‘Inside Out’ Director Pete Docter: The Concept Was Easy, the Movie Was Hard

“It was a shiny jewel in the distance that we were working toward,” the director tells TheWrap

Pete Docter on his film "Inside Out" (Megan Mack; Pixar/Disney)
Megan Mack; Pixar/Disney

You could argue that Pete Docter has the best track record of any Pixar director: His two previous films for the celebrated animation studio were “Monsters Inc.” and “Up,” both of which drew near-unanimous critical raves, grossed on the high side of $500 million worldwide and sit in the Top 10 on the list of the top-grossing animated films ever.

His third Pixar film, “Inside Out,” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and has won enough raves to become the immediate frontrunner to take the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, which “Up” also won. (“Monsters” lost to “Shrek” in the category’s first year of existence.)

The story focuses on an 11-year-old girl, Riley, whose family has moved from Minnesota to San Francisco — but its true setting is inside Riley’s head, where the personified emotions Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust try to keep things running smoothly. Naturally, it doesn’t always work out the way the relentlessly cheery Joy (the voice of Amy Poehler) plans.

TheWrap caught up with Docter to talk about the difficult production process, a scene he loved that he had to cut, and designing the human mind.

TheWrap: “Inside Out” is a clever, simple idea, but it seems to be an idea that could be far more difficult to execute than “toys come alive when you leave the room” or “there really are monsters in your closet.”

Pete Docter: Absolutely. John Lasseter said he loved the idea, but he knew it was going to be hard. Weirdly, I didn’t know that. I just thought it would be a lot of fun to design the world.

When did you figure out that it was going to be difficult?

I think within about four or five months I was realizing, this is not going to be easy. The idea is one thing, but an idea is just whistling on the steps of Carnegie Hall. You still have to put in a lot of time to get it to a point where it means something. And that’s where the team at Pixar comes in. It really took three and a half years before we were able to lock in the specifics of how we were going to to design this world.

How do you go about designing the mind? You could obviously go in so many different directions?

That’s true. And every time we would come up with some kind of paradigm, somebody would go, “Well, what about this situation?” Like, “How do smells translate into memories? Shouldn’t that be a part of what we’re designing?”

Initially, we were trying to design for every possibility, to make it accurate to every situation. But in the end, we realized that we didn’t have to design a world that could accommodate everything that goes on in somebody’s mind — we just had to design one that worked for the stories we were telling.

Did you have to lose anything that you loved?

We had one sequence where they went into a place in the mind that helps you understand music. If you look at a dog when music is playing, you can tell it’s just noise to them. But for us, it’s meaningful and it can make us happy, or sad… So there must be a part of mind that understands music. We designed one, and we sent Joy and Sadness in there. But in the end, it was too similar to abstract thought.

Speaking of that, it must have been daunting to say, “Here’s what abstract thought looks like.”

Yeah. Early on, we thought, Let’s work our way through artistic movements — modernism, impressionism, all these things. And then we thought, “Wait a minute, this is an 11-year-old’s mind.” Why would she know the movements of modern art? So you have to think, “How does the mind develop as it becomes able to deal with abstract concepts?”

"Inside Out"
“Inside Out”

The main characters, the little girl’s emotions, seem to have a physical weight to them, but they’re also a little blurry around the edges. There’s an evanescence to them.

That came about because early on, I thought, “It would be great if these guys look the way these emotions feel to us. Instead of making them out of flesh and blood and cloth, can we find some way to visualize energy?” This was the art department working hand and hand with the technical team to get that. That was easily said and hard to do.

You’ve said in the past that every Pixar movie is bad at some point in its production process. In what ways was this one bad?

Very much along the lines of what you mentioned at the beginning. Even in screenings two and three, people were saying, “This is a great concept, but it’s not a movie yet.” It was a shiny jewel in the distance that we were working toward. We got distracted by the concept, and had to focus on the character storytelling, which is really what all movies are about.

What were the keys to the story?

We knew we were talking about the difficulty of growing up. As a parent, you mourn the loss of the stages your kids go through, and that was particularly the case for me watching my kids. The period of playing on the floor with blocks and trains is gone, and that’s beautiful and necessary, but sad. We tried to find ways to represent that story arc both for the kid, as well as for Joy as she comes to understand that.

Essentially, you’ve made a movie about how a person, or at least a personality, is created. You’ve talked in the past about being a Christian — how does your faith factor into a subject like this?

I’ve always thought that it’s something that’s part of who you are, and it comes out in the storytelling without being too explicit. Even in discovering what this film is about, the most important things in our lives is relationships with each other. That seems deeply part of who we are, and it’s an important part of Christianity as well. But I try to make it not too explicit.

CORRECTION: The original version of this story said that “Monsters Inc.” won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. It did not.