Animated Living

By Trevor Hale, Red Pulse Editor

Pete Docter is older than he looks. At 40, he still retains the physical characteristics and boyish charm of someone half his age. He’s alert and talkative8212;especially when it comes to talking about his work. That might have to do with the fact that he has one of the coolest jobs in the world at Pixar Animation Studios. Not only that, he’s been there since the beginning, when he began directing and animating the commercials that gave the studio its start. Soon after, he teamed up with studio head John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton to devise the characters and concept for Pixar’s first feature film8212;”Toy Story.”

Since then, Docter has made a name for himself as one of the company’s most notable talents. He wrote the initial outline for “Toy Story 2,” directed “Monsters, Inc.” and helped create the story for last year’s Best Animated Picture winner, “Wall-E.” Docter has a knack for telling stories8212;and is one of the key creative contributors at the company8212;but he’s also a gifted artist, having been the supervising animator and story board artist on numerous other Pixar films.

“I was never really into drawing until I figured out that I could make it move by flipping through a bunch of pages,” said Docter, between bites of a chocolate chip cookie. “The idea of bringing something to life is really appealing. Part of your brain goes, “Oh, that’s just a sock with ping-pong balls,’ and the other side is going, “Oh! Kermit’s mad at Miss Piggy!'”

Pixar8212;as a studio8212;has an amazing track record since taking its rightful place atop the animation empire in the early 1990s. Through the production of nine films, the studio has amassed dozens of Academy Award victories and has dominated the Best Animated Feature category, winning four times since it was established in 2001. With each new release, detractors raise their voices before the film is even released and claim that Pixar won’t be able to bat a thousand forever, and at some point, one of these movies is destined to fail.

Docter agreed, and said that’s always a factor, but everyone involved in the process knows this and is prepared for the worst.

“I know that with every one of our films, we have failed,” Docter said. “At one point or another, the movies are either just kind of mediocre or downright awful. We just allow ourselves the time to re-do it until it’s good. It’s only then that we release them.”

“Toy Story 2” is the perfect example. Halfway through production of what was supposed to be a direct-to-video sequel, the producers and creators decided that the film wasn’t good enough and needed to be completely retooled. They scrapped everything and started back at square one. The talented people involved have always held themselves to a higher standard, and if their names were going to be on it, they wanted to make it the best it could possibly be.

When the film was nearly complete, the studio saw the new footage and decided that it was too good to skip theaters and was released worldwide. It soon became the second highest grossing animated film of all time (behind “The Lion King”), earning back more than five times its initial budget.

Pixar’s master plan has been to release only one film per year because it takes so long for everything to be completed. Docter’s newest effort, “Up,” the story of a widowed old man trying to fit in one last adventure in his life, took nearly five years from beginning to end.

“We allow ourselves time and we put the focus on just getting it right and to make sure the story and the characters are working, which is easy to say but hard to do,” Docter said.

Animation is a very labored process that takes a lot of patience. There are numerous steps that need to be taken to ensure a smooth production. Animators don’t have the luxury that live-action filmmakers have to be able to do take after take until it’s right. Every shot, every move, every facial expression needs to be meticulously planned out far in advance.

“We draw the whole thing out8212;almost like a comic book8212;and we film it with temporary dialogue and sound effects,” said Docter. “Then we can sit in the theater and watch the movie without having to go through all the pain and suffering of making it yet.”

He pauses for a moment while he eats another piece of his cookie before adding, “And there’s plenty of pain and suffering.”

Pixar is always looking for a way to push the envelope creatively and Studio President Ed Catmull8212;who spoke at the U last month8212;has always been adamant about protecting the integrity of both the films and the talent behind them. Whether it’s through the eyes of toys, monsters, superheroes, fish, rats or cars, the focus is always on quality and originality. If that means ripping apart a film that’s nearly finished and starting all over, that’s exactly what Docter will do.

“Ed’s been really instrumental in allowing us to make mistakes,” he said. “He’s always said,

“If you don’t make mistakes every once in a while, then you’re not taking enough risks.’ And that’s pretty cool when the head guy at the studio is telling you to keep pushing it.”
Docter’s new film “Up” opens May 29.

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