It all started with Pete Docter, the Oscar-winning director of Up, wondering what was happening in his daughter’s head.
The girl was 11 years old and “she suddenly changed from a crazy little goofball kid into a much more quiet pre-teen.” It was as if someone had gone in, he says, and rewired all of her emotions.
And even though Docter couldn’t do much to help young Elie work through her adolescent growing pains … bingo! Movie idea!
Inside Out, the 15th feature-length animated gem from Pixar, arriving in theaters Friday, goes on a fantastic voyage inside a little girl’s psyche and introduces moviegoers to the emotions — joy, sadness and anger — that can make people so unpredictable.
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And because Docter works in the world of animation, these emotions have magically morphed into lovable characters with vibrant personalities, the same way that Toy Story brought a child’s inanimate playthings to life.
“I was really taken with the idea of using emotions as characters,” Docter says while in Dallas this month to promote the film. “There have been movies that went inside the body and the brain, like Fantastic Voyage and Innerspace.
“But what if we were to explore the mind and look at things like consciousness, dreams and memories?”
Five shades of gray matter
Inside Out turns this rather abstract idea into a marvel of whimsically inventive filmmaking.
Deep inside 11-year-old Riley’s “headquarters” is the NASA-style control center where five Emotions — Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust — steer her through daily life.
Joy (a yellow pixie with Audrey Hepburn hair, an effervescent personality and the perky voice of Amy Poehler) is the one who’s usually in charge of Riley’s demeanor.
But when the girl moves to a new town and goes to a new school, Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling) take turns at the controls, sending Riley into an emotional freefall.
In an effort to save Riley’s happy core memories, Joy must go on a journey through different areas of Riley’s psyche, which include Imagination Land (a Disney-style amusement park of the incredible), Dream Productions (a movie studio of the mind) and the Picasso-esque area of Abstract Thought.
In the long run, Riley’s Emotions will learn to work together as a team, creating a more well-rounded individual.
The film took Docter and an army of more than 350 Pixar employees five years to complete.
“Amy Poehler did season after season after season of a TV show while we kept tinkering away on this,” says Jonas Rivera, Docter’s longtime producing partner. “We’re a little embarrassed about that.
“But the fact is that animation is slow. Animation is glacial. Even if a locked script fell out of the sky, it would still take two years to produce it.”
To put it in perspective, Toy Story (Pixar’s debut feature film in 1995) took the studio about four years to make; 2012’s Brave took nearly eight.
There were times early in Inside Out’s development process when things weren’t going well and Docter and Rivera started listening too much to the Fear voice inside them.
Had they bitten off more than they could chew? Maybe they should have kept it simpler. After all, what’s wrong with just making a movie populated by anthropomorphic toys, fish (Finding Nemo) and automobiles (Cars)?
“Our concept seemed straightforward enough,” Docter says. “But then, as we got into the execution, we quickly realized, ‘This is going to take awhile to figure all of this out.’
“What are the rules of a place like this? Like, what does a memory bank look like? It wasn’t like we could just look at a picture of a fish and then design the fish. There are no pictures of emotions. We realized pretty early on that this was going to be a lot of work.”
Ode to Joy
“I loved the idea the minute Pete pitched it,” Rivera says. “It felt fun but thoughtful at the same time. It was exciting to think that our five Emotions could be like our version of the Seven Dwarfs. But it wasn’t a movie yet. It was just an idea worthy of a movie.”
It took quite a long time, Docter says, not only to develop the look of the characters and the logic of this world, but also to pinpoint the story’s ultimate message.
But the hard work paid off. Inside Out is already getting euphoric reviews and is almost certain to be another crowd-pleasing hit for Pixar and Disney.
“I remember seeing the first test of Joy,” Rivera says. “We labored over getting her just right: her dress, her hair, the rigging under her face. Then one day one of the animators did a little snippet where she was stomping around in a simple little walk cycle and it activated my little Joy emotion inside my head.
“I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, she’s finally alive.’ That was a really big day. We finally could see the motion picture through the weeds.”
“What’s great about working at a place like Pixar,” Docter says, “is there’s an embarrassment of riches. There are so many resources and so much brain power at your fingertips. There’s a talent pool of writers and animators — anything you need, you can cast them accordingly.
“If we needed to add a touch of humor here, we’d be like, ‘Hey, this is right up Bob’s alley.’ If we needed someone to design a machine of some kind, like the Train of Thought, we’d know exactly who to turn to, because we’ve actually got a guy who’s a train expert!
“Anything we can think of, I know who to ask. It’s like Pixar has re-created the old Hollywood studio system. We’re pretty lucky.”
Animation from frustration
Docter has played a major role in turning Pixar into that kind of operation. He was just the third animator hired by Pixar back in 1990.
He helped develop the story and characters for Toy Story and cut his teeth as a feature-film director with 2001’s Monsters, Inc.
Up, released in 2009, was inspired by Docter’s fantasies about escaping a life that becomes too irritating. It won an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and was just the second animated film in history to receive a Best Picture nomination (1991’s Beauty and the Beast was the first).
The great irony of Docter serving as commander-in-chief over these multimillion-dollar blockbusters, marshaling the combined talents of so many others, is that he got into animation because he wasn’t very good with people.
“Real life as a junior high kid was always scary for me,” he remembers. “I wasn’t totally aware what was expected of me, what the rules of social interaction were, so animation was a way for me to make my own little worlds where I knew the rules because I could control them.
“Early on, I was enamored with the craft, with creating beautiful drawings and movement. Now I’m really into the storytelling aspect of it. Animation is a wonderful way to communicate ideas.”
The idea that Docter would like viewers to take away from Inside Out?
“I’m also hoping it will make people think a little more deeply about the way we think,” he says. “While it doesn’t purport to be a scientifically accurate film, it does examine how our minds operate, sometimes in ways that are invisible even to ourselves.
“I hope that the film allows people to step back and think a little about how much of our lives are driven by gut-level, intuitive, emotional responses.
“But first and foremost, it has to work as entertainment. If that doesn’t work on that level, you don’t get any deeper into the film, because people are paying money to have a good time.”