How Pete Docter’s student films anticipate his Pixar work

Three 80s student shorts by Pixar director Pete Docter contain the seeds of his later work on Toy Story, Up, Monsters Inc. and Inside Out…

A woman is terrorized by a killer in her own home in Sam Raimi’s. A patient cowers under the attentions of a monstrous dentist in Tim Burton’s. A violent punch-up is skilfully deconstructed in Kathryn Bigelow’s. A man in a bathtub is strangled to death by an animated plug chain in David Cronenberg’s. And in Pete Docter’s, a child’s imagination brings toys to life and a square-headed grouch is infected by the playful enthusiasm of a little round-headed kid.

The short films made by now-successful directors as students often seem to contain blueprints of their later work. It’s as if the very first ideas a director puts on film form a template for their career. Budgets grow and production values get glossier, but like a creative itch the director is never quite able to scratch, those same ideas still find expression years later.

Take Pete Docter, who scored a job at Pixar straight out of the California Institute of the Arts in 1990, back when the company was better known for producing computing hardware than animated movies. Over his twenty-five year career at the studio, Docter has had a hand in some of Pixar’s best-loved work. He worked on the original stories for WALL-E and Toy Story 1, 2 and 4, as well as co-directing Monsters, Inc., Up and most recently Inside Out.

Looking back now at the three hand-drawn shorts Docter made at CalArts (1988’s Winter, 1989’s Palm Springs, and 1990’s Next Door), it’s possible to trace the beginnings of his later work. Stylistically, thematically and tonally, hindsight lets us read them as a blueprint for what Docter would go on to achieve at Pixar.

Ad – content continues below

Winter, for instance, sets up the recurring Docter theme of joyful childhood exuberance being stymied by the dull practicalities of adult life. Palm Springs’ character design, like so many of Docter’s Pixar creations, is an exercise in contrast. And Docter’s final student film, Next Door, is where the director first learned the power of making his audience cry. As anyone who’s seen the first ten minutes of Up or a certain “take her to the moon for me” scene in Inside Out will tell you, it’s a skill he’s never forgotten.

“I think it’s because it’s based on some truth”

A child of snowy Minnesotan and Danish winters, Pete Docter’s 1988 short film is autobiographically inspired. It was CalArts classmate and future Disney storyboard artist, Barry Johnson, who suggested that Docter turn the story of his younger sister being bundled up in so many layers before going to play in the show that once outside that she was unable to move, into a film. Docter did, telling the sweet, funny story through hand-drawn animation, minimalist backgrounds and a simple piano theme.

Winter’s headline gag comes in the film’s closing moment when the shot widens to reveal a whole street of similarly bundled kids hamstrung by their overprotective parents. The ending earned Docter big laughs, both at the CalArts Producers Show and Spike and Mike’s Festival of Animation. “People really responded,” remembers Docter, “I think it’s because it’s based on some truth.”

Mining his personal life for truths to use in film-making led to later success for Docter. As he told  interviewer Richard Crouse in this clip recorded at TIFF 2015, Docter’s feature directorial debut, Monsters Inc., was autobiographically inspired.

“I love work. As soon as I got to Pixar, I would just stay there all day. And all night—my wife, when we first got married, we’d eat dinner and then she’d come [to Pixar] and play videogames and fall asleep until I would wake her up at two in the morning when I was done animating and we’d go home, then I’d go back to work. I just couldn’t get enough.

And then we had a kid. So Monsters [Inc.] started at about the same time the kid did. As I was working on the film, I was like, ‘this is great’ and then my wife would say ‘he smiled for the first time, and you missed it cos you’re at work’ and I was like, ‘how do I make this go? Because I want to be in both places but I can’t’. And that really became the story, the emotional backbone of Monsters. Sully, who’s a monster who loves his job, suddenly gets this kid who’s at first scary and weird—which is true of real kid—and then he grows to care for her more than he does the job. It’s that impossible struggle with no answer that I think makes for good stories.”

Docter’s most recent film, Inside Out, was another autobiographical inspiration. Set inside the mind of an eleven-year-old girl, the movie started life as Docter’s attempt to answer the question of what was going on in his daughter’s head at that age, as she transformed from a happy-go-lucky kid into a complicated teenager.

“That impossible struggle”

While it might be a stretch to see parallels between Winter’s plot and Inside Out’s story of emotion Joy, the over-protective ‘parent’ so focused on keeping Riley happy that she stifles her self-expression by banning Sadness, the contrast between the childhood and adult worlds is a classic Pixar—and Docter—theme.

Ad – content continues below

Childish joy continually comes up against adult censure in Docter’s work, often winning it over and changing it for the better. In the opening seconds of his second student short, 1989’s Palm Springs, dinosaur Sigmund is first portrayed as a terrifying, weighty beast. When he finds a springy palm tree to bounce up and down on though, he immediately transforms into a delighted child. Like Sully in Monsters, Inc., the scary monster becomes a fluffy toy (or, as Boo would have it, a “Kitty”) when it starts to play. The idea that inside every grumpy adult is a fun-loving child recurs throughout Docter’s films.

And adults can be grumpy in his pictures. Before Up’s Carl Frederickson, there was Palm Springs’ Freud the caveman. He’s the character in who lays claim to the tree and tells the dinosaur off for bouncing on it, the strict parent to Sigmund’s energetic child. We meet Freud as he’s taking out the rubbish, an activity signifying the dull adult world of chores and responsibilities. “You’re not supposed to do that. Get down. Go on, get down this instant”, Freud shouts at Sigmund, muttering to himself, “Can’t leave these dinosaurs alone for a second!”. Adults stymie fun, is the Neverlandish message.

“Playing with a kid’s imagination”

The collision between the adult and child worlds is also the plot of Docter’s most sophisticated short, 1990’s Next Door. The story of a staid, grouchy old man first being irritated by his noisy, joyful kid neighbour but her eventually leading him to rediscover his own childhood passion, Next Door is a beautiful piece of work. “I even had a couple of people tell me they cried when they watched it,” remembers Docter, “which was like, wow! Okay, that’s what I want to do.”

The emotional response is provoked by a single intake of breath. A former kazoo champion in his youth, the grouchy neighbor is inspired in the final moment of the film to stop being irritated by his neighbor kid’s playing, but to take up the instrument and join in. We don’t hear him play, or see the kid’s reaction, we simply witness the moment he decides to step out of his isolated life and make a connection with another person. That connection is symbolically represented by the restoration of the whole circle fragmented at the beginning of the film as a visual metaphor for his isolation.

Next Door’s grumpy old man was an early favorite archetype for Docter, so much so that when his Up co-director suggested creating one for the film, he jumped at the opportunity. “I think Bob [Peterson] first said ‘you know, I’ve always wanted to do something with a grouchy old man and I’m like, yeah, me too! I had drawn him like growing up. There’s something funny about it.”

Next Door’s depiction of the way a child’s imagination works—the bathos in switching from the little girl imagining herself fighting pirates to seeing what she’s really doing, i.e. brandishing a wooden ruler—is used to real success in both Toy Story and Inside Out, with Andy’s epic wild west scenario and Riley’s play with imaginary (but real to her) friend, Bing Bong.

Ad – content continues below

“What can I say, I’m a hack, I used the same thing over and over.”

The best animation design is always an extension of storytelling, something clear in the geometrical distinctions Docter makes between his two characters in Next Door. The grouchy old guy and his surroundings are formed of squares, while his little neighbour and her garden comprise rounded, circular shapes.

The same visual metaphor was used to illustrate the characters of Carl and Ellie in Up, with squares for him and circles for her, from their heads to their armchairs, even down to the smallest detail in the Frederickson home, as Docter explains, “pictures of Carl will be in square frames, pictures of Ellie are in circular frames.” Then there’s Sulley and Mike, and most recently, Inside Out’s Joy and Anger, two more square/circle pairs. It’s about using every possible opportunity to subtly plug the story being told.

It’s also a matter of contrast. Docter learned early on that to make animated characters read as distinct from one another on screen, the more contrast in shape, colour and size, the better. Look at the tiny child in Winter and the much larger, abstracted mother. Or the dinosaur in Palm Springs towering over the stumpy, squared-off caveman. “The scale difference seemed really interesting.” Docter remembers, “If you only took one thing away from design school, I think it would be the word ‘contrast’. That’s what makes things read.” That lesson was demonstrated in the designs of Sulley and Mike, Kevin and Russell, and Joy and pals.

What’s particularly satisfying about visiting this trio of shorts is seeing their progression from funny (Winter), to funnier (Palm Springs), to the kind of film that Docter is making today at Pixar: visually inventive, and combining laughs with moving human truth.