Until 2014, Pixar had released a feature film every year for eight straight years. For several years during that run, the studio even flirted with releasing two films in a year, demonstrating the growth in its efficiency, so the chance of not releasing any features in a given year seemed to be unthinkable. However, the unthinkable occurred when The Good Dinosaur was delayed about 18 months, leaving 2014 as the first time in a good while that Pixar was absent, at least on the big screen. Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to sit down with director Peter Sohn to discuss the challenges the film faced and what it’s like to be vulnerable when millions of people are watching. Read about our discussion after the break.
The Good Dinosaur, which arrives on home video today, is set in a world where the asteroid that hit Earth and killed of the dinosaurs actually missed, allowing dinosaurs to live on. The world is inhabited by both dinosaurs and humans, and we see into the eyes of both through the story which revolves around Arlo, a green Apatosaurus, and Spot, a young boy. The two do not share a language and have to find other ways to communicate, giving way to long stretches of film without dialogue.
I’ve had the privilege of speaking to several in the film industry and what struck me most about Sohn is just how humble and honest he is. This is an individual who directed a film for one of the most successful studios of our time, who was promoted from co-director to the lead director on a film that had become “stuck.” Sohn referred to the troubled film as a “sick kid” that needed care to “work.” He was scared and apprehensive, even repeating to his crew that he was “gonna mess up” when he first took over.
A system is in place in Emeryville, California, where the gorgeous campus of the animation studio is located, that allows the crew the ability to fail so that eventually success can be had. Usually, the four to five year development process the films are provided is enough time for the failures to evolve into a triumph. That was not the case for The Good Dinosaur, according to Sohn, which was going in so many directions that more time was needed to fix the problem. This led to the question of whether the film should be rushed out to meet the previously announced release date. After all, Pixar films print money, where the argument can be made that the brand alone piques interest among audiences. Sohn made it sound as if there was no choice but to delay the film, stating that it is a “true testament to Pixar.” This is a decision that warrants more attention than it has received. The film industry is practically overflowing with stories of how corners were cut to meet a release date, to save money, especially when the money is essentially guaranteed to flow in. The fact that Pixar decided to delay its film, and spend millions more to up its quality is simply remarkable.
Discussing the story ideas that were not working, Sohn laid out some examples, including how Arlo the main character was originally supposed to be 25-years-old. If you have seen the final film, you know that he ended up being significantly younger, effectively a child. One of the other ideas that didn’t make the final cut centered around the community in which Arlo and his family dwell – there was set to be a larger number of dinosaurs in the setting, with their outlook generally being negative. It was up to Arlo to have the community “see the light,” a story that Sohn compared to Footloose. On top of that, a monster would also threaten said community, which Sohn stated would have ended up complicating the storyline and distracting the audience from the real story of the dinosaur and the boy. According to Sohn, he gained confidence soon after he took over the directorial role, and with the help of his crew figured out that they should return to the focal point of the original pitch for the film. It was Bob Peterson who dreamed up the idea for The Good Dinosaur, and he had made the Arlo and Spot relationship the heart of the story. Simplifying the story to that relationship and building the rest of the film around that would be a major turning point in the film’s production path.
In speaking about how the film ultimately turned out, Sohn often cites his personal life journey, specifically how even though his parents did not know English, animated films were a form of storytelling they did not need a common language to enjoy and understand. In our conversation, I pointed out to the director that by speaking about his life and sharing it in the form of an animated film inspired by the life story, he was making himself vulnerable to a countless number of people. How did the man who was vocal about his fears of failure to the crew that was trusting him to save a project become so comfortable with being brutally honest to the millions who would be judging his work? Sohn acknowledged that terror turned to comfort over time – a long period of time.
The terror he felt traced itself back to when he was a child. Sohn would refrain from showing his drawings to anybody, opting to keep them hidden. That changed, though, as he learned what others could offer when they saw his work. He discovered that only through sharing his work could he learn from what others had to say, and more importantly learn about himself. Throughout this process, he built a metaphorical place for himself that was safe, that allowed “honesty and truthful expressions of art to appear.” This directly informed his time spent as director on The Good Dinosaur. He was willing to learn, and he was comfortable sharing that eagerness with his crew. “I wanted the crew to know I didn’t have all the answers but that I would try my hardest to learn along the way,” Sohn explained. He continued, “You have to be vulnerable but also be able to take the punches,” demonstrating that throughout the production being vulnerable was a risk he saw worth taking for the good of the film. Although, from what Sohn seems to be saying, he had come to recognize that risk as low because of what he had learned from his experiences throughout his personal life and his life at Pixar.
This is the first in a series of articles from my time spent with the cast and crew of the film. Stay tuned for more from my discussions with them.
The Good Dinosaur is now available on Blu-ray and DVD, as well as on Disney’s digital service, Disney Movies Anywhere.