I had the chance to speak with The Good Dinosaur director Peter Sohn last week by phone. Sohn was a first time feature film director as he took over the helm from Bob Peterson midway through production, but he’s been with Pixar for 15 years. He inspired the look of Russell in Up; he voiced Emile in my favorite Pixar film, Ratouille; and Sohn has voiced other characters, including the Pet Collector in The Good Dinosaur. Sohn’s first animation work was as an animator on The Iron Giant, which was critically well received (though it never did the commercial business it should have). Sohn has had an impressive career so far, and he’s also a very nice guy. We talked with him about The Good Dinosaur and his career.
MS: Congratulations on the Blu-ray release of The Good Dinosaur.
PS: I can’t believe it’s out now. Amazing.
MS: I saw you had a Twitter conversation about the film today, how did that go?
PS: It was really fun, I had never done anything like that before. Really great questions, and just cool to hear what everyone’s thinking about with this film. It’s pretty amazing, this world of social media.
MS: Let’s talk about The Good Dinosaur. This was your first time directing a feature film, and you took it over midway. How did that come about, and was that daunting for you?
PS: When I started at Pixar – I’ve been here for 15 years doing art, animation and story – I got a chance to work with Bob Peterson, the original director of this film. He pitched the idea to the other directors and John Lasseter, and they really loved this concept of a boy and dog story, but flipping it where the boy is the dinosaur and the dog is this little human boy. After he had pitched it, he asked me to come and develop the project with him, which was a great honor for me because I had worked with him prior and we had such a good time. And as we were building the story, developing it, the story got stuck. I remember working with him on like different storylines…there was a father and son story, there was the boy and dog story, and like a lot of other Pixar films, the story just got into a place where we did not move forward and so they asked me to help take over and then kind of re-work it so that we could find a new thing to this. But for me, I wanted to honor Bob’s original vision so I really focused on his original concept of the boy and dog and flipping it, and just keeping it to that.
MS: When you took over the film, what were the changes you did make as director?
PS: Arlo was a much older character, I made him a more younger character so that I could really find that maturity story…the other thing was finding the voice of the world, that kind of frontier aspect wasn’t there. Making Arlo a younger character changed what siblings needed to be, it changed a lot of other characters because it was a coming of age story. That was probably one of the biggest things that happened. Also before Spot spoke some words, we really wanted to push the concept that he was more of a catalyst. He doesn’t speak the language like Arlo does, but that he would teach Arlo through action.
MS: Back in 2013, we interviewed Judy Greer and Bill Hader about starring in the movie. Is that why there was a casting change? (neither of them are in it)
PS: Yeah, that’s right. Once I made Arlo much younger, his siblings were essentially twins, they were born at the same time. They all had to kind of be youthful.
MS: How did you become interested in animation and then journey on to Pixar?
PS: It all started from my mother. It was when I was growing up, she brought me to a lot of movies. She’s an immigrant from Korea, so she didn’t speak English very well or understand it – but she loved movies. Every movie that we went to, they were in English and she didn’t understand them…she’d always have me translate them. But there were a lot of Disney movies we’d seen…or animated films, that didn’t need a lot of translating. There were live action ones as well. I remember Dumbo, this one moment in there specifically that my mom got really emotional over. I didn’t realize at the time how much that would impact me. As an adult now, I keep thinking about that moment and how much – from that point on – I just wanted to learn everything I could about animation. And then from there, it was really just working hard to get into an art school. From art school, finding a job for the first time. My first gig was on The Iron Giant, it was directed by Brad Bird and when he was done with that movie, he brought up a couple of other crew members from that film up to Pixar. That’s how I got up here.
MS: That is a really awesome film to start with, too.
PS: It’s funny, that movie made no money and it devasting for everyone. But everyone was so proud of the work they had done. Brad and that whole team there, they were asking for everyone’s heart to be put into the film and everyone did. It’s something that still kind of echos in me, the things we had learned on that project.
MS: Everyone I know was geeking out about it at the time, I saw it as soon as it came out in theaters. It was – is – a stunning movie.
PS: I appreciate that, it is so funny how these films have a life of their own. I think about The Good Dinosaur, now it’s in this realm of the home theater now….how exciting it is that I want to watch it with my family, experience it that way. It’s really cool.
MS: Anytime you do a Disney film, it’s immoralized – Disney animated films are forever films.
PS: Exactly, they have their own lives…they live on in their own world.
MS: You do quite a bit of voice work as well. Is that something you knew you’d be doing? You were Emile in Ratatouille, and that is my favorite Pixar film – plus you were in The Good Dinosaur (and more). I’m geeking out that I’m talking with the voice of Emile.
PS: That is so nice of you. No, no – that was all an accident for me. When I first got to Pixar, all I wanted to be was an animator. I applied for animation, but they said, You’re still too green for animation”. And so, I said okay, I guess I can’t work there. Months later, Ralph Eggleston, the production designer on Finding Nemo (we have an interview with Eggleston from 2015 here) – he saw my portfolio and said, “Hey, why don’t you come into the art department”? So I started there, but I still wanted to get into animation. I started doing art designs…and then Andrew Stanton saw some of my drawings, and said “Hey, you should come into the story department”. And I was like, “Okay”, and I went to the story department still thinking, “Boy, it would be great to go to animation”. But once I got into story, I fell in love with that department. All you’re doing is pitching stories and making voices. When I was pitching some characters or some sequence, I remember Brad saying, “You’re going to be Emile”. It was all an accident. It was really amazing.
MS: You were perfect in it. And I know you were also the inspiration for Russell in Up.
PS: Oh, yeah – that’s something I also never expected. This place is such a family and what’s interesting about it is that pretty much everything…you can see the artisan. After completing a movie like The Good Dinosaur, I can’t believe now when I see the movie…all I see is the family that made it. All I see are the people that created every leaf, or every drop of water…it’s all this incredible family. And they’ve been working together for years…for decades of making movies…it gets really emotional.
MS: Was Arlo based on anybody? Or were any of the other characters based on people you know?
PS: Yeah, what’s funny is that Arlo is based off of two of our artists’ kids. There is Matt Nolte, that did a lot of drawings of the teeth that his son had, and the way he kind of walked with knobby knees and his feet. Then, I remember talking to Michael Venturini, our supervising animator about Arlo and his movements, and where his son was at. And Spot has my daughter’s hair, my daughter’s bedhead. Everytime my daughter wakes up, she has the left side of her head all stuck up in the air. But then character-wise, a lot of it is based off of our own experiences, you sit in a room together…here, in one of the story rooms, and it almost becomes like a therapy session, where you kind of look into your own life and find truths into that.
MS: The landscapes in The Good Dinosaur are so photorealistic, just gorgeous. Where did the inspiration come from that? I know you took a research trip to Wyoming.
PS: That’s right, we went to Wyoming, and Oregon, and Idaho….a lot of places up in the Northwest. Initially, it all started off with we were just talking about, where are dinosaur bones located? Mostly, American dinosaurs are found in Montana, Wyoming and that area. Once we started playing with the idea of frontier dinosaurs…herbivors becoming farmers or carnivors becoming ranchers, this world of the western frontier started fitting in. My love for movies started coming in from like Shane, The Searchers, or Red River…and I remember this majestic mountain range in the opening of Shane, and our cinematographer was like, “That’s in Teton Valley, we should go there, I paint there all the time”. It was kind of a kismet where we started going to these places where our cinematographer grew up painting the rivers and the mountains. I was so inspired by the landscape. I grew up in New York City and I’d never been into this world. It blew me away how soul enriching it was. But also dangerous at the same time. It was incredible the duality, that was kind of what it was about…the whole understanding about surviving the frontier. The movie is all about survival, and how beautiful and harsh it can be was something that really, really got into my bones.
MS: How did it come about that the human (Spot) was like the dog and the dinosaur (Arlo) had the more humanlike characteristics?
PS: It started with Bob Peterson, he really pitched that idea first, he kind of…with the Braintrust, talking about doing a dinosaur story and making it this kind of heartfelt boy and dog story. When it was flipped, everyone really got excited about it and everything started from there.
MS: What message would you want viewers to take away with them after watching The Good Dinosaur?
PS: This has all been about growing up and understanding your strengths and weaknesses. For Arlo, he’s so fearful. I know it’s a very simple concept, but boy…I look at my kids who are 5 and 3 and they both have seen the film, and wanting the idea of them understanding that love – as simple as it can be – can get you things that are scary, get you through them. I never believed you can conquer a fear, but I do believe you can survive that. And Arlo learns all of that because of the love he forms for Spot and the love he has for his family.
I asked Sohn about his next project, and he said he’s planning to spend some time with his family. It seems quite appropriate considering the family theme ran through the entire interview.
Thank you to Peter Sohn for taking the time to talk with us!