There is so much that goes into a movie, even more so for animated movies. It takes multiple teams of talented people to direct, produce, research, write, animate, as well as detail teams such as lighting and sound.
I visited the Pixar campus this month and was lucky enough to meet a few of these team members to find what goes into translating something that doesn’t exist into a world that dazzles on the big screen.
Becoming A Dinosaur
How does an animator copy the movements of an extinct, prehistoric animal and translate that so it looks realistic in an animated film? The Good Dinosaur Animator Kevin O’Hara and Directing Animator Rob Thompson knew that observation was not key in this case, so they had to find more creative ways to make the characters come to life.
“We are really lucky to work at Pixar and we love what we do here,” Thompson said. “We get to become these characters. Next year, I’ll either become a fish or Woody from Toy Story.”
“Luckily, we have a zoo nearby,” said Thompson, “so we spent a lot of time at the zoo looking at elephants and giraffes. We really wanted to get a weight and a sense of scale; it was the closest thing we had to the scale of a dinosaur.”
Much like a dinosaur, he himself joked, Kevin O’Hara has been in the animation industry for years. The duo said that animating quadrupeds is among one of the most difficult tasks for an animator because of all the working parts, so O’Hara’s experience really benefited the team.
So what happens at a place like Pixar when they can’t make what they have work? “We try to accommodate the creativity as much as we can. The only limit we have is budget and time. It seems like every [project], we reach that point where they say ‘Okay, no more inventing things, that’s it’,” Thompson said. “The beginning is the best time to be vocal, be crazy and ask for it.”
To direct and guide the animators, and as somewhat of an inspiration of movement, O’Hara and Thompson had a live action clip of an elephant that demonstrated each of the moving parts that created the overall fluidity of the animal’s movements.
It consisted of 4 basic poses that showed the efficiency and weight distribution of the animal which translated into the natural movement of the dinosaurs you’ll see when The Good Dinosaur opens in theaters on Thanksgiving.
Designing A Dinosaur Sized World
Just as large and impactful as the dinosaurs in The Good Dinosaur is the landscape that surrounds them and the textures that bring the characters to life. The visuals must walk a fine line between making the dinosaurs seem realistically large, but not so large that the overpower the vast backgrounds that are almost their own character in this newest Pixar film.
Harley Jessup is the Production Designer of The Good Dinosaur so the responsibility of a dazzling background relies heavily on him, and from what we saw, it’s no wonder that the powers that be at Pixar put him in charge.
“We all start with traditional media – drawings, paintings, clay sculptures – and what you see here,” Jessup told us, “is just the tip of the iceberg as far as hundreds of concept paintings and drawings, reference images, and character designs that were created over a period of several years.”
Three to five years, Jessup said, is how long it takes to make a typical animated film. Can you imagine working on a single project for almost five years?
“For every Pixar film,” said Jessup, “we do really in-depth research that goes on throughout the whole production of the film. We really try to caricature and capture the feeling and believability of a real world place.”
Jessup says the goal is to stylize and create, paying attention to small details like vegetation on a hillside, all to express a feeling; not just to capture a realistic, photographic look. “It’s an important part of telling a story,” he said, “that the feeling of the river actually evokes feelings in the audience that they’d have looking at a raging whitewater stream or a massive waterfall. We’re trying to bring a sort of heightened version of that to the screen.”
Movement And Design Come Together On-Screen
When you have the most talented people working on a single project for almost five years, bringing with them their experience and knowledge, you get something that amazes kids and adults and is likely to be one of the best films of the year.