Pete Docter, one of Pixar’s most seasoned veterans took the time today to do a question and answer session on Reddit’s website (user – PixarPete). Below is a summary of the Q&A session (weeding out all of the questions he didn’t answer). Oh, and for those who are wondering – nope, we didn’t get any giant revelations regarding his upcoming movie, Inside Out.
As a side note – at 11:33 AM PST, Pete mentioned that he’d have to be back in a while since the fire alarm went off in Pixar – here’s to hoping all is well!
Update at 11:49 AM PST – Pete mentioned, quite jokingly, “Sorry to report, Pixar burned down. All future films are canceled. Sorry. Ha! False alarm. I’m back.” He’s back answering questions now. More responses coming soon – refresh this page for updates.
Update at 12:30 PM PST – Pete is all wrapped up – the full summary of his Q&A session is below.
Pixar Studios, Animation or Writing-Related Questions
Question (Q) (SmileyBlob123) – First off I wanted to say how great your work is, I would probably class your Pixar films as the best in terms of showing characters, plus monsters inc is just brilliantly funny as well. My question was if there is any particular way you go about setting up and showing characters in your films?
Pete’s Answer (P) – Thank you! Ideally, we try to introduce our characters in some way that makes them distinct and memorable — sort of like the way you might tell someone about a wild friend of yours. You know, something like, “He’s the kind of guy who calls you at 3am, not even realizing you’re asleep!” We try to make characters that have a definite view on the world. Geez, talking about characters is tough… I keep typing and erasing — it’s kind of an instinctive thing. You just do what feels truthful and real, and try to exaggerate that.
Q (johncosta) – What is your process for coming up with that first idea?
P – Ah, good question. Every film is different, but there’s always some hook that gets you into the project. On Monsters it was the thought that maybe monsters are real, and that they scare kids for a living — it’s their job. That simple premise lead to everything else. On UP it was a combo of doing something with a grouchy old man character (which just seemed fun) and my own feelings of wanting to escape the world. Nobody warned me that as a director basically all I do is run around and talk to people all day, and I’m not an extrovert… so by the end of the day I usually wanted to crawl under my desk. That feeling of getting away from the world lead to the story of UP. On my next film, it all started with– oops, I’m not supposed to talk about that one yet.
Q – (zarp86) What exactly does a director of an animated film do? The stereotypical director in my mind yells “Cut! I need more emotion from you Brad.” But your actors are characters. Are you standing over some animator’s shoulder saying “Skully looks sad, but he should look morose.” Also, obligitory “Up-made-me-cry-omg-it-was-so-amazing comment here.”
P – Around here, a director usually comes up with the concept and then shepherds that idea along all the way until its done. He/she may write, draw, animate, or do voice work, but the primary job is to be able to communicate to the 400+ amazingly talented people who do the actual work. I have to clearly state what it is I’m looking for from the animation in this shot, or what the fire effects should look like in this other shot. Because animation is done in pieces, you seldom have the benefit of seeing what the movie (much less an individual shot) will look like until it’s all done, so you have to have a good imagination. But more important than all of that — I’d say the majority of my job is creating a story and characters that people care about. Of course no director does that by him/herself — there’s a core group of collaborators we work with — but the director is in charge of all that.
Q (anwipr) – Any tips on how to break cliches and when to use them when coming up with a concept? I’d love to hear your thoughts on how to play off a common idea while taking it in a new direction since that’s something you seem to do so well!
P – Write the cliche first, then recognize you just wrote a cliche and rewrite it. Repeat until your scene works. Our secret here is that we make 8+ lousy versions of every film that we change until we think it’s good enough for you to see it.
Q (Phny_)- How did you get into making animated movies?
P – I always loved making things move. I made tons of puppets and flipbooks as a kid, and then used my parents super-8 camera to make my own animated films (and live action as well). There’s just something amazing to me about making something appear to be alive, even though you know it’s just a drawing. I’m basically doing the same thing today, only I get to use millions of dollars worth of computer equipment to do it.
Q (doktordk) – Hey Pete, you wouldn’t happen to have ancestors in Denmark would you? Also, in what ways has improvement of tools used at Pixar over the years made your life easier, and in what ways harder?
P – Ja, my mom’s family hails from Denmark! Technology is a great inspiration to us creatively. Getting new software is like getting new toys — you immediately think, “What can I do with this?” And then our stories challenge the software folks to break new ground as well. As John likes to say, “The art challenges the technology, and technology inspires the art.”
Q (astrobeen) – I’ve noticed that Pixar relies a lot on replicating key physical mannerisms and appearances of the voice actors. Could you expand on that? For instance, are you present at the voice recordings? Do you have the human actors actually stage the scenes? By the way, I loved Up. At the end of the first Act (no spoiler, but you know what I’m talking about), my daughter asked, “Daddy why is your face wet?” Great work – in my opinion, it ranks with Old Yeller as one of the great, poignant movie moments.
P – Thanks — and glad you liked UP. (Good cover, by the way. I usually use “There’s something in my eye.”) We usually have the characters designed and a first draft or two of the script before we even think about casting. We cast actors who we think will “fit the suit” of the character we have. But then, when we record, we grab on to things the actor brings and we adjust the character to fit the actor. Usually the actual design stays the same, but we may pick up on mannerisms, or take advantage of the way an actor speaks. Our goal is to make our design and the actor merge in a seamless way that makes you just accept them as a person, without even thinking about who did the voice. We have been lucky to work with some pretty amazing actors!
Questions Related to Movies Pete Directed (Or Was Involved With)
Q (idkmybffyossarian) – Are you looking forward to the Monsters University? And can you tell you a story about working with the little girl who did Boo’s voice? 🙂 She seemed like a charmer.
P – Yeah, MU is turning really well — it looks fantastic and is really funny. The kid who did the voice of Boo was Mary Gibbs — daughter of Rob Gibbs who was a story artist on the film (he’s since directed a bunch of Cars shorts too — very talented guy). Mary was too young to understand what we wanted her to do, so we had to trick her into stuff by playing games, jumping & running around, talking to puppets…. Later I used the same tricks working with Ed Asner. (Ha!)
Q (timdevries) – You worked for the films Toy Story and Toy Story 2, but you weren’t included in the crew of Toy Story 3. Did you think the others did a good job?
P – Lee Unkrich and his crew did a fantastic job! It’s kind of a shock to look back at the first Toy Story and see how simple and crude it was compared to 2 and 3. Looking back at 1, hopefully viewers get caught up in the story and characters and don’t get too picky with how it looks through modern eyes…
Q (GoodGuyGregsCousin) – Hi Pete, I just wanted to know if you were having any involvement in the new Monsters University movie? I love everything else you’ve been a part of!
P – Yes, I’ve been part of it from the concept on, and have been helping out in whatever way I can. It’s looking fantastic and the director Dan Scanlon has really done a great job. It’s so cool to see Mike and Sulley again — and through the miracle of computer animation, they are even younger than they were 10 years ago!
Q (applemaestro) – Was the goal of UP to make every single person in the world ball their eyes out?
P – Yes. Seriously, we had to make you really care about Carl’s desire to fly his house to South America because — let’s face it — that’s pretty weird. If the audience didn’t cry about Carl having lost Ellie, they wouldn’t have rooted for him through the rest of the film!
Q (mattsapio34) – Mike Wazowski is my favorite Disney/Pixar character of all time. How did you come up with the design of him? What made you think of his image to create? And also, Billy Crystal was an amazing fit for that part. What made you want to go with his voice acting?
P – Billy was a blast to work with. Recording with him I often felt like I was getting my own private stand-up comedy show. He’s so sharp and clever — amazing. Mike was a character that just showed up pretty well formed. Some characters are like that. Others you work at for years. But with Mike, it was almost like he was out there somewhere already, demanding to get into Monsters, Inc. I credit Ricky Nierva for his design — he drew a really funny background character in an early storyboard. Mike was also instrumental in defining Sulley. We often find that when one character isn’t showing up, it helps to pit him against another character. Our natural instinct to make contrasts between them usually helps them both develop.
Q – (OsamaBinChillin) Hello there Pete! I was wondering how y’all got the idea for monsters inc.? I love that movie, I always watch it with my nephews.
P – Glad you like it! After working on Toy Story, I was surprised at how many people told me they believed their toys came to life as kids. We had tapped into a commonly held belief. So I set out looking for something else like that. I knew that as a kid there were monsters hiding in my closet waiting to scare me. So then we asked ourselves, “Why would monsters scare kids — what do the monsters get out of it?” Initially we thought it might be entertainment for them — one monster would scare and the others would sit in the audience and laugh. But somehow the factory setting just seemed funny, and that lead to the idea of screams being a power source, and things went from there.
Q (Zylll) – I would like to take this opportunity to tell you the scenes in Monsters Inc. with the doors were above and beyond all I could have ever imagined. It’s truely beautiful to see what you (and of course the entire team) can come up with to leave everyone in awe. Thank you for making our lives colorfull and filled with beloved characters.
P – Glad you liked the door chase! As soon as we came up with the idea of using doors as portals from the monster world to the human world, I immediately flashed on where they would store all these doors. The door chase was a lot of fun, and Lee Unkrich (who was codirecting on MI) really pushed the action to another level.
Q (swimman1998) – Are you a Woody or a Buzz man?
P – I like Buzz, because I’m delusional.
Q (boredlike) – What is your favourite Pixar movie?
P – My next one!
Q (Salacious-) – Who is your favorite pixar character, and why?
P – Hard to answer. Carl was fun to write for because he could tell other characters to get lost. If you did that with most characters, the audience would hate them, but Carl got away with it. I also like Kevin the bird, because he’s a big idiot and you never knew what he was going to do next.
Q (clonethedodo) – Did you grow up wanting to be a doctor, Docter?
P – Yes, but I faint at the sight of blood.
Q (boredlike) – What is your favourite particular scene from any of the Pixar films?
P – Well, my favorite scenes are usually the sad ones. I don’t know what that says about me. But I loved doing the “Married Life” sequence on UP, and the scene in Monsters where Sulley has to say goodbye to Boo.
Q (winkleflinkle) – Do you think you could eat 100 McDonald’s chicken nuggets in 1 hour?
P – If you bring them over, I will try.
Q (lovettc) – Who or what are your greatest inspirations or influences?
P – Hoo boy, that could be a long list…. Walt Disney, obviously, and Jim Henson. They both created these amazing organizations devoted to making great characters. Chuck Jones — amazing. Oops — the fire alarm just went on! Gotta evacuate the building! (No joke!)
When Pete was all set, he signed off gracefully by stating, “Thanks everybody for all the questions — it’s really cool to hear you like our movies. I’m off to get back to work now… let’s do this again sometime!“
A big thanks to Pete Docter for taking the time to do this interview on Reddit.