By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
EMERYVILLE, Calif.—Pete Docter and Jonas Rivera are Pixar Animation Studios veterans. Docter was the third animator hired at the studio in 1990; Rivera joined in 1994 as its first intern. Both have risen through the ranks in the subsequent decades. Docter, who is part of the studio’s illustrious “braintrust,” directed the Oscar-winning “Up,” about an old man’s wondrous journey to exotic South America, which Rivera producer. Their newest collaboration is the animated feature “Inside Out,” which mostly takes place inside the head of an 11-year-old girl.
The duo is on hand to discuss their film here at Pixar headquarters, which is abuzz with animators, writers, technicians, DPs, producers and others. Docter has the look of someone who has just completed a marathon, having fine-tuned the sound in post-production a week earlier.
Inspired, in part, by Docter’s real life daughter Elie (now 16), “Inside Out” tells the story of a girl nearing the end of childhood, who goes through a crushing crisis when her family moves from the familiar comforts of Minnesota to the strange new world of San Francisco. As she tries to settle into a new home, a new school and new classmates, Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias) also has to contend with the conflicting emotions in her brain.
Riley’s emotions are Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). Riley’s frustrations with her new surroundings threaten to upend the normal tranquility inside her head, which include core memories like ice skating with her family and playing with her Minnesota friends, memory islands like hockey and goofball, trains of thought, abstract thinking and more dwell. It’s up to Joy, who has largely served as the captain of Riley’s mind since her birth, in cooperation with the other emotions to try and save Riley’s precious memories before they are lost forever.
Written with a team of writers, Docter co-directs the animated adventure comedy with Ronnie Del Carmen, the story supervisor on “Up.”
Q: Why did you choose Minnesota as the state where Riley and her family are from?
Docter: That’s where I’m from. We had to choose somewhere. We wanted the film to be a little more specific (than previous Pixar film settings) in terms of location.
Rivera: We’ve always sort of had our movies set in Anyburg. I just felt like we should be specific with Minnesota and San Francisco—a little of both. It’s kind of (Pete’s) journey a little bit.
Q: Has your daughter seen the movie yet?
Docter: She’s seen an unfinished version so she was kind of like, “Good movie, dad.”
Q: She’s out of that adolescent phase?
Docter: I thought so until this past weekend. It’s still ongoing once in a while. She said, (in a firm tone) “Parents have an ability to push our buttons.” I didn’t know we pushed any buttons.
Q: Why does Riley have both male and female characters as emotions, whereas her mom has only female characters as emotions and her dad has only male characters as emotions?
Docter: That was just for comedy. In the scene where they’re arguing at the dinner table, there are something like 18 (emotion) characters, and so we needed instant readability. We tried a version where it was a mix; in fact, we got the same actors who are in Riley’s head to do the emotions in the mom and dad’s heads, but it just got very confusing.
Rivera: It was more about readability. We tried to justify it later, like maybe she’s just trying to find her way at that age.
Q: The dad’s head is controlled by Anger.
Docter: Yeah. That was not about gender, but we had this thing about as childhood comes to an end, Joy goes away, and she’s not going to remain in control that much longer, and so we tried to make a point early on to reinforce that point of view—with adults, there’s not that much joy, at least that’s her perception. Of course, that doesn’t turn out to be true.
Q: And the mother’s brain was controlled by Sadness.
Docter: Yeah. So we were trying to visually say that Joy’s a kid-thing, and as you get older, it’s going to be different.
Rivera: Her term in office is not going to be forever.
Q: How did you go about choosing the colors for the emotions?
Docter: We knew from the get-go we wanted it to be a broad, comedic caricature world inside Headquarters (Riley’s brain), so we designed the characters very stylized and pushed, and we chose primary colors opposite each other so that each emotion occupies their own space in the color spectrum. Some of them were obvious, like Anger, which is red. That’s kind of iconic. Purple for Fear was more like, “Well, we haven’t used that color so that’ll be purple.”
Q: How did you come up with the particles that sparkle around Joy?
Docter: The particles and the sparkly thing came from a desire to make look the way our emotions often feel to us. We knew we didn’t want them to look like flesh or cloth or whatever. We wanted it to be something unique and different. The technical folks on this worked out an amazing thing where the solid characters the animators came up with were replaced by a fog. In with the fog are all these frontward-facing dots so that no matter where the camera goes they orient to face the camera because they’re flat little discs. Between those things, plus a little bit of glow, which took a lot of jiggering, especially on Joy because we’ve never had a character that’s a light source. That was a challenge.
There are only two shots in the film that she has a shadow. If you put a light on the table, it wouldn’t cast a shadow; it would cast light onto the surface. So we kind of reversed that out. There’s a lot of cheating that happens too.
Rivera: Our biggest tool advancement in this film was something called global illumination, which kind of started with “Monsters University.” It sort of allows light to behave like light in the real world. It casts shadows so it does a lot of the work for (the animators). It’s great until you make a movie where you want to break the rules of how lighting behaves and there are no shadows with the characters. Pete started pitching this idea of no shadows and our technical team was like, “Really?” But it also was a challenge to them. Pete would say I want it to look how emotions feel. So we came up with this technique that we think is unique and looks different.
Q: Can you talk about coming up with the psychology of it and your choice of Paul Ekman’s theory on emotions?
Docter: Ekman was somebody I knew as far back as “Toy Story” because he was a pioneering expert in facial expressions. So I knew that he would be a guy that we could talk with, and sure enough, he came to us with some great information on what emotions they know of. Of course, every scientist thinks there are different ones. They don’t even agree among themselves. But what’s the purpose of them and what service do they provide us as people? That was all great information and helped shape fundamental things about the characters in the story.
Things like memory islands and core memories we just made up, frankly. The thinking behind that was as the story developed what’s really at stake here is not Riley’s safety—because emotions can’t effect if she gets hurt. What’s at stake is her personality. We needed a way to represent that in the interior world, and we hoped to find ways to have both worlds talk to each other, like when Riley makes a decision and turns away from her friend, now Joy can’t go this way, and when Joy does something, it causes Riley to act a certain way. So the two characters are kind of unaware of each other interact through the design of the world.
Q: Why did you choose these five specific emotions?
Docter: For a while we had Schadenfreude, which is the joy of seeing other people’s pain, Pride and Hope—which we thought was just a cool name—but I don’t think it is recognized as an emotion.
Rivera: Some of them turned out to be reactions, feelings or state of beings rather than emotions. We had to figure out whether Love was an emotion or feeling.
Q: How do you distinguish between emotions and feelings?
Docter: The scientists say there are measurable things they can distinguish between these different emotions. They don’t ask, “How do you feel about this?” They want measureable data, which is why there are discrepancies between scientists because they have different methods in what they’re measuring.
Rivera: It’s those discrepancies that allowed us to have a little license with our characters.
Docter: We knew if we got to 27 (emotion characters) that would be a crazy writing assignment. So we decided that five (emotions) sounded good. It’s just enough for dissension and entertainment with the writing.
Q: Did you want all the characters to have a story arc, especially with Joy and Sadness?
Docter: Uh-huh. Joy’s our lead. The other guys—we thought about them too— but as to do with storytelling, you have your central character and then everybody else supports that. They kind of drop back in terms of their change and growth. We knew with Joy and Sadness early on that they were going to have to express every emotion including disappointment, anger and frustration. We couldn’t limit them to always being sad or joyful.
Rivera: They’re arc is sort of Riley’s arc. I like the idea of them all being adults but they only have the knowledge that 11-year-old Riley has. So like when she’s a baby and her parents are feeding her, they’re like, “Oh, we’ve got an airplane.” So there’s something about Riley where as she’s growing up, they grow up along with her.
Q: What were the challenges of not letting the emotions run into one another?
Rivera: If anything, it provided some good comedy because on one level they know everybody’s necessary but secretly each one of them wishes they could run things all the time.
Q: Can you talk about casting the voice talent? You kind of forget that you’re hearing Amy Poehler as Joy as the movie goes along. She’s just that voice.
Docter: That’s great!
Rivera: We try not to think of who is the biggest star we can cast, but who is the best voice for the character. We cast Anger first—Lewis Black. Even he was like, “Me as Anger? Brilliant!”
Docter: “Real stretch there, guys!” He was a guy who you think it’s going to be fun when we begin casting. It really turned out great across the board. They’re perfect for the roles. Even the stuff they’d say off-mic would be great.
Phyllis (Smith, who plays Sadness) would record and then during a break she’d say (in her pitiful way), “Was that okay? I could do it again.” When we approached her, it was less as Sadness, but more Insecurity, so that was her big arc through the film. As the story continues, she claims her rightful place among the emotions, but I don’t want to give anything away plot-wise.
Q: How did you come up with the memory island?
Rivera: It was a long road to get to.
Docter: It was. The primary motivator was, we talked to scientists. Early on, we thought the mind could be like a ship. The bridge is like headquarters and there’s the motor room. But then we thought where would dream production be? And then the whole thing came apart. Then we came up with the idea of a theater. We were looking for some sort of visual metaphor, until we realized there is none. The mind is it’s own thing. We had to make it up.
Then, we designed all sorts of configurations based on story needs. The islands developed as a way to represent Riley’s personality and what was at stake. So as we see them crumble away (during the course of the movie), we know she only has four left and these valuable things that are most important to Joy, like her love of friends, her goofiness, all these things, was a way, hopefully, of grabbing onto the audiences’ heart a little bit, and so they care about the same things that Joy does.
Rivera: We talked a lot about the geography of the mind and the cliffs and shelves (of memories), but try to make it uniquely Riley’s. The visuals of who she is had to be tied exclusively to her. We thought it was interesting to see them as islands, because when things change we see them fall. It’s like two stages. First when they go dark and then when they try to fix it and then they erode.
Docter: It’s not based on any science, but it’s true of us as people. You see kids and then they start to transform and change. They still love certain things but then they start to reject it.