Pixar’s animated classics have taken us from the jungles of South America to outer space. Now, thanks to Bloomington native Pete Docter, the studio carries us to suburban Minnesota in “Inside Out.”
Docter has played a key role in the brain trust at Pixar Animation as a writer, director and artist almost from its inception in 1986. It was clear from his days at Nine Mile Elementary School that the son of two educators combined a cartoonish imaginary life with a thoughtful, articulate streak.
Those qualities created his 2001 smash hit “Monsters, Inc.,” nominated in the first year of the Academy’s animated film Oscar. Docter won the animation Oscar with 2009’s “Up,” which was also up for best picture.
His new film, “Inside Out,” which hits theaters Friday, is a mind-bending fantasy. It takes us inside the head of Riley, an 11-year-old girl whose parents have just moved from Minnesota to San Francisco, making her feel lonely, nostalgic and a tad frightened. Inside Riley’s “headquarters,” five vital emotions — Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Anger and Fear — squabble over how to make her happy and keep her safe. The project began, Docter said, when his daughter, Elie, became a bit distant at age 11, and he wondered what was going on in her mind.
In a recent conversation he talked about the making of the movie, its Minnesota connection and his daughter’s critique of his five-year project.
Q: Is “Inside Out” semi-autobiographical?
A: Yes. As often happens, I started out talking about her, and she was 11 when we started on it. Just before that she had done the voice for the young Ellie in “Up” (a brave youngster who wins the heart of a shy boy named Carl) so she was kind of like that character. After getting older, she started to get quiet and withdrawn a little bit. I remember doing that myself. I started talking about her and I wound up talking about my experiences as an adult, watching this happen. So [the film] is definitely based on some strong emotional things that we went through. But that’s good. Hopefully, it will be interesting for people to see.
Q: Has your relationship with Elie deepened because of your work on this project?
A: As kids get older, your relationship changes. Part of the personal journey for me that is reflected in the film is the sadness of watching your kids grow up. You don’t really think about it as they are growing up; you’re running after them and shuffling them places. But as that goes away, you think, “Wait, wait, wait, I liked you as a 9-year-old. Uhhh!” It’s hard to let go of holding onto childhood.
Q: There are a lot of wistful images and references here about moving away from Minnesota. Is that rooted in your own experiences?
A: Yeah. We were looking for ways to represent childhood and the sort of idealism of that. In some ways, I think Minnesota was that for me. It was a small town, but it was big enough to have some culture and things to learn from — it wasn’t like a Podunk place.
Minnesota has this sort of protective-dome feel to me. It all kind of fits in with what we were trying to say about the kid and growing up.
Putting her on the hockey team was imaginary. I’m not much of a sports guy — nobody in my family is — but it was definitely all around us. The other thing that worked well for us was that there’s no real hockey out here, so when Riley moves, it’s a big change to break her from all the comforts and familiarity of home. Showing the wide open spaces of the landscapes in Minnesota suburbs and comparing that to the verticals and diagonals of San Francisco was very complex visually. Whether this is true or not, the way we relate to memories of our childhood is that it was a simple, pure time. Adulthood is much more complex and nuanced, and we tried to visually represent that.
Q: Does working on films that are largely about childhood bring you back to your own core memories?
A: Yeah, I think everybody’s childhood is crucial to forming who they are. I don’t know if this means I haven’t fully worked through issues of childhood … but I do go back to it a lot. Time seems to accelerate as you get older. At some level we all spent much more time in our childhoods than we have in our adulthoods. It ends up being really impactful on me as a person. We’re always looking for storytelling that will resonate with other people. Everyone’s been a kid, and I think everyone had difficulties. So it seems like fertile ground.
Q: How did young viewers respond to advance screenings?
A: We showed the film to a lot of kids because we were a little concerned that this is pretty heady stuff. We brought in a bunch of kids and they understood it better than the adults did. That was good. There was one kid who said the next day they were going swimming, and he had always had trouble diving off the diving board. But this day he went out and jumped and they said, “Wow, great, how did you do it?” And he said, “Well, I just felt Fear was driving and I needed to ask him to step aside.” I thought it was cool that [the movie] helped him gain some confidence.
Q: Is the idea that there are five recognizable drivers to somebody’s mind-set an accepted psychological theory or are professionals going to say, “Come on now”?
A: I think people will say “Oh come on,” but they also say that about each other’s research. Depending on who you talk to, it ranges from six to — I think one researcher had 27 distinct measurable emotions. Some other researchers say there’s no emotion at all depending on how you slice the whole thing. We had done some work with Paul Ekman, who’s a pioneering researcher in facial expressions, just to get the facial expressions right when we were working on “Toy Story.” His theory was that there are six. There were all the guys [in the movie], plus Surprise, which we felt as a character would probably be a little redundant with Fear. So we ended up eliminating one and just having the five. But depending on others, there’s Pride and all sorts of others. It’s a poetic look at this, it’s not trying to be scientific.
Q: Pixar has changed how ambitious animation can be. You’ve set the bar high not only for yourselves but also for all your competitors. Films like “Kung Fu Panda” or “Madagascar 3” are far better than what was being made before. Is that making it harder for Pixar to stand out?
A: Yeah. But it’s good, right? I think competition is always really good. Even at the studio we don’t want to sit on our laurels. We want to beat ourselves as well as everyone else. It does make it a bit more difficult to carve out a voice for yourself because there’s a lot more out there.
Q: Pixar has a reputation as a place of long relationships. What’s it like to work there? Is it like a big happy college where people feel like they have tenure and they can follow their own imaginations?
A: Not really. It is a very pleasant place to work and some of my best friends are co-workers. We work together and then have dinner together and hang out on the weekends and travel together. It’s attracted some really quality people in addition to their talent. But I don’t think there’s ever a sense that, “OK, now I can just kick back.” You always have to be reinventing and proving yourself and contributing. I think that’s another thing about the people I’ve hired. As a director, half of my job is saying, “OK, enough, stop.” Most of the time you hear people talking about encouraging people to move forward. At Pixar, it’s almost the opposite. People are so over-achieving they sneak in on the weekends and work without putting it on their time card because they just want it to be better.
Q: Some people say Pixar is evolving into a two-tier structure. There are a lot of Pixar films driven by someone’s inspiration — such as “Inside Out” and “Up” — but also there are bread and butter movies that are not so brilliant and driven by merchandising, such as “Cars.” Is that correct?
A: I’ve heard people talk about that. I sort of bristle at that idea because I don’t ever want to feel as though we’re doing something just for the money of it. “Up,” for as esoteric as it is, made a heck of a lot — it did good business. You can’t sneeze at that. So I think there definitely is room for both to exist. We’ve made our living doing that. It’s been creatively and financially successful. So I would hope that even as we move forward into doing sequels, we are doing these because we feel there is some story that needs to be told.
Q: How did your kids respond to seeing “Inside Out”?
A: I was actually a little nervous about it. Especially Elie because it’s based on her. She’s 16 now, so when she walked out she said, “Eh, good movie, Dad” — you know, very casually. Which I took as a compliment.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186