At this point, the world knows what the creative and imaginative minds of the Pixar Animation Studios have brought us in terms of all the different types of stories that can be told in animation, breaking new ground with each and every one of their features.
With their latest movie Inside Out ready to hit theaters on Friday, Disney•Pixar held a special presentation in New York today with director Pete Sohn to give an early look at their second feature of 2015, November’s The Good Dinosaur.
You may have seen the first teaser trailer or some of the artwork, and you already know the general premise of it taking place in a world where dinosaurs weren’t made extinct because the asteroid that did that deed missed the Earth. You also might have read about the new voice cast and characters they play, but this presentation allowed Sohn to give the journalists in attendance the first chance to see how the pieces come together.
Pete Sohn has been at Pixar going back to Finding Nemo, for which he worked in the story department, and he’s been involved with almost all of the Pixar movies since in some capacity or other. (Some may even known Sohn as the inspiration for Russell in Pete Docter’s Up.) His big break was directing the short film Partly Cloudy in 2009 and he finally got a chance to direct his first feature with The Good Dinosaur.
Sohn’s presentation began with a sizzle reel about Pixar that included a few somewhat humiliating clips of Sohn in various costumes while on the Pixar campus. Before getting to the movie, Sohn then told those in attendance about his childhood growing up in the North Bronx, the son of Korean immigrants that owned a bodega, and how he and his mother loved going to the movies together even though she didn’t speak any English and didn’t always understand what was happening. Sohn’s love of movies and his interest in cartooning and animation led him to New York’s SVA and then CalArts, which led to him working on Brad Bird’s animated classic The Iron Giant. He then got into his arrival at Pixar and some of the lessons he learned from the Brain Trust while trying to pitch ideas and how one has to put their heart into everything they do even if an idea gets trashed by the veteran filmmakers in charge.
It seemed a little odd that Sohn was spending so much time talking about his life and history, although at least it was illustrated with some of his cute and funny artwork, and it really added up once he started talking about the movie itself. One of the key points was how he talked about his mother and trying to communicate with her despite neither speaking each other’s language, which really struck home the more we learned about the film.
But first, Sohn explained the environment for the film, which is a wild and primal world that was inspired by time spent in the Teton Mountains of Wyoming, an expedition taken by Sohn and some of the principals not unlike previous Pixar excursions to Scotland (for Brave) and Central America (for Up). He showed some of the painted concept art but even more impressive were the environments created solely via animation that were more photorealistic than much of Pixar’s other films.
After showing the teaser, Sohn showed an image of the film’s main character, an Apatosaurus named Arlo, voiced by Raymond Ochoa, explaining how he’s part of a family of farmers with Arlo’s parents voiced by Jeffrey Wright and Frances McDormand. He has a brother Buck, voiced by Marcus Scribner, and a sister named Libby. We were shown a concept picture of Arlo and his father in the fields of their farm chasing after firebugs.
I want to be careful about spoilers, but something happens to Arlo’s father and shortly after, he falls into the river and is carried hundreds of miles from his family. Now Arlo has already had trouble adjusting to the fierceness of the world, but he’s now alone and away from his family making it even harder for him to forage and find shelter. Sohn showed a short clip of Arlo falling into the river and being carried away from his family farm, which was a good example of the contrast between the realism of the backgrounds and the cartoonish take on the dinosaur creatures.
He meets a young human he names “Spot” voiced by Jack Bright, which we got to meet through more concept art and test footage. What makes the inter-species pairing interesting is that Arlo talks and Spot just kind of growls and grunts and makes noises, so the roles are reversed where the human is actually the animal. Somehow, they’re able to find a way to coexist as they try to survive.
Sohn then talked about some of the characters and critters they meet on their journey which, includes a Styracosaurus that has tiny critters all over his horns that he uses to protect him from various things. Steve Zahn voices a pterodactyl named Thunderclap that’s one of the many predators and threats they encounter and there’s also a family of T-Rexes that includes Sam Elliot as the father Butch, and his two kids Nash and Ramsey, voiced by AJ Buckley and Anna Paquin. Sohn talked enthusiastically about working with those voice actors and showed some test footage of Butch stomping around.
But even with such an interesting voice cast, Sohn stressed that this will not be a movie with a lot of talking as they’re trying to do as much visually as possible, trying to tell the story through behavior and gestures. Part of this came down to a desire to try to create a film that won’t rely on language as much so that anyone can enjoy it, which will probably make it even more kid-friendly than other Pixar movies.
The second clip Sohn showed was much longer and more fully realized, which showed Arlo and Spot starting to bond over similar interests, in this case their love of chasing firebugs which Arlo stirs out of the brush with his tail as they chase after them to chomp in their mouth. They then settle down and Arlo tries to explain the world “family” to the young boy in the type of tearjerking emotional moments Pixar has now become famous for. It was even more moving when you realized that in some ways, the two characters may be representing Sohn and his relationship with his own mother (in terms of their inability to communicate) and he even got a bit misty-eyed having not had a chance to see her while back in New York.
After showing the clip, Sohn took a couple of questions from the audience including one about the creative complications that delayed the film’s release by over a year. Sohn said that by trying to create something original, things can get very complicated with so many ideas to go with, and a lot of the delays were about culling down those ideas to the film’s essence.
Sohn also mentioned Ray Harryhausen and Carroll Ballard’s 1979 film The Black Stallion as primary influences on him as a filmmaker in making the movie.
They still have a lot of work to do to finish up the movie, which may be why we haven’t seen a full trailer and they didn’t have a ton of footage to show us, and Sohn would be heading right back to Pixar to go through the arduous process of finishing the movie. We have to assume that they’ll have even more ready to show for the D23 Expo in August.
There’s little question from the little we saw and heard that The Good Dinosaur is going to be really special and personal film for Sohn, which probably will translate well once we get to see more of the movie closer to its release over Thanksgiving on November 25. It will be even more interesting if this ends up being as good as Inside Out and we end up with a Pixar vs. Pixar face-off at the Academy Awards, but hey, getting two Pixar movies in one year means we all win!