Inside Out: A Look at the Genesis of a New Animated Classic

We chatted with the director and producer of Pixar’s terrific new film, Inside Out, about its development, breakthroughs and storytelling.

This is a slightly spoiler-y interview. It’s best not to read it until you’ve seen Inside Out.

Set inside the mind of an eleven year old girl, Pixar’s Inside Out is a sophisticated film with a deceptively simple message: life can be sad, but sadness is okay.

Settling on that message and the story through which it would be told took years of experimentation and refinement. Producer Jonas Rivera and writer/co-director Pete Docter remember early feedback repeatedly celebrating their concept and congratulating them on what a great idea Inside Out was. Good news, no?

“They weren’t even saying movie,” remembers Rivera, laughing, “We’d rather they said ‘this is a really bad movie’”.

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“There’s a lot of abstraction,” explains Docter. Well, there would have to be. Inside Out sets out to answer an abstract question that the greatest creative and scientific minds have been mulling over for centuries: what makes humans tick?

Specifically, what makes eleven-year-old girls tick? Docter found himself asking it watching his own daughter, Elie, now sixteen, move from childhood to adolescence. What myriad processes are going on under the surface to result in the personality changes that come with growing up?

Inside Out’s answer is as fantastic, imaginative, funny and moving as you’d expect from the best of Pixar.

We met with Docter and Rivera to discuss the development process, the importance of logic in storytelling, and how they took Inside Out from a great concept to an exceptional movie.

Interview 400 of the day! You must be bored of people telling you how brilliant your film is?

Pete Docter: Believe it or not, it doesn’t get old!

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It is brilliant, because it’s funny, sophisticated, moving, and it also strikes me as a very modern film. Partly because of its use of recent psychological theory, but also because of its message. Modern family films seem to be moving away from traditional hero narratives and more towards providing kids with practical life messages. More and more we’re seeing characters learn to deal with failure rather than punch-the-air success. Like, it’s not so much ‘when you wish upon a star’ as ‘when you achieve self-actualization’…

PD: That’s interesting analysis. I think for us it’s really coming more from a sense of wanting to surprise people as storyteller and create interesting, surprising plots and so on. The idea that a character stands up and then succeeds is not so interesting as seeing them fail first and then overcome these seemingly impossible odds. That seems like better storytelling. But it’s interesting. I couldn’t disagree with what you said.

Jonas Rivera: I love what you said. I always liked the fact—[to PD] you know when you first pitched it to me—that no matter how we were going to figure out the plot, that the concept was coming from a truthful observation, just a personal observation, in this case of your daughter—who I know, and I have kids too—I almost didn’t care how we get there or where it goes, I knew we would figure all that out. I just thought ‘that’s really cool’ if we could make a movie that’s coming from something truthful. I think that’s what the audience craves. That’s what I crave.

It’s a very empathetic film. The emotional climaxes of Inside Out are all characters breaking down in tears, Bing-Bong, Joy, Riley…

PD: There again, the way we were looking at it is character arc. You have someone like Bing-Bong, basically we looked at him as an out-of-work actor, trying to get back in there and have a comeback, and then finally realising that ‘come on, wait a minute, Riley is older, I’m an imaginary friend, I’m not going to be able to help her and be part of her life again’, and then having another twist on that where hopefully he can be a help to her. We really were just kind of taking a character, making them clear, and then changing them and watching them grow.

I thought I was doing pretty well holding it together with the movie until Bing-Bong delivered his ‘Take her to the moon for me’ line. Then, I was just in pieces. Is that the point that people generally fall apart?

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PD: Yeah, that’s the one.

JR: That really does seem to work and impact people. It got me!

PD: It got Richard!

JR: It got Richard Kind as he was recording it. [To PD] He’s really crying in that read, isn’t he? We’ve talked about this a lot, about the spirit of youth and resisting growing up and struggling watching our kids grow up and struggling as we had to grow up and become adults.

I think it’s something we shared professionally and personally. At Pixar, we’ve sort of been chasing that, and a lot of our movies sort of dance with that, it’s like Peter Pan, Neverland, refusing to do it. I think a lot of people do and I think that’s why that scene works.

That’s just reminded me—[to PD] I recently re-watched your three CalArts student films [Winter (1988), Palm Springs (1989), Next Door (1990)].

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PD: Oh yeah?

It’s in there too. In all of them there’s a thread about the adult world impinging on like, the exuberance of youth. The mum putting the jumpers on, the caveman telling the dinosaur off, the square-headed guy being annoyed by his kid neighbour…

PD: [Laughs] Wow.

Is that something you were aware runs through all of your work?

PD: No [laughs] That’s interesting.

I just made it up then!

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PD: No, not that you’re making it up but I think that a lot of times, for me anyway, the process of storytelling is kind of mysterious and it’s not known. You wander into these things thinking ‘I maybe have an idea of what this is about, but more importantly, it feels important and vital. So as you go in there, you discover it. You find out what these films have to say, but it’s not something that I’m conscious of. I don’t know of any other way of approaching things.

I think you have to approach things on a gut level, because on some level—this is from the research and it’s maybe a little side line but—they did a study of gamblers and they said–I forget, is it 21? There’s some game where you deal off the deck and if you get 21, you win?

JR: Blackjack. You can tell Pete’s a great gambler [laughs]

PD: They had one card deck that was rigged and another one that was not, and before the gamblers were even conscious of their own actions, they instinctively started taking cards off of the non-rigged deck. In other words, what that told them was, the unconscious mind is much smarter, more intuitive than the conscious mind. And I feel like as an artist, that’s what we’re drawing from. We’re drawing from that as well, from the unconscious stuff we’re just intuitively following our guts.

It’s that truth you were talking about.

JR: Yeah.

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PD: If it feels truthful then hopefully that’ll shine through.

You’ve always had an interest in psychology though? In Palm Springs, you had a gag that your dinosaur was called Sigmund and your caveman was called Freud.

PD: [laughs] Yeah, I was interested in Psychology and Philosophy. I went to the University of Minnesota for a year and studied Philosophy, which actually, there was one class called Logic that has helped a lot in storytelling. It would be stuff like ‘If Smith passes the test, then he can get the job’. So it was If-Then statements that had to do with real life but are sort of mathematical in a weird way.

Syllogism and all that?

PD: Yeah, exactly. That actually ends up being a large part of our discussions in Story.

JR: Right.

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So what was the mathematical storytelling formula for Inside Out. If Joy… Then…?

JR: You put forth pretty early a pretty good thesis and antithesis. What that arc would look like.

PD: Yeah. I forgot the thinker who came up with this, but you have your thesis, which in our case was ‘You want to be happy in life’. The antithesis is ‘Life is full of unexpected loss and pain and suffering’. And then the sort of summation, or where she comes to is the idea that to fully get a deeper joy of life, you have to embrace all the pain and suffering. So, from very early on, really the first month or two, we knew we wanted it to be about that.

JR: We honored that. We kept that whiteboard, like, that’s right! But…

PD: …how to get there, who does what, where, when, that all changed.

You had an early idea involving a Thanksgiving parade?

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JR: The Thanksgiving play! That’s right. At one point, we had a little play and Riley wanted a particular part in it. There was great debate on how we would do it. This film was very fragile. There was a lot of debate first of all on stakes. How high are the stakes? I thought this was interesting because we always talk about everything having stakes, high stakes. What happens to Woody? What are the ultimate stakes on him?

It was interesting to me as we talked about Riley that it was almost the lower the stakes got, the more emotional it was. We would do versions where just the wrong kid would sit next to her in school—and that’s not life and death at all—but inside, emotionally, for an eleven year old kid, that was trauma. That was interesting. That’s just an example of all the variations and things we tried to honour that original thesis to antithesis.

Let’s talk about making changes. The animation community, compared to live-action movie-making, always seems more supportive, more collaborative.

PD: [Nods].

Though you still need to be tough on each other for the sake of the work. I remember the Tangled directors telling my colleague that when John Lasseter returned to Disney, he said their problem on that movie was that everybody was being too nice to each other. So there still has to be that hard edge?

JR: Sure.

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Does it always take an external push for you to finally drop an idea that’s not working?

PD: It’s probably usually external. Not necessarily a person though. A lot of times, it’s the audience. We’ll hold on to ideas and… you’re wrong a lot of times but we’re paid to trust our gut, so I’ll go in and say ‘I really feel like this and this idea is relevant, or funny, or whatever’ and you put it forward and then the audience responds and a lot of times it just doesn’t work and you go, ‘okay, I still believe in it. Why isn’t it working?’ And in the long-run, sometimes you’re just wrong. The audience is the final arbiter.

JR: But before we get to an audience, you sit with Andrew Stanton [Finding Nemo, WALL-E], for example.

PD: That’s what I mean. Even in those cases…

JR: He sort of symbolizes that process. We watch it with our whole crew, let’s say, we fill the room, and then we’ll go to a room with a smaller subset, called the Brain Trust, the Pixar directors and writers, and that’s usually where we kind of beat each other up a little bit.

You have to have a thick skin and a ‘kill your darlings’ approach there I’d imagine?

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JR: Yeah. We rely on each other to be honest.

PD: You try to look at it as a third thing. Michael Giacchino (composer on Inside Out, The Incredibles, Up) talks about this. There’s almost nothing more personal than the music, so I totally understand if someone who is a composer were to be protective and combative about trying to keep what they wrote, but he thinks about it the same way we do, which is: ‘I made this thing. It’s not me. It’s something out there, and so let’s poke at it’. If there’s a way to make it better, I would much rather release it to the world better than more purely me.

Hopefully there’s a blend of both so that you feel that it’s of a certain person, that it’s a personal statement, that it’s not a generic, bland, corporation-created thing.

JR: Right.

PD: But there are probably ways that that thing, no matter what it is, can be sharpened and improved.

I remember someone once saying to you in an interview that Pixar had never released a bad film, and you replied that at one stage or another in development, they’d all been very bad films.

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PD: Oh yeah.

JR: Right.

So tell me about Inside Out, the very bad film.

PD: Which one? [laughs]

JR: They all had their merits. You could always see through the weeds that there was something in there. My answer to that is that for three or four screenings, it wasn’t even really a movie. I remember the notes we’d get would all start like, ‘this is a great idea’. [PD laughs] ‘This is a great concept’ and for a minute we’re like ‘Okay cool, thank you, we agree!’ then we realise, ‘They’re not even saying movie’. We’d rather them say ‘This is a really bad movie’. [PD laughs] I think this movie was just fragile with a lot more variables than others.

PD: There’s a lot of abstraction.

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JR: It took us a while to rein it in and say ‘this leads to this, this leads to this, this scene makes sense’, and then you could go ‘that needs to be funnier, that needs to be slower, that needs to be clearer’ but it took a while to get to that point.

PD: You seem to have done your research so you may have heard this story already, but for a while we got distracted and made Joy go on the journey with Fear and not Sadness, and that was another big, long detour that ended up producing some really good stuff but was wrong.

JR: We all swore that was right too! It was funny and we were getting there, you know.

PD: It seemed important.

Who broke that? That Joy and Fear was the wrong combination?

PD: That was me. I think all of us could kind of feel it. We would sit in editorial and we would have great little scenes, but they didn’t add up to anything. And as sort of proof of that, Joy in the third act, you want her to be able to do something that she would have never been able to do at the beginning. So she had gone on this long, fantastic journey with Fear and I was thinking, well, what is she racing back to headquarters to do? What action is she going to take based on what she’s learned from Fear? And it just wasn’t anything. 

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I was walking around that weekend just thinking, ‘I’m a failure, this is going to go over like a lead balloon, we’re having to move things into production, this is awful’… And then realising, wait a minute, the things that are most important to me are relationships and the strongest relationships are not just happy ones, they’re relationships based on shared loss, maybe anger towards each other, moments of that.

The wide range of emotions is what really binds us together and based on that sort of epiphany—what felt like an epiphany—it clicked back in to our original intention and suddenly we knew that Fear has to go, and it’s Joy and Sadness. Sadness is going to be what changes Joy and what makes her change.

Can I go back a few years. You directed the English voice cast for Studio Ghibli’s Howl’s Moving Castle. That was before Up, I think.

JR: It was sort of in the middle of Up, wasn’t it?

PD: Yeah.

It struck me that as an animation director, it must be an unusually intense experience to spend that much detailed time looking at another animation director’s work. Did that experience reveal anything to you, either about [Director, Hayao] Miyazaki’s work, or anything you then took into Up and Inside Out?

PD: It’s a good question. [Pause]

My initial gut was to try to make sense of things that were mysterious to me. Things that I didn’t understand. I pushed like, ‘can we change this dialogue?’ Because we’re dubbing it anyway, I wanted to change it to explain a little bit more of what this character is going through or what they’re wanting, because the original line is kind of mysterious and ambiguous. I would try to ask Miyazaki what he intended and I would never get any answer.

But in the long run, I realized, okay, wait a minute, it’s not my position, just because I’m working on the dub, to change that. If it’s a mystery, it should remain a mystery. He must have intended it, for either a conscious or unconscious reason, so I think trying to preserve a sense of what it was that he was after and not explaining everything.

I think Western films, we tend to want to dot every i and cross every t and make it this self-enclosed little thing with set-ups and pay-offs for everything. But life’s not really like that. It’s full of dangling, unfinished business, so I think it probably influenced me a little bit in that way.

I’m being pushed to wrap up, so one final question. My colleague recently interviewed the Irish animators who made Song Of The Sea.

PD: Cool!

JR: Tomm Moore? I’m a big fan of Tomm’s work. Song Of The Sea is one of my favorite animated movies in the last few years.

It’s beautiful.

JR: My kids, who are nine, seven and three, it’s their favourite. They want to watch it all the time. They freaked out that we were going to Ireland and I told them, ‘we’re going to go meet the people that made Song Of The Sea’ and they’re like ‘Can you have them draw for us?’ They freaked out!

PD: [To JR] Did you get him to draw something for them?

JR: Yeah, well, he’s so nice he said ‘I’m going to send you a better thing’

PD: [Laughs]

JR: I was so happy at that, you know. It’s my kids—they don’t know who makes what, they don’t care, they just see something beautiful.

Pete, Tomm mentioned that you sent them a note after the Oscars—I think Henry Selick also got in touch with them—and how much that meant to them. For them, it felt like the industry saying ‘we still need independent animators like you’.

PD: Yeah, totally.

They felt they were being told, ‘the world still needs 2D, we still need independent experimenters…’

PD: You’re absolutely right. We need that stuff. That’s what keeps people awake. In smaller budget films, people are able to explore more fringe or less mass things. I’m not downing mass films because I think they have an opportunity to speak to people too, but there are things that maybe don’t appeal to as wide an audience that are equally valid or more so, and that’s the work those guys are doing.

Pete Docter and Jonas Rivera, thank you very much!

Inside Out is out now.