Back in April, I was invited to Pixar on behalf of Moviepilot to screen the first hour of Inside Out. While I was there, I was also able to chat with Director Pete Docter and Producer Jonas Rivera via a creative roundtable and exclusive one-on-one interview with Rivera.
These conversations were incredible, mostly because I was able to press the filmmakers on the complex details behind Inside Out, which is arguably Pixar's most detailed world yet. Since I was so immersed in their world, I had plenty to ask in regards to what went into making it and how YOU can prepare yourself as you buy your tickets.
Like I said, the first part of the interview was a roundtable. The extracts below are based on our conversation and random questions thrown at the filmmakers. Some are from me, while others are from other writers.
How much did the movie change from the initial idea you had for it?
PETE: Well, compared to Up, it was like exactly the same. With UP, we started with a floating city and princes and things and…weird. And then it became an old man who flies his house to South America.
With this one, the basic concept was the same. My initial pitch to you guys was, “Emotions as characters that live inside a kid.” But we didn’t have the plot. We knew early on that we’d deal with the “growing up” story.
When was the moment along the creative process that you were most excited about letting people see this film?
PETE: It would go in cycles for me. In the beginning, it was great. Then the honeymoon’s over and you’re realizing that this is a lot of work. Joe (Grant) laughed and said, "They’re all great ideas until you have to tell it to somebody else.” Which is totally true!
And now, I’m getting excited again. I have no idea how people will respond, but I’m proud of the movie.
JONAS: There were micro moments along the way, like for example, Ronnie boarded this little bit of a little a girl walking to school. He illustrated it beautifully. She’s walking to school and she’s happy, saying “hi” to everybody. And then she got to school and some kid was mean to her. And then she walked home from school completely sad. It was something in the way he boarded it and drew it that I was, for the first time, like “Oh, I see it. I see it as a movie. I can’t wait. Let’s show it to everybody!”
And they’re like, “No, let’s do more and change it.” There’s a million of those moments. You come to work, and at least once a week, something like that happens and gives you fuel to keep going.
PETE: That’s how you do it for five years.
Was there any scene that you really wanted but had to cut out for Inside Out?
PETE: There’s one that I loved. So we boarded the whole thing based on the idea that music needs to be understood in some part of the brain. Like if you watch your dog when you’re playing music, clearly the dog is discerning “noise,” right? But for us, it means something.
So there’s probably some center of the mind that interprets music and Joy and Sadness go through that and as Joy is talking to Sadness, her voice becomes like a violin or something. Or like they become music themselves. It was really cool. Shapes would form as they would speak. So just from an animation standpoint, I was super excited about that. But it ended up being too similar to “Abstract Thought.” So we cut that out.
There were other cool ideas. We thought they should head down the “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” We had the Secrets Vault, where all the secrets that Riley knew about were locked up.
You guys seemed to purposefully not use a lot of technology to tell the story. Why is that?
PETE: Maybe it’s just because we’re Luddites (laughs). She (Riley) does talk to her friend on Skype, or whatever we invented as a Skype surrogate. My kids, up until recently, didn’t have phones. These scenes are really boring. Just watching someone type...so we tried to make it more active.
JONAS: We’re parents on the border of that generation, you know? My first email was here at Pixar. It wasn’t intentional either way. It’s just how we see the world.
That speaks to a lot of this conversation, the guts of the movie for us. Why it was easy to get behind it and spend so much time on it. It’s that these are emotions are our version of the seven dwarfs. They’e not their parents. They’re this team of advisors that she has, and like a parent or an aunt or uncle, you do your best to guide, but you can’t control. Even when you think you can.
PETE: They may or may not listen to you. And it’s true of emotions, too. It’s kind of the way we broke it down. You don’t choose to feel angry, you just do. That’s a feeling that comes to you. But then you choose how you’re going to deal with it. You can hit somebody, or you could mask it...or you could do any number of things.
(The rest of the interview below is based on my one-on-one with Jonas Rivera)
For your own mind, which emotion do you think would call the shots?
JONAS: I gotta go with Joy. I feel like, unless everyone else disagrees, I’m for the most part a happy, optimistic person.
You’ve been with Pixar for a long time now. How does Inside Out break new ground for Pixar movies?
JONAS: Well, it’s a complex story. There was no big technology push like in Monsters Inc. with fur, or water on Finding Nemo.
Up was a little similar. It was almost like a challenge for a technology toolset because Pete was after more caricature and feel than we have been in the past. So in other words, he would say “I want them to look like emotions would feel. And that includes lighting and effects, so what tools do we have to do that?”
We really turned tools on its head. For example, Monsters University sort of introduced Global Illumination Tool in lighting. It places practical lights where you want them and renders the whole thing so that you get a sense of believability where things are.
When you’re dealing with a world where things are translucent and characters are illuminated and shadows intentionally don’t want to work, that technology goes out the window. Inside Out is just another example of how we’re always looking for the tools that can help advance and tell the story. This story required a lot of whimsy and color. Things that didn’t feel quite literal.
At times, this world feels as detailed as a George RR Martin novel. How did you think this all up?
JONAS: It was born out of such a great observation Pete made of his daughter. I knew we had a great concept, but that it was going to be a long, winding road to find a point where we could dramatize it as a literal emotion picture with a beginning, middle, and end arc.
There are so many threads we pulled and wrong turns we took. I would have to sit here for a month to walk back through it.
I think the things we wrestled with were, narratively, Joy: How do you make a character that’s name is Joy? She’s happy. She’s always optimistic. How do you make that likable? She’s gotta be believable.
And what are the stakes? What is Riley’s story? One without the other and all of a sudden, it starts to fall flat, so then you realize we have two movies we’re trying to interweave here. It took a lot of trial and error.
We always knew that Riley would have to be steered into some social storm or cue that she’d miss that would cause emotional distress. If you let Joy do that, you’re coming into a spot where you don’t like Joy as a character. Like in any movie, you have to deal with character likability, but you also have to have a two-fold character.
What were some of the steps you took to make sure this didn’t go over kids’ heads?
JONAS: We did think about that, especially as the world got more complex with memories, fading memories, losing them, and islands and things that mean things by proxy.
So we actually strung the movie together and recruited an audience of our kids, neighbor’s kids, and kids on the soccer team from among the crew. We brought them in on a Saturday and screened the whole movie. We did a couple of focus groups and asked “Who followed this?” and “Can you explain this back to me?”
We were happy to see that they tracked it. They got it. They were able to read the mechanics of the world and how it worked and who did what. That the emotions had jobs. Some of the bigger picture pillars of the movie translated, and that was really rewarding. The audience is smarter than people think, so we can throw the ball pretty far here.
What would you say is Inside Out’s version of Up’s shape language?
JONAS: That’s a great question. It’s color in this movie. Ralph Eggleston had this great idea that the inside of the world is very saturated and bold. And the colors of the memories and the characters represent being bold and bright.
The outside world almost leans more monochromatic, and as you kind of get through the movie, we use color to strip out the color of Riley’s world in San Francisco, which is then echoed in the interior world.
Shape-wise, I think we wanted you to see in Headquarters this sense of whimsy. We wanted it to feel more like the mind of a child. Ralph and the team came up with more rounded colors and shapes. I describe it as “It’s a Small World” meets an Apple Store. It’s part clinical and part whimsy and fun.
The characters themselves came more from shapes of elements than just people. Joy would be a star. She’s "glowy" and always vibrant. Sadness is a teardrop. She has that shape and her hair is even like a waterfall crying. Disgust is the shape of broccoli, even with the color and the stalk. Anger, of course, is just a lump of coal. He’s immovable and square. And Fear is a nerve, almost like a raw nerve that’s tight and wound.
If there was a short for Inside Out or even a sequel, would you throw other emotions into the mix?
JONAS: Not only would we like to, we did produce a short that will be out with the DVD. Josh Cooley (head of story) came up with it. It’s an expansion of the world and goes into other people’s heads and sees how other people think. We’re very proud of it.
I have to admit that my day at Pixar was also full of color and whimsy. I'll be checking out Inside Out at an early screening soon, and we'll definitely have even more to say about the film once the time comes. But from what I've seen so far, it's going to be quite the emotional roller coaster.
Oh, one more thing. On my way out of the interview with Rivera, someone in the room asked coyly, "Hey Jon, does this fit into your Pixar theory?"
I simply responded: "Honestly? I've already written it down."