Pete Docter Opens Up About the Past, Present and Future of Pixar

The Annies honoree and Pixar’s Chief Creative Officer tells TheWrap about bringing more diverse voices to the studio, “Toy Story 5” and where “Lightyear” went wrong

Peter Docter poses in the winners room at the EE British Academy Film Awards at the Royal Opera House on February 14, 2016 in London, England.
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Pete Docter is no stranger to awards ceremonies.

He’s the only filmmaker to have won the Best Animated Feature Oscar three times (most recently for the 2020 film “Soul”) and Docter’s “Up” was only the second animated movie to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. Add to that a half-dozen Annie Awards and a BAFTA trophy.

This year, Docter will be honored with the Winsor McKay Award at this year’s Annies, presented by the Los Angeles branch of the International Animated Film Association, ASIFA-Hollywood. Previous Winsor McKay honorees, named for the legendary animator behind Gertie the Dinosaur, include Eyvind Earle, Hayao Miyazaki, Ray Harryahusen, Tim Burton and Don Bluth. Docter will be honored alongside Canadian animator Evelyn Lambart (posthumously) and Craig McCracken, creator (most recently) of Netflix’s “Kid Cosmic.”

“That’s totally exciting. I had no idea. And then you look at the list of past award winners and it’s amazing,” Docter said about the award. “It’s all the who’s who of animation. Crazy.”

Docter started at Pixar when he was 21, referred to the company by the late, great Joe Ranft. He started the day after he graduated from CalArts, a college co-founded by Walt Disney, and was the company’s third animator. When the company shifted from selling software and working on commercials to making movies, Docter was right there. He worked on the story for “Toy Story” and “Toy Story 2” and co-wrote and directed “Monsters, Inc.” (one of the inaugural nominees for the Best Animated Feature Oscar; it lost to “Shrek”). He later directed “Up,” “Inside Out” and “Soul.”

“In about 100 jaunty, poignant minutes, ‘Soul,’ the new Pixar Animation feature, tackles some of the questions that many of us have been losing sleep over since childhood. Why do I exist? What’s the point of being alive? What comes after?” A.O. Scott wrote in the New York Times. “’Soul’ tries, within the imperatives of branded commercial entertainment, to carve out an identity for itself as something other than a blockbuster or a technologically revolutionary masterpiece. It’s a small, delicate movie that doesn’t hit every note perfectly, but its combination of skill, feeling and inspiration is summed up in the title.”

Docter loves animation – all kinds. He worked on localized versions of Miyazaki’s masterpieces (“John Lasseter was a big champion of those films, and even though they were not doing great economically for the studio, artistically, he felt like it was important to get them out there”) and has written extensively about the classic films of Walt’s heyday. There were rumors that Docter’s wife used to drive him to work at Pixar and pick him up when his day was over. Otherwise he’d be there all night.

These days Docter serves a different function. He still loves animation and his Annie seems overdue. But he’s got more on his plate. He is now the chief creative officer of Pixar. And while the idea of him shepherding the next generation of storytellers is exciting, there’s also a very real possibility that Docter might not direct another film, something that he fully acknowledges.

“I think the jury’s still out a little bit. I think what I’ve learned so far is that I need to make something because I start to go crazy otherwise. Whether it’s another movie or a comic book or whatever, I need to have something,” Docter said. “Because really, the job that I’m doing, this CCO job, is helping to bring other people’s visions into clarity and focus, which is not the same thing. And I don’t want to step on their toes. I want them to have a chance to say what they’re going to say. We shall see.”

Not that the next few years will be completely Docter-free. A few years ago Docter co-authored an indispensable, two-volume book on Disney animator and Imagineer Marc Davis. He also worked on a book about Miyazaki. And his next project, with Don Peri, centers on the directors who worked under Walt Disney. “If I ask you, who directed ‘Snow White’? Who directed ‘Cinderella’? All the movies that we all grew up on. No one’s heard of these directors,” Docter said. “Everybody knows the Nine Old Men, everybody knows Walt. But these people, like the directors here today at Pixar and at Disney, were responsible for what was showing up on screen. It’s the whole story of how Walt used them like extensions of his arms.” Docter thinks the book will be coming out in 2024.

And Docter’s tenure as CCO has already been successful, with the studio launching well-received films like “Luca,” “Onward” and this year’s Oscar-nominated “Turning Red.” The Docter administration, which began after former Pixar bigwig John Lasseter was removed after several allegations of inappropriate behavior surfaced, has been a noticeably calmer regime. Directors have not been replaced; there’s been a real investment in new ideas and filmmakers. Docter blushed when the serenity of his tenure was brought up.

“Obviously animation moves in slow motion, so it’s taken a long time to turn trajectory, but to bring more diverse voices to director positions, to leadership, creative leadership. And yet, hold on to the wide audience appeal,” Docter explained. “We do feel like there is a real universality in specificity. By that I mean, the more specific you are about a person, their origin, where they came from, what their story is, somehow the more universally it applies to everybody. The fact that ‘Coco,’ which was so well researched, was a huge hit in China, is just kind of like, Wait, what? But because they’re talking about things like family, honoring your ancestors, all these things that really resonated with people there, we would love to continue doing that, find ways to surprise audiences by seeing the world from a different viewpoint that they’ve never seen before.”

One of those differing viewpoints came from Domee Shi, who had already won an Oscar for her short film “Bao” before embarking on her acclaimed debut feature “Turning Red.” Almost as soon as the movie was released, Docter appointed Shi to a creative executive position, as she continued to develop her sophomore feature. “She elevated herself. She’s a really smart person and creatively adventurous and brave, and yet also really cognizant of how the audience will take something,” Docter said of Shi.

Not that Docter’s time as COO has been without its speedbumps, the biggest being the release last summer of “Lightyear,” a bold science fiction adventure that just so happened to be tangentially connected to the “Toy Story” universe. When asked what happened with the film, which boasted an all-star cast including Chris Evans and Keke Palmer, plus whip-smart direction from Pixar mainstay Angus MacLane, Docter was open and honest.

“We’ve done a lot of soul-searching about that because we all love the movie. We love the characters and the premise. I think probably what we’ve ended on in terms of what went wrong is that we asked too much of the audience. When they hear Buzz, they’re like, great, where’s Mr. Potato Head and Woody and Rex? And then we drop them into this science fiction film that they’re like, What?” Docter said. “Even if they’ve read the material in press, it was just a little too distant, both in concept, and I think in the way that characters were drawn, that they were portrayed. It was much more of a science fiction. And Angus, to his credit, took it very seriously and genuinely and wanted to represent those characters as real characters. But the characters in ‘Toy Story’ are much broader, and so I think there was a disconnect between what people wanted/expected and what we were giving to them.”

As for the future of Pixar, it looks like Docter will continue to push through new ideas while also returning to the well of library titles. “Look, it’s great to go back and explore these worlds and these characters, but you want to have a reason, some kind of compelling reason, that you’re making the movie,” Docter said.

When it comes to “Inside Out 2,” the follow-up to Docter’s own “Inside Out” (this time directed by “Onward” head of story Kelsey Mann), the reason that they wanted to do it was to explore new emotions. When researching the first film, Docter said, they were told that there were between “five to 27 emotions” and that with the sequel they’re trying to “be a little bit more truthful and broadening [the scope].” Mann brought Docter the idea for a follow-up, which Docter didn’t reveal.

“It was really poignant and very heartfelt, very personal to him, but also universal in that same way we were talking about before, having to do with… well, again, I don’t want to pitch his movie, but it’s got a real great heart to it, a really great core that is central to some of these new emotions showing up. It’s all connected,” Docter said.

Another project that was just announced on a recent Disney investors call is a fifth “Toy Story” film.

“The thing we’ve been really trying to do, and this has been the case for a while, is we’ve been looking at them a little bit like, okay, we’re not planning for the future. When we made the first ‘Toy Story,’ we had no idea there would be a ‘Toy Story 2.’ We’re just trying to make this movie. But that in making the movie, it takes you places, unexpected places, which is what I love about the creative process. If I knew exactly what I was doing when I started making a movie, there’d kind of be no point in making it. I discover so much along the way.” Docter equates the creative process to going on a trip where you have a specific destination in mind but along the way you get sidetracked and “come home wiser and more worldly.”

All of this is well and good but what about “Toy Story 5?” “I think it’ll be surprising,” Docter teased. “It’s got some really cool stuff that you haven’t seen before.”

Of the original projects in the hopper, one is “Elio,” slated for release next year and previewed at last year’s D23 Expo. It’s about a young boy (the title character) who gets mistaken by aliens as an ambassador from earth. It’s being directed by Adrian Molina, a low-key Pixar powerhouse who co-directed “Coco” and who, Docter was quick to point out, storyboarded the scene where Mr. Potato Head uses a tortilla as a body in “Toy Story 4.” “It’s a really special film,” Docter said. “We just watched it two days ago, version… let’s see, what was that … Screening eight. They’re getting towards the end. They’re got to finish it up. Comes out next year. But it’s really brilliant. I think people are really going to love it.”

When asked if Aphton Corbin, one of Docter’s key collaborators on “Soul,” and the director of the super charming short film “Twenty Something” (now on Disney+), was working on anything he gave a sly “Maybe.” “She’s playing around and we’ll see,” Docter said. “Once we have news that’s fit to print, you’ll be the first to hear it.”

One thing Docter is keenly aware of is how leaving the old guard in place can curdle creativity. By the 1980s, those animators who had worked with Walt were complaining about the new crop of animators in print to the New York Times (seriously). And their work was suffering too. “We’ve been helped in a way by a number of people deciding that they had other ambitions, between Brad Bird and Andrew [Stanton] has been directing a lot of live-action stuff, so he’s kind of in and out. Lee Unkrich, same thing,” Docter said. “It’s torture in a way because they’re these brilliant, experienced people, and then they’re like, ‘Well, I’m going to go look over here.’ And you’re like, ‘No, stay here. Stay here because we need your wisdom.’ But it also does open up opportunities for new people.”

When asked if there was anything he regretted, like, say, handing “WALL•E” (a concept Docter initially conceived) over to Andrew Stanton, Docter said no.

“You know what’s funny is, especially looking at an award like this, it’s like, Wow, I didn’t really ever have a concrete plan for my life. I’m not one of those people who said, ‘I dream someday of being a director’. I was kind of like, ‘I’m happy doing in betweening, this is great, I’m having a good time making commercials, and then, oh, let me try this weird computer company that nobody’s ever heard of.’ And every step of the way I’ve been trying to enjoy as much as I can and find joy in what it is I’m doing,” Docter said. “I mean, other than maybe a few things that I’ve said to people that came off the wrong way, which I think everybody has, I don’t really have any regrets of any big, major kind.”

It brings to mind a moment towards the end of Docter’s “Soul.” Jazz musician and band teacher Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) has just played the gig that he has always wanted to play. He looks to his idol, a musician named Dorothea (Angela Bassett) for … validation? Understanding? It’s unclear to him (and to us). But not to her. “I heard this story about a fish. He swims up to this older fish and says, ‘I’m trying to find this thing they call the ocean.’ ‘The ocean?’ says the older fish, ‘that’s what you’re in right now.’ ‘This?’ says the younger fish, ‘This is water. What I want is the ocean.’” And then she steps into her cab.

Docter might still be searching and swimming. And cinema is all the better for it.