take you somewhere else and let you lose yourself for an hour-and-a-half. For us to break that spell for people by calling attention to the 3-D is doing them a disservice. We tried to use it more subtly, treating the screen like a window you look into. So you still get the sense of depth and perspective, but it’s not in your face.
MM: Your studio is known for the amount of research that goes into a film. Can you talk about the amazing research trip you took that went into the creation of Up?
PD: Yeah, it was great! On Toy Story, we got to go to the toy store, on A Bug’s Life we crawled around in the grass. But on this one, we got to go to South America, where the story takes place! We needed a location, story-wise, where Carl and Russell could go and end up stuck with no outside connection. We initially thought of a tropical island, but that’s been used so much. Then we discovered these tabletop mountains—they are almost like islands in the sky. It was difficult to find photos that had useful views of the unique plants and rocks. We decided that there was no other way to create this place believably than to go down there and experience it ourselves. And we did—there was a group of 10 of us, and it took about three days just to get there, plane rides and jeeps and helicopters. We hiked up this mountain called Roraima [of the Venezuelan Tepuis], it inspired the book by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Lost World.
MM: Can you talk a little about your working relationship with producer Jonas Rivera?
PD: Jonas and I first worked together on Monsters, Inc. where Jonas was the manager of the art department. To say both of us “like Disneyland” is sort of like saying, “we like to breathe.” We bonded over our love for that place, as well as our love for Disney movies. It was a great pleasure working with him on this film—he’s got such a passion for animation, and though he claims he’s not an artist, he’s got a deep understanding and appreciation for what it takes to make these films. Plus he’s such a nice guy and he put together a great team of talented people who were also just fun to be around.
MM: If there were such a thing as an average day during film production, what would that look like for you, the director, who probably has to be three places at once all the time?
PD: The thing is—and again, this is Jonas and the production team—they know what needs attention when and they balance it all out, which is an impossible job. Usually, they would tell me at the beginning of the week, “Well, we added up all the requests for your time and it totals 700 hours, and we somehow have to fit that in this week.” So we decide where I’m needed most and what sort of information the departments need to finish their work on time. I’ll walk in at the beginning of the day around 8 a.m., and my assistant Vic Manley hands me what they call a “dance card” that has my schedule mapped out down to five minute increments, usually until 7 or 8 p.m. It’s mostly meetings and reviews. Meanwhile, Jonas and the team are trying to figure out how to deal with the stuff that I’m not getting to and still finish on time. It’s pretty crazy.
MM: Given that, what were your biggest challenges on this film—not necessarily technical?
PD: I think the biggest challenge was our doing something more caricatured than we had done before. I don’t want to make it sound like we haven’t done caricature. I think The Incredibles was a wonderful foray into that. But a lot of the computer scientists we work with start from a logical, reality-based approach. Clouds, for example. They’ll start by learning everything there is to know about how clouds form, where they come from, what is happening on a molecular level to create what we see and then try to duplicate that in the computer. That’s where we want to start, but sometimes as artists, we want to push things to be more stylized, more interpreted. So, for example, instead of getting these noodley, little filigreed edges to the cloud, we’ll want just nice, simple rounded shapes, like cotton puffs.
MM: If you could fly a house anywhere, other than your family, who would you take and where would you head?
PD: Wow, I don’t know. There are so many people that I just enjoyed hanging out with on this film—Jonas and Bob and Ronnie [del Carmen, head of story], they’re just so much fun to be around. I would want to bring all the folks who worked on this movie. It’d have to be an awfully big house, I guess! As far as destination, there are some days when I come into work in the morning and see this long list of meetings, and sometimes I fantasize about being marooned on a small island in the South Pacific. I like coconuts; I think I’d be fine.
About the Writer-Director
Pete Docter (writer-director) has carved out an illustrious career as one of Pixar Animation Studios’ most prodigious talents. Joining the studio in 1990, he began by animating and directing a variety of Pixar-produced commercials for Tropicana Fruit Juice, Tetra-Pak drink box recycling and Lifesavers.
Prior to joining Pixar, Docter was an animator for The Walt Disney Company, Bob Rogers and Company, Bajus-Jones Film Corporation and Reelworks in Minneapolis.
Docter’s interest in animation began at the age of eight when he created his first flipbook. He studied character animation at CalArts (California Institute of the Arts) in Valencia, California, where he produced a variety of films, including Winter, Palm Springs, and the Student Academy Award-winning Next Door.
Disney-Pixar’s Up is Available on Blu-ray & DVD November 10!