I was invited to take part in a roundtable interview with director Peter Sohn and producer Denise Ream of Disney/Pixar’s new animated feature, The Good Dinosaur.
Sohn and Ream were lovely – so kind, honest, and, clearly, incredibly passionate about the film.
Sohn and his team even went so far as to travel to the American Northwest so that they could experiences the land Arlo would walk in the film. They wanted to do their best to capture the beauty and majesty of those landscapes.
As Peter Sohn said, “We didn’t want it to feel like a walk in the park. This world feels big—even to a dinosaur.”
Furthermore, Sohn and Ream talked very openly about the emotional process of getting The Good Dinosaur made, over the six years that it was in production, and many of the themes that the film explores, such as friendship, self-discovery, overcoming fears, and family.
For those of you who don’t know, here is the official synopsis of The Good Dinosaur:
The Good Dinosaur asks the question: What if the asteroid that forever changed life on Earth missed the planet completely and giant dinosaurs never became extinct? Pixar Animation Studios takes you on an epic journey into the world of dinosaurs where an Apatosaurus named Arlo makes an unlikely human friend. While traveling through a harsh and mysterious landscape, Arlo learns the power of confronting his fears and discovers what he is truly capable of.
Question: What inspired you to bring the Western genre to a Pixar film?
Peter Sohn: It was early on, just the idea of a dinosaur farmer plowing the earth. And they are like, whoa, big tractors! And then taking the herbivores into farming land and making carnivores into ranchers– Everyone is trying to survive; there was this real survival quality to this that was really interesting. And what I loved about Westerns was that fact – that these are homesteaders and everything like that.
… Denise [Ream] sent us out on research trips and we met this one ranching family, the McKay’s. And they were this beautiful family. And they were living this beautiful life up in Oregon herding cattle.
And when we went up there, it was pretty much like [the movie] City Slickers–
I’m from New York so I’d never done anything like that before. So it was like, “Okay! Let’s go ride some horses!” Because that’s what we went up there for but we would soon fall in love with this family.
And this family was so pure and it made me think of my family.
I grew up in New York in a grocery store and we would all work together to survive in the city and make a life for our family.
This was the same thing – [the McKay family] was surviving but out in this incredible country.
So there was this connection for me—there was this universal idea here.
Question: How long did it take to figure out which kind of species of dinosaurs to use in your film?
Peter Sohn: That was an interesting process but it [didn’t take] that long [to make those choices.] Because it was whatever characters we could use to support Arlo’s journey. Like he meets the crazy Pet Collector guy, who was essentially Arlo—in Arlo’s journey, he [needed to] meet someone who was like himself, fifty years down the line if he was stuck out there and afraid of everything.
When he meets T-Rex’s, he’s gotta meet someone who he believes, “They aren’t afraid of anything!”
And then they tell him, “No, we’re afraid of things.”
… So each character and species in the film was formed by how they fit into Arlo’s journey.
Question: Can you talk about the different aspects of family in the film? And how important was that to show?
Peter Sohn: It was a big deal and it was something that we balanced and talked about. And once we go the T-Rexs into that family world, it all kind of began to click in a different way, in terms of the evolution of the story and what Arlo would need from family; and the idea that every member is an integral part of their family and Arlo feels like he’s not.
Question: This film was in production for six years, which is a long time— What changed the most during that time about the story, specifically?
Peter Sohn: The heart of it remained the same in terms of this boy and dog story. But the world of it changed, the obstacles changed…
Denise Ream: The ages of the characters [changed].
Peter Sohn: Yeah! Some of the biggest challenges were trying to figure out the Poppa storyline and how to keep that a thing that Arlo can survive and learn from.
Denise Ream: Creatively deciding to minimize the dialogue. That was a big change.
Peter Sohn: Yeah totally.
Question: Was there a time when Spot had lines?
Peter Sohn: In the older version of the movie, he was a caveboy. He didn’t have a lot of lines but he was more at the same level [as Arlo]. It was more of a Buddy Movie [with the classic struggle between], “I don’t like, I don’t like you, I don’t like you, okay, we like each other.”
[But what we ended up with was] “I don’t like you, I’m an animal, I don’t like you, Well I’m an animal and I’m learning from you and that’s because I’m still an animal. And, now, you have changed my life.”
Question: What did you learn most about yourselves as storytellers, artists, and filmmakers through this process?
Peter Sohn: That’s a great question. That’s going to make me emotional. It was tough.
Denise Ream: Yeah, it was really hard.
Peter Sohn: You know the people at Pixar, and I’ve been there for fifteen years, you learn to put your heart into the work. And what’s tough is when that work gets slammed. That’s just how it is, that’s the process.
But you believe in something and then slam, slam, slam, slam! [And then you say], “I’m not putting my heart out there again. That just hurt a lot.”
But then you think about, “Okay, what am I trying to do here?” And we are trying to make the best film we can. And the best film that we can demands that you continue to put your heart into it.
And everyone would do that. Even during the darkest days.
Denise Ream: Yeah honestly the way that the team rallied behind Pete and the film, it was inspirational.
… Honestly, my job is to obviously give people what they need and, also, at many moments, getting out of the way. And [what I learned on this film was the importance of] letting people do their work and not micromanaging and just trusting that they can do what they need to do.
Question: The animation on this is like nothing I’ve ever seen. How amazing is it to see that?
Peter Sohn: It’s incredible. I love that, hopefully we just captured something that we saw. It’s not like we were trying to create a whole new place, we were trying to capture the emotion of a place. Where it’s just like, “Boy, look how soul-enriching these landscapes are? It’s dwarfing me and making me feel things that I didn’t feel.”
But then there are moments that are so small—like looking at a leaf and seeing how raindrops slide down the leaf. And all trying to stick to an eleven-year-old’s point of view of the world where he’s terrified but then there are these little bits of beauty that we saw out there and trying to respect that.
Denise Ream: [The first] priority was story and giving Pete time with story; the other priority was truly giving the animators enough time as possible. And we actually changed the production process for animation. We ended up giving chunks of work so that they could work continuously.
Often, when you’re under the gun, you’re just doling out shots to get them done; to hit quota, so to speak. And we basically thought, if we wanna do this movie without a lot of dialogue, this performance needs to be really good. So we prioritized the work flow for animation.
Peter Sohn: And it was a completely collaborative effort. All I did was want to learn animation so I went to school for it and I worked at Pixar but then working with animators to this capacity was some of the most amazing things that I’ve ever seen.
It’s like a room like this and we’re all talking about the same characters. And then someone would say, “Look, this is something that happened in my life.” – and they would offer up something and we would all go, “Wow there’s a truth to that one!”
We talk about this [moment in the film] a lot but when Arlo is explaining to Spot that he misses his family, and Spot is an animal at this point, and [Arlo thinks,] “Oh, you don’t get it.” But then Spot breaks that communication barrier but doing these dog-like things like putting the stick down.
But then Arlo realizes that [Spot is communicating with him.] And after [Spot] places the sticks, he gets into this dog-like position. But then, when he buries his family, he sits up like a kid. And he does this little, like (*Sohn sniffs and wipes his nose). Which is a very subtle, human gesture.
And so, talking to this group where a performer would say, “I added this little thing there.”
And we are all like, “Holy cow, boy, that’s amazing.” And so it was just this collaborative thing and everyone putting themselves into it.
The Good Dinosaur is in theaters everywhere now!
To learn more about the film, you can check out my movie review here!