Pete Sohn Interview: Meet the Man Behind The Good Dinosaur

Director Pete Sohn’s The Good Dinosaur hits theaters November 25

Although Pete Sohn makes his feature film debut as director with this month’s The Good Dinosaur, it’s pretty safe bet that, if you’re a fan of DisneyPixar, you’re a fan of Pete Sohn. In addition to voicing Emile the rat in Brad Bird’s Ratatouille and Squishy in Dan Scanlon’s Monsters University, Pete Sohn directed the short film “Partly Cloudy” (which played before Pete Docter and Bob Peterson’s Up). sat down with Pete Sohn during our recent visit to Pixar’s Emeryville campus. If you haven’t already checked it out, click here to read about some of the things we learned going behind the scenes of The Good Dinosaur. Read on to hear, straight from Pete Sohn himself, some of the personal stories and cinematic and real world inspirations that helped shape The Good Dinosaur.

CS: Looking back at “Partly Cloudy,” there are similarities between the stork and the cloud as compared to Arlo and Spot. They both sort of function with a communication barrier.

Pete Sohn: Yes! I think that was unconscious. As we were developing this, I didn’t really refer back to the short, but I suspect it’s a theme within me, when it comes to language. I’ve talked to some people about the immigrant life of growing up in a place where I have to grow up learning English and my parents do not and trying to find ways to communicate through that. That’s definitely part of the reason I went into animation, because of that gestural and image-driven storytelling. In terms of this movie, that’s one of my favorite things. It’s a story of a boy and his dog, so what are those human moments that connect the two? What is that empathy that lies in there? I find it with my own dog. With these dog, we keep finding out that he can be a little bit more. It’s definitely there, though, and it’s really cool that you connected that. I hadn’t thought about that in awhile.

CS: The setup for “The Good Dinosaur” is that an asteroid missed wiping out the dinosaurs and now it’s some time later. What does that explanation offer for you as a storyteller as opposed to a film like “Cars” where it’s simply a world of machines?

Pete Sohn: I didn’t think about it in comparison to Cars, but in that world, they’re already so visually different than our world. It doesn’t need that explanation. Here, we were trying to find a way to have humans and dinosaurs, asking, “Can dinosaurs talk? Can we have humans be that critter?” I played with the idea that we didn’t need that concept at all but, boy, it was a really funny concept just having the asteroid miss and the simple idea of “What would happen?” You could go even further and have them have cities and spaceships or whatever. It all felt like gimmicks so, to focus Arlo’s story, I asked, “What would be the most sincere way to tell this story about a kid trying to survive and grow up in this type of wilderness?” The whole farming concept was really a touchstone for me. Then it was about trying to find little flips in a very subtle way.

Pete Sohn has some interesting things to say about these T. RExes!

CS: Where did the name Arlo come from?

Pete Sohn: There were a lot of names that we thought about, but there was just something really, really sweet about that name. There was also something that lent itself to a frontier world without being so obvert. There was something really kind of simple about it that I really loved.

CS: It’s very clear from the footage that John Ford was a huge inspiration on “The Good Dinosaur.”

Pete Sohn: Oh yeah. I love those kind of movies. It wasn’t just John Ford. It was William Wyler and David Lean and Akira Kurosawa, too. They really knew how to capture wilderness landscapes. Because I grew up on those movies and didn’t grow up in places like that, they seemed like alien places to me. Then, to visit them for the first time, it really hit for me, “Wow, this is where they shot that. This is where they tried to capture that feeling.” What can we do to achieve that? What tools do we have to capture what’s out there, going from horizon to horizon? John Ford and all those other names, though, were inspirations. Freddie Young, the cinematographer for David Lean, would do this thing where, when he’d capture a big place, he’d push the camera ever so slightly so that you get that parallax of the world. Where the world feels huge. [The T. Rexes in The Good Dinosaur] definitely come from that world. Sam Elliot is a cowboy riding that horse. We had versions of those character where they were shouting “Yee-haw!” and were kind of these joke parodies. Once we went out to meet that family — the McKays — I wanted to honor them and that true sense of family life. My own family life, meanwhile, was also very American. My parents came as immigrants and started a life. This life of kind of moving out into the frontier and carving a life out there. Both family groups. It was really inspiring in that sense. I would consider this a frontier film like Jeremiah Johnson or Old Yeller. You don’t really consider them westerns, but they took place in that time.

CS: I will admit that, watching the footage, I immediately assumed the T. Rexes were going to be villains and was pleasantly surprised to see that they’re just living a very different kind of life than Arlo is.

Pete Sohn: That’s something we played with. We have an introduction that, when you do meet them, you wonder if they’re that scary thing you’re used to. That’s something that was really fun. We’re used to dinosaurs as cattle. The roaming long necks through the lake or the really terrifying carnivore who’s just looking for meat. That’s just part of one of the fun little twists.

CS: How long after the asteroid missed the Earth does this story take place? Is this the actual time period of the old west?

Pete Sohn: Yeah, essentially. There’s no real date to it, but it is millions of years later. Frontier times, for sure. What’s great about that Northwest area is that it still feels primordial.


CS: I imagine that, when you tell a room full animators and designers that you’re going to working on a dinosaur movie, you get a lot of happy reactions.

Pete Sohn: It’s really fun! Everyone here had that same love as a kid. I grew up in New York and would go to the Natural History Museum. Boy, they had such dramatic setups for the displays. That’s what’s so fun about this. The scale and all the different types of species. But if we rearranged it so that the long neck has to push its head into the Earth to plow, what are the design elements that we can continue to push to make it a little more tractor-like? So you can feel a machine moving the Earth, but the dinosaur is also a father. It’s a lot of fun.

CS: Do we see a lot of dinosaurs? It seems like part of the story is that he’s lost and isn’t coming across a lot of people.

Pete Sohn: You do meet a good collection of dinosaurs, but there’s not tons of them. Definitely enough to support Arlo’s journey for sure.

CS: Are you doing a voice this time?

Pete Sohn: I’m playing the shaman. The Pet Collector guy. He was always sort of the end of the line version of Arlo. If Arlo continued to live in that fear, what would he become? He’s kind of a kooky guy out there. It was really fun, designing all those characters. The art department had such a good time on that.

CS: In the footage we saw, there was also a sort of snake creature. Is that based on anything real?

Pete Sohn: Sort of! That is a neat coincidence. That was something we were playing around with. We were asking, “If a snake evolved and had legs, what would it start to look like?” Then, just recently, a science magazine found a snake with feet bones from a prehistoric time. Some artist did a painting of it. It was so similar to what we came up with! It’s just some sort of weird mass consciousness going on.

In the new video below, you can The Good Dinosaur‘s reaction to Asteroid TB145 (“Spooky” or the “Halloween Asteroid”) missing the Earth.