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Designing Story — Pixar’s Peter Sohn

Peter Sohn joined Pixar Animation Studios in September 2000 and has worked in the art, story, and animation departments for the Academy Award–winning films Finding Nemo and WALL•E, as well as The Incredibles. Sohn made his directorial debut in 2009 with the Pixar short Partly Cloudy. Sohn’s first feature-length film, The Good Dinosaur, opens this month (November 2015). Prior to Pixar, Sohn worked for Warner Bros. Studio and Disney TV. He grew up in New York, attended California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), and currently lives in the Bay Area.

Pamela Horn, Cooper Hewitt’s Head of Cross-Platform Publishing, spoke with Peter about his process.

Pamela Horn: What was your path from art school to director?

Peter Sohn: I remember being very inspired by animation and that process. In high school, I tried to learn . . . about art and animation schools through people that I had met. Specifically, a professor from CalArts explained it this way: that if you want to get into animation there are two ways to go, there’s the “buffet” and then there’s the “one meal” style. He talked about East Coast schools as the “buffet” — where they will teach you all about the different types of animation and different ways to make that type of art. And the California schools, being the “one meal” style — that is just straight, classic feature animation.

At the time, all I wanted to learn about was just that feature animation process — how to make a film. And once I told him that, he said that I all I needed to do was draw, and study, and understand motion, and observe life. After talking to him all I did was fill sketchbooks and try to get into art school.

PH: I saw a video of you when I was at Pixar that involved the making of Russell, the little boy from Up. You were hoisting on your overloaded backpack and physically embodying the character of this lovable little Boy Scout. It looked like you were homing in on how to best create the most appealing and believable little boy.

PS: Yeah. That’s correct. It’s rarely just about the external form to start. It’s always about the inside of the character. It’s a really fun and kind of intense process. You start out just drawing funny doodles and silly drawings, but then there is a line that you follow until you hit some sort of truth. You know it really is a gut thing where everyone agrees and says that feels right, that’s the character.

PH: How long did it take to develop the Russell character through that process?

PS: It was several months for sure. In our art department there’s an old tradition of everyone caricaturing one another in our meetings — one person becomes the focus and then everyone tries to capture that person’s essence in not the most flattering way. When you’re targeted, you’re targeted. I remember telling those guys stories about growing up in New York, and as a kid, getting a Boy Scout pamphlet. We were joking around and they drew all of these caricatures of me. I’m a hefty guy and Asian American, and what they drew was essentially a giant thumb with a Boy Scout hat!

Ricky Nierva, Up’s head designer, asked me to start doing some drawings using the caricature that’d been drawn of me. So, Russell became an Asian-American character. And I was very proud of him being an Asian American, and said I’d like to help out in whatever way I can.

There are many routes to how you explore character, but it obviously requires hours of drawing — poking at the eyes, poking at the shape, and then finding situations that the character would be in. Does he eat a lot? Does he carry stuff around? Is he a loner? Is he an extrovert? And I’d just explore character by drawing different poses and situations, using my learning from art school to quickly draw something as a way to capture a gesture, and some sort of energy. Then I said, okay, he’s, like, an eight- to ten-year-old kid, and, if he was running, maybe he’s got a kind of “stubby” run where he bounces. I used to know this kid at my dad’s grocery store and he would run around and he would just touch everything — every can or cereal box. What if he was like that? And what if he was really messy? And you show it to the directors and the team and they start talking about it, breaking it down, seeing what they connected to, or what they thought the story needed, and you would go from there. You start to fine-tune it until there was a design in 2-D that would need to be translated into a [character] sculpt or into the computer.

PH: Would you say your roles at Pixar leading up to and including The Good Dinosaur encompass animator, actor, and director?

PS: That’s interesting, yeah. I love all parts of filmmaking. It’s been a dream ever since I was a kid to work with all these people here. Look, when I was growing up in New York our neighborhood was pretty segregated — the Koreans stayed in one place, Puerto Ricans stayed in another place. My dad had a grocery store on Burke Avenue near 241st Street in the Bronx. I feel as if I missed a great deal because of identifying with a group purely according to race. I judged myself by my skin color. But once I went to art school, I started to connect to a new kind of race — a new tribe — a kind of filmmaker and nerd tribe! I absolutely connected to them and from that point on, I considered myself part of the filmmaking race!

PH: Can you tell me about when you joined The Good Dinosaur team?

PS: Absolutely! Around 2009, I began working with one of Pixar’s directors, Bob Peterson, helping with the film’s art and story development, and some animation. It was Bob’s amazing and simple idea of a boy and dog story, but flipping it where the dinosaur becomes the boy and the dog is the human boy. I helped him for several years developing that — it was so fun.

But the story got complicated and the film divided into two and a half different stories: a father and son story, a boy and dog story, and there was also a changing-of-the-world thing happening. There were a lot of great things about these directions — but there were really some tough story issues to figure out.

When I got asked to direct it, I just simplified it to honor what Bob’s original idea was. Obviously, the boy and dog story is a very simple one, but trying to do that in a very sincere and emotional way was the trick.

PH: Do you always approach a film first through characters or story?

PS: Not necessarily. You can start off with a world, you can start off with a character, or you can start off with a story.

In this instance, one of the first things that we started off with wasn’t even a character per se; there was just a nugget. I remember drawing a giant, long-necked apatosaurus with his head on the ground plowing miles of farmland, and there was something interesting about a scenario where dinosaurs have evolved to farm and form an agrarian kind of community.

Then the question to ask was: What if? What if dinosaurs lived in a frontier world and they have to fend for themselves in this harsh wilderness? Digging deeper into the history of American farming led me to the theme of honest-to-God, hardworking families, and then I came right up against my own history.

My father worked very hard, and I understand that life of working in one place. A store and a farm are very different things, but I saw the connections between American farm life and my own family’s experiences. So I started digging into that with the story crew and art department helping to flesh things out.

With a handle on some of the traits of the main character, I then asked, What is this story going to be about? What is this film going to be about? You hope some story lines work out, but if they don’t you toss them. It’s a volatile process looking to strike that emotional chord that sings, all with the goal of trying to support the characters’ journey in the story. At certain points, it’s about trusting your gut. That is one of the first pieces of advice one of the other directors gave me when I first started this gig. It was that you’re not going to have all the answers. You think you will, but you won’t — maybe not until three months before the film opens!

PH: There have been numerous kinds of dinosaur films over the years. How did you go about creating such a unique world with such an appealing dinosaur?

PS: I don’t know if we’ve hit it . . . I’m almost done with this film, but the idea was to create a relationship that is unique and set the story in a world filled with dinosaurs that you haven’t seen before. There are elements, of course, that we are exploiting that you have seen before. But that’s just because there are fun things having to do with dinosaurs that I, as a filmgoer, enjoy and wanted to kind of exploit. But at the same time, I was trying to create a relationship that you have not seen before, set in a world you have not seen before. There’s a photo-real quality to the natural world in our film that is very different from other Pixar films.

But the realism was done purposely to create a kind of threatening world because our characters are younger — younger than [characters in] other Pixar films for sure. As the characters’ journey through this world, you have to believe that an animal can get hurt out there.

PH: So, Arlo [the dinosaur] is vulnerable?

PS: Exactly. That’s right. How do you take a dinosaur and try to create human boyish attributes in him, so you can empathize with him when he does get lost in the woods. Well, when he is looking around with those eyes, they’re fearful. And then, how to convey his efforts to connect to this dog that doesn’t speak the same language? Again, I focused on the design of those eyes, so that he can communicate more with the eyebrows, the eyelids, and the pupils. All the anatomical work that the great animators do to communicate feelings without dialogue.

This article first appeared in the Fall 2015 Design Journal published by Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, in conjunction with the exhibition Pixar: The Design of Story, on display October 8, 2015-September 11, 2016.

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