Peter Docter and Jonas Rivera interview: Inside Out, Studio Ghibli

The director and producer of Inside Out talk to us about their hit film, animation, Studio Ghibli and 20 years of Pixar...

When the end credits of Pixar’s Inside Out rolled to the sound of a 10 minute standing ovation at Cannes, it must have been a huge relief to director Pete Docter. Here, one month before its theatrical roll-out in the US, was proof that around six years of development, writing, drawing and animation had all paid off.

Acclaimed even by Pixar’s standards, Inside Out has emerged as one of the year’s critical favourites, and with good reason – to all intents and purposes, it’s a fantasy drama about isolation and the brevity of childhood, all served up with the studio’s usual sugar coating of colour and charm. Ahead of Inside Out’s home release, here’s Docter and producer Jonas Rivera to tell us about the process of making the film, its themes and technical challenges, and the influence of Studio Ghibli…

Congratulations on [Inside Out], and now the short as well.

Jonas Rivera: Thank you. It’s done really well in the UK.

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Pete Docter: Yeah. We’re really pleased with that. With everything!

Would you say Inside Out’s the most complex film you’ve made so far, with the cutting between multiple characters?

PD: It feels like it. I think so.

JR: It was difficult for us. I can’t speak for the other filmmakers there, but it’s very complex. And everything was all mushed together. As the story would change, the set would change, you know? The internal structure of the mind, of Riley’s mind, was so connected to the plot, it was very complex.


PD: It was the most fragile movie, it’s true. One change would have a knock-on effect on the third act or whatever it might be. It also seemed to me to be the hardest movie to get from concept to final film. Out of the chute, the idea was really strong and everyone loved it. But it took two or three swipes even on the story reel to get it to feel like a motion picture. That’s true of them all, I guess, but this one just felt a little tougher.

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I liked the metaphor of moving house as a metaphor for leaving childhood behind…

PD: Thank you. See? He got it. [Chuckles]

But was that the point where you thought, “We’ve cracked it. This works”?

PD: We had a bunch of different incarnations of that. In one she was auditioning for a school play, there was one where she was worrying about going to a party and worrying what variety of chips she should bring…

JR: That’s right. Various versions…

PD: Actually, it’s crisps, isn’t it? Not chips…

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JR: Yeah, chips are French fries…

PD: So yeah, we had a whole bunch of different ideas. We would talk about our own childhood traumas and difficulties. It seemed like everyone had a story where they were out of step, like everyone grew up and we were still stuck in childhood. We all had stories like that, so we were looking for a way to express that in a physical way, a dramatic way. And moving seemed to fit that.

JR: It came up again and again. It’s a big thing for a kid. It isn’t like death, but it definitely impacts you emotionally and socially and all of that. It just seemed right. 

It’s something that goes back to Toy Story, this fearless approach to tearing a story apart and building it back up again.

PD: It’s a part of the process, and an essential one, to allow ourselves to make mistakes. And nobody’s expecting us to hit a home run right off the bat. The first time, we know there are gonna be a lot of clunky things. And it’s expected that we’ll get together and help make it better. It doesn’t make things easy, because there are nervous days where we go in there [to story meetings] shaking and sweating, hoping that it’ll be not embarrassing! [Chuckles]

But it’s a very comfortable and supportive environment.

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It felt to me as well, it feels quite experimental with the different textures you have going on. There’s a sense of the internal world of being almost 2D, like a hand-drawn animation.

JR: We often get asked, well, every film seems to have a technological hurdle, whether it’s fur or water or reflections. This one, in a weird way, even though there wasn’t one punchline element to that, it’s almost the biggest hurdle, because it was a non-literal approach. Computer graphics are very good at making things look real or physical. But Pete would say, “I want it to feel this way.” Or, “I want the character to look, I don’t know, effervescent.” Words that, if you’re a computer scientist and you have eight weeks to build a character, aren’t all that, uh…

So you’re talking in abstract terms, not the concrete.

JR: Right! But that was the coolest part of the show, because it released everybody a little bit to explore. What happened at Pixar was we opened up a little lab to find these different looks for these characters, different ways to animate them. It was a little bit closer to Chuck Jones or something, you know? I’m not saying we’re Chuck Jones at all, but we’re after that. Not a minute goes by without us talking about Chuck Jones or Tex Avery, so I’m glad to hear you say that. It was challenging with our toolset to get that look.

This isn’t name-dropping, even though it sounds like it is. I was talking to someone at Studio Ghibli, the day before yesterday…

PD: Were you there?

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Oh no, no. Sadly not! This was in London. But he said that 2D animation is an extension of painting, and 3D animation is an extension of sculpture. For me being an outsider, that’s not something I’d thought of. I wondered what the challenge is for you to take something sculptural and make it dynamic.

PD: I always thought of it as being like having a doll house when I was a kid. I would make these little universes in a shoe box, and put the characters in there, moving them around in space. Computers are kind of like that. You put the cameras in there, it’s very dimensional. It’s very similar to live-action: you can have close-up shots, a master, you can go wide. Whatever. It’s that part of your brain that’s exercised. But yeah, I come out of 2D animation myself, and that is much more graphic and linear.

JR: Yeah. I like that, though. It’s kind of cool. Now, I was talking to Brad Pitt the other day… [Laughs] and he said… [Laughs] 

But do you think there’s a little bit of Studio Ghibli in this film? It’s certainly quite still and dramatically intense. There’s also a certain amount of melancholy in parts of it.

PD: That was always intended from the get-go. We’re big fans of their work, specifically Miyazaki and Takahata, those two guys.

JR: It’s cool to hear you say that. We talk about those films a lot. I think the thing for me about those films is – and I’m talking about Miyazaki specifically, there are people who make animated films who are able to channel the whimsy or wonder of a child somehow. Miyazaki is certainly one of those. I was quite proud of [Inside Out] when we were putting it together. The unbelievable sense of whimsy. We really wanted to set this in the mind of a little girl, and there are little moments where I think we were really observant in those things. Those are the things that inspire us – authentically capturing what it means to be a kid, what it was like for us, and channelling that, getting it on the screen.

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I think it’s great that animation can deal with these films so delicately. Themes that perhaps people wouldn’t flock to see in a live-action film. You can deal with these emotions in a metaphorical sense.

PD: I think too, at least in the way we do things at Pixar, a candy coating. So you can do things that are pretty sharp and harsh on the inside, but it looks so shiny and bright and colourful. It appeals to a certain aspect of everybody, hopefully. It’s visually fun to look at and enticing, but that allows us to get to some deeper stuff on the inside. I do think there are things we can get to that are more difficult. I wonder about this – I’ve nothing to base this on. But the married life sequence in Up, if we’d have shot that in live action, would that have been as effective? I wonder. I wonder if it would have come off as, “Ugh, it makes my teeth hurt. Too schmaltzy.” Or, saccharine or something. I don’t know. There are ways to do it.

But there’s something about animation that’s slightly more abstract, less specific, maybe. Instead of saying, “Oh there’s Tom Cruise on screen,” it’s a character we’ve created that you can project a little more of yourself in. As I back up now, that was the reason we stripped all the sound effects and dialogue from that [married life] sequence, was to allow the audience to infuse their own ideas of what specifically they’re talking about in the car before the tyre blows out, or whatever. The audience is a participant in creating that in their own mind instead of feeding them everything.

I think animation, in a broad way, gets to that a little bit.

JR: I think in our medium, to follow on that point, we wrestle with things things looking real. We can have real textures and shadows and everything. That can also be betraying if it’s too real. I think what works about married life is there’s just enough caricature in it and distillation that you’re safely distant from it. If it were Walter Matthau…

PD: Yeah, yeah. 

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No, I agree. I keep going on about Studio Ghibli and I don’t know why, but I think of something like Grave Of The Fireflies – if that were a live-action war film, it would be just too harrowing. Even as it is, it’s tough. But because you have that distance…

PD: It’s true. If you think of something like Spirited Away, those creatures might be so horrifying if they were real, but there’s a little bit of abstraction where a little part of your brain says, “That’s a drawing.”

JR: Or Disney. Dumbo jumping off the thing.

PD: A real elephant?

JR: Falling?

PD: Would you accept that it could fly? [Laughs]

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JR: I don’t think so. Or Pinocchio, turning into a donkey. I don’t know. You could [shoot it in live action], but it would be horrific.

PD: The thing if you shot it in live-action is, he accepts there’s a puppet walking around. Everybody would be so horrified… I’m gonna argue both sides at the same time!

The other thing I was thinking was, Inside Out seems like a brave film to make – I don’t think a lot of other studios would even have pitched this idea. It’s not necessarily something you can sell in one logline. Then you have a character like Bing Bong, who you didn’t push up front. You left him as a surprise for the film itself.

PD: That was fun.

JR: Yeah, we were glad that everyone got behind that from marketing. Look, these are big Disney Pixar movies, so there’s a lot of great marketing and exposure on the front end, and that’s a blessing, but for us it’s also a bit of a curse because you don’t want to give everything away. And for whatever reason, we were able to secure him and have him be a surprise, which was really exciting for us.

PD: I think in terms of difficulty, we work in a place that’s run by a filmmaker – John Lasseter, he’s the boss. He’s the arbiter of whether things go or not. Instead of being an executive who’s looking at the numbers or whatnot, he’s coming in from the audience standpoint and the filmmaker standpoint and going, “What’s cool?” He can see the potential in things. You can pitch basic rough things, and his brain will be 15 steps ahead of you going, “Oh I can see how that could work. How about this?” And he’ll throw some stuff in, and you go, “Yeah! I didn’t even think of that!” So it’s very collaborative. He’s a great check for us, because sometimes you’ll come in with some ideas that don’t really apply to as many people, and so he’s a great barometer for the audience I think.

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JR: Yeah, I think you’re right.

After 20 years of Pixar, it seems that what you make is now embraced to such a huge extent. With Inside Out, you took that to Cannes. That’s a huge step from when Toy Story came out, and it was an experiment – nobody had made a CGI feature film. How do you think things have changed over those 20 years, and what do you think will change in the next 20?

PD: Well, with Toy Story, the benefit was that it had never been done. There were no rules to apply to. If anything, with animation it was an unwritten rule that anything animated would be a musical. Nothing wrong with musicals, but I think we stretched the boundaries of an animated film.

Some films don’t push as far, but in every film, we ask, “Well, how can we approach this in a new way and do something we haven’t done before?” Both for our own sake, because we like doing new stuff, but mostly for the sake of the audience. I think, when you go to a movie, you think, “Oh, I’ve seen this kind of film and I know where it’s gonna go,” you kind of check out. So that’s been more and more difficult to do as the films have stockpiled up. We’re now on number 16 with The Good Dinosaur; [Inside Out] is 15. It becomes more difficult to be in story meetings and pitch stuff that we haven’t done in one way or another.

We’ll be talking about something and go, “Oh, we already did that with Jesse in Toy Story 2”. Or whatever. It’s something we’re definitely conscious of, and we keep trying to approach things in a new way. But at its core, to go back to your question, the studio has maintained a great sense of play and passion. We make movies because we love making them, not because somebody’s forcing us to, or because we’re driven by market surveys or whatever. And that’s why we did Toy Story, and why we continue to make films.

Pete Doctor and Jonas Rivera, thank you very much.

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Inside Out will be available on DVD and Blu-ray from the 20th November in the UK.