Peter Sohn interview: The Good Dinosaur, The Iron Giant

The director of Pixar's The Good Dinosaur talks to us about filmmaking, Akira, The Iron Giant, becoming an animator and more...

It’s a given that filmmakers put something of themselves into their movies, but at Pixar, it’s particularly true. Animators will frequently appear as voice actors in the studio’s films, while personal lives are often mined for inspiration when it comes to crafting stories. Peter Sohn’s a great example of this multi-discipline approach at Pixar. He began as a story artist on Finding Nemo and The Incredibles when he first started at the studio, but branched out as a director on the 2009 short Partly Cloudy, while also providing the voices of such characters as Emile in Ratatouille and Squishy in Monsters University.

It’s when we sat down to meet Peter Sohn earlier this year that we remembered a half-forgotten piece of movie trivia: the likeness of Russell, the irrepressible kid in 2009’s Up, is based on Sohn’s own cherubic features.

Sohn’s latest project is The Good Dinosaur, the long-in-the-making adventure about a young apatosaurus and his pet human, Spot. From the 30 minutes-or-so we’ve seen, The Good Dinosaur is Pixar’s unabashed love letter to the western genre, and it’s full of widescreen spectacle.

Talking about his new film, Sohn is as enthusiastic and warm as his alter-ego in Up; our conversation about the making of The Good Dinosaur soon moves onto such topics as his early years at Pixar, his work on The Iron Giant and lots more. Here’s what Peter Sohn has to say.

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When you see [The Good Dinosaur] on the big screen, the realism in the backgrounds is astonishing. It really jumps out at you.

Oh, thank you. It’s been a real journey to get that going – to look, you know, threatening, immersive. I wanted something that really had a lot of scope to it. It’s tough, you know? I don’t know that we were 100 percent successful all the time, but boy, we tried to open up the world as much as we could.

I was thinking that it feels like the first Pixar film about landscapes. About vistas. I don’t know if that’s a fair description.

Yeah. That’s the challenge we set ourselves, to capture the feel of that. There are a lot of park-like settings that we have, where you build the setting around the character, so it really looked like it was tailored for something. It had an artificial quality to it. So how do you tailor an area so it looks like it has that history? John [Lasseter] would always research things like door scratches, so there’s a history. Interiors at Pixar have such great detail, but when it comes to landscapes, it’s a whole other thing to learn how to break something like that down graphically, but then give it a sense of history at the same time.

It’s pretty invisible, too – that’s the other thing that’s been fascinating. You don’t want people to really notice it – you want them to feel it, but then at the same time it has to feel appropriate for the journey of Arlo’s character. 

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How much work was put into the dinosaurs themselves in terms of their form and texture? Because obviously, they’re not photo-realistic, but they also have to fit in that world and not look like toys left in a wilderness.

Yes, yes. What’s funny is, Arlo specifically is the one who feels the most outside of the world. We’ve done a lot in terms of making Arlo sit in the world properly, but also making sure he has that boyish feel to him. The whole thing about taking the boy and his dog story and flipping it – it’s a classic archetype, but it was a challenge in the beginning, because we had dinosaurs that were really different. We had a more adult Arlo when we first began – he had really textured skin; he had really structural shapes to him. And we lost that sense of youth to him – I definitely wanted to find that boy quality.

This is the first Pixar movie where the main characters are really young. Most of the other characters are adults or from an adult point of view. That brought a whole other element. Because Arlo is from outside this world, we did that [boyishness] purposefully so that you have that feeling he doesn’t belong there. He’s a stranger in a strange land, looking around this wilderness, until slowly he could become a part of it. With Arlo, in the beginning, because of the egg-shaped quality to his body, we moved his shoulders in to get it even more graphic and unstable. But through his journey, the animators would pull his shoulders out so that he gains a little more of the shape of a real dinosaur. It’s subtle. They’re the little details that tell you that maybe he could fit into the world.

The clip I showed you guys yesterday, where he’s running with Spot, you can see that he’s more comfortable now, the way he’s running. In the beginning, he runs like a camel. But then at the end, he’s running more like a horse – confident and graphic. That isn’t to say the other characters that you meet aren’t graphic. They fit into the world more than Arlo would – Poppa and Momma, their textures are a lot more clear than Arlo’s. So there’s a balance, for sure. But it’s been fun, because when you see it on the big screen, you can tell the texture of Arlo has got that detail you’d need to fit in the world, but parts of his body are really graphic, like his knobbly knees, so that you get that human quality, if that makes sense. So like a human boy – that gangly quality. It’s crazy to think that we got to this point, for sure.

I noticed there’s a very subtle amount of that squash-and-stretch quality, to give him that elastic, boyish quality…

Yes, yes.

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…But also, there’s a sense of weight and danger. Dramatically, you have to feel that the world is dangerous.

Exactly. We had some trees early on that were boxy and everything, and when we started doing our research trips, there are those extremes of nature – you could eat some poisonous berries, or a big thunderstorm could wipe you out. But when we put Arlo in a world that was more graphic looking, it didn’t feel like he could die out there for some reason. It didn’t feel as threatening. Sharon Callahan, our [director of photography], and Harley Jessup, our production designer, started breaking things down: what are the elements that make these places seem real? She came at it from a really painterly angle.

She did this really amazing breakdown, where these elements that seem realistic, you can form that. Everything has to be designed. So your eyes first go to this big graphic shape [points to a mountain on the wall]. There might be a little highlight someplace that your secondary look would go to. There might have been a landslide there or something. There would be this cool duality to it. 

Just looking up there at the sparkles on the water reminds me of what you’ve done with the lighting. Which is something I don’t think I’ve consciously registered in a Pixar film before. Using lighting to create drama.

Yes, that’s right. Because it’s all exterior, it’s the main component. to support the characters on their journey. It’s a subtle thing, and I’m not sure that everyone would get it. I was showing you guys yesterday that the river would be roiling when Arlo’s in trouble. And when he’s talking to Spot it’s smooth and glasslike. Again, it’s a subtle thing, but it’s an example of how the team really tried to focus and connect to Arlo somehow. The idea of season, the idea of daylight, the idea of weather, all try to push on what Arlo’s trying to get through in terms of his fear. Yeah, that lighting became something that blew us all away, because Sharon would do all these paintings early on. Some of these are drawings over storyboards. For example, these are what our artist Rosie did. She would take that concept and have these discussions of, “This would be daytime around 10 o’clock. Why is that?” “Well, we’re going for a morning look to give the sense of hope.”

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It’s subtle, but at the same time, it’s an effort to support Arlo.

I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the scene you showed us last night. The moonlit scene. It’s a mime, basically. A real Pixar moment.

Absolutely. This story’s about getting through your fears. Loss was something that connected into this when we went on our research trips, about what mother nature would represent. I don’t want to go too metaphysical, but all I’m saying is, there’s this idea of loss and what that is. We wanted to treat that sensitively, because for Arlo, who’s this young kid, there’s a hole in his life that this little animal, Spot, begins to fill. A lot of the quote-unquote buddy films, the main characters are [mimics two people talking to one another] “I don’t like you, I don’t like you”, “I kinda don’t like you, I still don’t like you,” “I like you, I understand you – let’s be friends”.

The archetypal boy and his dog story is the thing I’ve been honouring. The idea of “I don’t like you, I’m a dog.” “I don’t know what you are, I’m still an animal”. “I understand you and you’re giving me something.” This is the catalyst that changes something. In that scene you’re talking about, it’s the little onion skinning – the animal remaining what it is, but teaching Arlo something that deepens their relationship.

What we have in that clip is, he looks like a human boy. So before that we were doing a lot of work to make that boy act like an animal. Like, he makes animal decisions. You and I look at each other, and we make expressions, we move our eyebrows or whatever. With animals, our researchers found that it’s more a scent thing first, and then trying to figure out what their gestures might be. Wolves tend to look you right in the eye, but then some animals look at you through the side of their eye. So what is it that makes Spot act like that? In that specific scene, it’s the first time we uncover the human side of him. It’s very subtle – it’s the first communication between them, without speaking.

Spot explains something that Arlo understands, about loss. Spot does these two gestures – he sits like a dog, then he pushes the effigies down and then he sniffs. It’s the first little boy gesture. It’s what we’ve been trying to uncover through this – how we break through what Spot really is, and Arlo feeling that. It’s beyond understanding – it’s “Not only do I connect with you, I empathise with you.”

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It’s not like it’s a Pixar tradition. We as the story guys and I, we felt that the scene was part of Arlo’s growth. As a 11-year-old kid, does he understand loss? There’s an animal, six years old, and he’s lost more. So there’s a depth to him that Arlo doesn’t know about until that moment. Then they’re able to move on.

Look, I come from an immigrant family, where my parents didn’t speak English very well. I’d always translate for my mother certain ideas. She was the movie lover. She grew up in Korea watching every movie she could, and over there the posters were hand-drawn, so she would try to draw those movie posters. So she was this artist movie lover. But my dad owned this grocery store. I never saw my dad. If we were ever to go to a movie, my dad would be fast asleep, but my mother had such a love that every time we had any kind of money – I remember going to the bank with her, and she’s like, “We have some extra money. Let’s go see a movie.” I was always translating for her, like in a scene in Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves. She loves Kevin Costner. Like, there are moments where Morgan Freeman’s saying something, and she’s like, “What did he say? He said he’s the painted man or something.”

Everyone laughed at it in the movie theatre, but she didn’t understand. Trying to explain something like that, with my bad Korean, was really tough.

But the Disney movies, the animated movies, I never had to explain. It was really moving to me. I’ve talked about it a lot here, but the more I talk about it, the more it really hit me. My mother has always been there. I never had a perfect relationship with her, but that was a communication thing for me – that idea of one person speaking one language and the other not has always been interesting to me. Trying to communicate. That’s just another part of it, because I’m an animation lover. I love getting into, like, “Ooh what is that gesture? Let’s play that!”

It’s not your classic animation stuff, but at the same time, it’s us trying to be as sincere as we can. 

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It’s having that sensitivity to the human condition, the nuances of human behaviour and things like that. I wonder what it must have been like when you first joined Pixar, because it strikes me that you have to have that sensitivity, but a certain amount of confidence as well.

Yes. For me, I don’t know for everyone else, but language barriers are an amazing teacher of observation. Because you have to read what the person is trying to tell you beyond the words. “What are you saying?” There’s a lot of that in my life. I was born here, so I don’t speak Korean very well. It’s my personal shame, put it that way.

But at the same time, in animation, it’s all they talk about: observe life! Study life! Try to make something come alive! For me, I study a lot of movies, so I feel my school of life was movies. If I learned about adventure, it was through The Goonies. If it was about life choices, it would be One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Or something, you know? At the same time, growing up, I had no idea how much of life would feed into the art as opposed to copying movies.

Look, it’s such a crazy thing. Like you, I’m a film lover. It’s what I connected to. In New York, I grew up feeling like, “I’m yellow, you’re white, you’re black, you’re brown, that’s who I am.” But when I got to art school, it was like, “Hey! You liked Akira? Holy cow!” Whatever race you are, hey, let’s talk about the headlights or the crazy multi-plane stuff.”Oh, you liked Forrest Grump? That CG was really immersive, like, you couldn’t even tell.” Those were the film lovers. That’s when I began really learning about animation as the observation of life as storytelling. Whatever confidence has grown, it really has to do with being among my people. “Yeah, we can sit and talk about movies forever!”

There are a select few people who can do this. My brother is not one of these people in terms of being a movie lover. He grew up watching movies, but he doesn’t live in that world. He doesn’t work in movies or whatever. But at the same time, when I go over to my other cousins who are lawyers and doctors, I can find a commonality, but it’s a different thing. There are movie lovers and movie nerds, and that is my race. That has helped me do the job, always, because it’s about making the best possible thing. It’s not about the job or the title – you’re a director, you’re a supervisor, you’re an animator – it was always, “This is my job. What can I do to make the film the best it can be?” That’s the job I’ve had since starting in animation. It has a lot to do with Brad [Bird]. He was director on the first film I worked on – The Iron Giant. And that was his priority.

I loved The Iron Giant.

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Yeah. On that production, we didn’t have a lot of money, but Brad was always like, “Whatever money we have, we’re gonna put it up on the screen. We’re not gonna waste it, we’re gonna put it up and make the best thing we can. If you’re hungry to do that, then you get this scene.”

That hit me hard, and I’ve tried to live by that idea. What’s funny is, when I got here, this place is run by directors – the original brain trust of John Lasseter… they’re filmmakers. They’ve been through that process. They’re there when I’ve failed or bombed out, or whatever. They’ve been there too, and it’s okay. “Get up, keep going. Here’s some advice.” I don’t think you’d get that in a lot of places. But to answer your original question, I think it has a lot to do with the people I’ve met that are film nerds, really. It really is a race, you know?

Peter Sohn, thank you very much.

The Good Dinosaur is out in UK cinemas on the 27th November.