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The TNR Q&A: Pete Docter

From Finding Nemo to Cars, The Incredibles to Ratatouille, one quality that has struck me in Pixar’s films is their seamlessness, the way each narrative and visual element reinforces the others, underlining the same moral and emotional themes. A short while back, I had a chance to talk briefly with Pixar veteran Pete Docter--director of Up (my review is here) and Monsters, Inc., as well as a writer on Wall-E and both Toy Storys--and we discussed Pixar’s process and how it is the studio gets its movies to cohere so elegantly. (Transcript edited for length and, yes, coherence.)

The New Republic: Without reducing Pixar films to a formula, it’s clear that there are certain traits that tend to characterize the studio’s films. To what extent do you guys think that there’s a Pixar “style,” and what do you think characterizes it?

Pete Docter: Well, for better or for worse, I’ve never heard anybody in any of the meetings say, “Eh, that’s not Pixar enough.” But we’re definitely looking for character-based stuff. That’s first and foremost: that it’s all seen through the main character’s eyes and all motivated by the characters. Hopefully, all good movies are made that way. We’re also trying to appeal to the animator in us. All of us so far, except for Lee Unkrich, who’s directing Toy Story 3, come from an animation background. There is something about animation that makes you see things in a certain way, and I don’t know what exactly that is, other than you start to see personality in almost everything. Like, just looking at this chair [he points to a plush, cushiony chair], I can see a certain personality to it that another chair wouldn’t have. This one is a lot more sort of, [he assumes a gruff baritone] “Well, I’ll get around to it when I get around to it.” Just based on the design, it seems much more sedentary and overweight a little. That probably lends itself to how we approach design as a way of trying to express physically what’s going on inside the character. Beyond that, I do think we try to think of ourselves as just regular filmmakers. We try to approach things the same way a live-action director would in terms of the way we shoot things.

TNR: For example, that last shot in Monster’s, Inc., where you reverse the perspective so we see Sully opening the door through Boo’s eyes, instead of vice versa. That’s a cinematic decision, not an animation decision.

PD: I think Pixar is a pretty unique place in that it’s almost like the old studio system in Hollywood, where we have eight or nine directors under one roof who are all hopefully staying here beyond just one film at a time. The way Hollywood works now is that you make a deal with one studio, and when it’s done, everyone just scatters to the wind. But we have people who have worked on all ten Pixar films--Up being the 10th--and they’ve gotten better and better at their craft. You also have the opportunity to show everybody what you’re doing and get responses from other filmmakers as opposed to studio executives, which I think is really invaluable. That I can sit in a room and get notes from Andrew Stanton and John Lasseter and Brad Bird and all these other guys who I definitely respect … I mean, look at their films. They’re the best in the business. So I get this great benefit of hearing comments from them, and then they all go away. And as long as the film gets better, nobody’s offended. Nobody says, “You didn’t pick my idea.” They’re happy that the film got better.

TNR: When you describe Pixar as an old-style studio, that suggests a place where the writers and directors really shape the films as they wish, and the “stars” don’t have the same clout or input they might have in a live-action film.

PD: It may simply be inherent in the animation medium that it gives more weight to the filmmaker as opposed to the star. Generally, as you probably know, we write the film, and the actor signs on. We record for three or four hours one day. We fly back to northern California. And we, for four or five months, sit and rewrite stuff. Then we fly down again, we do these short little bursts of recording, and then we go off and we rewrite, re-edit, and recut. Rewrite, re-edit, recut.

I remember talking to Billy Crystal at the end of Monsters, Inc. He was starting to look at us like, “This has all the telltale signs of a disaster,” because live-action stars are used to being done in six months. We’re working two years. And then we’re coming down on a given day and handing them the stuff that we’ve been rewriting and rewriting. And they’re like, “What is this now?” They really have to trust us to explain, “Ok. Now this scene has changed in this way. You’re now standing outside. You’re yelling up to him.” Or whatever. All they have is a microphone and a piece of paper with words on it. So they have to kind of bring it to life in their head and trust that we’re incorporating it into something that makes some sort of sense.

TNR: So, the actors just work with you for a day or so, and then don’t hear from you guys for months?

PD: In most cases, they work for four hours. In live action, you have ten minutes of shooting and then two hours of waiting around for set-up. So we have an intensive four hours, which Tom Hanks told us once was the most exhausting acting he’s ever done. It’s like three days’ worth of acting compressed into four hours.

TNR: But even as the actors have their involvement compressed, your opportunities to tinker are dramatically expanded.

PD: Animation is kind of like making a movie in slow motion. Whereas on most live action sets you’d be like, “Snap, snap, snap--come on we have 15 minutes to get all the rest of the shots in,” and then the whole set is struck, and you’re screwed if you think up another great idea because too bad, the actors have gone off, the set’s gone--we’ve got three years to craft and add and tie things together. And that is key, I think, to what we do.

Christopher Orr is a senior editor of The New Republic.

Click here to read Christopher Orr's review of Up.