The Good Dinosaur and Its Five-Year Path to the Big Screen

We recently journeyed to Pixar to take a look behind the scenes of The Good Dinosaur. Ryan goes behind the scenes of Pixar's latest.

Over 20 years of feature filmmaking, Pixar has specialized in making us care about the unlikeliest of characters: toys, cars, fish, insects, the emotions rattling around inside the head of an ordinary school girl. It all began, of course, with Toy Story, the 1995 film which transformed the face of animated movies. Its humor, pathos and technical ingenuity were all so natural, so effortless, that it’s easy to forget just how ground-breaking John Lasseter’s film really was.

With each subsequent film, Pixar has explored different themes and set itself new challenges; it’s worth noting that, of the 15 feature-length movies Pixar has released so far, only four are sequels. Pixar’s most recent film, Inside Out, is the latest example of how adept Pixar is at pulling off its technical feats. Its Inception-like cross-cutting between interior and exterior worlds, as we’re shown the turmoil which takes place in the head of Riley, a young girl uprooted from her childhood home and moved to a dreary house in San Francisco, is deceptively intricate.

On the surface, Pixar’s second film of 2015 might seem like a veritable walk in the (Jurassic) park. The Good Dinosaur tells the simple story of Arlo, a young apatosaurus who falls into a ravine and finds himself washed up, grazed and confused, miles from the safety of his home. With only a feral little boy named Spot for company, Arlo learns to survive in a hostile, unfamiliar environment, and searches for a way back to his family.

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An unexpected journey

While the cast of characters is smaller than Inside Out’s, and the story more straightforward on the face of it, The Good Dinosaur challenges Pixar’s team of storytellers, artists, technicians and animators in an entirely different way. The polar opposite of the largely interior Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur is about vast, imposing landscapes. Arlo the little green dinosaur is dwarfed by the jagged mountains and lonely planes of Wyoming – or at least, a version of Wyoming where dinosaurs still live and mankind never had the chance to develop. The clouds look have depth. Trees bend and shake in the wind, their leaves shimmering. It all looks eerily, tangibly real.

With this greater emphasis on realism comes a palpable sense of danger. When Arlo’s dragged downstream by a raging current, we feel every scrape and bruise as he’s flung against the rocks. We’ve seen Pixar characters in danger before, but this is the first film from the studio where we’ve actually winced at a hero’s suffering.

The river is, according to director Peter Sohn, both an antagonist and a help to Arlo. At the beginning, we’re told, the deadly stretch of water is akin to the terrifying truck in Steven Spielberg’s Duel – a thundering killer of the unwary; later, it becomes the yellow brick road, guiding Arlo back to the safety Kansas.

Westerns and dinosaurs

The Good Dinosaur has itself endured an eventful path to the silver screen. Co-director Bob Peterson – who came up with the initial premise – left the production in 2013. According to Pixar president Jim Morris, there were “Fatal flaws” in the original story; as a result, The Good Dinosaur was delayed, first from the autumn of 2013 to the spring of 2014, and then again to November 2015. As the narrative was reworked, several members of its cast (including John Lithgow and Judy Greer) were either cut or replaced. Through the process of rewriting, the characters themselves also changed.

“It was a challenge in the beginning,” Sohn says, “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.”

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Through that process of reworking and refinement, Sohn has created what may be a first for Pixar: nothing less than its own take on a classic western. During our visit to Pixar one sunny September day, Sohn talks about his love of the 1953 film, Shane; as the camera sweeps across exquisitely recreated vista, it’s not difficult to see the influence. But because this is a Pixar movie, all those influences are given an engaging spin; this is after all, a film where Sam Elliott plays a T-rex.

On their travels through the wilderness, Arlo and Spot meet a group of cattle-ranching tyrannosaurs, and Elliot plays Butch, their growling, toothsome alpha. There are campfire tales and fights with rustlers. Sohn’s recreations of the iconography of classic westerns is affectionate and unabashed.

The Good Dinosaur is also uproariously funny, at least in the 30-minute collection of sequences we saw. A scene where Arlo and Spot meet the Pet Collector – an eccentric dinosaur who keeps a menagerie of animals as his somewhat ineffectual private army – is perhaps the hardest we’ve laughed in a cinema for ages. Incredibly, this charming character was almost cut from the story, according to production designer Harley Jessup.

“It’s something Pete brought to this, the Pet Collector,” Jessup told us. “He was in and out of the movie, because we weren’t sure how to use him. But early on, the reaction was just so strong. He was such a funny character – this crazy guy living out in the woods with these animals. But he winds up serving an important purpose in the movie.”

Animation and character design

In the topsy-turvy world of The Good Dinosaur, a human boy runs on all fours like a dog while T-rexes gallop like horses. It’s fair to say, then, that the movie posed some unique challenges to its artists, including animators Kevin O’Hara and Rob Thompson. Research for The Good Dinosaur involved filming and studying the movements of elephants at a local zoo. But when it comes to the topsy-turvy world conceived by Sohn and his storytellers, the animators took inspiration from all kinds of unexpected paces – from the movement of squirrels to footage of cowboys on horseback.

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“Pete’s great at pitching, and he started acting like a T-rex on horseback,” O’Hara recalls. “As soon as I saw it, I understood what he was going for. But it was a challenge for all of us; how do you make a biped look like it’s a quadruped? And the animation crew came up with, ‘hey, the top half of the dinosaur should be the rider and the bottom part be more like the horse.’ So we’d look at a lot of barrel racing, where you have a lot of cowboys racing horses around barrels, seeing how we could do that.”

“It was an interesting problem,” Rob Thomas says of animating Spot, the feral human who becomes Arlo’s close friend. “Because you don’t want to go all the way dog at certain times. There have got to be times where you see the human come out. But figuring out the physicality of a boy walking like a dog – the technical aspect of it was a challenge at first. We looked at squirrel references and raccoons, dogs, wolves. All that exploration, as you work on it, hones itself. Then you have a footprint that you can go on.”

For Peter Sohn, creating a sense of kinship between Arlo and Spot was also a vital part of telling The Good Dinosaur‘s story through animation rather than words. That kinship comes to the fore in one highly effective scene we’re shown, where the two characters silently share their sad memories with little more than a few twigs and a pile of sand.

“What we have in that clip is, Spot looks like a human boy,” Sohn tells us, “so we were doing a lot of work to make the boy act like an animal […] 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.”

All told, the team spent 18 months researching for The Good Dinosaur. Animation took a further six or seven months, with the animation team numbering as many as 84 personnel at the production’s peak. Some further technical stats: a single sequence, where Arlo emerges from the water and walks exhaustedly up a hill, took four days just to block in all the basic movements. Set supervisor David Lumiere tells us that a single frame of The Good Dinosaur could take an average of 10 to 30 hours to render. More detailed frames – and some frames are incredible in their depth of detail – could take as much as 100 hours. The raging river at the heart of the story takes up around 300 terrabytes of data due to its complicated simulation effects, according to FX supervisor John Reisch.

But while Pixar’s films are built in a computer, they’re planned with more traditional materials and techniques, from sketches on paper to clay models. When we visit, there are entire sections of Pixar’s hallways dedicated to Good Dinosaur artwork; early drawings of Arlo, Spot and other characters, and rich paintings of landscapes. During our talk with production designer Harley Jessup, we were handed a number of clay models of the film’s various dinosaurs. Some were far removed from the ones we’ll see in the finished film – they’re spiky, aggressive and more life-like than, say, the softer, more cuddly Arlo that now leads the film.

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These sculpts not only help the artists work out how each character will look in three dimensions, but also allow the creative team to solve some of the trickier, practical problems which can’t be solved with pen and paper or even computers: what should Spot’s mop of hair look like? How soft and rounded should Arlo be?

Creating a rugged landscape

While the character designs are a pivotal part of The Good Dinosaur, its setting plays an equally important role; director Peter Sohn was, we learned, looking for a “Primordial feel without making an imaginary world. It had to happen now.”

To capture the scale Peter Sohn was looking for, a new approach to set building was devised; rather than build chunks of foreground with digital backgrounds, set supervisor David Lumiere oversaw the construction of a huge tranche of Wyoming-inspired wilderness, with real geological survey data augmented with hand-modelled trees, rocks and other details. The aim, Lumiere tells us, was to create a 360-degree environment where “you had to be able to see off in the distance at all times.”

In terms of atmosphere and detail, the film’s leading light is director of photography Sharon Calahan. Having worked as DP on such Pixar movies as A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2 and Finding Nemo, it was Calahan’s talents as a painter that really come to the fore in The Good Dinosaur. While much was made of a research trip to Wyoming during The Good Dinosaur‘s early production, Calahan was already steeped in the region’s unspoiled scenery, and that lifelong connection shows in the dozens of paintings – both digital and traditional – Calahan came up with for the film.

The result is a look Calahan describes as “a painterly realism” – a sense of scale and drama that acts as a eye-catching counterpoint to the almost cuddly characters that inhabit the landscape.

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“We weren’t really going for photo-realism per se,” Calahan says, “and if you look closely at any particular rock or object, it doesn’t really look photo real. But I think the sum total of all the detail gives the impression of reality. So I would describe it as a painterly realism. The reason why is because landscape painters are often trying to capture a landscape in the way an eye sees it rather than the way a camera would capture it.”

As for the creative decision to place cartoon-like characters in a realistic setting, Calahan explains, “Pete knew he wanted the characters to be as appealing as possible. He didn’t want realistic looking characters. He wanted a world that looked authentic and believable, and one filled with peril. He wanted wonder, he wanted scale. So we ended up creating this world that fulfilled all of those needs.”

“We had some trees early on that were boxy and everything,” Sohn adds, “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.”

Calahan’s cinematic approach to lighting also plays a major part in The Good Dinosaur. In one poignant scene, moonlight sparkles on calm water. Later, we see sunlight shine through a semi-transparent leaf. For moments like these, Calahan cites a surprising collection of cinematic inspiration, including Dances With Wolves, Heaven’s Gate and such Carol Ballard films as The Black Stallion and Never Cry Wolf.

“One of the aspects of the Carol Ballard films that really inspired us are the quite beautiful shots that serve as a bridges between scenes,” Calahan says, “or give an illustration of a character’s thoughts and emotions at the time. At Pixar we call them haiku shots, because that’s what Andrew Stanton always called them – brief moments of visual poetry.”

Indeed, the echoes of The Black Stallions influence extend into The Good Dinosaur‘s story. Ballard’s 1979 film, adapted from the novel of the same name, is about the companionship between a boy and the title horse after they’re left shipwrecked on a desert island. Arlo and Spot’s growing friendship has a similar feel to the first part of that movie.

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The Black Stallion, especially the first act, was particularly inspiring,” Calahan admits. “There’s really strong emotions of loss, isolation, survival, altruism, friendships, which are all gorgeously narrated with images rather than dialogue. Inspired us to be bold, to visually show the connection between the characters.”

Cracking the story

Ultimately, it’s story and character that will define The Good Dinosaur, just as the interplay between Woody and Buzz in Toy Story or Carl and Russell in Up defined the success of Pixar’s earlier films. Each Pixar project goes through a vigorous process of writing and rewriting; story boards are drawn up, rough voices are recorded and presented at private test screenings. Plot points and entire story strands are explored, interrogated and thrown away.

To illustrate what a typical meeting at Pixar’s like, story supervisor Kelsey Mann talks us through a sample scene from The Good Dinosaur. Clicking through a series of rough digital sketches, which then appear on a big screen on the story room’s far wall, Mann narrates the scene as though he’s reading us a particularly lively bedtime story.

“Boo-oo-oom!” Mann shouts, as a sketch of comically startled rodents appears on the screen. “Hundreds of gophers go flying into the air!”

This process of communicating the comedy or drama of a scene in story sessions harks back to the days of cel animation at Disney, and it remains a cornerstone of Pixar’s storytelling today.

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“It’s like a performance, you know?” Mann says. “I’m trying to make you guys feel it. It’s silly, I’m making funny noises, because I’m trying to have everybody watch the movie. Everybody’s in the room. The technical supervisor. The editor who’s going to cut this. So when I go ‘Boom!’ I’m saying to the editor, ‘Editor! Please put a big giant boom in there!'”

Pixar’s story room meetings are creative, funny and exciting, but also brutal at times (in an earlier interview, director Pete Docter admitted to us that these sessions could sometimes leave him “shaking and sweating”).

Like Arlo’s journey downriver, cracking The Good Dinosaur‘s story has proved to be a challenging ride for Peter Sohn and his team. Nevertheless, the process of suggesting, honing and disposing of ideas is a necessary one, as Mann explains.

“We want to capture something real we can put on the screen,” Mann says excitedly, “even though our characters are toys or cars or dinosaurs. I can’t stand it when you go to movies and you go, ‘they don’t mean that’. It’s fake, it’s surface level. It’s refreshing when you see a movie and go, ‘They are being true to what the human experience is like.’ And that’s what we try to do as artists and as writers.

“That’s our job – to make you guys feel something.”

The Good Dinosaur is out in cinemas on November 25th.

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